Business Continuity for Small Businesses

Business continuity is relatively easy for large enterprises. They have the IT staff and the deep pockets to be able to spend millions of dollars implementing redundant data centers, instantaneous mirroring of all information and a host of other disaster recovery (DR) technologies.

On September 11th, for example, several financial services firms situated in and around the World Trade Center didn’t lose a single transaction. Why? Many had expensive servers running the OpenVMS operating system with identical gear available at a remote data center. As soon as the systems went down, their powerful networks switched to the alternate sites.

The smaller players, however, generally try to make do with tape or online backups. But in the event of a disaster, this rarely proves to be enough protection. Why? Whenever servers or sites crash, you need to rapidly recover “the three legs of the stool:” the application data, the applications themselves and the operating system.

If you’ve taken precautions, chances are you can restore the data from the last backup. But if the entire system has crashed or the servers have been destroyed, the applications have to be loaded from scratch. And so begins a mad scramble to find the CDs, contact the vendors and attempt to reassemble. But it also takes more than the applications. They sit on top of an operating system (OS). Whether it is Windows, Linux, UNIX or something else, the OS also has to be installed, complete with the passwords, permissions and settings that individualize every company’s system.

“Restoring one of three or two of three, just doesn’t cut it, and recovery has to be done within minutes.” says Mark Phillippi, director of product management at Columbia, South Carolina-based Unitrends. “Companies no longer have the luxury of waiting while someone retrieves tapes from an offsite location and then mounts and scans them.”

The rapid recovery approach that Unitrends offers small businesses involves backing up multiple servers to an onsite Data Protection Unit (DPU), an integrated hardware and software appliance that provides disk-to-disk business continuity, data protection and disaster recovery. The entry price is around $8,000.

The DPU arrives pre-configured with the company’s proprietary Bare Metal Plus software that provides file-level backup and recovery, which also restores a full operating system along with passwords and permissions. System backups, in the form of snapshots, can be performed as often as desired. If you lose the database, you can recover it from the DPU. If a server crashes, it can be fully restored in about 30 minutes. And if there’s a site failure (flood, fire, etc.), the appliance recovers the data that’s needed to be up and running in several hours instead of days or weeks.

DPU in Action
Jay Henges Enterprises, Inc., based in Saint Louis, Missouri, is a privately-owned company with two main divisions: Henges Interiors is the flooring and insulation sub-contractor of choice for all but a few new home builders in the metropolitan Saint Louis area; Porta-King Building Systems is a retailer of modular wall systems and pre-assembled buildings as well as mezzanine structures.

Its IT environment consists of approximately 110 desktops and 10 servers with a data volume of approximately 800 GB. The diverse nature of the company requires many applications ranging from the Windows, Linux and UNIX operating systems to server products such as e-mail, database and file servers. One system administrator, Bill Main, writes and maintains proprietary applications and looks after the entire site.

Before Unitrends, Jay Henges Enterprises operated Veritas software running on Windows 2000 backing up to an Overland tape library. Why did that setup prove inadequate?

He tells of an endless merry-go-round with the backup software vendor blaming the tape hardware vendor, who in turn blamed Microsoft and the backup software.

“Finger pointing isn’t suitable for a company trying to operate with minimal IT staff,” says Main. “Our backups seldom worked because I simply didn’t have six to eight hours to spend on the phone.”

“All three companies seemed more interested in directing me to a ‘self-service Web site’ for the solution instead of helping me fix the problem,” he says. “And when it did work correctly, a full backup took more than 72 hours because the tapes were so slow.”

After a thirty-day trial, Main purchased a Unitrend DPU 3000 unit and appropriate licensing for about $25,000. In comparison, Veritas software licensing came to almost $40K. Due to the speed gain, he reports that he can now do a full-backup daily instead of monthly.

He notes a couple of minor issues with the scheduling interface.

“One UNIX box wouldn’t backup at first,” says Main. “Unitrends had it fixed in a few hours during implementation, and I’ve never had to look back.”

Data Vaulting
Jay Henges Enterprises recently installed a better Internet connection to further improve snapshot throughput and is considering adding online data vaulting. Using the DPU, the company currently has to rotate its snapshot disks via an off-site storage facility for data recovery purposes. Initially, Main was a little troubled by the process of unplugging hard drives. After several hundred iterations, however, he’s seen no problems.

“I was nervous about off-site storage of hard drives since our off-site provider had not always been delicate with our tapes in the past,” says Main. “Although the locking aluminum hard drive transport cases from Unitrends have many exterior battle scars, I am delighted to report no problems with the drives.”

While Main reports the system as being far more durable than he expected, he sees the possible advantage of streamlining the process by adding a Unitrends Data Protection Vault (DPV). This will allow media-less transfer of site-wide data to an off-site location.

Like the DPU, the DPV is an integrated hardware and software appliance. It includes Unitrends’ proprietary Secure Data Sync technology for backup and full system recovery. The DPV 3000, for example, has a capacity of 4.4TB. This is expandable to 88TB with Unitrends’ storage expansion unit. Entry price is a little under $15,000.

“The DPV eliminates the manual process of keeping critical data and systems off-site,” says Phillippi.

During backup, the DPU saves only the changed blocks of data since the last backup and automatically compresses and sends the data off-site to the DPV, where the changes are included in a full running master copy of the data. No more manual tape rotation, delays in gaining access to data or having tapes picked up and delivered.

Not Too Small
Unitrends’ DPU is probably a smart investment for many small businesses. The pricing seems to make it a far more cost-effective investment than loading up with backup software licenses and tape libraries. And for firms with only one IT staffer, it’s a good way to eliminate the daily or weekly backup grind &#151 and ensure full system recovery during a disaster.

However, it may not be ideal for smaller shops with only one server and a handful of PCs to protect. With units costing upwards of eight thousand dollars, they may be beyond the budget of some SMBs.

But consider this &#151 such a unit in place during an event like Hurricane Katrina could well have saved the entire business by making it possible to recover all systems, applications and data within a few hours. Even for companies with tiny budgets, then, the price of a DPU should be evaluated against how much it would be worth to get back online quickly, rather than taking weeks to try and piece everything back together.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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