Remote Possibilities

Let me state right from the start that this article represents a change of mind for me on some aspects of remote storage. In the past, transfer speeds were woefully inadequate for moving large amounts of data. Secondly, before recent economic changes brought about a shakeout, some companies pushing this technology had questionable staying power and capabilities. However, things have changed.

Of course I’ve always been an advocate of backing up data. We all know that it’s not a question of whether our hard drive will fail but a question of when it will fail. Everyone has had a piece of software corrupt a file and there are even rumors that some of us have been heard to mutter, “Wait a minute, what file name did I just save that to?”

Backups are essential, but they’re also vulnerable. Computers are a prime target for burglars these days and airports abound with thieves specializing in the theft of notebook computers. If your only recent backup is located next to your computer at home or in the office, or in the same bag you’d been carrying your notebook in before it was stolen, your hardware loss is probably secondary to your data loss. A backup that is not itself safe and accessible in an emergency is of no use.

Add to this the various natural disasters that can befall computing systems from stand alone SOHO computers to server farms and the wisdom of storing your backups at some distance becomes evident.

Remember Alexandria
The remote storage of important data is not something that began in the Twentieth Century with the invention of computers. Storing important records some distance from the place where they originated appears to have begun shortly after writing was invented by the ancient civilizations thousands of years ago. The most famous ancient archive was the library at Alexandria, Egypt. It stored copies of books from all over the world. It was burned, twice, and many ancient books were lost. There are lessons to be learned from this.

Since security of the backup is important the premises where the backup is stored is important as is the medium on which it’s stored. A remote storage facility located in a locale that experiences frequent floods or has an unreliable power grid may give you nothing more than a false sense of security.

One of the most troubling aspects of remote storage has always been the expense involved. For remote storage you need to have a place to shelter the backups, and that has been a stumbling block for many companies and most individuals.

Of course large companies have been handling their own remote storage for years. When I administered a network for a very large bank in the eighties we used to mail one of its full 120 MB backup tapes to a storage facility once a month. They were a bank so real estate with air conditioned vaults was no problem. Smaller firms had to hope that someone responsible could be persuaded to take a backup home, and not lose it.

Things have evolved over the past several years. Desktop units that had 30 to 40 MB of storage now have a thousand times that. Server capacity has grown at an even greater rate. The days of mailing 120 MB tapes to a remote vault are over. Remote storage today usually means accessing a Storage Area Network (SAN). Larger firms do regular, enterprise-wide backups to SANs and they do them electronically. In the best of circumstances they have dedicated fiber optic links to their SAN server farm and everything is automated. these large firms also have the personnel needed to oversee and maintain their SAN.

Of course there’s a great deal of expense involved in owning your own SAN and making use of it. You need the real estate to base the SAN itself in, and you need to be able to lay that fiber underground — not an easy accomplishment in some larger cities. Additionally, you need the computer hardware and staff to maintain and operate it. In this expensive scenario you own and control everything associated with your remote storage and the security measures you take are up to you.

Most companies cannot begin to afford this type of solution. But the need for remote storage remains.

Who Are These Guys?
This brings us to the commercial SANs that will provide remote storage of your data enterprise-wide, if necessary, for a fee. This solution brings with it a number of considerations. Foremost among these considerations should be “Who are these guys?”

Anyone who contracts out the remote storage of their critical data to a SAN needs to do some investigating beforehand. Does the SAN operator look like they’re going to be around for a while? We all know that shakeouts happen and some smaller companies offering remote storage have already gone under. This consideration may sound odd, but is the price the company is offering too low? If the price looks too good to be true that may mean that the remote storage provider’s business model may be flawed and the result could be a big price increase down the road or a sudden notice to get your data off their servers before the company goes down for the final count.

An issue that sparks the biggest concern among many potential users of SANs is actually one of the most easily addressed: What about the security of the remotely stored data in terms of unauthorized access? Reputable SANs offer software that will encrypt the data on your end before sending it to the remote storage facility. If you really want to make sure that you have control of your data’s integrity you can always encrypt it on your end with encryption software you’re familiar with and fully trust, and then send it on to the SAN.

How you get the data to the SAN is another question, and is frequently a major sticking point. We all know that databases and ancillary documents can be huge these days. Obviously if you wanted to make an enterprise-wide 100 GB upload to your SAN every day you could not use your 56 Kbps modem to do it. In a case like this you’d need to make arrangements with the SAN for uploading your data to them. They’re usually experienced in this issue and can help to tailor your backups to fit your bandwidth. Larger companies might just rent fiver optic cables or T3 lines, while others may need to strategize on exactly what gets sent to the SAN on what days.

Eventually, we get down to the scale of a SOHO or individual user. At this level there is unlikely to be a lot of money to throw at the problem. As a result SOHOs are probably going to be dealing with resellers of SAN services. Most resellers have a rate card displayed on the Web which lists how much you can store with them for what price, and other terms.

Whereas large companies spend millions on remote storage services the SOHO crowd can get 10 MB to 100 MB of remote storage for between $6.95 and 19.95 a month. There are quite a few variables among these smaller companies, and here is where I still have some qualms.

Whom Do You Trust?
Whom to trust with your valuable data can be a real question here. Some of the smaller stand-alone SAN companies are themselves vulnerable to economic conditions. If they go belly up one afternoon you could be left either scrambling to move your remotely stored data or out of luck entirely. The advantage is that you can probably get a hold of someone at the facility if you need to. Some of these companies claim to be protecting government secrets, one will also store your wine in their facility. It’s good to remember that quirky need not mean unreliable. Some of these stand alone companies also offer additional computer related services, such as digitizing and storing your existing paper documents and the creation of disaster recovery programs.

The resellers are usually reselling a piece of the remote storage space they rent from one of the larger SANs and they’re also a varied lot. Besides being resellers, some of these companies also outsource their billing, accounting, support and seemingly everything else. This particular sort of operation tends to be one guy with a Web site selling what he sees as a commodity. While this may not sound great at first blush it may be good enough for the small user. It depends on who the SAN really is.

So the answer to the question of who needs remote storage may be just about everyone. For large businesses that can handle the capital outlay for hardware, maintenance and software it’s a necessity and most already do it. For middling companies that can afford vendors to handle remote storage it’s an equal no brainer. For the SOHO and the backup conscious individual there are some details that have to be figured out, but as DSL and other broadband technologies spread the prospect of putting significant amounts of important data into remote storage within a reasonable amount of time becomes more attractive. The ROI of not losing days or weeks of work from some sort of disaster can be enormous, and then there’s the peace of mind you get from knowing that your most critical data is safe.

R. Paul Martin has been a network administrator for a Fortune 100 company. He works as a freelance writer and as a technology consultant.

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