Data Resurrection

FRAMINGHAM (03/06/2000) - Feb. 23, 1993. Brokerage workers at the bombed-out World Trade Center in New York carried wastebaskets stuffed with order tickets down 90 flights of smoke-filled stairs. Only the previous day's transactions had been entered and backed up in the company's computer systems, so without those tickets, a day's business would have joined the terrorists' casualty list.

That's how precious up-to-the-minute data can be in a fast-moving operation, says Jim Manias, a vice president at Advanced Systems Concepts Inc. in Hoboken, N.J.

In a time when customer call records are worth their weight in gold, data recovery is no longer a matter of following a regular backup regimen and occasionally grabbing an off-the-shelf utility to recover files from a trashed hard drive. Today's data managers emphasize redesigning storage systems to make data restoration faster, more reliable and more complete. Along with this comes extra planning, often extra service and additional personnel and infrastructure costs.

These days, data recovery systems are typically grouped under a new functional heading: business continuity. Their purpose: Make a copy of mission-critical data available at the speed needed to avoid business losses and at a cost commensurate with the data's value. Analysts say an effective recovery plan must examine business processes to identify the data that's minimally necessary for staying operational, how long that data can be unavailable without affecting customers and which applications are needed to access the data conveniently.

The demand for fail-safe data recovery appears to be largely a response to the increase in around-the-clock commerce and the sheer amount of data being generated. According to "The Cost of Lost Data," a 1999 study conducted by Pepperdine University professor David Smith for enterprise storage vendor Legato Systems Inc., U.S. companies spent $11.8 billion to recover data during the previous year. In any given year, 6 percent of PCs will suffer serious data loss, usually because of human error, hardware or software failures or viruses, according to the study.

While the risk may be growing, not enough companies have business-continuity plans and procedures in place, according to surveys commissioned by Comdisco Inc., a vendor of such plans. According to its most recent Vulnerability Index released in November, 33 percent of 200 large organizations and government agencies said they lack disaster plans, a decrease of 45% from two years earlier. Comdisco found Internet-dependent companies especially vulnerable to data loss and system downtime.

The best, but most expensive, option is to run a mirror site that contains copies of applications and data, perhaps located at the other end of a leased line miles away from the main site, where a natural or man-made disaster is unlikely to strike simultaneously. Mirror sites are becoming more popular with high-volume e-commerce sites that can't risk even a few minutes of botched transactions and dead Web links. They can take over in seconds when equipment goes down.

Cheaper alternatives include shadowing, or replication, software like Remote Shadow from Advanced Systems Concepts and add-on software sold by enterprise database and storage-area network vendors. Shadowing captures drives' disk-write operations and sends them over remote links to drives at a second site. Another option, server clustering, either disperses the processing load so if one server fails, another can take over, or keeps mirrored servers running in parallel, making switchover nearly instantaneous. Traditional backup and restoration systems require a much longer turnaround, though vendors like EMC Corp. sell hardware and software that boost tape's effective transfer rate, driving recovery times down to a few hours for even large databases.

Generally, the cheapest recovery is achievable with traditional data recovery tools like Symantec Corp.'s Norton Utilities and PowerQuest Corp.'s Lost and Found. They remain important lifesavers in many companies. Still, recovering data with such utilities can be slow, tedious and frequently unsuccessful, so many companies outsource the job to specialists like Ontrack Data International Inc., Data Recovery Labs and DriveSavers Data Recovery.

Some outsource the entire process, from planning to hardware installation to recovery. Three main vendors compete in this market: Comdisco Continuity Services, SunGard Recovery Services Inc. and IBM Business Continuity and Recovery Services. All offer yet another continuity option: mobile recovery trucks that can bring your data, and the hardware and applications needed to access it, to your door.

Outsourcing has recently taken another turn toward network storage centers that keep backups handy at the end of a high-speed data link. These "storage utilities," or storage service providers, were pioneered by Storage Networks Inc., says Rick Miller, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Newton, Mass.

"You're pretty much guaranteed to never lose a single byte of data," he says.

"Because bandwidth is becoming more economical, it's feasible for smaller companies to have a high-speed connection to a data center."

Storage service providers can help cut management and maintenance costs, which account for nearly 50 percent of the average company's storage outlay, by spreading personnel and resources over multiple customers' data, Miller says.

Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, N.H.

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