In-Depth

Public Cloud Backup: Is It Right for Your Enterprise?

Lower costs and expanded offerings are making Infrastructure as a Service an attractive data-protection target.

Until last year, the law firm of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney Ltd. used tape to back up its data. Now the firm has replaced tape with a new backup target: the public cloud.

Segal McCambridge represents a growing number of organizations exclusively using public cloud services instead of tape or other media to back up their data. As a result, the law firm's IT staff can quickly find and recover data whether a file is inadvertently deleted, a local system goes down or disaster strikes.

Just how popular is the public cloud becoming as a backup target for enterprise data? Opinions vary. A survey of 3,236 global IT executives last fall by Symantec Corp. found 93 percent are at least discussing the use of cloud services. Of those, backup and recovery was the second most likely use of those services, bested only by e-mail management and coming in ahead of security, which ranked No. 3.

Enterprise spending on public cloud infrastructure services grew 43 percent last year to total $6.1 billion, according to IT market researcher Gartner, which forecasts that spending will grow 48 percent this year, exceeding $9 billion in IT funds shelled out. The amount of data that organizations are storing in the public cloud is also expanding at the same pace. Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS), the most widely used provider of cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), in late November reported 1.3 trillion objects stored on its Simple Storage Service (S3) compared with 762 billion around the same time in 2011.

Many Moving Cautiously
Despite such growth, most companies are still reluctant to back up large amounts of their data to the public cloud. For example, Acronis International GmbH, a supplier of backup and recovery software for small, medium and large enterprises, started offering its customers the option to back up their data to an IaaS it built out two years ago with more than 12 datacenters worldwide.

So far, only 15 percent of its capacity is being used for backup and recovery, according to Steve Erdman, Acronis senior VP and general manager for global business development. "It's still a low percentage of capacity," Erdman says. "We work with our customers to get them over the natural hesitation, but it's not an exploding market yet."

Steve Fairbanks, data management VP at CA Technologies -- ­which has added support for AWS and Microsoft Windows Azure to its popular ARCserve software -- agrees. "We're seeing an uptick, but it has been slower than we had expected," Fairbanks says.

For its part, Segal McCambridge got over its reluctance after testing a cloud-based storage and backup and recovery offering from Nasuni Corp. to back up the firm's Autonomy iManage document management system to the AWS EC2 and S3 storage services. Easing the firm's comfort level was the fact that Nasuni distributes data to multiple sites and encrypts data at rest and in transit using OpenPGP and AES-256 encryption.

Over a period of two years, the firm gradually replaced all of its tape backup processes with the Nasuni offering and another cloud backup service offered by nScaled Inc. Segal McCambridge completed the transition in September.

"I'm happy to say we've actually closed our physical disaster recovery location and we're now 100 percent cloud backup," says Matthew Donehoo, director of information systems for the 400-employee law firm, which is headquartered in Chicago, with remote offices in Austin, Texas; Baltimore; Detroit; New York; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Philadelphia.

Midsize organizations like Segal McCambridge are prime candidates to move away from tape or disk -- or, in some cases, dedicated backup and disaster recovery facilities -- to public cloud services. Cloud providers offer elastic services, meaning they can add or subtract storage capacity on-demand while lowering the cost of administration.

Nasuni, a popular and well-funded venture-backed startup, offers what it describes as Storage as a Service, where it sells enterprise customers appliances that consist of a filer and storage controller. The appliance uses standard protocols, including Common Internet File System (CIFS), Network File System (NFS), iSCSI and HTTPS, and provides NAS and SAN workloads that will replicate and synchronize files, databases and VM storage to a public cloud storage provider (CSP). Nasuni's currently preferred CSP is Amazon, though Nasuni CEO Andres Rodriguez compares cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft to disk drive makers.

"We look at cloud services providers the same way a storage systems company looks at a Seagate or Western Digital," Rodriguez explains. "It's a critical component, but there are choices. We provide guaranteed service -- the only thing a customer has to consider is whether they need more capacity."

Nasuni gained notoriety in late 2011 when it posted its own benchmark that rated the performance of 16 leading IaaS players. That study found Amazon to be the most reliable (with Microsoft Windows Azure coming in second), following a 26-month stress test that measured scalability, availability, stability and performance. Among others that fared well at the time were AT&T, Nirvanix Inc., Peer 1 Network Enterprises and Rackspace US Inc. While 10 others, which Nasuni declined to identify, failed, IaaS providers have aggressively built out their infrastructures over the past year.

Many analysts agree AWS and Microsoft, respectively, are the largest providers of cloud-based compute and storage capacity, while Rackspace is also a key player (see "Back Up Your Systems to the Public Cloud"). But there are a dozen or more other major providers and thousands of smaller players that offer cloud backup and recovery services.

Availability Concerns
Yet despite (or because of) their rapid growth, both Amazon and Microsoft, among others, have experienced widely publicized outages that brought down a number of high-profile businesses last year. The businesses affected included Instagram, Salesforce.com Inc. Heroku, Reddit Inc., Quora Inc., the popular personal file storage service Dropbox Inc. and Netflix Inc., which was down at the most inopportune time -- Christmas Eve. While Nasuni uses Amazon to back up customer data, Donehoo says he remains confident the law firm's data will remain available.

"That raised eyebrows, but functionally those outages didn't impact us," he says. "I'm still confident in Nasuni's uptime and in my opinion it will be the same if not better than local. You're going to have issues regardless; it's a question of how much you want to spend on all aspects of your network."

Indeed, many argue a company's network can be the most significant bottleneck in using public cloud providers for backup and recovery, especially for those with multiple terabytes (or more) of data.

"We don't see many people using the cloud for primary backup," says Mark Campbell, CTO of Unitrends Inc., a longtime provider of backup and recovery software and appliances to small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and enterprises. "The reason is, to move a terabyte of data over a fully provisioned T1 line, depending on the level of compression, takes 30 to 60 days. Most of our customers can't wait even a few days." Campbell notes most of Unitrends' customers are using the cloud for replication and archiving rather than file-based backup. When a customer wants to replicate or archive large volumes of data, they ship NAS drives overnight via FedEx or UPS.

Others say there are ways around the network issue. Many use various forms of optimization such as data de-duplication, which only transmits bits of data that have changed (although that doesn't address the initial backup). Another popular solution is WAN optimization. Leading suppliers frequently mentioned are Riverbed Technology Inc. and TwinStrata Inc., though others that offer WAN accelerators include F5 Networks Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Citrix Systems Inc., which offers the Citrix Branch Repeater for its NetScaler SDX application-acceleration platform.

Riverbed and TwinStrata both offer so-called "file systems to the cloud," notes Rick Vanover, product strategy specialist at Veeam Software, which provides products that back up VM images as well as physical machines. Veeam, which has co-marketing relationships with Riverbed and TwinStrata, last month launched its Cloud Storage Gateway, which uses its own file compression and then connects to a WAN accelerator.

Vanover says, while he's seeing growing interest in backing up data to a public IaaS, "it's another option customers see to build off the different layers of their data-protection strategies."

The rapidly declining cost of using IaaS providers is also making them a more attractive backup target. Already this year, AWS and Microsoft have cut the cost of their core services. And last year AWS launched Glacier, an archiving service that costs a penny per gigabyte (though data stored there can take many hours to retrieve versus near-instant availability with its flagship S3 storage offering).

More to Come
Look for the breadth of backup and recovery options to grow this year. For example, Rackspace in the coming months intends to offer an agent for its Cloud Backup service that allows IT pros to configure where their backups can go. That will include allowing replication from the Rackspace shared Cloud Files service to the company's dedicated hosting offering as well as other cloud providers, initially Amazon EC2 (though not S3), says Rackspace product director Scott Gibson. "If we allow the backup to go to multiple datacenters, we're solving the problem of the need for redundancy," Gibson says.

Quite a number of players that offer backup and recovery solutions agree they're seeing the greatest amount of interest in cloud services from small and midsize organizations, which naturally have less-complex requirements -- particularly those not burdened by regulations regarding data sovereignty or other compliance requirements.

"We're seeing a lot of midsize customers wanting to go completely to the cloud for backup purposes," says Danny Milrad, director of product marketing for the Symantec NetBackup offering, which now is available with network accelerators to key public cloud providers including AT&T, AWS, Nirvanix and Rackspace.

Symantec last year also released a Software as a Service (SaaS) edition of its popular Backup Exec for Windows. Called Backup Exec.cloud, it provides automated backup and recovery of PCs, servers and VMs, and backs up data to its own datacenter.

Later this year, Symantec plans to up the ante with an offering internally known as Symantec Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) for Windows Azure. The service will be based upon Veritas Storage Foundation High Availability from Symantec for Windows and Veritas Replicator disaster recovery software linked to Windows Azure.

While CA ARCserve and CommVault Simpana 9 Express backup and archiving software allows customers to use Windows Azure as a backup target, Symantec execs argue that their company's upcoming offering will use replication and will offer better recovery time and recovery point objectives.

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