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Successful Backups are Not Enough

  Article published in DM Direct Newsletter
September 16, 2005 Issue
  By Jim McDonald

Data protection requirements have moved on from the purely technical question of "Did the backup work?" to the much more complex question of "Is my business protected?" As such, a backup that is considered successful by the backup application can no longer be said to be truly successful unless a number of extra criteria are met. Advanced backup reporting software is required to bridge the gap between the technical and business definitions of success. Backup reporting needs to be provided in a way the business can relate to, reporting on applications and business units rather than servers, databases and file systems. This article lists five criteria that need to be addressed so that businesses can feel sure that they are protected from interruption through data loss.

Backups Must Contain Required Data

It is possible for a backup to complete successfully but fail to contain the required data. Some data on the server being backed up may be unavailable, such as Microsoft Outlook files that are in use. Other data may not be present, such as feeds from upstream systems or references to file systems that no longer contain files due to a prior data migration. The backup software will copy whatever data it can and report success on completion, unaware of the required presence or state of any critical data.

Backup monitoring systems need to look for anomalies in the backup process. A backup that shows a significant drop in the amount of data backed up may indicate an issue regardless of the fact that the backup software reports success. A backup that succeeds but reports large numbers of unavailable files or misses specific business-critical files needs to be flagged for further investigation.

Backups Must Complete within Window

Timing is also an issue: for example, while a backup of a trading database during the business day may complete successfully, it will not only impact the business significantly but will also contain intra-day data that may be inconsistent and of minimal, if any, use. Further, the act of backing up will degrade performance on the server being backed up and can cause significant business issues. To ensure that the backup is consistent and does not impact the business, it must both start and end within the same window.

It must be possible to generate backup windows for each server, and those windows need to be flexible enough to take account of weekends and business holidays. Reports must be available for backups so that users know the window in which a backup was run in addition to whether or not it was successful. Ideally, alerts should be generated when backups are in danger of going out of the designated window so that work can be carried out to reschedule the backup and keep it within the required window.

Backups Must Be at the Right Level

Backups are often run at different levels on different days, with "full" backups containing all of the data required to fully restore a server or application and "incremental" backups relying on data from the previous full and subsequent incremental backups to provide everything needed for restoration. Incremental backups are popular because they take less time to complete and require less storage; however, there is a subsequent cost on the recovery side as the time and number of tapes required to carry out a full restoration increases with each incremental backup, as does the risk of a bad or missing tape preventing complete restoration

A backup policy needs to be in place that covers both the levels of backup and the scheduling of full and incremental backups at suitable intervals. The policy should also specify which backups are sent off site and, if incrementals are to be sent off-site, how to ensure that they are kept with their prior full backup. Reporting which tapes are off site, which should go off site and which should be returned is required to ensure that the operational process of tape movement goes smoothly. A policy on the maximum number of tapes required for a restore or the length of time between full backups should be put in place and enforced through automated checks.

Backups Must Cover the Entire Application

Backup systems work at the level of the file system or server rather than at the level of the application or business unit. An application that can be described in business terms as "the customer Web portal," for example, may actually consist of multiple servers, databases, file systems and other components that have no inherent relationship. Unless all of the pieces of each application have been backed up, there is a risk that the application cannot be restored if needed.

It is important to have a consolidated application-level view of data protection. The restore point for the application is going to be further back in time than the last successful backup of any part of the application, but how much further back? If there is a site failure, how far back will you need to go to restore the entire application? Equally important, how long will such a restoration take? Given the nature of restores, it is hard to get an accurate answer to the latter question, but a good estimate is possible.

Backups Must Be Set to Expire at the Right Time

Each backup that takes place has a built-in expiration date. Beyond this expiration date, the details of the backup will be forgotten and the data itself will often become unavailable. With the advent of legislation that requires data to be available for significant periods of time - commonly up to 10 years - expiration periods for data need to be set to retain the backed up data for the appropriate length of time. Equally important, when the expiration time for the backup has been reached, the media on which the backup resides should either be destroyed or recycled.

Businesses need to have a clear data expiration policy, based on both internal and external requirements, and defined separately for different categories and types of data as required. Backups need to be classified against these categories and types, and checks must be made at the point of backup to ensure that expiration dates are set correctly. Checks also need to be made to ensure that any media containing expired backups are disposed of properly.

A backup that is considered successful by the backup application can no longer be said to be truly successful unless a number of extra criteria are met. The question, "Is my business protected?" can no longer be answered simply by having backup applications. Advanced backup reporting software is required to bridge the gap between the technical and business definitions of success. Each business, and often each department within the business, may have different success criteria depending on the internal and external regulations to which they are party, and reporting needs to be flexible enough to allow for this. Finally, backup reporting needs to be provided in a way that business can relate to, reporting on applications and business units rather than servers, databases and file systems.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...

Jim McDonald is chief technology officer and cofounder of WysDM Software. While at the University of Edinburgh, McDonald was primary architect and systems administrator for one of the first public-access systems on the Internet. He spent five years at Goldman Sachs where at various stages he held international responsibilities in the systems management, scheduling, and primary and secondary storage areas. He has been responsible for global primary storage engineering and technical liaison with a number of key accounts and has worked on a number of open source products. You can reach him at Jim.McDonald@wysdm.com or (212) 228-1800.

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