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The Pitfalls Of Relying On Tape - Backups Without Foolproof Recovery Plans

For more than 50 years, tape backup has been a cost-effective and reliable method for protecting organizations from data loss. There are several pluses to using tape, including the fact that it is able to work with all major applications and environments. But a tape backup's effectiveness is only as good as the comprehensive business continuity plan that it is a part of. There are many pitfalls to watch out for when using tape, especially if your business lacks a proper business continuity plan. Because data is the lifeblood of many organizations, every IT department needs to implement a strategic backup plan-a continuous way of maintaining its data.

Tape still has many advantages over other contemporary backup types. The centric advantage these days is the higher capacity and lower costs per gigabyte that it offers. Tape solutions such as Quantum SDLT and LTO Ultrium boast significantly lower storage costs. Although disk-based storage is becoming more popular with large data warehouses, tape backup continues to support long-term backup initiatives as a "tried and tested" technology. At the rate tape technology is advancing, IT departments will see increases in capacity, transfer rates, and density while the cost of tape systems will continue to decrease. But, even with a bright future, what does all this mean if there is no disaster plan in place?

All The Right Moves

Too often, IT administrators will play Russian roulette when it comes to business continuity. Backup plans are based on if data loss occurs, when in fact they should be based on when it occurs. Accidents can happen: Ask any company that thought it would never happen to them. Industry surveys show less than one-third of companies have a disaster recovery plan in place that they believe will actually work in a time of crisis. When disasters do strike,

As reliable as tape is, it can be damaged. Without a proper business continuity plan in place, anyone can wind up out of business if specific precautions are overlooked. you want to be able to rely on your tape backups with confidence. Then there are always the human factors that get overlooked, even in the best disaster recovery scenarios. What happens if the best-laid plans lose their luster because IT Joe forgot to change the tape? Or even worse, backed up the wrong data?

Backing up data to tape can be a cumbersome chore. Gartner reported that 40% of data isn't properly backed up each night. Some potential risks, when humans are involved in the backup process, can include configuring the software, labeling and cataloging tapes, loading tapes properly, locating the tapes, and recovering the proper data. And what if the tape has been used too many times and should have been replaced long ago? What if backups are not done regularly? Based on Gartner's research, it is obvious that recovery from tape will fail, whether we like it or not. Recovery attempts fail due to a variety of reasons, including human error, bad tapes, software bugs, and more.

Avoid Those Pitfalls

When a server crashes and the data goes with it, there is nothing worse than finding out that somehow the backup did not take-that in an instant, everything was lost. Doug Owens, managing director of CBL Data Recovery Technologies (San Diego laboratory), knows all too well the pangs of relying on tape when plans aren't executed as they should have been. Owens says, "First of all, backup tapes should be tested. If they have never been tested, users have a false sense of security about their backups." He also warns those responsible for company backups to always make certain that backups (especially servers) are verified. Location is also very important. Owens says, "Some companies store their backups in a fireproof safe onsite. Then, if a fire destroys everything (servers included), chances are, the tape is destroyed, as well. Most fireproof safes protect paper documents, not the melting point of media. Another pitfall in this scenario is the fact that the data was stored onsite. Critical data should always be stored offsite."

Owens also says it is a good idea to watch your backup configurations. He says, "If you are backing data up online, for example, you have to be certain that the proper agents are loaded because some information can be skipped due to the fact that the backup software is not able to access it properly." He says tapes also have a usability life, so users should remember the tape backup cardinal rule: Always rotate your tapes. General maintenance is key, as well. For example, tape equipment should be cleaned on a weekly basis. Owens says the tape equipment may seem defective when it is simply dirty. When cleaning tape heads, use a foam or sponge-tip swab and isopropyl alcohol. To clean tape sensors, spray out the drive with compressed air. Because every drive is different, you should always refer to your specific tape drive manufacturer's user manual.

Rotate, Test, Verify & Rotate Again

Other important ways to avoid common pitfalls include testing restore capabilities regularly, constantly verifying the integrity of data, and always having more than one copy of critical data. Owens says monthly testing of tapes and restore procedures (after hours) can make all the difference. He says, "You can, for instance, try restoring some of the data to a different server or to a different partition or folder on the same server where the original data is stored." Backups should also be stored in a safe place that has adequate climate controls, such as a secure data room that is environmentally controlled and has limited access. After all, what good is a successful backup if someone steals it or it gets damaged? The reality is, in dusty places without proper cooling, disk drives can overheat, causing data degradation. Owens says the importance of doing all of these things is in direct proportion to how important your data is.

Because nearly 50% of tape-based backups fail to restore properly, any business runs the risk of affecting its "bottom line" if backups are overlooked. Some analysts say when disasters do strike, 93% of businesses that lose their data go out of business within two years. By now you should be hearing bells and seeing red. But if your backup ducks are all lined up properly and you take Owens' advice, your level of protection will be dictated by your superb disaster recovery plan.

by Chris A. MacKinnon, Tech and Trends, July 30, 2004

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