What's Your Backup Plan?

Blake Smith, System Director, Enterprise Infrastructure, CHRISTUS Health
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Blake Smith, System Director, Enterprise Infrastructure, CHRISTUS Health

Most companies know they need a solid back up plan just as most people know they need to save money for retirement, yet the action is often delayed with justified deferment explanations, especially when the IT budget is already tight and most organizations are finding ways to cut costs rather than expand products that would essentially help them improve performance and reliability in the backup environment.

Managing data has become one of the most important and complex IT challenges for businesses of all industries and sizes; however, changes to improve the backup process do not have to be problematic as long there is a shift in mindset, clearly defined goals, and willingness to work through obstacles along the way.

Change Your Mindset

For many organizations, changing the way the backup is done because of a “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset is often the first step to overcome. As a system Director for Enterprise Infrastructure sharing candidly, that approach was no different for our organization, even though we had a sound strategy of centralizing our data centers, leveraging virtualization technologies and a goal to build a private cloud strategy - our backups were caught in the mindset of using tapes. Tapes were a consistent time-proven method –which include agent based schedules being written to tapes, then carefully catalogued, labeled, and then stored offsite; but the outdated backup method of using tapes cost manpower, time, security and money.

The architecture of a solid new backup environment is crucial to advance data management in order to meet future and current needs of today’s high-tech organizations. The starter for updating and changing the mindset requires defining strategies and goals and selecting the right data storage partner to help your organization meet those goals, while overcoming unpredictable obstacles.

Establish Goals

Considering the entire scope of a backup transition, establish clear goals like:

• Improving the reliability and performance of the backup environment

• Architecting a solution with available technologies

• Improving the remote data center survivability

• Integrating a virtualization strategy

Controlling operational and capital costs

Study the products on the marketplace, look ahead at technology initiatives and trust the advice of a reputable, proven service provider with a history of success stories in the industry.

The architecture of our new backup environment needed to include a multitude of tasks - disk based backup that would eliminate tape use and storage, be able to integrate with VMware to allow site recovery with image backups and also provide protection for reporting and compliance. Overall, we implemented eight EMC products in our backup environment in order to meet our needs.

Working through Obstacles

The strategy and solution design of our new backup environment was robust and we experienced many immediate successes, as anticipated. In moving from tapes to disks, our restore times were improved, backups were completed well within target windows, and failure rates were reduced by 90 percent. As in any new implementation, bumps along the way are normal but we were presented with some challenges that we failed to consider during our original transitional approach.

“We had a sound strategy of centralizing our data centers, leveraging virtualization technologies and a goal to build a private cloud strategy - our backups were caught in the mindset of using tapes”

First, we learned that we didn’t plan for enough storage capacity, similar to the retirement scenario where many people think they’ve saved enough for retirement then suddenly have to reevaluate as they realize they may outlive their money. You will always need more capacity than expected; don’t underestimate your organization’s needs.

About a year after our go-live date, we discovered that the selected data domains were filling up at a greater rate than expected. De-duplication rates were good, the systems were healthy; however we were filling the appliances at a rate of more than five percent per day and quickly approaching 90 percent capacity on the appliances, which presented an obvious problem - when there is no capacity, there is no protection.

For disk based backups, organizations must have a solid understanding of the current capacity needs and a five year growth plan, along with a safety margin. The flexibility of traditional backup solutions is not present in current technologies, and every IT professional must anticipate the unexpected.

Manage Growing Pains

Errors can happen, even with significant effort for root cause analysis both internally and with the vendor. We found, with the original engineering on the sizing, assumptions were applied that had not been revealed during the purchase process, and was ultimately impaired by our own success in executing our virtualization strategy.

When we selected the EMC solution our organization was only 45 percent virtual. When we exceeded our capacity, we had virtualized 70 percent of the environment. We failed to consider that we were backing up solely relevant data from physical servers to backing up the entire server image, including swap files, etc. tripling the capacity requirements. The original pro-forma had assumed a much slower adoption of virtualization which provided us with the large differential of planned capacity.

Our data storage provider proved to be a strong partner in working through the capacity issue we experienced; we’ve been able to adjust our capacity plans to align with our overall strategies and growth projections.

While transitioning, we also experienced an enterprise wide performance issue. Our clinicians and patient care was not impacted, but our virtual environment and our storage frames saw a significant increase in utilization. Our partner identified that our networker backup implementation was not compatible with our current VMware environment.

Traditionally, our backup environment was independent of production operations. Backups occurred at night, through agents. We learned that our strategies had aligned across our infrastructure technologies and components were no longer independent. Release management across all platforms, including backup platforms, became paramount to overall environmental stability.

All of our partners worked to expand our compatibility matrix to include all of the backup technologies in our production ecosystem. After matching compatible versions, our environment returned to within normal parameters and met the objectives.

Managing data and upgrading technologies can be complex IT challenges for many industries and businesses. Get your organizational mindset in a progressive gear, define goals and research the best data storage partner that will meet to meet those goals and also be a staying partner if you face obstacles along the way.

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