Back(up) to the Future: Keeping IT Running Through Digital Transformations

IT has evolved significantly in the past decade as hardware and software innovations accelerate and customers seek solutions that increase efficiencies and lower costs. Companies of all sizes have benefited from this IT transformation, as have the software and hardware vendors that have enabled the journey.

But while all this change has swirled around in the IT department, one aspect has remained the same: backup. Data protection remains the one underlying tenet of every IT department. The concept of taking copies of the data to ensure business continuity has always been a necessity as companies would fail to operate without it. And as the dependence on data grows for business insights and analytics, backup will only become more important in IT.

While backup and data protection remain a steady priority, IT has been preoccupied with various network and infrastructure transformations. These changes are shifting how data is protected, used, and handled by IT. In the past few decades, three significant infrastructure movements have dominated the market.

Historical IT Transformations

As with all transformations of such magnitude, vendors have been fighting for market share as these shifts occurred. The first market transformation of mainframe to client server infrastructure took place in the data center and manifested itself as the operating system wars of the late 1980s and 1990s. Microsoft emerged as the dominant force in the IT market and was seen as the winner of the physical client server era—a trend which continues today in the lower and mid-market IT economy. Microsoft’s market reach, support structure, and channel all continue to drive its success and leadership position.

In the late 1990s, the second infrastructure transformation from physical to virtual started. The recognition that resource sharing on the compute infrastructure would provide a better consolidation metric, utilization ratio, and increased flexibility gave way to the emergence of new vendors. VMware was first to market in a significant manner in the early 2000s, which allowed it to wrest control from Microsoft as the true “owner” of the IT operations manager. Virtualization control became more important to IT than did the operations management of the system. Decisions were no longer made based on the operating system but on the abstraction of the operating system from the hardware.

Finally, in 2007, Amazon Web Services (AWS) introduced the latest IT transformation: cloud. It enables faster delivery of services through resource sharing across customers for an even faster service delivery time without the necessity of acquiring, provisioning, and managing hardware. Since then, cloud infrastructures have been the reason for exponential IT growth as new workloads are deployed or shifted from on-premise. However, cloud has faced slower adoption rates than the physical-to-virtual infrastructure shift due to security. Only now, a decade later, has cloud reached its full potential as IT has become more comfortable with how and when to leverage it for elastic demand, geographical reach, machine learning, and development. Ironically, security has become a cloud enabler as the practices and compliance of cloud infrastructure now outpace the ability of the local data center.

While AWS was the first-to-market innovator and leader in the cloud space, it is being challenged by other firms, including Microsoft, Google, IBM, and other smaller companies. Yet, even as IT is undergoing the cloud shift, it is becoming evident that cloud is not the whole infrastructure of choice. Virtualization still remains very prevalent, and thus, many companies opt to run on a hybrid cloud infrastructure. Hybrid cloud is the ability to move workloads to the infrastructure and location of choice. This movement might be based on policy, performance, or cost, but the ability to decouple workloads from the infrastructure on which it resides enables a new freedom for the enterprise.

This flexibility, along with freedom of choice, exposes a new field of software vendors—those that abstract the service from the infrastructure. Leading this field is a technology that has been around from the dawn of IT: backup.

Backup to the Future of Cloud

Since the start of IT, backup has been an intrinsic part of that landscape. Backup and data protection have been part of every IT transformation shift. Media types and software have evolved to enable faster recovery times and recovery time objectives as well as more frequent recovery points and recovery point objectives. It is also true that for all future IT shifts and transformations such as containers, serverless, edge computing and more, the necessity of backup will continue to prevail.

Recently, the focus of backup has expanded beyond a simple precautionary copy of the data and movement offsite. IT organizations of all sizes have taken a seemingly stagnant function and sought to give expanded access to the copies of the data for proactive business means and to accelerate business functions. Leading these use cases are DevOps (iterate on the production services more quickly), security (vulnerability assessment and forensics on copies of the data), IT operations (patch testing and update management), and compliance (analytics and data governance). This enablement of self-service data access shifts backup from simply being a reactive function to one that drives the business more quickly and is sometimes known as copy data management.

As organizations attempt to protect more workloads both on-premise as well as in the cloud, they face three real challenges in terms of cost, capacity, and complexity. The explosive scope of the data has led to complex operations where organizations are challenged with optimizing where the copies are located, minimizing costs associated with its protection, and still enabling the data to be unlocked.

One solution is to “tier off” all data copies to cloud object storage. Cloud object storage is known to provide near-limitless capacity in a very effective scale-out model, and with the added benefit of centralized placement. This has the potential to further unlock added value from the data through centralized cloud services such as data classification, machine learning, or security analysis. The first step in all of this is simply the tiering of data into the cloud storage.

While the cloud is not necessarily known for being cost-effective, cloud object storage is little more than key-value pairs. This key-value pairing is what enables the near-limitless scale of object storage and also means that any data stored in the cloud has the potential to be de-duplicated on the source side before ingress. As a result, there is reduced cost and greater efficiency for the business across disparate locations, infrastructures, and services.

After the data lands in the cloud service, the logical extension is to enable recovery either back on-premise or in the cloud for the best possible outcome. Cost, security, or compliance may drive one direction or another. It also means that the cloud is no longer simply an extension of the on-premise capacity but becomes an intrinsic component of the strategy for disaster recovery, elastic capacity, business migration, and geographic expansion. In other words, backup drives cloud data management.

Cloud Data Management Begins With Backup

Given the relevance of backup in cloud data management, it is apparent that backup may dictate the winner of the cloud era. While there are many solutions that back up data services, those that can protect the data and enable cloud mobility in a completely portable and self-describing format have a distinct advantage over those that require a centralized management stack. Cloud mobility can only be truly realized when the data is decentralized in a portable format and not dependent on a centralized media server or proprietary file system.

As the era of cloud continues to unfold, backup will not only eliminate some of the barriers to adopting new service models, but will drive greater cloud adoption and use cases. It is likely that the age-old practice of backup is the one that will establish the true cloud leader for the decade to come. No matter the outcome of this new infrastructure battleground, companies will win through the tremendous insight gained into data movement and digital transformation.