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Data backup is a lot like an armored car: It provides a sense of security, and it can haul away a heck of a lot of cash.

Max Smetannikov correspondent | HostingTech | msmetannikov@hostingtech.com

A uniformed courier places Lightbridge's backup tapes with their company's data into what looks like an armored truck twice a week. The unmarked, climate-controlled vehicle whisks Lightbridge's (www.lightbridge.com) mission-critical information to a secure location behind razor wire, where it will be stored for at least seven years by the company's disaster recovery partner, Iron Mountain (www.ironmountain.com). Even as the truck rolls out of the driveway, I.T. Operations Director Greg Saltzman fires up the tracking software to watch the tapes move to its destination. The whole setup gives Saltzman a sense of adventure.

These days, many companies are seeking to safeguard data and increase security, says Colleen Chosta, an Iron Mountain senior marketing manager, because they fear the destruction of corporate data by disgruntled employees, terrorism, or natural disaster. What is less clear is whether backing up onto tapes or using bandwidth to create digital backups is the smarter choice.

The new deal
Most players in the hosting sector have found security to be a costly business, and I.T. managers now have a better sense of the value inherent in quality disaster recovery solutions. Consequently, buying a cheap backup solution is increasingly viewed as a poor value over the long term. Economic and psychological changes are fueling a shift in the industry, causing companies to pay more attention to disaster recovery. More competitors are emerging in the space, due to new networking technologies and better return on investment on innovative services.

Regardless of how businesses choose to safeguard their data, the trend to accept a cheap disaster recovery solution in exchange for marginal service is decreasing, as the risks associated with losing data become more evident.

Although the option to spend $100 per month for disaster recovery is still available, most customers end up spending several thousand dollars each month for better guarantees, in case a negative scenario unfolds.

Older options
Customers like Lightbridge are not entirely sold on the concept of backing up online and believe a conservative approach to innovation is a staple of good security policy.

"Tape is cheap," says Saltzman. "And it works better for some applications."

For applications that don't require instant restoration, the less expensive tape option makes more sense. Archived tapes can be used to restore files within 48 hours, and the cost is far less than maintaining live, continual backups.

Website mirroring is another alternative companies have been using. Mirroring involves setting up an exact replica of an existing website in a separate datacenter, whether across town or on the other side of the world. Although this practice can be useful, it does have several weaknesses. It is often used by owners of large websites seeking to offer copies of their content to geographically dispersed audiences, as well as keeping data backed up. The problem, however, is that if the original site crashes, the surviving site needs to be taken down, at least temporarily, to make another backup. Then when it goes live again, the surviving site also runs the risk of crashing because it cannot handle, alone, the traffic originally intended for both sites.

Vendors and service providers say it is just a matter of time before online business recovery becomes a common alternative to tape and eventually replaces it entirely. Jostling for the new market has already begun with competition coming down to the cost of bandwidth, and owners of new datacenters are being dragged into this business for reasons of value-added services and differentiating from competition.

Bandwidth better?
One of the popular, more recent alternatives is to make real-time backups of data via a network, saving the information to hard drives in datacenters in locations geographically separated from the main site. Unlike mirroring, which delivers the content to the Web from both places, this alternative just records data, unless the original data has been lost or corrupted. Then the backed-up data can be downloaded from storage within moments of being requested.

New advances in networking technology pit competitors like the troubled Yipes Communication (www.yipes.com), which ride newer networks designed solely for IP data flow, against older carriers like AT&T (www.att.com), which retrofit voice networks to support data. Both compete for customers like Lightbridge in disaster recovery-related deals.

AT&T is probably one of the most notable providers of disaster recovery solutions after September 11, having successfully supported its customers through the collapse of the World Trade Center (see sidebar, left).

Its newest Ultravailable Wavelength Service offers customers "lambdas" (bandwidth transmitted via individual colors of the light spectrum), selling them OC-3 interfaces with AT&T datacenters. The idea is that companies seeking to mirror sites or looking for pure online backup will be able to buy more bandwidth on the fly, especially in a crisis, scaling up or down the size of their connection within the limits of an OC-3 port.

AT&T is not unique in merging its network sales efforts with disaster recovery programs. It has joined most large telecommunications firms and alternative carriers. More often than not, to round out their disaster recovery services portfolio, networking firms end up joining ranks with companies specializing in disaster recovery - companies such as SkyDesk, Iron Mountain, and SunGard.

As far as Yipes is concerned, its existing relationship with Lightbridge is a prelude to greater things. Yipes, which filed for Chapter 11 in March, has a relationship with Level 3 for colocation in major cities, and a revenue sharing agreement with SkyDesk - better known to Internet surfers as the company behind the $99 per month @Backup service. If customers like Lightbridge were to consider getting a third-party provider for online backup, Yipes is ready to offer its services.

Yipes executives find their relationship with SkyDesk works well when SkyDesk competes against carriers that rely on older network technologies.

"When they walk into a large organization that needs to bring in an OC-3 for $25,000 per month and SkyDesk offers their disaster recovery service, with Yipes as a transport mechanism, with a 10 Mbps connection at about $1,000 a month, which offer do you think will seal the deal?" asks Terry Szucsko, vice president of Web services at Yipes.

Competition aside, merging disaster recovery services with inexpensive bandwidth gives shape to a long discussed issue in online disaster recovery: When should companies ditch tape in favor of bandwidth? Recording data on tape is less expensive in the long run, and companies like SkyDesk and Iron Mountain end up recording data the old fashioned way even if they capture it via high-speed pipes. It becomes a question of economics, and hard drives are still more expensive than tape for storing data for years at a time.

Backing-up online, however, has the one big advantage of instant gratification. With tape backups, restoring data can take several days. Yipes, with its on-demand pipes, can roll out online disaster recovery - which could entail downloading the entire server configuration - with a couple of clicks on the keyboard.

The next big frontier is bound to revolve around service level guarantees, as Web hosts like Cervalis enter the market with lots of quality datacenter space.

"We don't compete on price; we want to compete on the quality of our services. Because we don't do 100-to-1 overbooking, we can guarantee the space to customers when they need it," says Zack Margolis, vice president of marketing and business development at Cervalis (www.cervalis.com).

Lightbridge started out by using 45 Mbps point-to-point leased lines for limited data replication, along with backing-up its data on tape with Iron Mountain. Currently, it uses Yipes for instantaneous fail-over as an option for their customers. The attraction is in paying less for better quality bandwidth, but Lightbridge is hedging its bets and using multiple means of ensuring that they will not lose their data, even if the worst should happen. But if Lightbridge ever does move away from tape backup, the employees will
miss their daily courier visit - there is just something inherently cool about armored cars.

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