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Jan 4, 2021

Backups vs. Disaster Recovery: The Ultimate Guide

INAP

Backups or disaster recovery (DR)?

If you’re planning a data defense strategy for your company, it’s important to understand which strategy is best for your business needs—backup or disaster recovery.

The Difference Between Backup and Disaster Recovery

Backup refers to the process of saving data by copying it to a safe place. Data can then be recovered in the event of infrastructure or service issues. Backups can take many forms, including duplicating data on the cloud or a secondary server in the same production data center, or saving data to a remote data center, etc.

Disaster recovery involves a set of policies, tools and procedures to enable the recovery or continuation of vital technology infrastructure and systems following a natural or human-induced disaster. Disaster recovery focuses on IT supporting critical business functions as part of business continuity, which involves keeping all essential aspects of a business functioning despite significant disruptive events.

While both solutions can help protect your data and critical information against unplanned disruptions and outages, sometimes backups alone aren’t enough.

Here is a breakdown of what you can expect from backups and disaster recovery solutions, so you can ensure your business keeps running even if your primary servers go down.

Basic Backup Solutions

Remember back in college or high school when you had to write a big term paper or thesis and you would save your work to a jump drive or CD (yes, those used to be a thing) in case your computer crashed and you lost everything?

You were running a basic backup of your most critical files.

How Backups Work

Backups work by providing quick and easy access to your data in case of smaller disruptions like outages, lost equipment, accidental deletion or hard drive crashes. Backup solutions copy your existing information to a second storage environment. You could choose to simply back up a few important files or your entire database.

The Cons of Backup Solutions

There are a few drawbacks to relying on backup solutions as your failsafe. Consider the college term paper example: If you have a sudden inspiration and write three more pages just to have your computer crash before saving your work to your backup source, you’ll have to start from the last moment you backed up. It’s the same with your business files—your data will only be updated to your previous backup.

Since many companies use backup for smaller-scale outages, in many instances they will keep their backups on-site or close to their primary facility. If these companies are hit by widespread natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes, there’s a chance those backups could go offline as well.

Cloud Backup Solutions

As a response, cloud-based backup options are becoming more popular because data center providers are able to offer near real-time data replication at off-site locations. In some cases, these cloud backup solutions are more cost-effective and reliable for business needs.

Disaster Recovery Solutions

For more large-scale outages, disaster recovery is your best option.

Disaster recovery solutions cover more than just the major natural disasters that might immediately come to mind. In fact, only about 10 percent of unplanned outages are caused by weather. That’s behind system failure, cyber incidents and human error.

Disaster recovery solutions replicate your environment, so if there is a major disruption, an automatic failover transfers the management and operation of your infrastructure to a secondary machine and site to keep your applications and business online. Your servers will then run off your disaster recovery site until your primary facility is back online and capable of resuming system functionality.

It’s important to note that disaster recovery options come in all shapes and sizes. Synchronous solutions replicate your data in near real-time. That makes this option one of the most comprehensive, but also generally more expensive. On the other hand, asynchronous solutions have more delayed duplication, which means some of your most recent data may not be recovered.

Important Backup and Disaster Recovery Terms

Understanding a few essential terms can help develop your strategic decisions and enable you to better evaluate backup and disaster recovery solutions.

  • Recovery time objective (RTO) is the amount of time it takes to recover normal business operations after an outage. As you look to set your RTO, you’ll need to consider how much time you’re willing to lose—and the impact that time will have on your bottom line. The RTO might vary greatly from one type of business to another. For example, if a public library loses its catalog system, it can likely continue to function manually for a few days while the systems are restored. But if a major online retailer loses its inventory system, even 10 minutes of downtime—and the associated loss in revenue—would be unacceptable.
  • Recovery point objective (RPO) refers to the amount of data you can afford to lose in a disaster. You might need to copy data to a remote data center continuously so that an outage will not result in any data loss. Or you might decide that losing five minutes or one hour of data would be acceptable.
  • Failover is the disaster recovery process of automatically offloading tasks to backup systems in a way that is seamless to users. You might fail over from your primary data center to a secondary site, with redundant systems that are ready to take over immediately.
  • Failback is the disaster recovery process of switching back to the original systems. Once the disaster has passed and your primary data center is back up and running, you should be able to fail back seamlessly as well.
  • Restore is the process of transferring backup data to your primary system or data center. The restore process is generally considered part of backup rather than disaster recovery.

Backups vs. Disaster Recovery: How to Choose the Best Solution for Your Business

In some cases, just the backup is enough to protect certain parts of your business from interruptions. For example, a complete disaster recovery plan for computers or mobile devices intended for employees generally does not require a full disaster recovery solution. If an employee’s device is lost or broken, your company is unlikely to be critically affected. You can replace the device and restore your data from a backup.

On the other hand, disaster recovery is crucial to protecting services and infrastructure that your company depends on to operate on a day-to-day basis. For example, suppose your employees’ PCs run as “thin clients” dependent on a central server to work. In that case, an interruption on that server can critically affect the business’ entire operation as it will prevent all employees from being able to use their workstations. Such an event is much more severe than an individual workstation break.

In most cases, the best solutions involve both backups and disaster recovery.

A solid backup plan that keeps your data accessible is helpful for minor disruptions, but without a larger, more comprehensive strategy, can cause all sorts of problems for your company. For instance, if your business collects, stores or transmits information that requires strict PCI DSS or HIPAA compliance, you will want to make sure those files are properly backed up and accessible in the event of a disaster—which might not be possible with basic backup solutions.

Consider incorporating your basic backup under the umbrella of a larger disaster recovery strategy to ensure you’re fully protected. Third-party providers will offer cloud-based disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) solutions that are often more cost-effective and appropriate for your business needs.

Do your homework and determine the best strategy for your company. Because it’s not a question of if, but when you’ll need to recover from an unplanned outage.

Original version published May 30, 2018

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Jul 12, 2018

Business Continuity Options for Colocation

INAP

Backup and Disaster Recovery services are probably unique among IT services, in that you have them in the hopes of never needing them. But in an age of sophisticated hackers, increasingly destructive natural disasters and the ever-present risk of human error, the question is not one of if but when you will need business continuity services.

We’ve written about taking a multiplatform infrastructure approach to colocation and cloud and how it’s often the best fit when designing your IT infrastructure from an application-first perspective. But even if you decide to take an all-colo approach to your production deployment, using cloud-based Business Continuity services is still an option you should consider for protecting your critical workloads and data, especially when you can simply add them on to your existing services without having to go to another service provider.

Where to start?

As with any Business Continuity project, you need to first determine your recovery goals. Ask: Do my applications need a zero-downtime solution, or can we tolerate several hours of downtime? Establishing a baseline Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) for critical business systems will create a solid framework that will guide your decisions.

Once recovery goals are established, you then need to look at your production workloads. Are you running your critical systems on physical hardware or virtualized infrastructure? Does your recovery solution support physical, virtual or multiplatform environments? Here, a trusted service provider can also come in handy to make sure you can have a business continuity solution that’s flexible enough for your infrastructure and your needs.

Physical

Protecting workloads on physical infrastructure can be challenging, since backup and recovery solutions can only focus on protection at the operating system level, which is bound to the specific underlying hardware. This means that copying the OS to different hardware can cause problems. Should a custom backup and disaster recovery solution be needed, look for a service provider that has additional capabilities to build out application-specific recovery options. This might take the form of colocating identical storage arrays for array-based replication by using the data replication feature built into many mainstream storage appliances. Or it might be building out custom bare metal infrastructure for Active-Active replication of application data.

Virtual

The benefits of virtualization are obvious for your applications: Instead of having just one application per server, you can run several guest operating systems and a handful of applications with the same physical hardware. In this way, virtualization offers unprecedented ability to scale and distribute workloads across your infrastructure.

These benefits extend to backups and disaster recovery as well because virtualization allows critical VM data to be restored or replicated to another location completely independently of the underlying hardware. In addition to VM backups powered by companies like Veeam, R1Soft and Commvault, there are other disaster recovery options that your provider may offer as a service. INAP offers Standby DRaaS and Dedicated DRaaS, which protect your critical VM data either in a pay-as-you-go standby state or with dedicated cloud resources for organizations with the strictest business continuity needs.

Multiplatform Infrastructure

In an ideal world, all workloads would fit in one bucket or the other. But for most, a multiplatform approach will be the most optimal to achieving the operational and financial goals of any business continuity implementation. For example, a company might have virtualized most of their critical infrastructure but still have a legacy inventory system that needs to stay on physical servers because of technology limitations. A service provider like INAP has the ability to provide the virtual and physical infrastructure, as well as management services needed—all packaged into a multiplatform Disaster Recovery environment. This is why it’s important to work with a service provider that has a multitude of options and expertise in any and all infrastructure solutions, whether colocation, bare metal or private cloud deployments.

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May 7, 2018

3 Easy Steps to Create a Comprehensive Backup Strategy

INAP

It’s a tale as old as time.

Company gets data. Company doesn’t back up data. Disaster strikes. Company loses data.

But before we get all Shakespearean tragedy on you, there’s a simple way to give this story a happy ending.

A comprehensive backup strategy.

Building an Off-Site and On-Premise Backup Strategy

By now you’ve probably heard about how important it is to have a backup solution to protect your infrastructure and critical files from natural disasters, human error and cyber incidents.

Traditionally, companies would center their backup strategies around on-site storage systems. But recently, off-site cloud solutions have been giving organizations more flexibility to back up their files while providing the security and business continuity strategies necessary to keep their infrastructures running.

Backing up your data in off-site cloud solutions ensures you can still access your critical information if your primary site goes down (similar to disaster recovery as a service) – something that might not be possible with on-site backup options.

So, how do you best create a backup strategy that utilizes on-premise and off-site resources? Here are three best practices to get you started.

1. Calculate the Amount of Data You’ll Need to Back Up

In most cases, you’ll want a solution that provides a complete backup of your data. This strategy allows you to still access your information should there be a disruption at your main site.

But before you begin building anything, you need to calculate exactly how much data you’ll need to back up. Basically, the whole “measure twice, cut once” philosophy. You don’t want to create a strategy and then discover it’s insufficient to meet your backup needs.

2. Determine Which Backup Files Go on Which Platform

It’s important to note you don’t need to put all of your backup files in one location. In fact, it’s encouraged that you use multiple locations. If your primary site is hit by a natural disaster or goes offline due to human error, chances are your on-premise backup will be disrupted as well.

If you keep non-mission critical data in an on-premise backup, you can save space for your most important files in the cloud. You just need to determine which resources you absolutely need to be able to access. Storage can be expensive, so it’s important to map out which data needs to be backed up on each platform.

3. Analyze Your Backup Timeframe

It doesn’t matter if you are running your backup on-premise or in the cloud, it’s important to determine how long it will take to complete your backup process.

Companies will generally run their backups overnight or on weekends, so they don’t interfere with daily business operations. This typically gives organizations a large enough backup window to accomplish everything they need. However, you never want to assume. While not an exact science, you can estimate how long you’ll need to back up your files by calculating the amount of total storage you’ll need backed up and dividing it by the storage read/write speed.

For instance, assume you have a data set that is 800GB and your storage read/write speed is 150MBps:

800GB / 150MBps = 1.5 hours of backup time for that specific data set.

Add up all of your time to give you an estimate of how long you’ll need so you can effectively plan your backup strategy.

Of course, each organization has unique data and storage requirements. Determine exactly what type of backup strategy would be best for your company and how off-site cloud options can help. In addition to securely housing your data in a location that’s separate from your main site so it’s accessible if your facility goes offline, off-site cloud backups are managed by third-party providers and can help free up your IT team to focus on more critical needs.

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Mar 28, 2018

It’s Time to Evaluate Your Company’s Backup Strategy

INAP

There are a few things you can always depend on at the end of March.

The weather gets a little warmer, a Cinderella team will bust your college basketball bracket (we see you, UMBC and Loyola-Chicago!) and that one guy in your office pulls off an April Fool’s Day prank that isn’t as funny as he thinks.

But one event that happens every year in March is often overlooked. We’re talking about World Backup Day.

What is World Backup Day

Held every year on March 31, World Backup Day was created by a biology student at Youngstown State in 2011 to encourage users to back up their files, like cell phone photos, home videos, documents and emails.

Users are asked to take a pledge, declaring:

“I solemnly swear to backup my important documents and precious memories on March 31.”

Moving these personal files to the cloud or an external hard drive gives you insurance in case your phone is stolen or your computer gets a virus. Of course, smart IT people like you already know these risks and take precautions against personal data loss, but enough of the general public is unaware of the risks, so World Backup Day became a thing.

Your Corporate Backup Strategy

World Backup Day is also the perfect opportunity to review your company’s backup strategy.

You’ve probably seen the statistics highlighting the consequences of data loss. For instance, 60 percent of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that lose data will shut down within six months. And perhaps more startling, nearly 60 percent of SMBs are not prepared for data loss.

So, what can you do to make sure your business isn’t just another statistic?

A few years ago, INAP published this list of essential tasks you need to consider when evaluating your corporate backup plan.

  • Determine what data is critical to your business
  • Evaluate backup solutions that meet your data’s security requirements
  • Select a backup solution provider
  • Implement your backup solution
  • Regularly test your backups to ensure everything is working as expected

Pay close attention to the third bullet on that list. Sure, you could go it alone and backup your files internally, but that doesn’t protect you from a catastrophic event that completely wipes your servers.

Your best bet is to work with a backup solution provider.

INAP’s Backup Solutions

Fortunately for you and your business, INAP is equipped to help with your backup needs. Our managed backup services give you the capability of replicating your important information in dedicated and shared environments – in both INAP or off-site servers.

If budget is a factor (and we know it always is), cloud backup provides an affordable alternative. Your server will be shared with other users, but you’ll receive the same level of encryption and security as you would a dedicated server, so your files and critical information will remain safe.

Regardless of the type of solution you require, our robust backup offerings will give you the flexibility and performance you desire to protect your important files from data loss.

Contact us today and speak with an INAP specialist about the backup services best suited for your business needs.

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Apr 21, 2016

How to Accurately Size Your Backup Storage (And Save Money)

Paul Painter, Director, Solutions Engineering

My parents made sure the phrase “planning is the key to success” became the mantra of my childhood. And for good reason too. Whether it was a hiking weekend, fishing trip or exotic vacation, planning was essential to the pleasant memories I took from these adventures simply because a lack thereof very well could’ve led to disastrous results.

As it turns out, it’s now a mantra I apply every day toward sizing cloud environments.

When working with clients, a topic we frequently discuss is the current state of their environment and its anticipated growth over a period of time. More often than not, this is a “guesstimate” science due to the complexity of most setups and the lack of statistical data for greenfield deployments.

These facts lead some IT professionals to manage their environments via the “learn and adjust on the fly” approach. While that may work in some scenarios, it’s hardly a reliable method for managing critical business assets. Having a ballpark idea of future state requirements goes a long way.

The same principle applies to backup and disaster recovery strategy. For just a small time investment, proper planning can save you thousands of dollars.

To show you how, let’s walk through a hypothetical, but far from uncommon, example of sizing requirements. Note that this is the same process our solutions engineers use for sizing HorizonIQ Cloud Backup powered by Veeam Cloud Connect, but it’s still applicable for all types of backup jobs.

Covered in six steps below, the goal of this exercise is to help you understand two things: 1) the process for making sure your backup jobs will work given specific retention requirements, recovery targets and backup windows; and 2) the method for getting just enough space for your current needs while simultaneously creating a roadmap with expansion milestones.

(If you want to skip all the details and access a very helpful sizing calculator, jump down to step four!)

Step One — Assess the Job Setup and Key Requirements

Let’s assume we have five critical workloads that need to be backed up. They each require high availability and a long-term retention policy:

  • VM1 – Active Directory
  • VM2 – SQL server
  • VM3 – App server
  • VM4-5 – Web frontend

First off, we need to make note of our RPO/RTO and data retention policy. We can’t arrive at an accurate sizing estimate without them.

In this case, all VMs require the same RPO/RTO, as they belong to the same application group:

  • RPO – 6 hours
  • RTO – 24 hours

The retention policy is as follows:

  • Last 7 days of backups
  • Monthly backup job copies

Next, we need to gather some key info regarding the VMs, data and backup windows.
Operating System — All Guest OS’s are Microsoft Windows 2012 R2
Change Rate — All data on the VMs, except Active Directory Domain controller, have a change rate of 5%
Source Data Size — The total size of our VMs is 800GB:

  • VM1 – 100GB
  • VM2 – 250GB
  • VM3-5 – 150GB

Backup Windows — The idle/non-busy time periods deemed suitable for backups are established as such: Central Time Zone: 7-9 a.m., 1-2 p.m., 5-6 p.m., and 1-2 a.m.
Read/Write — The storage can handle up to 300MB/s reads and 300MB/s writes at a given time
Uplinks — The environment is configured to use 2 x 1Gbps uplinks to Backup server, no LACP — 1Gbps maximum at a time

Step Two — Make Sure Backup Windows Align with RPO/RTO

Now we have to review the above information to ensure there aren’t any potential conflicts with our requirements.

In this scenario, the backup windows conflict with the 6-hour RPO. The time between 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. is spaced by eight hours, which causes the violation. On the other hand, 1-5 p.m. is spaced by four hours and is not considered a violation, since the RPO is met (the oldest restore point is no older than 6 hours).

To mitigate the risk of a RPO policy violation, we decide to re-arrange the non-busy periods and adjust application-level tasks to allow for a backup schedule within the following windows: 7-9 a.m., 1-2 p.m., 7-9 p.m., and 1-2 a.m. This may require a meeting or two to sort out, but that’s why we’re planning ahead!

To ensure the 24-hour RTO is achievable, simply:

    1. Take the total size of the initial, Day 1 data set: 800GB1
    2. Determine how long the backup will take based on the storage read/write speed: 300MB/s read and 300MB/s write
    –Because our storage also handles production VMs, let’s estimate that only 50% of the top capabilities will be available for backup/restore purposes (150MB/s).
    3. Initial Backup time: 800GB / 150MBps = 1.5 hours

Plenty of time to spare!

Step Three — Make Sure the Network Can Handle the Backup Jobs

We also want to make sure our network equipment can tolerate the extra load.

Out of two available 1Gbps uplinks, only half the overall capacity (1Gbps) can be allotted for backup purposes. Meaning, the initial backup will take an estimated two hours. We’ll use this value for all further calculations on timing over 1.5 hours at the storage level.

One last thing before getting to the sizing: Before we can calculate the total storage requirements, we have to make sure our 1-hour windows, occurring four times daily, are sufficient for copying incremental backups, based on the rate of change.

–Every incremental backup is expected to contain up to 5% changed data, which means we need to copy 40GB every six hours. Based on our 150MBps benchmark, this will take approximately 15-20 min.

All good!

Step Four — Calculate Total Backup Storage Requirements

How much space do we need to store the backup data? As with everything in IT, that depends on the type of data and the configuration chosen for the backups.

In our scenario, two types of jobs will run: the Backup Job (our last seven days of backups) and the Backup Job Copy (our monthly backup copies).

To make our calculations, we’ll use this handy calculator developed by one of Veeam’s talented team members:

http://rps.dewin.me/

Calculating Storage for the Backup Job

The default backup job type in Veeam v9 is Forever Forward Incremental, in which no Synthetic Full backups are created. This type of job allows for huge space savings, allowing us to avoid the need for longer backup windows and restore times.

Using the info from our assessment, fill out the calculator fields as follows:

Restore point simulator

This input will deliver the following retention interval schedule, with a total storage size of 1,360GB. This includes of 420GB workspace.

1360GB retention interval schedule

The dates and times on the right represent the 6-hour intervals over the 7-day retention span. While knowing those dates and times aren’t as critical for short-term backup retention policy, the impact it has over the long term is huge, as we’ll see in our provisioning plan.

Calculating Storage for the Backup Copy Job

For the monthly Backup Copy Jobs, use these inputs.

RPS3

That will produce the following:

5620GB retention interval schedule

We now know the total space needed to store all of the data given the requirements: 5,620GB + 1,360GB = ~7TB.

Step Five — Map Your Provisioning Plan

Since the total space can be estimated before we even begin the initial job, why not provision the 7TB and call it a day? Simple: Because that would cost us some serious money.

We know that on Day 1 our Backup Copy Job will not require all the estimated space. Therefore, we can provision a smaller amount of storage, sufficient for the needs of the first four months and then add the space gradually.

For example, if we choose not to provision based on the milestones accounted for above we’d have to request all 7TB of space starting Day 1, costing us about $7,200/year.

Compare that to provisioning the space gradually:
Day 1 – provision space required for the first 3 months – 4 x 400GB = 1600 GB, $160/mo, $480/period
Day 90 – provision space required for 6 months – 7 x 400GB = 2800 GB, $280/mo, $840/period
Day 180 – provision space required for 9 months – 10 * 400GB = 4TB, $400/mo, $1200/period
Day 240 – provision all space – $1800/period

The grand total for the year in this case is $4,320 – nearly $3,000 less than “no planning ahead” plan.

Step Six — Plan How to Spend Your Savings!

Storage planning is not new conceptually, but you’d be surprised how often it’s skipped during development and deployment stages. Don’t make that mistake.

Planning not only allows you to validate your decisions at an early stage of the project and also gives company management confidence that your management is efficient and sound. The cherry on top – all extra savings that can be applied once you have a definitive set of milestones and know exactly when to provision and how much to add/remove. In our example, it may have saved us $3000/year, but for many organizations, savings can balloon to 10X that size.

So there we have it. Happy planning!

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Mar 30, 2016

World Backup Day

INAP

March 31st is World Backup Day, a “day for people to learn about the increasing role of data in our lives and the importance of regular backups.” Visitors to the site are asked to pledge, “I solemnly swear to backup my important documents and precious memories on March 31st.” While it is important to backup your personal family photos, home videos and documents, it is absolutely critical to back up your company’s servers that host your website and databases.

According to EMC’s Global Data Protection Index, data loss costs companies more than $1.7 trillion per year worldwide. Additionally, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 94% of companies that suffer a catastrophic data loss will go out of business within two years. Server backup can save your company from lost revenue, lost sales, lost development and lost, well, everything.

With World Backup Day approaching, now is a great time to evaluate your organization’s backup strategy. The checklist below will get you started:

  • Determine what data is critical to your business
  • Evaluate backup solutions that meet your data’s security requirements
  • Select a backup solution and provider
    We are offering 20% off shared backup for a limited time.
  • Implement the backup solution
  • Regularly test your backups to ensure everything is working as expected

With data increasingly becoming an organization’s most valuable commodity, don’t wait for DDoS attacks, bots, scripts, disk crashes and any number of unforeseeable data-loss events to prompt you to backup your servers. Get started today using the checklist above.

Recommended Reading

Bare metal restore vs. backup
Server backup: Is your data at risk?
Backup strategy: What should I back up?

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Jun 29, 2015

Server backup: Is your data at risk?

Paul Painter, Director, Solutions Engineering

Most people view backups like insurance policies. Nobody likes spending money on something intangible that only benefits you in certain situations. But backups are incredibly useful to have when a disk crash occurs, and they are a requirement for those of us responsible for data recovery. We all know DDoS attacks, bots, scripts, disk crashes and any number of unforeseeable data-loss events makes it necessary to have a data backup solution.

Backup history

The concept of backup has always existed. Even before today’s technology, people made copies of documents by hand and usually stored them in different locations. This took time and energy and was prone to errors.

The development of new backup solutions has evolved with the advancement of storage and computing. Technology with punch cards and magnetic tapes was introduced, but these devices were not reliable enough.

Today, we are usually backing up on hard disks and using software like R1Soft Server Backup Manager to copy, compress and retrieve our data when necessary. This approach offers a faster, more reliable and economical backup solution compared with tape-based backup.

HorizonIQ backup solutions

HorizonIQ provides simple ways to protect against data loss without requiring the user to do any scripting. We use existing infrastructure technologies to provide incremental data backup services for on-premise as well as off-premise servers.

Dedicated backup servers
For those who have large data needs for backups (more than 1 TB), we can turn a dedicated server into a dedicated backup server. By doing so, you are able to protect several servers at once, whether they are hosted at HorizonIQ or not.

Shared backups
For smaller backup needs (up to 1 TB) and HorizonIQ hosted servers, shared backup represents an affordable backup solution in a shared environment to protect critical data.

Benefits of block-level backups

Our server backup solution includes R1Soft, which leverages block-level backups. These operate below the filesystem and examine blocks of data on the disk, regardless of the files with which those blocks are associated. When the data in a particular block changes, only that block is included in the incremental or differential backup rather than the whole file.

Although implementing a block-level backup system requires a deeper understanding of lower-level computer architecture, performing server backups in this manner offers several benefits:

  • Only changed blocks are included in incremental and differential backups. The backup process is faster, reduces wear on the disk drive and takes up less network bandwidth.
  • Unlike file-level backup systems, a block-level backup system can do a bare-metal disk restore. A bare-metal disk restore provides a bit-for-bit copy of the original, with all data in the same physical location on the restored disk as it was on the original. A file-level restoration enables the operating system to determine where to place data, which may or may not be optimal.
  • Because a block-based backup system takes a snapshot of the backed-up disk, the impact on the disk is reduced. Generally, creating a snapshot takes less than a second, which isn’t long enough to cause performance problems that could affect end users. The reduced impact on servers allows system administrators to perform backups more frequently, which shrinks the backup window and reduces the chance of data loss.
    Some block-level backup software designs track which blocks belong to each
file in the file system. This can be challenging, as the blocks associated with a file are not necessarily located in a contiguous chunk on the disk and may even be scattered in different locations. The advantage of this method can be seen when restoring an individual file or collection of files. Consequently, the software performs less initial setup of the backup data before collecting and restoring the files.
  • Another advantage of some block-level backup systems is the ability to work across various operating systems. For example, a Windows server can be backed up onto a Linux-based backup server and vice versa.

Data is increasingly becoming an organization’s most valuable commodity. According to EMC’s Global Data Protection Index, data loss now costs companies more than $1.7 trillion per year worldwide. We strongly recommend choosing the right backup strategy that will ensure you stay in business.

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Apr 10, 2013

5 best practices for successful system administration

Ansley Kilgore

system administration best practicesFor successful system administration, you need more than just the required technical skills. Below is a list of five slightly non-technical abilities that should be developed in order to become the best system admin ever.

1. Monitor, measure, and record.
Yes, you know what the swap usage is today because there’s a problem with the disks thrashing and it’s causing the server to go slow. But your users are complaining to management that it’s an ongoing issue and now management is asking you for data. What, you haven’t been documenting this, so it’s now your word against Sales and Marketing? Guess who wins that argument by default? You’re responsible for the system, so they will make this your problem. So get/build/buy a system to monitor, measure, and record that data so you can build pretty power-point slides for finance next time you need to ask for hardware upgrades, or to prove that the issues are caused by bad software rather than your perfectly functioning servers. Even if you are just running a single server for an employer, a client, or even yourself, it’s good data to have for some unforeseen reason someday.

A shortlist of things to start monitoring/recording/charting/graphing:

  • Load average
  • Memory usage
  • Disk I/O (transactions per second)
  • Network throughput (in Mbits/sec)
  • Network throughput per virtual host/site
  • Transfer (in GB/month)
  • Transfer per virtual host
  • Disk storage (monthly in GB) and also daily rolling average if files are uploaded and deleted regularly)
  • Average response time of test URI under your control (in milliseconds)
  • Average response time of a PHP (or Ruby/Python/etc.) page under your control that does not change. Testing real web pages gives you a consistent baseline that you can use to narrow the problem to the server, the OS, or the web code itself.
  • SSH logins per day/month by user and IP address
  • Anything you feel is necessary, or will get questions on later

Once you have consistent information, you’ll start seeing patterns and can look for things out of the ordinary. It’s also good for correlating data to behaviors when you’re troubleshooting issues and aren’t sure where to start.

2. Develop project management habits.
Even for small, one-person projects. Write up a small scope of work, write requirements, get sign-off from stakeholders on their expectations, plan a schedule, and record your activities. Write up a postmortem document at the end. Even if it’s just for yourself. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it certainly doesn’t have to be formal PMBoK activities. It may seem bureaucratic managing all that paper and it may seem like you’re spending more time on paperwork than sysadminning, but it helps keep you organized when your boss hands you random high-priority assignment that strays you from your task. It’s also handy when you build a new system and users complain that it doesn’t do what they wanted it to do. See? You got their sign-off on the requirements document right there…

Even if it’s just for yourself, one day you’ll ask yourself, “now why on earth did I install Acme::Phlegethoth on this server? Oh yeah, it was for that weird commune who needs it for their application code…”

3. Develop a system for day-to-day work.
Again, this may seem bureaucratic, but if you spend your days just “doing stuff” without a To-Do list, you may find it difficult to explain to your boss next week exactly what you’ve been doing with your time. I’ve become a fan of Kanban boards lately because it’s a visual device that your boss (or anyone who assigns you work) can interact with. Let’s say I’ve got three items I plan to work on today that should fill up my 8 hours. “Oh, you need me work on this other item instead? Yes sir! Here is what I planned to work on today. Which one should I deprioritize in favor of this one? Oh, so it’s more important than this one, but not as important as these two? That’s fine, I can requeue that lower priority one and get to it later.” This helps set expectations. I know of one graphic designer who used it to coordinate her work between three competing project managers. If one asked her to prioritize something, she’d show him her board and send him to the other project managers to negotiate the conflict and coordinate their deadlines. Even if no one else looks at your board but you, it helps to keep you organized.

4. Develop communications skills (sales, presentation, etc).
It took me a while to really understand why this is important. Yes, today you just want to sit in a server room, keep things running, and look at Lolcats. But tomorrow, you may have other people assisting (or working for) you. You need to be able to communicate expectations. You need to propose and advocate your ideas (great ideas never stand on their own merit unless and until they are properly communicated), to your peers or to management. Maybe you need to convince someone that they need to upgrade the web server. Maybe you need to explain your new server proposal that will fix all their problems. Maybe you need to convince the developer that his code is really causing those memory leaks, but you need to present it in a non-accusatory manner. I’m personally a big fan of Toastmasters for this, as it’s the cheapest and most effective way to improve your ability to communicate.

5. Start preparing for “what if” scenarios.
Your servers will crash. Your servers will be hax0r3d. Your backups will be corrupted. So start figuring out how to react when that happens. One of the unhappiest days of my life was when my personal server was r00t3d. I did all the right things, but the attackers were more dedicated to getting in than I was in keeping them out. How do you remove a rootkit after it’s discovered? I didn’t know then, because I never asked the question (remember? I thought I did all the right things to prevent it in the first place). You can bet I certainly know now! What happens when the server drops off the network because of a power outage, and now it’s saying “kernel not found”? What happens when your client or internal user asks for you to restore a backup, and the backup is corrupted? You may not get all the answers to these until you actually experience them first-hand, but it’s better to start asking the questions now and not when you have angry people yelling at you. Also, once you start asking the questions, you can start setting up “self-training” scenarios to test it. Set up a test box and remove the kernel. See if you can get it back to operational. Try and get someone to install a rootkit on it, or at least do a bunch of stuff that you have to troubleshoot and fix. By asking these questions now, you’ll be in a much better position to deal with them later.

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Feb 19, 2013

Backups and backup strategies

Ansley Kilgore

It’s important to have a backup strategy to ensure you’re backing up the data you need, so that in the event of a recovery – whether from a server crash or other disaster – you can restore the data as quickly as possible.

We’ve identified four things you may want to consider when deciding what does and doesn’t need to be backed up.

1. Operating system – At Internap, we use operating system images pre-built and ready to go, to redeploy to a server at the drop of a hat. Using our portal and API, you can redeploy a server on demand in as little as seven minutes by deploying standardized operating system image. You don’t need to back up your operating system, because we’ve got that covered.
2. Operating system configuration files – You may want to back these up, as well as the applications you installed on your operating system, such as the web server or database service. A better way might be to use a configuration management system to deploy those applications, or deploy those configuration changes after you’ve installed the server. At Internap, we use a system called Chef, which is very common in the industry, and allows you to always ensure your server is configured the same every time, whether you’re restoring from a server crash or deploying new servers because you need additional capacity. So it’s not necessary to back up your operating system configuration in your applications.
3. Customer application code – This might be the actual content of your website, your Drupal application, or whatever is powering your site. If you use a deployment workflow, backing up your application may not be necessary, because you already keep a master copy in source control if you’re using a deployment workflow like this. For example, your developers, who are working independently, are pushing code in to a source control management system. You’re pushing out to test environments regularly and tracking changes. Later, when pushing to a staging environment, you’re testing preferably with live data and as close to your production environment as possible. Once you’re satisfied that everything works exactly as expected, you then push from that master copy into production. Where the dynamic content comes in, is when users are uploading into your production system. This could be as website visitors who are uploading files or posting comments to forums, or a web master or site administrator who is developing content within a content management system after you’ve deployed the application.
4. App & user data – Finally, you have the user data that comes with your application. This is the content generated after you’ve deployed it. This might be the files that users or site visitors upload, or content that your site administrator or webmaster has written within a content management system content generated after you’ve deployed it.

Once you’ve figured out exactly what needs to be backed up, you can choose the best method to protect your data. Whether you’re using simple scripts utilities or continuous data protection software, you can check against these four elements to see what you need to back up, and how and when, so that when it’s time to recover from a disaster or server crash, you can do it as quickly as possible.

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Ansley Kilgore

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