Weekly Update

The Backup Barrier: Obstacles to Online Storage Strategies

The combination of having both local and offsite storage is something large enterprises routinely base their backup and disaster recovery strategy on, but cost and complexity have made it difficult for smaller companies and individuals at the consumer level to follow suit. But this week, Hitachi GST announced a new range of external hard drives that also ship bundled with 3GB of cloud-based storage, and such a device demonstrates that the storage industry is beginning to respond to the gap in current provision.

Cloud-based solutions like Mozy and Dropbox have been available for a number of years, and while these certainly meet the requirement to store backups offsite, they tend to become expensive as data volumes grow, particularly in the enterprise setting. Amazon’s Cloud Drive and Apple’s new North Carolina data center play in the same area, although marketing around these products tend to focus upon the storage of larger media files.

Moreover, both traditional cloud backup solutions like Mozy and hybrid products such as Hitachi’s remain constrained by the limitations of consumer broadband. Ad hoc uploading of individual files as they are created or altered is perfectly feasible, but typical upload speeds make it unrealistic to expect most customers to complete their initial backup of applications, images and other large files. Without that ability to simply upload everything at the outset, online backup strategies remain reliant upon a process of manual selection, and typically therefore too time consuming to contemplate. For both large enterprises supporting home-based remote workers and smaller organizations that might rely consumer-grade internet connections, the upload speeds of many consumer broadband packages remain a major hurdle to overcome in delivering effective backup solutions.

In the Enterprise

As we often discuss here at GigaOM Pro, consumerization of the enterprise is a hot topic right now, with (mostly) younger employees bring modes of working learned on Facebook, Twitter and other consumer-grade services and devices to their professional interactions. Slowly, enterprise IT systems and procedures are adjusting to cope. And while the this consumerization ultimately benefits everyone, the space is far from perfect, particularly when it comes to safely backing up files.

In most circumstances, data stored on a server will be backed up somewhere else, either on another machine in the data center, to tape, or offsite via a service like Iron Mountain or Nirvanix. An effective backup and disaster recovery plan for the data center will typically involve some combination of all three.

Data stored on company desktops and — especially — laptops is a very different matter, as machines move around, and are often switched off or offsite when backups are scheduled. One provider of solutions for laptop backup, Druva, claims that currently “over 38 percent of corporate data resides on laptops that are never backed up.” In a press release this week to mark the launch of its new cloud-based backup solution for enterprise laptops, Druva cites another statistic: According to the company, “73 percent of laptop users across industries [complain] that ‘intrusive backups’ create a major obstacle to personal productivity.”

In the Consumer Space

Unfortunately those “intrusive backups” remain the primary solution available to people — especially when it comes backing up files in the home. Typically, they require manual intervention by the computer user, and performance of other applications may often be impeded as the machine devotes its attention to scanning and copying files for the backup. My wholly unscientific observation of behavior suggests that, for the minority who do any kind of backup at all, irregular copying of key files to a CD or DVD remains by far the most popular backup strategy.

For those persuaded to invest money rather than time, automated local solutions such as Drobo or Apple’s Time Machine go a long way toward making the consumer backup process relatively painless, but the need to site computer and backup device near one another causes further problems; theft, fire, flood and other unfortunate events are likely to have an equally detrimental effect on both, lessening the value of having made a backup in the first place.

There’s a clear business opportunity for someone to crack the problem of that initial backup, but until that happens — or broadband upload speeds improve — effective backup will remain the preserve of the enthusiastic and the paranoid.