In-Depth

IT Pros Getting Options with Microsoft's Cloud Backup Service

With its Windows Azure Backup Service, Microsoft is giving enterprises yet another choice when it comes to data backup in the cloud.

Microsoft released its Windows Azure Backup Service in October, joining a crowded field of service providers and adding to a roster of backup options for IT pros to consider.

The rollout marked Microsoft as a newcomer to the cloud backup-as-a-service market. However, veteran software and services companies that offer their own backup and disaster recovery solutions have already partnered with Microsoft, in some cases, to add Windows Azure's storage capabilities to their offerings.

While cloud backup is new as a service from Microsoft, it's actually been around for about 20 years, according to Rachel Dines, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Adoption of cloud backup services by organizations has been slow, emerging in just the past two or three years. Organizational trust with using the cloud was just one concern, early on, that had slowed adoption, but bandwidth concerns were a greater issue, she said. They've been ameliorated to a degree with advances in rationalization, compression and location technologies, she added.

Dines has tracked about 100 companies offering backup as a service in her research, some of which are described Forrester's report, "Master the Eight Disruptors That Will Transform Business Technology Resiliency in 2013." Surprisingly, Microsoft isn't competing directly with Google and Amazon in the backup-as-a-service space. Instead, partnering companies are leveraging those cloud infrastructures to compete with Microsoft and others.

"Google and Amazon do not offer backup as a service," Dines said. "There are partners that use Google and Amazon as a target, but they are not offering that as a service model. Almost every major telco provider offers it. Most of the cloud service providers outside of the utility providers, like Amazon and Google, pretty much all of the other providers, like Savvis, Rackspace, Dimension Data, IBM -- they all offer it as well. And dozens of regional VARs and MSPs and other channel providers offer these services as well, so it's a very saturated market, actually."

Partner Views
The Windows Azure Backup Service works by transferring only the changed blocks of data to BLOB storage in the cloud. Data get compressed and encrypted on premises before transmission. Organizations can use tools, such as the Windows Server Backup utility or System Center Data Protection Manager, to set when backup-and-restore actions take place. The service is backed by a "three-nines" (99.9 percent) service level agreement from Microsoft.

One of Microsoft's partners on the Windows Azure Backup Service is Oceanport, N.J.-based CommVault, a Microsoft Gold partner and provider of a single-platform solution for data management needs, centered on Windows. The two companies have a tight partnership extending over 15 years, which began after CommVault decided to build its Simpana solution primarily on Windows instead of Linux. Microsoft, in its turn, invested in CommVault. For about a year, Microsoft has sold a bundled backup package that includes CommVault solutions with Windows Azure.

The Windows Azure Backup Service typically might be used by organizations for "tiered storage," which taps different storage media depending on the importance of the data being backed up. Windows Azure could also be used as a direct storage target or CommVault solutions could be run directly from Azure, according to Randy De Meno, CommVault's chief technologist for Windows, in a phone interview. Midsize and enterprise customers may want to replace tapes and go disk-to-disk to Windows Azure, he suggested. CommVault's solution offers more options on top of Microsoft's cloud storage, including archiving, compression, deduplication, discovery and compliance, and encryption. CommVault's backup-and-restore capabilities are fine grained, enabling individual Exchange messages, SharePoint objects or Active Directory attributes to be retrieved via search.

"Whether we use Azure as a target, disk as a target or tape as a target, those individual messages can be brought back to a user's mailbox," De Meno explained. "It can be brought back to a legal discover, HR-hold perspective, but we also make the data release independent. So if you needed to recover messages from five years ago and it may have been on Exchange 2007, we would restore that data directly into Exchange 2013 and it would all be transparent to the end user."

Another company partnering with Microsoft on the Windows Azure Backup Service is Irvine, Calif.-based Vision Solutions. Much of Vision Solutions' business is focused on providing high availability, disaster recovery, migration and data-sharing solutions. Its suite of products spans IBM iSeries, AIX, Windows and Linux. On the disaster recovery side, Vision Solutions and Microsoft both collaborate as partners and compete, according to Tim Laplante, director of product strategy at Vision Solutions, in a phone chat. The company is a Microsoft Gold Partner, but it offers something beyond what Microsoft can provide with the Windows Azure Backup Service.

"The reality is, for the guys that need high availability, that got critical applications with mission-critical data, these [cloud-based] backup solutions don't work, and Microsoft will tell them that straight up as well," Laplante said.

Using a cloud-based backup service mostly makes economic sense for smaller and midsize organizations that can be strapped for IT resources, according to Laplante. Cloud backup services have been available from service providers for "a couple of years" and it's still a bit of a challenge for Vision Solutions to work with them, he explained.

"There are not a whole lot of standards," Laplante explained. "If you look out there, you've got OpenStack, you've got CloudStack, you've got [Windows] Azure and [VMware] vSphere as well -- really the big four big players in the cloud space, as far as cloud management layers. We're having to play in all of them right now, but I'd really like to see one or two clear winners, which would make our lives a little easier."

The old tape backup process, in which an organization's data are archived and kept offsite, is still practiced. Forrester Research found that most companies have adopted disk-based backup systems, but tape was used by 38 percent of disaster recovery decision-makers in a 2012 survey. However, trying to recover data off backup tapes is still "pretty painful," according to Laplante. Disk-to-disk backup (copying between hard drives) is a little more expensive than tape backup but it offers faster recovery times, although it still entails some manual steps to recover the data, he explained.

Vision Solutions' disk-to-disk backup solution, called RecoverNow, is a "real-time" backup solution that lets organizations send data from one site to another. In that respect, Laplante stressed that one important consideration for organizations in using such disk-to-disk solutions is the "recovery point objective" (RPO) in disaster recovery scenarios.

"A recovery point is how far away from that disaster do you have data that's stored," Laplante explained. "The closer to the disaster that you have data replicated or stored, the less data you're going to lose." He adds that "how long it takes you to get your data back into systems and running is called the 'RTO,' recovery time objective. Typically, backups have an RPO that is usually hours if not days, sometimes weeks, old. And then RTO usually takes days, sometimes unfortunately weeks, to recover things."

Vision Solutions' products have a recovery point objective of "seconds, milliseconds or even minutes," according to Laplante, "and then the recovery times are within five to 15 minutes for some of our products and maybe a couple of hours for others." Backup alone may not be sufficient for organizations, depending on how critical the data are, so Vision Solutions typically recommends having high-availability disaster recovery solutions in place.

Snapshots in the Clouds
Cloud backup technologies can get pretty nuanced. One company that describes itself as a "storage infrastructure as a service" vendor is Natick Mass.-based Nasuni. Its product combines cloud storage services with an on-premises controller. Nasuni, which has been in business for about five years, taps hosted BLOB storage services, mostly from Amazon and Microsoft, as components of its solution. Nasuni serves distributed enterprises by providing them with "primary file storage as a service," according to Connor Fee, Nasuni's director of marketing, in a phone conversation. The product is similar to, but different from, StorSimple, the cloud integrated storage solution for Windows and VMware environments that Microsoft acquired last year.

Cloud integrated storage systems typically keep primary active data on premises, with less active data archived in the cloud. Examples of cloud integrated storage companies include Microsoft with StorSimple, Amazon Storage Gateway, Riverbed and TwinStrata, according to analysis by the Enterprise Strategy Group a Milford, Mass.-based research and consulting firm. The vendors that focus on file access include Nasuni and Panzura, with some involvement from F5 Networks, according to ESG.

Fee explained that Microsoft StorSimple is "a block-only storage device that essentially took the blocks that changed and sent them to Windows Azure." Nasuni, on the other hand is "file based as opposed to block based," enabling different capabilities.

"I can do file-level snapshotting; I can do file-level backup and restore that a block-based device like StorSimple couldn't do natively," Fee said. "In some ways we look a little like a Windows file server that doesn't need to be backed up and won't run out of space."

As for Microsoft's Windows Azure Backup Service, Fee said that "I think that their backup tool is very similar to Amazon's Gateway, for example. It's a great simple tool. It allows you to use the cloud like the commodity it is. By no means is it an enterprise replacement for NEC or Netapp or anything really super-sophisticated. But if you were already using server backup from Microsoft to back up your service to on-premises hard drives, this is a great way that you can now back up to the cloud."

Nasuni isn't a backup provider but it does provide a "backup-like service" by putting snapshots of data into cloud storage. "We take our snapshots and we send our snapshots to the cloud," Fee said. "In our case, we use Amazon and [Windows] Azure. But now, because I have got a perfect history of all our snapshots, I don't need to back up the system."

Nasuni rates cloud storage providers in annual reports. Right now, the company favors using Amazon for BLOB storage, just because of its experience as a cloud service provider, according to Fee. Amazon S3 and Microsoft Windows Azure were ranked as "the two strongest players in the market" for BLOB storage in Nasuni's 2013 report on "The State of Cloud Storage." However, Microsoft's service was ranked No. 1 in this year's report because of its overall performance across Nasuni's benchmark testing. Cloud storage would be expected to become a commodity item over time. However, Nasuni's report found lots of differences between the various cloud providers.

Cloud Storage Considerations
Organizations that use the cloud for backup are typically using it for branch-office and remote-office backups, according to Dines, but they still have some decisions to make.

"Do you want to take the backup-as-a-service approach, like the Windows Azure offerings, where you outsource the management of the backup and everything is hands off?" she asks. "Or do you want a model that I call 'disk-to-disk to cloud,' where you would still retain your backup software and manage that on premise, and then backup to a local disk appliance but then replicate back off to the cloud just to a dumb storage device on the backend?"

So far, the disk-to-disk to cloud approach is the more common one, but Dines is seeing growth for the pure cloud-based model.

"Overall, we've seen 31 percent of companies are using that type of model [disk-to-disk to cloud] somewhere in their organizations," she said. "But the model for backup as a service -- the full offering -- is really picking up as well, and that's actually a 24 percent adoption from our latest survey."

Security and compliance are still "the No. 1 barrier to adopting cloud-based backups," Dines said. It's an ongoing issue for organizations.

"Like any other cloud service, the challenges around security and compliance that affect data are incredibly important," she said. "That issue is not going away, and I don't think it ever really will go away." She advised organizations to conduct due diligence to address those issues before proceeding with the cloud.

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