In the cloud we trust
Cloud-based data storage solutions are quick to deploy and scale according to needs. They’re affordable and, most importantly, trustworthy – all sweet music to a business owner’s ears.
Cloud-based data storage solutions are quick to deploy and scale according to needs. They’re affordable and, most importantly, trustworthy – all sweet music to a business owner’s ears.
Explain to someone ten years ago that in 2014 businesses will be backing up and storing all their vital data on remotely hosted servers via their Internet connection and you’ll have received a somewhat bemused expression in return. Those were the days of expensive bandwidth and backup hardware, remember? Online backup back then would have been very expensive and a successful recovery in the event of something catastrophic like the Christchurch or lower North Island earthquakes would not have been very likely.
The Internet was not regarded as a very secure place ten years ago either. Craig Els, GM technical at 1st Cloud, suggests you would have been far better off using a tape backup solution – then considered cutting edge – and storing your backups offsite.
“Fortunately we have moved on since then and backup software, especially disaster recovery, can now create full working images of your business server, so restorations now take hours instead of weeks.”
Businesses no longer think twice about entrusting their data to a third party.
Peter Thomas, GM of KeepItSafe NZ, a cloud-based storage provider with ISO27001:2005 certification, believes there have been two contributing drivers. “Firstly, specialisation and outsourcing has prevailed in all areas of business. We outsource many services that used to be managed in-house, such as HR, security, administration, cleaning, filtered water, and so on. Any company that specialises in a service is going to be able to do it better than you can manage yourself.
“The second reason is one of economics. People are beginning to recognise that there is a high cost and higher risk associated with self-managed data storage and backup. Outsourcing these services will often have a significant payback over time.”
Most service providers will agree that in the past the security of data stored off-site was always a concern, and that trust factor just wasn’t there. While those concerns have now faded away, Thomas says business owners should still continue to be wary of any service that they entrust their data to. “The ‘cloud’ is not as mysterious as the marketing suggests. Cloud providers simply store data on servers within a data centre. The quality of service various enormously – ranging from providers that simply host data on a server in their own office, through to elaborate and advanced data protection systems spanning multiple cities. To the consumer, the difference is usually invisible,” he says.
“The most common questions we hear are ‘Where is my data stored?’ and “Who has access to it?’ Those are great questions to ask.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions, you have a right to know how well your data is protected, and you are entitled to expect straight answers,” says Thomas. Enquiring whether the data is stored in New Zealand or offshore is a great place to start, he adds. “If it’s offshore, it’s not protected by New Zealand law.”
Also ask whether the provider replicates or mirrors the data to multiple locations, he says. “Most importantly, what security certifications do they hold? They won’t be able to obtain certifications unless they are following best-practice systems.”
Of course, mention security and inevitable the word ‘encryption’ will come up. 1st Cloud’s Craig Els says many cloud backup providers use 128-bit encryption and claim its ‘military grade’ or ‘banking grade’ encryption. “The banks and the military use AES256-bit SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption, and this is the same level of encryption we use. Our software encrypts your data before it leaves your network to ensure complete security.”
As for locations, Els says when they researched backup companies in New Zealand, they found that typically the average provider has one or two backup locations, “and often these companies have at least one of the servers in their office.
“We recommend at least two data centre secured locations separated by 300 kilometres. 1st Cloud has four separate data centre locations throughout New Zealand to ensure client security and redundancy.”
Els recommends asking backup providers for a demonstration of their recovery ability – especially when using a disaster recovery solution. “If they are unable to do so it would be worthwhile finding another provider.
“When choosing a cloud provider find out if they use compression and de-duplication – a method of reducing duplicate files and storage needs typically by 40 to 70 percent,” he adds. “A business with 250GB of used space could initially require as little as 100GB of cloud storage depending on their data retention policies.
“Use cloud providers based in New Zealand that are contactable by phone and have the ability to come to you should you need assistance,” says Els. “Check that they have insured their solution with a reputable company. It’s easy to set up a server in an office somewhere and offer a backup service. The real test is the length the provider goes to, to protect their assets and yours.”
Offsite is best
The Christchurch earthquakes proved once and for all that storing data offsite is a no-brainer.
“Having offsite storage solutions for backup is essential,” says Charles Clarke, technical director for Veeam APAC – one of the first companies to witness the popularity of backing up data to the cloud in New Zealand. Yet, he says, storing data safely offsite continues to be a major challenge for many companies. “Traditional methods of storing backups offsite can be costly and complex. Often backups are stored through tape, as normal disk arrays are costly in meeting archiving needs. However using tape can be risky as it is perishable, subject to magnetism and human error. Data recovery through tape can also be difficult and lengthy.”
While tape may play a role in backup archiving, it is not ideal for reducing exposure following an outage, says Clarke. “This is where cloud storage thrives as a reliable alternative to tape with affordable and long-term backup. With an annual durability rating of 99.9 percent, storage clouds like Amazon Glacier resolve any fears that data may remain unrecoverable.
“Cloud storage solves the issue of keeping backups offsite and safe from a disaster, reducing the risk of losing critical business data.”
Public storage clouds offer dependability without the cost, complexity and logistical planning associated with tapes, Clarke continues. “Hence, providing a modern approach to the ‘3-2-1’ rule for storing backups (summarised as having at least three copies, in two different formats, and with one of those copies off-site).
“There are multiple benefits of using a private cloud within an organisation, such as ease of operation, management automation and scalability,” says Clarke. “A private cloud enables organisations to have control over all aspects of implementation including hardware, networking, the operating system and security.”
One particular benefit of using the cloud, adds Clarke, is its flexible payment options. “Cloud backup and storage providers offer subscription services or bill on a pay-as-you-go basis, surpassing significant up-front costs and minimising the financial risk. This means businesses only need to pay for the storage they require, rather than invest in an expensive storage array.”
Organisations and businesses that choose to backup to the cloud have a number of key considerations to make before implementing a disaster recovery plan and solution, says Clarke. “The solution selected must suit the company’s specific needs. For example, it may be particularly important for an organisation to have access to data anywhere, anytime – thus making cloud [delivery] an appealing method.
“It is also imperative to evaluate the costs of the proposed data protection strategy to determine if disaster recovery in the cloud is appropriate. From a financial perspective, companies need to assess whether all or part of the data needs to be on the cloud. In most cases, it will be necessary to take a multi-tiered approach to storage, using a combination of local backups, tapes and cloud storage solutions to ensure complete protection.”
It is particularly important to assess the risks involved in using each backup solution, Clarke advises. “If a logical decision is not made to invest in the right solution, it could potentially impact the company’s bottom line in the long term. Hence, it is imperative to make sure a disaster avoidance strategy is in place.”
Monitoring tools are ideal to alert backup and performance issues before applications and users are affected, says Clarke. “In the event of an outage, organisations must ensure all employees can still be productive for the duration of the outage. Most importantly, companies should always ensure the plan is tested; or risk discovering its flaws in the event of a disaster.”
Getting to know the needs of a potential client before any service commitment is made is very important, says 1st Cloud’s Craig Els. “We initially ask our clients about their business setup, their industry, their needs and backup expectations. It’s always a good idea to find out who your client is and why they need your services.
“We can then assist our client to work out how much data they require to be backed up and how often their data changes. From there we can make recommendations on whether a standard file backup or a full disaster recovery solution is needed and how our recommendations fit within the client’s budget and expectations.”
Els says there are still instances when a cloud-based service is not the best option and more traditional storage technologies may be suitable. “With each new client we need to look at how often their data changes, how big the business is and what their proposed budget is.
“We have come across clients who are running old databases that effectively are not supported and as such their data changes substantially each day. Dependent on their size and budget, we look at price versus benefit.
“The 1st Cloud backup solutions can be set up to only backup locally, backup both local and to the cloud, or to the cloud only.”
Backing up to the cloud is the preferred method as this provides the most redundancy, says Els. “All cloud providers should be flexible in their approach so that they set up the best solution for their client.”
When disaster strikes
If you’re looking for the perfect example of how cloud based data disaster recovery services can save your business in the event of a major catastrophe, then look no further than the big quake in Christchurch in 2011 – when most businesses located in the worst affected parts of the CBD had little or no access to their premises and data directly afterwards. Some had no access for several months.
“Many small businesses did not recover from the earthquake and have subsequently closed their doors,” says Els. “Had there been a disaster recovery solution in place for these businesses, most would have been able to continue their operations from another location.
“Research shows that 60 percent of businesses that suffer a major data loss, like the Christchurch earthquake, close their doors within six months and never reopen. Then 25 percent of those who do manage to reopen don’t survive the next 12 months.”
Having a disaster recovery solution is critical,” he says. “Physical disasters are not the only risk you need to be concerned about. Viruses and cyber attacks on businesses can destroy data within seconds and make it irrecoverable.”
Els is astonished at how often he comes across businesses with poor or no backup solutions in place, even after all the natural disasters of late.
“The disaster recovery solution provided by 1st Cloud not only provides fully automated hands-off backup service, its ability to restore data or migrate full Windows systems is second to none,” he says. “Once the restoration process has started it can provide live access to your data while it is recovering after it has set up the base operation system for the server being restored.”
KeepItSafe’s Peter Thomas says they had some 85 clients located in what would become Christchurch’s Red Zone. “Most of those customers could not access their premises for weeks, months or, in many cases, never. The important lesson is that the data must be stored outside your own city. And, just as importantly, it should be stored by a company that monitors the backups for you, and can restore it on request.
“There is no point paying for a service unless the provider can guarantee that the service is providing the right protection for your business. KeepItSafe replicates data in Auckland and Christchurch, providing very robust protection from this type of disaster,” he says. “We are not just a ‘storage’ provider; we provide a fully managed backup and recovery service.
“Any business who has experienced a disaster will tell you that it’s not the backup that matters, it’s the recovery.”
The way of the future
The online backup industry is exploding. In the next few years it will almost be unheard of to not have your critical business data stored by a secure cloud provider, or at least have cloud-based storage. This is the view of 1st Cloud’s Craig Els. “Many large corporates are already using custom-built cloud storage solutions or investigating their options and planning the deployment of a cloud-based storage solution secured in multiple data centres.
“Large corporates usually have the budget to run and manage their own secure cloud centres, but cloud backup storage is a secure solution providing redundancy that would not always be affordable for SMEs to build themselves.
“So choose a reputable provider. We recommend looking for one that has a Certified Backup Solution insurance partner.”
KeepItSafe’s Peter Thomas is perhaps slightly less bullish on the speed of market growth.
“The move to the cloud is currently being led by larger businesses. SMEs tend to use a range of cloud services such as Xero, but generally store most of their data in-house. For them, cloud backup is essential protection.
“Larger businesses with the ability to invest in large scale cloud migration have started to move this way in recent years, but in relatively small numbers. Businesses using the cloud are still well and truly in single digits, percentage-wise. If you look back ten years, not much has changed. Operating systems have improved, the Internet is faster and more services are available, but fundamentally, desktop computing has not been revolutionised.
“Looking forward ten years, I don’t see a revolution either. However, we are seeing accelerating growth and expect other cloud providers to experience the same.”
Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.
A word from an early adopter
Touchtech is a Wellington-based SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) developer that builds mobile applications to leverage the full capabilities of today’s smartphones and cloud services.
Matt Watson is an expert on iOS and cloud computing for the firm and is passionate about what cloud offerings can offer businesses.
“It would be foolish not to seriously consider cloud offerings. You’d be very hard pressed to create anything even vaguely as secure, fast and reliable yourself. Moreover, why would you want to? Storing and sharing data is a complex problem. If you can have someone else do it for you for very little effort and cost then why not?
“The cloud allows you to treat data almost like electricity – it’s just there and works. This is empowering and allows you focus more on just running your business,” he says.
“But make sure the company [provider] you’re using is going to be around [for the long-haul] or, alternatively, that you can get your data out should you require it.
“At Touchtech we store everything that pertains to our business in the cloud.”
He says AmazonWeb Services has a data centre in Sydney, which they use for all their New Zealand clients.
Watson lists simplicity, reliability, scalability and low costs as the key benefits of cloud delivered data storage service – and the ability to access your data from just about anywhere and on multiple devices. As well as being able to collaboratively work on documents in real time, á la Google Docs.
Of course, as with any Internet based service, network outages can occur. “But these are very rare,” says Watson. “I’ve never heard of anyone losing data [that way].
“Cloud services are already being heavily used by early adopters like ourselves; and it’s only going to get bigger,” says Watson. “Once people get over the mental hurdle of their company data residing in the ‘ether’ then the sky’s the limit.”
Tips on evaluating providers
Mark Shaw, technology strategist for Symantec Pacific offers the following key considerations for businesses evaluating cloud service providers:
How long has the vendor been offering cloud services? Look for a provider with a sizeable customer base, proven track record and strong reputation in the industry.
• Security is key
Really understand how secure your data needs to be, and ask the vendor how security problems are solved.
• Backing up and moving your data
Investigate how the cloud provider makes backup copies of your data – and how you can move the data to another provider.
• Service level agreements
Work hard to get a good SLA with clear financial penalties to ensure a good service. If your service doesn’t come with 24/7 customer support and 100 percent uptime SLAs then it may be time to look for a new one.
• Be wary of certifications
Certifications capture just a moment in time. Do your own research on how the vendor is performing. Ask questions of other customers.
• Try before you buy
The beauty of cloud computing is that it’s easy to switch on and off. Obviously you don’t start your cloud adventure with confidential data or business-critical systems. But if the service works for you, you can expand.
Arron Patterson, chief technology officer at EMC New Zealand, says effort needs to be applied to understanding your technology and cloud provider’s policies, prices and processes.
“Security is critical in making the most appropriate decision for your business – regardless of location or geography.
“Businesses should look for a service provider that is open and transparent about its services, and independently assess that the provider is able to perform to its SLAs on a continuing basis.
“Regular ‘health checks’ and reporting of the service should be part of the arrangement to ensure all parties are aware of the customer requirements and the continuing ability of the service provider to perform to these requirements,” he adds.
Costs can be minimised by ensuring all elements are factored into the decision-making process, says Patterson. “Often additional charges such as bandwidth for ingress and egress of data from the service are overlooked and can provide an unpleasant surprise. ‘What-if?’ analysis projecting growth, and modelling this against costs, is extremely valuable, and extensive testing should be undertaken.
“Often workloads will behave quite differently than they have traditionally on in-house systems.”