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Cloud-Based Storage Improves Disaster Recovery at Situs

When Bill McCown joined The Situs Companies six years ago, the Houston-based real estate consulting firm was anticipating growth, and the company figured its tape-based backup systems would need to be upgraded. Then came September 2008, when Hurricane Ike slammed into Houston. "Our data center stayed up but our office didn't have power for a week," recalls McCown, who is the director of IT for the firm. While employees in other locations had access to the data center, the central office was offline and out of the communications loop.

Once McCown's team got past the initial disruption caused by the storm, the company took a hard look at its backup practices. "We realized that if the data center had actually gone offline, we had everything backed up to tape," McCown says. "The data was stored and secure but there was no way to recall our backup tapes, and there would be no way for us to get at any of that information, or get it out to another location if the power was down."

It was time to look in earnest at solutions that would enable data to be stored off-site.

In 2010, after evaluating a number of vendors, Situs made the move to cloud-based storage with EVault backup technology and services from i365, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based provider of storage systems for SMBs and a subsidiary of Seagate Technology. The relationship with Seagate "made i365 an easy sell to my CEO," says McCown, who noted he was looking for a vendor with solid technology and staying power.

It also was a plus that i365 offered both cloud-based and on-premise storage systems. While McCown would have liked to turn to the cloud for all of Situs' storage needs, the reality of the company's business makes an all-cloud strategy impractical. While not regulated itself, Situs' clients--banks, financial institutions, investment houses, real estate investment trusts, mutual funds and the like--are subject to regulations.

"There were a lot of compliance issues around putting all of our storage in the cloud," McCown explains. "As soon as we introduced a third party with access to some of our data, we had to worry about how they were doing their security, and whether it would become a situation where it was going to keep us from being able to do business efficiently."

As a result, Situs opted to keep the majority of its production data in-house and utilize an offsite, cloud-based data system strictly for backup and recovery purposes for servers that handle email and Citrix applications, among others.

Situs' hybrid approach to storage includes a disk-based EVault appliance on a SAN in the data center that runs backups, replacing the dozen or so tapes the company previously used. Situs relies on EVault services in the cloud for replication and disaster recovery. Non-production data is sent from the appliance to the cloud via a VPN. To mitigate security concerns, Situs uses internal encryption on all of its data during backup, and that data is sent encrypted and remains encrypted offsite.

"We are able to keep data locked down and encrypted and less readily accessible," McCown says. "This satisfies our clients because it does not expose them to some of the regulatory and security issues." In the event of a disaster, Situs has the ability to bring the data online by utilizing the EVault Remote Disaster Recovery system.

The Many Benefits of Cloud Storage

One of the benefits Situs has realized is a significant reduction in the time it takes to run a full backup; the backup window is down from 2.5 days to about 7 hours. The volume of data isn't huge--typically about 8 TB--but a lot of it is distributed among the company's 10 offices and had to be pulled over the network.

A number of factors contribute to the time savings, such as improved speed of the disk-based system and the ability to run all system backups simultaneously (tape backups were constrained by the number of drives available). The most significant factor, McCown says, is the way the system works; a full backup only physically backs up files that have changed, compressing and combining them with the unchanged files. In addition, Situs uses WAN optimization to reduce the amount of data traveling over the network.

"We can actually get a full backup taken in a night now where it used to take a weekend," McCown says. For the most part, Situs has eliminated tape (except for software images), and recovery times have improved significantly. Situs can now recover most data within minutes, when previously it may have taken one or two days to get a tape back for recovery or cost $500 to get an emergency tape pulled from offsite.

With backup in the cloud, the IT group can focus on day-to-day internal operations without having to worry about backup and recovery. The employee who spent the bulk of his time on routine backup duties such as verifying backups, handling tapes and running jobs, is now doing higher-level network engineering work. Among the company's 13 IT staffers, backup-related tasks only require about 20 minutes of their attention daily.

While initial staff fears about the cloud eliminating jobs have been allayed, McCown does offer an HR-related caveat. "We still have to understand the technology and know how to use it effectively," he says. While the IT staff was trained, McCown says he would have done a better job setting expectations so internal staff wouldn't think they no longer have to bother with storage duties at all.

"Backup is out in the cloud, but my team still has to spend time every day with the system and know how to do recovery via a console," he says.

One of the big advantages to cloud-based storage is that, unlike in-house storage, Situs can get additional space with a single phone call. At the time Situs was evaluating the hybrid storage solution, McCown says the company was figuring on about 150 percent data growth over three years. Situs has experienced about a 250 percent growth in data, and has added nearly 50 percent more employees since January.

"We have experienced a high amount of growth which we couldn't have foreseen, so we watch our internal storage system carefully," McCown says. As a result, Situs has had to adjust how much data is held locally on the appliance. To free up local resources, the company no longer keeps five years' worth of yearly backups locally as planned, but stores it in the cloud instead.

As for costs, Situs is saving $1,200 per month for tape and maintenance of tape libraries, and another $1,000 per month by eliminating tape storage and pickup fees. In addition, Situs has avoided hiring a full-time person to handle backups--something that would have been necessary with the tape system. The best advantage, says McCown, is that Situs was able to convert all its capital outlays for backup into a single recurring operational expense.

"Overall, this single monthly cost was very similar to what we had been paying tape-wise," McCown explains. "But we got the additional benefits of not having to acquire a secondary data center for our DR [disaster recovery] purposes and have someone manage that for us."

Situs, in short, is getting much more value for a similar cost.

For the most part, the company's move to the cloud has been seamless. While McCown hopes never to witness another disaster like Hurricane Ike, he is confident that if it does happen, Situs and its IT operations can weather the storm.

Megan Santosus is a writer and editor in Natick, Mass.


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