Developing a Service Oriented Approach to Data Protection

There is a never ending quest by IT professionals to standardize the data center on a single enterprise backup application. It’s time for companies to re-think that approach, by instead looking at providing backup for their services, instead of foisting a single application on to users. The focus should be on how to best solve the specific applications’ data protection requirements and not limiting the options to best meet those needs. The key advantage of taking a services approach is that data will be better protected and users will feel more confident that their critical information is properly safeguarded.

Establishing a Strong Foundation

An important first step is to establish a key foundation for coverage. However, this foundational element may vary from organization to organization. Typically, this is established by the application, operating system or hypervisor that is most important to the organization. Importance is determined most often by sheer size, but can also be established by data criticality. In large part, this is the primary application used for data protection. But unlike the standardization method described above, this approach leaves room for more application specific tools when needed.

If the foundation is a mixture of physical servers, operating systems, various applications, and some virtualization, then a more traditional enterprise application like Dell’s NetVault may be ideal. This is especially true if there is a need for tape library support. If the environment is mostly Windows based, either virtualized or physical, then a Windows oriented product that can take full advantage of the capabilities of the operating system and the underlying hypervisor (VMware or Hyper-V), like Dell’s AppAssure, may be a better fit. Finally, if the environment is highly virtualized but contains a mixture of Linux and Windows systems, then a product like Dell’s vRanger may make more sense.

The important aspect of the foundational backup selection is that it should be able to provide backup services to the widest cross-section of the environment. After this selection is made, it is time to address specific needs within the environment. By addressing the individual protection and recovery needs of end users, IT is able to evolve backup into a service and away from a bureaucratic oriented mentality which forces compliance into using a single product.

Protecting the Physical Environment

Virtualization has become a standard practice for many data centers but most still have some physical systems remaining in the environment. It is important to understand that the servers that are not virtualized are often not virtualized for a reason. While in some cases it may be due to a compatibility problem between a legacy application and the hypervisor platform, more often it is because of user concerns regarding application quality of service (QoS) in a multi-tenant virtualized infrastructure. Application owners may balk on virtualizing their mission critical applications if they are concerned about the potential for unpredictable performance and resource availability within virtual environments. As a result, physical systems need to be protected.

This serves as a good example of why a single application can not fulfill all the requirements of a backup as a service architecture. In the above example, if the user had chosen a virtualization specific backup solution, they would have had to either force their business application to be virtualized or to protect it in another way. Or if a Windows only backup product had been selected to backup the enterprise, these applications may not be compatible, as many of them run on an enterprise UNIX or Linux server. Finally, these mission critical applications are often databases and can benefit from a mature backup application like Dell’s NetVault because of their feature robust application agent technology.

These systems, again because they are mission critical, often already have their own High Availability or Clustering technologies built into their deployment. As a result, they don’t need some of the rapid backup and recovery technology that is included with some of the more modern data protection tools. When provided by the backup application, these features become overkill and don’t provide the level of application integration that a mission critical application might need.

Protecting the Windows Environment

For most data centers, Windows servers run the majority of the applications. While these workloads are increasingly virtualized, not all are. Many IT Planners choose to keep their Microsoft SQL and Exchange servers running on stand alone physical servers. As a result, the Windows environment ends up being a mix of physical and virtual servers. But these servers need a more windows-specific complement of features than the more generic multi-platform backup applications can provide. These systems can benefit from an operating system-specific backup application that can leverage virtualized attributes. In addition, these systems don’t always have the HA features described above so they need the backup application to provide improved recovery capabilities and even recovery in-place functionality.

In these environments, the need to provide robust Windows platform coverage is typically most important. They also need to be able to handle a mix of physical and virtual windows servers. Windows-specific solutions can invest development time in creating a change block incremental backup capability that is not part of the core Windows Operating System feature set. This means that backups can be done more frequently, regardless if the Windows server is virtualized or not.

Solutions like Dell’s AppAssure can take this coverage even further by providing application-specific data verification as well as the ability to recover directly from the backup data set. With this feature, applications that have a volume fail or a data corruption can point directly to the backup volume and start instantly accessing data from the backup destination. Afterwards, the data that was being changed on the backup storage area can be synced back to the primary storage device.

This instant recovery capability fills a gap that often exists in the Windows environment. While most Windows servers are important, they are often not critical enough for the total investment in a High Availability or Clustered setup. Often these solutions are too expensive and complicated to be applied broadly across a range of application servers. Capabilities like the ability to recover directly from a backup storage area and the ability to perform block level incremental backups, give the Windows server the low data loss and quick recovery they require all as part of the backup application.

It is important to note that this detailed level of protection is not typically available from an enterprise application or a virtualization specific application. The advantage of focusing on the Windows platform allows for the creation of a product that fully exploits Windows, bringing capabilities that a generic product can not.

Protecting the Virtual Environment

Of course an increasing number of data centers are becoming virtualized. In some cases, virtualization simply consists of consolidating physical Windows servers into a virtual infrastructure. In these cases, it may make the most sense to continue using the Windows specific backup application as described above. Performing a block level incremental backup within the guest operating system does not add a significant enough load to be detectable, unless the host server is supporting dozens of virtual machines.

On the other hand, if that virtual environment is going to be a mix of Windows and Linux servers and/or have extremely dense virtual machine counts, then a virtualization specific application may be a better fit. That application would need the ability to interface directly with a hypervisor like VMware and have the intelligence to leverage all its native capabilities. For example, it should be able to exploit VMware’s changed block tracking (CBT) backup feature, for any hosted virtual machine, whether it is Windows or Linux.

In addition to enabling VM applications to recover data from the backup storage area, VM oriented backup applications should also allow the entire application to be restarted from the backup server. Products like Dell’s vRanger provide this type of capability. Moreover it allows the remote restart of an application regardless of the underlying operating system.


The aspiration to protect the entire environment with a single backup application is noble and is certainly doable in some cases. Most environments though, will require a mixture of solutions to solve specific user or application demands. The value in getting all of these solutions from a single vendor is that over time the vendor will begin to integrate these disparate components into a single platform.

Dell is a client of Storage Switzerland

Twelve years ago George Crump founded Storage Switzerland with one simple goal; to educate IT professionals about all aspects of data center storage. He is the primary contributor to Storage Switzerland and is a heavily sought after public speaker. With over 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the US, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN, Virtualization, Cloud and Enterprise Flash. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland he was CTO at one of the nation's largest storage integrators where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection.

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