Tag: Snapshots

Hardware v. Software Backup and DR

Backup
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There have been a lot of changes to disaster recovery since I started my career in IT years ago.  Back then, the hardware stored things and the software moved backups to tape.  It was a simple if somewhat stilted environment.  It also took forever, as anyone who did “fulls” on the weekend can tell you.  An all weekend backup window can really put a damper on things.  Like when tapes need to be changed.  Of course, that was before “the cloud”.

Now, we have many of those functions converging.  Hardware is becoming “smart” and can now make copies of itself.  Software is becoming smart as well, with the ability to search through catalogs of backup files to show multiple instances of files, or different versions.  So – how do you fit these into your environment?

Hardware Snapshots

Smart hardware platforms and arrays have sprung up almost everywhere.  From the old days of JBOD – Just a Bunch of Disk to intelligent and aware arrays, the mechanisms controlling storage are trying to streamline functions that plague the storage admin.  These days, storage appliances are able to quiesce data on the volumes, make snapshots of those volumes, and often times replicate those volumes between like appliances, or via 3rd party APIs to other storage, like the cloud.

There are many advantages to this approach.  Since these appliances are now placing data using ILM strategies, the appliance usually knows what data resides where.  Data can be snapped quickly, often in just milliseconds.  Hardware based replication to other storage for DR or backup purposes is much faster than traditional backup.  This is often accomplished using just changed data, and then letting the hardware figure out how to make full snapshots of this in the background.  A very nice solutions for hot- or warm- backup sites.

Software Backup

Software solutions traditionally take longer for backups.  It takes time to traverse or “walk” the filesystems involved.  This is slower than SAN or NAS based snapshots.  Software allows for storage that is not associated with hardware appliances to be backed up.  This includes individual machines and drives that may not be hosted on a SAN or NAS.  Even critical desktops and laptops.

Software also is a great solution for its ability to collect information on the files it is backing up.  All the file attributes are collected and organized into a catalog that is user searchable, in the event that only one file or email needs restored.  Catalogs are very organized and searchable by storage and backup admins.  If you haven’t read my article entitled “Is Backup Software dead?“, it goes into a bit more detail on these advantages.

Appliances

Appliances are often hybrids of both types of backups.  They consist of a hardware appliance that stores file and catalog information locally, stores a copy of the latest backup locally, and often times offers the ability to store older backups off-site.  Appliances do not address the speed of SAN or NAS based backups.  But appliances speed up software based backups and offload the computing load that traditionally has been reserved for a server running backup software.

Summary

Backups are a part of life in the IT shop.  Between accidental deletion of files, ransomware, and just plain disasters, you would be crazy not to do them.  How you do them is changing on a consistent basis.  As new technologies come out, the face of backups and disaster recovery changes.  Make sure that you are taking advantage of all the new technology that is being offered.

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Is Backup Software Dead?

Is Backup Software Dead?
Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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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Snapshots – Everyday Uses and Hacks

Storage Snapshot
Image courtesy of ddpavumba at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Creating snapshots in a storage environment is an amazing technology.  The ability to take an instant “picture” of a data volume is a tool that is used in a variety of ways.  It makes your job easier and more manageable.  It can help secure your environment.

Different vendors implement snapshots in various ways, but the general theory remains the same. An almost instantaneous copy of data that may be moved and manipulated by a system administrator.  The theory of this is nice, but how can we USE this functionality.  Can it make their job easier and protect their systems from the everyday issues they see “in the wild”?

With organizations I work with, we see many innovative uses of snapshotting technology.  There are amazing examples of real world IT organizations making their jobs faster, easier, and much less stressful.  In other words, they used “business hacks” to make their snapshots work for them. We will discuss five real world ways to use snapshots that are relevant and guaranteed applicable to your everyday work load.

Snapshots in your DR strategy

The first things that pops into most people’s mind is backups and disaster recovery.  Snapshots produce an exact copy of virtual machines or data volumes that is stored within the storage appliances.  Most vendors allow these snapshots to be replicated or moved to another storage appliance.  This allows you to use an appliance in another location as a disaster recovery site.  Or, it is possible to mount these snapshots as volumes and allow your backup server to incorporate these exact replicas of data into your existing backup or Disaster Recovery plan.

There are several advantages to this approach.  The data in a snapshot is an exact replica in time, so it is easy to manage RPO and RTO.  Also, this approach takes the data backup “offline” of your production servers.  Sure, the network and storage are still involved in transferring this data, but the data transfers happen out-of-band.  This reduces slow systems and lag.  Many vendors now include APIs for cloud storage in their software and storage appliances.  Now, you may back up your snapshots directly to cloud storage.

Update “insurance” snapshots

We’ve all done it.  Installed that patch from our system or software vendor and it breaks the box.  Perhaps breaks is a strong word.  It temporarily overwhelms our system with new features and benefits. While snapshots can’t make the process of ironing out an ornery system update any easier, it can provide you with insurance.

By taking a snapshot before you update a system, you have an exact copy that you know works.  Suppose you cannot straighten out all the goodness that was Big-Name-Accounting-Package 5.0 before Monday 8am rolls around.  Now you have the ability to fail-back to your old system while you continue to straighten out the misbehaving upgrade.  Almost a form of version control for those of you familiar with the software development world.  This nifty trick also works on desktops.  If you are using VDI, make copies of your desktop images and use the same concept.  It may not save you time getting to the next version, but it will certainly save your bacon as far as system up-time and help-desk calls are concerned.

Gold copy snapshots

If you are making snapshots of servers before you upgrade, you are probably already doing this, but we will mention it anyway.  Snapshots are amazing tools for creating new servers, virtual machines, or desktops.

Once you have installed an operating system and all the various patches and utilities that you routinely use – take a snapshot.  Now this new, untouched system as-pure-as-the-driven-snow will be the starting point for all new servers or desktops that you implement.  This is often referred to as the “Gold copy“, a reference to software development and when code is ready to ship out to customers.

This “Gold copy” has standard system configurations already in place, various drive mappings, and config files.  It is all in there.  Sure you may edit some things like network and licensing, but you have a starting place that is pretty solid.  In the future, if you need to make changes then just make changes and save as a new snapshot.  This may not seem like much, but anyone who has built a new system from scratch will tell you that this is a genuine lifesaver.

This concept applies to both virtual machines and stand-alone servers or desktops.  Several customers we work with will use an application to “ghost” images from storage appliances to a new non-virtualized server or desktop.  Mount the snapshot you would like to use as your system image, then transfer it over to your new hardware using the disk image utility of your choice.  Of course, this works best in a virtualized environment, but it is also a valuable tool for the not-yet-virtualized.  By the way, why aren’t you virtualized yet?

Instant data set snapshots

We regularly hear from customers asking how to generate test data for new systems testing.  In several cases, systems administration is tasked with creating data sets that the consultants or systems specialists can use to ensure the systems are working as anticipated.

Instead of this being a problem, use the best test data that there is – an exact copy of your current, live data.  There is no need to create new data sets from your existing data. By creating a snapshot of your current databases, you may test systems with what was once hot and live data.  But, there is no negative impact if this data is corrupted or destroyed.  You can even create multiple copies of this data to use across multiple tests.

Getting around malware with snapshots

Today’s data environment can be a pretty scary place.  Look no further than the headlines to see

Malware, virus, spyware
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

stories about malware and ransomware wrecking havoc on organizations.  If the recent exploits of the bad guys is any indication, things are getting much larger in scope.  The WannaCry attack is still fresh in everyone’s minds and is rumored to have effected over 230,000 machines world-wide. It is safe to say that there are external threats to your data that can be remediated with snapshots.

A schedule of snapshots  on your storage appliance is the solution.  Whether this is part of your disaster recovery planning or not, set up a schedule. This concept is similar to the “patch insurance” we discussed above.

By making a number of snapshots over time, we are able to go back to former snapshots and explore these snapshots for malware.   Perhaps we may extract data from our snapshots before the encryption activates.  Of course, data sometimes is lost.  It is up to management to decide to pay faceless hackers for your data or try to recover it via backups and snapshots.

Snapshots have been in the storage technology tool bag for a while.  The technology has matured so that most storage array vendors are offering this functionality.  Over years of working with clients, we have discovered many innovative ways that people are using snapshots.  In this article, I have shared what I have seen, but I am interested in what you are doing with your snapshots.  Feel free to share and let everyone know how they can use snapshots within their storage appliance.

 

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