Are application-specific backup tools worth it?

A new wave of backup vendors promises to do an extra-special job protecting data in a single application. Simon Sharwood explores these tools’ role in a modern backup regime and the revitalised point solution vs. suite debate.

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On 29 January 2009, social bookmarking service Ma.gnolia (http://ma.gnolia.com/) was a thriving concern with many thousands of users who relied on it for storage of their favourite websites and services that allowed them to share these bookmarks with friends.

On 30 January, the site’s database failed. Both the primary and secondary backups yielded no useful data.

The company is now a byword for the importance of thorough and thoroughly tested backup regimes, a topic of interest to all organisations but especially to those who use commercial applications which treat data in specific ways that are not always catered to by the many commercial backup applications on sale today.

New vendors are therefore coming to market with products designed to back up one or two applications only, claiming that their expertise in the esoteric behaviour of some software means their backup tools reduce the chance of data loss and enhance the prospect of rapid and complete recovery.

One such vendor is AvePoint, a seven-year-old company that offers backup for Microsoft’s SharePoint suite.

“Enterprise backup tools have no item-level backup and restore for SharePoint,” says Marco Ding, AvePoint’s Regional Sales Manager. Working closely with Microsoft, Ding says, allows the company to understand the unique ways that SharePoint stores data, enabling item-level restores to remove the need for rollbacks of the entire application and therefore reduce the time needed to restore the time required to retrieve items stored in the application.

“A big part of our business is competing with the likes of Symantec and CommVault,” Ding says, with specific SharePoint-centric features trumping more generic backup products from these rivals. Other rivals license the company’s technology, which appears in the specialist SharePoint modules from Tivoli and NetApp.

A little googling will reveal many comparable vendors, each proclaiming similar benefits to those advanced by Avepoint. Application vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and VMware also offer their own backup tools, generally with claims to superior performance derived from their unique position as developer of the software being backed up!

Point vs. suite

For some IT professionals, these specific tools will represent clear value, as the application they protect will be so critical that it deserves special protection.

But for administrators with complex, multi-application environments, specialised tools lack the broader functions needed to manage a heterogeneous collection of applications, hardware and data types.

“Any sophisticated data centre manager does not use them because [enterprise backup software] has better tools, faster restore and more sophisticated policy functions,” says Martin Ward of Symantec.

Specialised tools also raise the perennial issue of whether their organisation possesses the resources to operate multiple technologies and the complexity that almost inevitably ensues.

“Specialist products need specialist people,” says Paul McClure, Product Manager at CommVault. “You need an army of administrators to get them [specialist products] working together and the risk is greater because each administrator does not know what the other is doing.”

Another with concerns about complexity is EMC’s Shane Moore.

“I think of it as a universal remote control versus a handful of remotes,” he says. The universal remote - a single application - is easier to use than a handful of devices. He also contends that just as a single remote is better suited to the modern lounge room, a single backup suite is better equipped to the modern enterprise.

“A vendor who backs up one application and one only will always say they do it better. But I think the bigger challenge is managing the whole environment when tools like VMware have turned things on their heads.

“In the old days, you knew where an application 'sat’. Now you do not know which server the application is on or where it stores data.”

EMC’s backup products, he says, automatically track how virtualisation affects an application and its data, and protects them under all circumstances - a considerable advantage compared to specialist tools. The products also have modules tuned to subtleties and peculiarities of different software, giving them the advantage of specialist tools without the drawback of creating complexity.

NetApp has a different take on the problem, advocating - like EMC -  that its application-specific modules can rival specialist tools’ efficiency. The company goes further by also calling for application-specific, user-driven restore tools to be added to the backup equation.

“Self-service restore is on the way,” says the company’s Roger Mannett. “If you can give people a web-based interface to do their own restore it takes pressure off the enterprise team.” NetApp says its snapshot technology makes this kind of backup and restore service possible, and points out they are unlikely to be available in application-specific software, making the latter’s addition potentially even more burdensome for administrators.

Symantec’s Ward has another reason application-specific backup tools may offer less value than users first imagine.

“An application-specific backup needs to make two backups: one for granular backups for inboxes or database rows and then a full application backup,” he says. “We have been in the business so long that we can do them both with one backup.”

Claims and more claims

And what of specialist vendors’ claims that they possess unique insights into the software they specialise in backing up? Enterprise backup vendors dispute the extent of the expertise behind those claims and say their own efforts to understand the backup needs of different applications matches or exceeds those made by specialists.

CommVault, for example, disputes Avepoint’s claim to be the first vendor capable of file-level restore for SharePoint.

“We maintain tight relationships with vendors who develop and deliver the application,” says the company’s Paul McClure. “We certify ourselves against the applications and in terms of the skills base in our organisation; we have dedicated resources that focus on the products we back up.”

McClure adds that, in his opinion, understanding an application’s structure is only one important piece in delivering robust backup.

“We find from our professional services engineers that it is more important to have an understanding of the operating system and the application, and not just an understanding of backup.”

Symantec’s Ward tells similar tales.

“We are very focused on vendor-approved interfaces,” he says. “We do not want to use reverse engineering, so with Oracle, for example, we have been working with them for 13 – 15 years.”

“We’ve worked with VMware for 8 – 10 years and can track and discover virtual machines,” he says. “These long-term relationships really bear fruit.”

Arguments advanced by enterprise backup vendors seem to make the promise of superior performance from specialised backup vendors scarcely worth the trouble.

Backup specialists counter

But specialists are fighting back with counter-arguments of their own.

>“Our approach is complementary to backup,” says Nick Ogle, Regional Sales Director at disaster recovery vendor Neverfail Group.

Ogle says the company “provides a level of service that is better than clustering, but far cheaper”. The architecture of the company’s products is, he asserts, such that an investment covers any type of software and does not ask administrators to master different modules that add functionality to an enterprise backup site.

SharePoint specialist Avepoint also fights back by pointing out that its backup application sits alongside a management console for the collaboration tool, making the company more than a one-trick pony.

Symantec’s Ward thinks this argument can do well in some markets, notably smaller businesses.

“In the mid-market perhaps they are less sophisticated and do not get it,” he says. “But enterprises get the message” that one backup tool to manage all applications is more effective.

 

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