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Storage Strategies July 2, 2003

A Smart Solution for Protecting Distributed Data
By Jon William Toigo

Last week, I was contacted by backup services provider Iron Mountain to review a data protection solution they had provided to Stuart Weitzman, a retailer of women's shoes, handbags, and other leather goods based in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. What I discovered may not qualify as an "enterprise storage solution" in the Fortune 500 sense of the term, but it was an eminently practical one for a smaller firm with about 150 end users dispersed in retail shops around the world whose data is every bit as vital to their business operations as it would be to their much larger brethren. (Story continues below)

Stuart Weitzman is essentially a PC-centric shop. All of the company's retail stores use PCs to run their operations, and critical sales data must be backed up nightly. Until earlier this year, the stores had been using tape located in each shop to perform backup, but identification and resolution of issues grew increasingly difficult for the fellow at headquarters who was tasked with (among other things) ensuring the backups were occurring regularly and successfully.

Policing tape-based data backups took an inordinate amount of fellow's time on a daily basis, requiring manual intervention every step of the way. Each store's backup had to be manually initiated, and there was no automated method by which to determine whether a backup had been completed successfully. Instead, logs needed to be checked every day to determine which backups had halted before completion. By then, it was generally too late to reinitiate the backup process for those locations. As a result, a substantial portion of data was going unprotected.

If a backup failure was discovered in the logs, manual troubleshooting was required. This was a difficult and time-consuming procedure made more challenging by the need for the home office IT guy to interact with shop personnel by phone. While backup was supposed to be only a subset of the poor fellow's IT responsibilities, he found that fixing backup problems was growing into a full time task and crowding his other duties.

Enter Iron Mountain. Already a trusted provider of offsite storage for Stuart Weitzman, when Iron Mountain suggested its PC Electronic Vaulting service to the company, they were keen to try it. As a test, the company opted to use the service in 11 of its boutique shops to protect the critical transactions within each store and interactions between locations.

The automated service required the upload of a small agent, which performs a data encryption function, onto the PC at each location. Each PC has a connection to the Internet, through which the data is transmitted to a backup host at an Iron Mountain facility on an established backup schedule, on power-down, or upon connection to the Internet. The remote data repository maintains backups online for 30 days. Older data is taken off-line and stored off-site on a daily basis to further protect the data from corruption or viruses.

The upload of the software agent took 10 minutes for each PC, and the initial full backup took a few hours. In total, the entire implementation was completed in just a few days. It gave Stuart Weitzman exactly what the company was after: assurance that backup policies and procedures are implemented and practiced consistently across locations without requiring any manual backup initialization.

This innovation also facilitated a cultural change of sorts. The automation of backup processes and procedures reassured both the IT department and local staff at each location that the data is protected, freeing up their time and resources for other business-critical tasks. Business critical data could be restored as needed within minutes of a system failure, emergency event, or other disaster. Alleviating the burden of backup enabled IT staff to get back to their focus on other business-relevant IT issues.

From the user perspective, the transition was virtually seamless. PC Electronic Vaulting operates in the background, automatically performing backups as scheduled, requiring virtually no manual interaction on the part of the local staff at Stuart Weitzman stores. The only obstacle was the scheduling of an initial backup, which included the full volume of data on the PCs at each store. Subsequent changed data transfers were completely automated and transparent to users.

While this solution to a knotty problem of data protection in small-to-medium sized businesses may seem overly simplistic to those who deal with STK tape silos and high-end Quantum tape libraries every day, I'm hoping that it will underscore another issue: one having to do with the criticality of PC data and the need to accord its protection the same priority as the data stored on Big Iron platforms today.

If the University of California at Berkeley's analysis is correct, a lot of (perhaps the majority of) business critical data being produced today is not located on high-end DASD at all, but on the disk drives of end user desktops and laptops. Ask any businessperson whose laptop has fallen prey to rough and tumble security systems at airports or lost to thieves at conferences or tradeshows. They can tell you what that interruption in their access to data set them back, and the numbers can be quite compelling.

Yet while most of larger companies I have visited recently exude confidence about their data protection strategies for enterprise systems and arrays, surprisingly few have done anything at all to deal with the data on PCs. Iron Mountain's service is worth a look if you want a fairly inexpensive, hassle-free solution.

Copyright 2003 101communications LLC.

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Last Modified: March 9, 2008