Data Backup: How Good Is “Good”?

As data volumes grow at bewildering speed, all aspects of information management have become of crucial importance to the business. It is essential, for example, to be able to retain and access any customer-related information to ensure compliance within an increasingly-regulated commercial world. Equally, the ability to manipulate and use data held within the business to competitive advantage is now more critical than ever in staying one step ahead in the battle to attract and retain customers.

Yet there is a problem here. Gartner has warned that businesses are spending at least 20 per cent more than they need to – wasting at least $10 billion worldwide – on unnecessary data backup and storage. Part of the reason is that many businesses misunderstand the purpose of backup. “Often, the problem is that companies mistake backup technology for data archiving,” says research vice-president, Dave Russell. “Backup is largely for operational recovery, not for long-term retention.”

Data backup is a key element in the IT department’s back-office armoury yet, handled well, will never be a headline-grabber within the business. Backup is invisible. In the past, it has also typically been highly repetitive and task-intensive. Yet different issues arise on a daily basis, creating an ever-changing environment, both within the data centre and across the broader business. If anything is changed – across the network, servers or the data itself – this creates the potential for something to go wrong, with often serious consequences.

That backup is important is not in question. Businesses spend a lot of money protecting their data yet, like all types of insurance, it has to be done even if it has the illusion of adding little value. Having made significant investment, most senior managers believe that their backup is working well, whereas the IT team managing the process is likely to be more aware of any potential exposure the company may face.

No-one likes to be the bringer of bad news and so any shortcomings may be swept under the carpet, until a problem arises when an attempt to retrieve data fails. Until now, the value of such metrics as backup success rate (BSR) percentages has been severely limited. Measurement has been rudimentary and typically undertaken as isolated one-off snapshots of performance.

Productivity And Risk

It is time for organisations to take a closer and more regular look at their backup capability. The problem businesses face is two-fold: how to measure backup effectively and what constitutes ‘good’ performance.

Existing BSR measures simply look at whether or not a successful backup has taken place, which is too blunt an instrument to provide meaningful analysis for improvement. Similarly, setting arbitrary targets for data protection such as a 90 per cent success rate can be too simplistic, as they do not take account of such factors as the relative importance to the business of the individual servers at risk.

However, a clearer picture has started to emerge as to the common attributes of those organisations that are performing best in a highly-volatile backup environment. This enables any business to more easily identify and map areas for improvement, whatever their current level of performance.

The latest best practice measurement tools can be updated and are able to take account of the size of the environment – providing a measure of productivity as well as levels of backup success. So, for example, if an IT manager is responsible for the backup of 10 servers that may not be a big task: yet if that same manager has to manage 2,000 servers, this presents a much greater challenge.

To do this, it is necessary to take into account how many servers are required, together with the number of clients, the volume of data being backed up and number of people (FTEs) needed to manage the task. The result is a much more realistic and flexible approach to what constitutes success in calculating total data backup performance

It also provides a more comprehensive and meaningful analysis of how a business is performing, as it includes a measure of productivity as well as risk. By regularly measuring the effectiveness of companies’ backup in this way, it is also possible to compare performance against both past history and that of other organisations.

Key Success Factors

There are dramatic differences between the best and worst performing companies in the area of data backup, which should burst the bubble of complacency which might sit in any boardroom. At the same time, companies with high data protection rates and staff productivity appear to share a number of common attributes, providing some helpful insights as to how to bridge any gap in performance.

These include the adoption of effective automated backup processes, together with regular reporting and clearly-defined operational accountability. Equally importantly, best performers treat data backup as a process of continuous improvement rather than a one-off IT project, so that they can always respond rapidly and effectively to any changes in what is a volatile data management environment.

This is encouraging news for companies on tight IT budgets struggling with the daily pressures of backup, as the answer demonstrably doesn’t lie in simply throwing more bodies at the problem. Rather, latest evidence points to the fact that increased process automation and better reporting can significantly improve the quality of backup – without breaking the bank.

Visibility And Control

As in other parts of IT, in backup you can’t measure what you can’t see. By automating the organisation’s monitoring, alerting and incident management processes, this increases the visibility of the storage environment – the first step to gaining control and driving better backup performance.

So, how good is good? The answer is, never good enough. There is no resting on one’s corporate laurels here. If regulators, customers and competitors are not standing still, the business cannot relax but must strive to improve further – however strong its current level of performance. And, as those at the coal face of backup will tell you, it can always be done better.

Alistair Mackenzie is CEO at Predatar, part of the data storage experts Silverstring. He has 13-years’ experience in the IT industry having graduated in 1992 with a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering, Manufacture and Management from the University of Birmingham.