Data is king. The ability to capture, store and mine data is core to the success of most businesses, making data protection and business continuity crucial elements of the business process.
To ensure ongoing productivity, profitability and shareholder confidence, board members now have to seriously consider the 'what if' factor in their IT planning to protect electronic information.
Large-scale natural disasters and political events of the last decade have reinforced the importance of replicating data to secondary locations away from the central office. But it is not just the 'what if' factor that is changing the way data is stored. New regulations on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the Freedom of Information Act (2000) in the UK or new electronic data retention rules in the US (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26, 2006), mean electronic data now needs to be retained for compliance reasons.
Organisations are expected to have a complete and accurate account of their information and be able to access and retrieve all or part of it as required.
Rule 26(1)(B) of the Supreme Court ruling in the US reads: B) A copy of, or a description by category and location of, all documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things that are in the possession, custody, or control of the party and that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defences.
Indeed, last year, Morgan Stanley was unable to retrieve data and was fined $15 million by federal regulators for non-compliance. To complicate the requirement that organisations retain data, many companies now operate from multiple locations, with workers distributed across countries, regions or even on different continents. Data is generated from locations worldwide and transferred across the wide area network (WAN). This distributed data model creates complicated problems for CIOs that have both process and technology components.
Getting the infrastructure right
In order to comply with the recent rulings, many organisations are examining their infrastructure and considering whether to consolidate IT. A company with multiple locations generates data at each of its sites. This makes the backup of critical data from each separate site a challenge. For many, deploying Microsoft Exchange file servers throughout a distributed organisation is a complicated and expensive endeavour that is fraught with risk. Tapes are often lost or are unreliable, creating the potential for non-compliance and heavy fines, in addition to loss of data and business continuity. Consolidation of the IT infrastructure simplifies data management and allows IT managers to have a single data centre.
Consolidation of this kind enables a comprehensive archiving and information lifecycle management strategy to be developed. With data located in one or two secure locations it is easier to keep the information safe and retrieve details from it, or delete items when the time comes.
Making it happen
One of the biggest barriers to achieving this consolidation strategy is the performance of the WAN between locations. If data cannot move around quickly, having centralised backup is an impractical solution. The system needs to be capable of transporting large amounts of data over long distances to geographically diverse storage centres. Equally, consolidation means data, although safe at an off-site location, is now also further away from employees. If the speed of data transfer is not sufficient, branch office staff can be less productive as they have to wait for files to download, have a reduced ability to collaborate effectively with colleagues or have limited capacity to use centralised applications, such as SAP or ERP.
Previously, the network protocol constraints slowed data transfer down to an unworkable level. New technologies in the wide-area data services (WDS) sector can make consolidation an effective disaster recovery system. By accelerating applications and optimisation the bandwidth across the network, employees everywhere can have the same reliable access to data and applications, whilst files can be transfers to data centres quickly.
Once consolidation has occurred, network-based backup can underpin the business continuity strategy so long as the network can deal with the volume of data. Most organisations schedule backups to run during non-business hours. However, restrictive backup windows, limited bandwidth and network latency can significantly reduce the possibility of a company successfully backing up the required data in the time provided. This not only leads to non-compliance, but can also affect the productivity of workers if overrunning backups have to take place during the working day.
To compensate, organisations rotate the backup to certain portions of data. In doing so, if disaster strikes, a remote location may lose several days worth of files.
Bandwidth is not the answer
Many businesses throw bandwidth at this backup window problem. Expanding bandwidth can be expensive and often does not solve the situation. Inherent limitations in the network protocols and application chattiness can create idle time during transmissions across the network no matter how large the pipe. Unfortunately, increased bandwidth cannot alter the file protocols and magically speed the process up, so backups will overrun.
By optimising the bandwidth utilisation and accelerating the TCP based applications themselves the amount of backup data sent over a WAN can be reduced by 60 to 90%. Optimising the network removes the delays, or latency when data is sent. When combined, these factors cut backup windows by up to 75% and in some cases more, so all critical data can be replicated to a central location, whilst freeing up bandwidth for other applications. Backups that once took hours can be accomplished in minutes. And, for organisations that required realtime mirrored data, such as banking or other financial institutions that cannot afford to lose any data, optimisation solutions coupled with backup tools enable replication of very large amounts of data over long distances.
With these performance optimisations in place for faster data protection, organisations can dramatically change the way backup and replication tools are deployed throughout the organisation. Servers can be backed up over the WAN continuously or near continuously; a secondary data centre can use network backup to ensure that it has the most recent data possible in the event of a failure, and tape or disk backup devices can be altogether eliminated from remote offices. These changes allow businesses to protect data more reliably, effectively respond in the face of disaster, dramatically cut costs associated with backup and replication, and streamline IT so that technical staff can spend more time on tasks other than managing backup processes.
Removing the cost
Apart from significant reductions in bandwidth cost, optimised network-based backup removes the need for location specific staff and servers. As data is being replicated to date centres situated in one or two regions, staff and resources can be focused here rather than having duplicated systems set-up at various sites. This means a reduction in the number of compliance software licences businesses need, as only one is required at the data centre. It also eliminates the security risk of using third party contractors in distant locations, which could risk data integrity.
In the event of a disaster or loss of data, the ability to recover files is as critical an element of compliance and business continuity as the ability to backup data. Organisations use the WAN to pull files from the central data store to remote offices. Although the reverse of backup, the speed at which data traffic can move across the network is still crucial in this situation. Unlike backups that happen at a scheduled time, recovery is a live task that can halt the productivity of the workforce and the revenues of the organisation until it is completed.
Electronic data is increasingly coming under scrutiny from regulators and in the law courts. Companies must now look at their data retention and business continuity strategies to protect themselves, but also to demonstrate to shareholders that if the worst happens they are able to recover data effectively and with its integrity intact. More and more, organisations are operating from multiple locations joined by the WAN. If companies are to be compliant and responsible in this environment, they must ensure data is able to move effectively and freely around the global office, in a manner that not only enables staff productivity and collaboration, but also enables data protection.
Mark Lewis, EMEA marketing director, Riverbed Technology