When one considers the history of IT support, it’s easy to notice that this support has been very operating system-focused, and it’s not common to hear about a focus on the applications that run the business.
Given how IT has changed in the past couple of decades, this is not a surprise. Not that long ago when IT departments ran racks upon racks of physical servers, each dedicated to a specific task. In this scenario, the application could be an afterthought as long as the hardware was beefy enough.
The rise of the (virtual) machines
But with the rise of VMware and virtualization has come a major shift in the way that IT approaches workloads. Gone are the days of “throwing hardware at the problem.” With virtualization, IT departments must provide more focus on the individual applications that are running in the environment.
The historic focus on the technology underpinnings ensured that organizations had great environments. That, however, is an incomplete sentence in today’s modern world. It should read “The focus on the technology underpinnings ensures that organizations has great environments in which to run business-critical applications.” Sometimes, the need for application-friendly environments is lost in the details of building out the latest and greatest infrastructure.
Virtualization has changed the game in a fundamental way. We have a lot for which to thank VMware, but on the flip side, the upheaval of the status quo has created new technology challenges, too.
Apps contribute to their own complexity
Even ubiquitous applications such as Microsoft Exchange have grown more complex over the years, with components now being distributed across the environment, and the application living in an “always on” state. This is a major challenge that is introduced with distributed applications that are always on and always serving users: They can be difficult to back up in a way that maintains the integrity of the data and that results in a usable backup. In other words, there remains a challenge in preserving application-consistent copies of the data the can be placed back into production if there is a need. This is true for both traditional backup applications as well as snapshot-based data protection mechanisms, whether handled in hardware or software.
The situation is inherent in most transactional applications. To guarantee that a backup is usable, there needs to be a “steady state” point at which a snapshot can be taken.
Virtualization had thrown up a challenge here, too. As a result, we’re somewhat immature when it comes to ensuring application consistency inside a comprehensive virtualized environment.
The winds of change
Some storage vendors bring array-based solutions to bear on this dilemma. NetApp, for instance, has SnapManager, which carries the following general premise: An organization can do a lot with snapshots tied in with Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) to get application-consistent snapshots for Exchange, SharePoint and SQL Server. Or, the vendor needs to develop a software product which ties in specifically to an application-provided API for backup and recovery (NetApp’s SnapManager for Oracle).
The advantage in using these methods is simple. When you take a snapshot, you get an application-consistent snapshot, which enables quicker point-in-time recovery (lower RTO). The chances that an application will be restored to a usable state are greatly improved (improved RPO).
NetApp’s solution relies on the use of array level snapshots, which are fast, and can be scheduled to be taken at any interval, so that administrators can focus on other tasks. Further, since the snapshot work is being done at the array level, the hypervisor doesn’t need to get involved. That software can instead focus on delivering applications. The work is being done by the array, which often as processing cycles to spare.
All around, it’s a win-win proposition.
Microsoft is a partner in this effort
This is a service that would not be possible in its current form if it were not for Microsoft. Its implementation of VSS has provided backup and recovery software vendors with the tools they need to protect Microsoft applications in a consistent way. As a side note, Microsoft itself uses VSS to back up applications with its Data Protection Manager product, which, for Microsoft shops, is a surprisingly capable and agile backup and recovery system.
Action Item: For vendors, now is the time to make these solutions better and add additional competitiveness to this growing market. Data protection and recovery activities are increasingly important and increasingly complex due to the way that applications today are implemented. With more vendors coming into the space, we expect to see additional development and innovation coming in this area, all to the benefit of customers that need newer and more advanced data protection services in their organizations.