Month: August 2017

Is Backup Software Dead?

Is Backup Software Dead?
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Is backup software dead?  Everywhere I look, I see increased functionality within storage appliances and operating systems.  Appliances will backup themselves, Operating Systems now have quiescing and basic back up support, and the cloud is making backup targets stupid easy.  Should I buy dedicated backup software, or does my hardware, hypervisor or Operating System handle this?

As a storage professional, I will never discourage anyone from taking backups. As a matter of fact, I personally believe that more is better.  I am sure that many of have heard the popular saying ‘Two is one and one is none.’  Anyone who has mounted a blank backup that “worked last time” understands the wisdom of multiple backups.  Balancing this wisdom against the cost of additional methods of backup – what should I do?  While there is no one answer that will work for everyone, discussions help us formulate plans.

Many hardware solutions provide backup

I’m a big fan of taking administrative tasks off-line.  As an axiom to that, the closer I can get backup to where the data lives, the faster the backup will occur and the SMALLER the impact to production systems.  It stands to reason – if a system snapshot takes place on the storage appliance and it takes milliseconds to execute, isn’t that better than a full backup through system agents that may take hours over the weekend?

To take advantage of this, many storage vendors have added support within their hardware for snapshots and replication.  In essence, this makes a copy of your data volume and moves it within your environment.  Yes, this usually only works on products within the same manufacturing family.  Yes, vendors must support quiescing.  But many OS vendors are now building the functionality within their operating system to quiesce resident data painlessly.  Well, painlessly once you get it set up.  But what was once the realm of large, intense database houses, or financial trading houses now ships with many OSes.

This seems easy enough, right?  Your storage appliance and OS will do most of the difficult work.  But what about support for your hypervisor?  Maybe those legacy apps don’t support some sort of OS quiescing?  Or what about those that don’t even have a dedicated storage appliance?

Backup Software

While it will never be as fast as dedicated storage appliance backup, backup software does have a place.  Many places in fact.

Backup Software’s arguably most important function is as a broker.  The software acts as the middleman between your data (the source) and where ever you would like a copy of the data (the target).  And it provides a greater amount of flexibility than traditional “baked-in” solutions from hardware manufacturers.  Of course, this is a simplistic approach, and many backup packages have lots of gizmos and what-nots to make a backup administrator’s life easier.  But the main function is moving data.

Software works well with dissimilar hardware.  Want to backup data across many different manufacturers?  Software can do it. Want to move it between disk, tape, and the cloud?  Removable media?  Software shines here.  Want to work with legacy applications or operating systems that may not support data integrity?  Software does this and gives you the flexibility to customize it to your environment.

What works for you

I see a place for both hardware and software in a backup strategy.  Of course, I’m also the guy that still sees tape as the most economical means to store and archive large amounts of data.  The key point is to do what works for you.  I’ve worked with large organizations that had more data than could be reasonably backed up through software.  In this case, snaps and replication were a great fit.  But those same organizations had legacy apps that needed databases backed up hot and live, then log files backed up as well to insure transactional integrity.  Software to the rescue.

My point is that there are many tools in your toolbelt to use.  But, technology always changes. Does your hardware provide all the things you need to recover your data in an emergency? With the amazing growth of data, do you see software still being a viable backup method into the future?  How do budgets and cost affect your decision?  Please share your thoughts!


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Your Redundancy Roadmap

Computer error
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We’ve all been there.  The power goes out, or someone digs up some fiber and you lose connectivity. You either can’t get your work done, or else the phone starts ringing with users who can’t. All of us in the IT industry work hard to make sure that the applications and workspaces that we support are up and available to the users that need them, when they need them.  What are the basic steps that we address to make sure our systems are up when they need to be up?  How do we balance availability and uptime with the IT budget? Where does redundancy figure in our disaster recovery planning? After all, as they said in the movie, The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers!”

Full power redundancy

Those fancy servers of ours go nowhere unless there is power to them.  This means dual power supplies to the physical boxes.  If one fails, then the remaining power supply needs to be large enough to run the server or appliance.  In addition to this, these power supplies need to be on separate electrical circuits.  It does little good to have two power supplies if the same circuit or UPS failing will take down both.  Speaking of Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPS), for a truly redundant system, there should be fail-over paths for these as well.  There don’t necessarily need to be two, but there should be a clear path to power in the event that a UPS fails.

Physical connections

Your servers or applications don’t do users any good if no one can access them.  That means that there are multiple paths from users to each workload.  From multiple NICs within each enclosure, cabled to multiple switches with multiple paths to the core, physical paths are important for redundancy.  Multiple demarcs leading to disparate paths of connectivity are also important.  Of course, these multiple paths get expensive, so use your best judgement as to what the return on investment is on these options.

Virtual machines

You have your physical hosts covered. We have multiple paths to the data.  Now we need to work on system redundancy.  There are solutions from failover clusters that have no application downtime to high-availability servers, that may have limited amounts of down time, but will automatically restart servers on a new virtual machine if the old machine fails for some reason.  These are two different ways to address the Recovery Time Objective factors of Disaster Recovery.  With most things, the smaller the downtime window, the larger the price tag.

Outsource it

And of course, there is always the decision to outsource things.  Having a company host your servers, or going with a Cloud solution are of course viable options to redundancy.  Whether you are allowing these services to host all of your computing infrastructure, or you are using these as part of your failover plan, they are tools that you can use in your redundancy toolchest.  Large Cloud providers can spread the cost of massive redundancy between many clients, making it very affordable to use.

Double up on things

So, we have gone over a few of the most common things that IT staff will use to ensure consistent connectivity in their environment.  Obviously, the specific needs of your environment are best known to you.  Any decisions will need to be weighed against your budget and management’s risk appetite.    This article has been designed as a jumping off point for redundancy planning of your network.  What are you doing in your environment?

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Parking Permit Purgatory

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I had an experience this past week that caused me to take pause and think about the process of overcoming obstacles and formulating solutions.

My wife has her own business, and I am very proud of her success.  In the process of building her business, she put a tremendous amount of mileage on her vehicle.  This vehicle has gone from The City of Brotherly Love to the Rio Grande and all points in between  – several times a year.  This vehicle has a name (Fiona, since you asked) and is almost a part of the family.

As with any tool that is mechanical, it wears out, and that is what this one did.  Now, we expected this, but it brings us to the small issue that we had – and it is probably not what you think.

While Fiona was in the dealership having major repair work done (to the tune of almost 4 weeks), my youngest daughter started her senior year in high school.  We can all remember the excitement of being in your final year of primary education and having the freedom to drive yourself to school – and of course, out with your friends.  Herein was the problem.  The school system which serves my county will provide a parking permit for one vehicle.  Only one.  As a family we have several vehicles, but the one that is available during school hours was Fiona.  Which is in the shop.  Now we had a rental, kindly provided by the dealership, but it can’t be issued a permit.   We did not own it and could not provide current registration for it.  We could not even prove that it was registered within our county.

Why can’t my daughter just take the provided transportation to school you ask?  Heck, it’s my tax dollars paying for those busses and salaries anyway!  Well, she is taking advantage of classes offered by a local college campus that provides credit hours towards both her diploma and a college degree.  As well as an internship with a local business for one of those classes.  Truly a dilemma, since neither my wife nor I desire spending most of our day “in the street” dropping our daughter off between these three locations.

A Parking Permit – the initial problem

The problem that we encountered was one of communication.  We had a situation that fell outside of the norms expected.  Like many projects that I routinely see in the course of business.  A problem, that to me, seemed very easy to fix.  Do you have a temporary permit?  Could we use it on this vehicle until my wife got Fiona back from the dealership in good working order?  It seemed an easy fix.

Or not.

“Could we provide a tag receipt for this temporary vehicle, or could we provide the title,” we were asked?  Well, no.  A well known national chain of rental cars had all of that, in their corporate name.  It was a temporary vehicle.  “Could we provide the rental agreement and a tag receipt for my wife’s vehicle?”  Well, we could get a copy of the rental agreement, but it would be in the name of the local dealership that was providing us the car.  And we could provide the latest tag for my wife’s vehicle, but it would expire in the next week or so.  We can’t get a tag for her vehicle when it has no engine in it.  What to do?

Engaging an expert for a solution

Fortunately for my daughter (and by association my wife and I), there was a solution.  Eventually, we discovered a person at the school that dealt with exceptions to the standard rules.  This subject matter expert was able to help us navigate parking permit purgatory and we got a temporary parking permit for our daughter.  And it only took us three weeks.  Perhaps you don’t think that this is a big deal, but I mention it to illustrate something that we all encounter in business.

Well defined solutions exist for most of our needs, wants, and desires.  That is why Henry Ford was so successful.  He manufactured vehicles that most people wanted at a reasonable price and within a reasonable time frame.  He made it so anyone could afford a vehicle.  But what about the people that fell outside of the bell curve, the people needing something different?  Well, there are solutions for those people when they research the options, or get an expert involved.  Ford isn’t the only car company out there.  There are companies that manufacture nothing but large trucks, electric cars, or vehicles for where there are no roads.  Soon maybe even cars that can fly.

The point is that these solutions are out there, and knowledgeable consultants can help you make the right decision.  Or, in extreme cases, help you build the right solution.  Not everyone needs a Mars Rover, but when you need one, you need one, right?  And unfortunately, that convertible mustang just won’t do.

How this applies to your business

For most of the things you need, there are simple solutions that are mindless to choose. A loaf of bread or a ream of printer paper.   For the things that you need that are more complex, more specialized, or just more expensive to acquire, it pays to engage an expert – or become one.  Someone who knows the ropes, has been there before, or who can put you in touch with those who do.  Maybe not for those times when you are trying to just “get a parking permit”, but you never know.  I can assure you that it will save you time, money, and above all frustration.

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Now for the hard part – P2V Conversion

virtualization, P2V, V2V, hyperconvergence
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Ok, You’ve researched and spent the money and now you are the proud owner of a hyperconverged system.  Or any truly virtualized system, really.  If not, why not?  So how do I get all those physical servers into virtual servers, or what is commonly referred to as P2V conversion.

Well friend, pull up a chair and let’s discuss how to convert your systems.

There are three ways to get those physical boxes that now crowd your data closet and make it a hot noisy mess into a virtualized state.  Which method you chose will depend on several factors.  The three are not mutually exclusive, so feel free to use several of these P2V conversion methods in your environment depending on what the specific requirements are for each of your physical servers.

Rebuilding the Server

Rebuild the Server.  Over the course of time, and after around 4 dozen service pack updates, there is a lot of trash in a system.  Sometimes it is better just to start off fresh.  Using this method is best if you would like to update the underlying operating system, or if you are starting to have strange system behaviors.  This method is best for standard services like DNS, domain controllers, or application servers that you have clear ways to transfer just the data and configuration files.  A clean underlying install of the operating system and application services are a great way to breathe fresh life into an old, tired workhorse of a physical server.

  • That clean fresh feeling of a new OS install
  • Existing physical servers are up and functional while new server installation occurs
  • General installation and configuration issues
  • Time restraints – depending on how many servers you are building, well you are building new servers

P2V Utilities

Utilities.  There are as many utilities out there to manage P2V conversions as there are stars in the sky.  Everyone has their particular favorite.  In essence, these utilities make a disk image copy of your system and convert it to an ISO image, or even into virtual server disk formats.  It is the same concept as bare-metal restores.  These utilities make an exact copy of your application servers, so all the data and application files stay the same, but so do any strange behaviors that may exist within your Operating System.  If your server is operating well, this may be the choice for you.

Unfortunately, these utilities require that your server is off while making this copy.  So, plan for a long weekend while this gets done, and make sure that your users are aware that the IT department is closed for business while this happens.  So – this if probably not for those highly available services that NEED to be up all of the time.  Like your 911 systems or the servers that control ATMs.

  • Easy, guided conversion of disk images
  • Often converted directly to ISO image
  • Conversion often possible between virtual disk formats
  • Server MUST be offline to perform conversion operation
  • Time consuming
  • Application downtime
  • Freeware or inexpensive utilities may not have support contracts available


Dedicated High Availability or Replication Software

Dedicated software exists for those servers that need to be virtualized, but can’t be down for the hours that it may take to use the disk utilities that are discussed in the section above.  These utilities are pay-for, but fill a need not addressed by the disk image utilities.  These utilities often operate like a highly available failover pair.  What that means is agents are loaded on two servers, one that is physical and has the information you wish to virtualize – the “source”.  The other server is a virtual server with only an OS and the agent that will act as the “target”.

In this scenario, the utility makes a full “backup” from the source server to the target server.  Then changes propagate from the source to the target on a regularly scheduled basis.  When the cut-over occurs, the physical server goes down, and the virtual server comes up as an exact copy, often down to the same IP addressing.  This cutover can often happen in only minutes.

  • Less downtime for those critical servers
  • Exact copies of functional servers down to the minute
  • Support contracts are available
  • Often a pay for utility or service.  While this may not be an obstacle for IT shops, large numbers of servers mean large licensing fees
  • Often takes more time and better scheduling than other conversion utilities
  • Small period of time that services are unavailable while cutover occurs
  • Invasive – new agent software loaded on source and target servers

We have discussed the three ways that new hyperconvergence or virtualization shops can convert their physical servers to virtual servers.  Building new servers, using disk imaging utilities, and highly available utility agents all have pros and cons to address.  These three conversions move your physical servers to virtual servers and get you the benefits from virtualization.

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