Hybrid Backup

When considering solutions for data storage and backup we need to be prudent.  I have already covered, in an earlier article, how the costs of cloud storage and data transfer can vary greatly depending on a multitude of different factors. 

 As with the world at large, many of my clients are in a transition phase between hosting technology onsite and within the cloud.  Some are dipping their toes while others are embracing the cloud and all the benefits it brings more readily.

Onsite NAS devices have been a staple technology in SME (Small Medium sized Enterprises) for many years but as cloud storage becomes more prevalent their place in the office may eventually be in question.  However, while cloud storage costs remain relatively high their place is still highly relevant. 

In this “Hybrid” environment, one solution that I have found useful is provided by QNAP within their NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices. 

 The QNAP NAS device provides an app, accessed via the admin web interface, called “Hybrid Backup Sync”.  It provides a set of tools to allow incremental backup and replication of local NAS data into the cloud.  The software can connect to all the major cloud providers (Alicloud, AWS, Google, Dropbox and many others). The fine grained controls assist the IT professional in creating scheduled jobs that match the data retention policies the company requires whilst being cost efficient with cloud storage and transfer. 


SME Cloud Backup Considerations

Recently I have been working with a client on securing their critical data both onsite and offsite. 

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Like many companies, they have realised the benefits of moving their applications to the cloud and slowly reducing the need for maintaining their own servers (hardware) within their offices. 

In this kind of situation, I have long realised that the word ‘backup’ can be misleading and is often misused; an oversimplification of a process that requires a great deal of thought for each type of data.  The application the data is derived from will set precedence for how it is restored in the event of a problem.  The individual file sizes may vary greatly from one set of data to another and this will have an impact on the cost of storage and data transfer (especially within the cloud). 

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Cloud storage can be expensive but the major cloud players such as Microsoft Azure, AWS, AliCloud etc all provide numerous storage options at different price levels.  The speed of the storage medium is usually one of the key factors but providers also break down the challenge by other dimensions such as frequency of access, geographical region of availability and the reliability of the storage medium.  Within their OSS (Object Storage Service) product offering, AliCloud provides classes such as “Standard” , “Infrequent Access” and “Archive”.

Whilst Archive is the cheapest per gigabyte there are certain restrictions on how frequently the data can be accessed and how quickly that data can be retrieved in the event its needed. It can take up to a minute for data to be unfrozen from its Archive state before it can even start to be downloaded.

IT professionals tasked with designing backup solutions need to have a good knowledge of the underlying systems that created the data originally in order to make educated decisions on how that data should be stored and restored. Database dumps can be hundreds of Gigabytes per file and that data should be treated very differently to images, text documents or email files. 

Unfortunately backup is often delegated to juniors within the company or the remit is taken over by desktop support companies who had no part in designing the original systems.


Virtual Computers

What is a virtual computer and what role does it play?

Virtual hardware utilizes a collection of computing resources such as the memory, processor and storage of a real physical computer. This is often referred to as a virtual machine (VM) and it’s possible for many of them to be running on the same physical computer, sharing its resources. 

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Each VM sees itself as a separate isolated computer with its own operating system and file system and potentially its IP address on a network or the Internet.

Whilst VMs are a relatively mature area of computing, in recent years a new type of technology “Containers”, that uses similar concepts to VMs, has arrived.  Docker is one such example. 
Historically VMs have been quite heavy in terms of their requirements but with the introduction of Docker Containers we can run many of these virtual computers within the same server or even on your mac book. 

What does that really mean for us?

 An example would be running two or three other operating systems (perhaps different versions of Linux) simultaneously inside the mac OS on your laptop. Each container is a separate isolated computer environment and each container installs just the software it needs for it’s own task.  One container may be a webserver designed to serve webpages, one may be optimised to run a particular database and one may needed to run regular background processes such as backups.

Why can’t we do that all on just one computer? 

This can of course all be done on a single, regular (physical) computer but the advantage of virtual containers is that each one is a virtual snapshot of a computer (stored in binary file) that can be started, stopped or moved to another computer as, and when, we need them.  In other words the computer and all of its setup can be running (or not) anywhere we wish.

The entire concept of a computer is now abstract and separate from any one physical device.

The physical hardware is not a limitation. At 12pm it’s running on my mac book pro in Hong Kong but 5 minutes later it can be running somewhere in the cloud on a physical server based in London. Later we may need more power so 3 new instances of the same computer could be spawned in other locations around the world.  

When the virtual computer is not running the sum total of its existence is effectively just binary (zeros and ones) so it can be copied, transferred and restarted elsewhere.

We would have confidence that there would be absolutely no difference in the way the container operates. 
The concept of a computer has itself become virtual in nature independent and indifferent to the physical memory or the CPUs it uses.  Hardware is disposable and abstracted away from the logic and purpose of the computer.