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Rob McNelly




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March 2011

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02/08/2011

Backing Up Cloud

I miss the good old days when I had maintenance windows that were long enough that I could bring my machine down to single user mode and back up the whole system. These backups contained all of the data that mattered to the company at the time. Twenty years ago, I could only back up my machine with reel-to-reel tape drives. I'd bring my machine down to single-user mode to perform the backup, and each tape backup would take 12 minutes. I remember this because we would set the time on a portable kitchen timer when we started each tape. When the timer went off, we'd head to the computer room to swap out the tape, and go to the console to “press G to continue the backup.” All of the important data lived on that one machine. We didn’ t worry about distributed computing environments, as we weren’ t running any at the time. Sure we had a few PCs scattered here and there, but they weren’ t critical. The entire company and all of its data lived on that central machine, and users who sat in front of green-screen dumb terminals accessed it. There wasn’ t any data that users stored locally; it was all stored on the machine in the computer room.

When I hear about cloud computing, this is still the kind of environment I picture: where people are logged into a central machine that exists in a computer room in the sky. I use several Web-based applications like salesforce.com, webex.com or Google Mail, where I know nothing about the servers nor where the applications run, and I don’ t necessarily care about the hardware or operating systems the applications use. I log in, use the service and log out. I often find myself logging into the IBM virtual loaner program website, where I can utilize slices of IBM hardware for short periods of time for demonstrations or proof of concepts or education.

I’ ve worked with companies that have cloud offerings, where I can very easily log in, spin up some resources on their servers and then spin them back down when I am finished with them. As long as my response time is acceptable, do I really care about the physical hardware these virtual instances run on?

I’ ve also had customers who were unable to get resources to test hardware in their environment. Using the cloud, they were able to log on to a cloud provider, spin up some server resources, do the that they needed and spin the resources back down—all without waiting for their internal IT departments to acquire and configure hardware for them. This would also benefit users who have test hardware several generations behind what they’ re using in production. Instead of using old hardware, they can use more modern machines in virtual environments as needed.

Consider This

There are benefits to cloud computing, but there may be a few things contemplate when considering a leap from your own computing assets to those that you don’ t control. I realize that these days we’ re usually accessing cloud-based applications over the Internet instead of from a green screen directly attached to computers in the machine room, but concerns like privacy, security and availability need to be considered along with all the benefits that are touted with the cloud.

Backup and recovery is another consideration when deploying services to the cloud. How do we back up our data that lives in the cloud? Surely cloud providers offer snapshots and local backups, and maybe that’ s good enough for what you’ re doing. If you wanted to copy your data to machines that are under your control, would you use the network and some kind of continuous data protection in order to move data from the cloud to machines you own so that you have another copy of it? Or would that method of data protection defeat the purpose of having someone else handling infrastructure management?

What happens if somewhere down the road you decide you want to get out of the cloud? Are there going to be issues with getting your data or OS images back under your control? Can you easily clone the systems back onto your own hardware or will you be looking at server reloads?

I have watched customers struggle with liberating their data from outsourcing companies and contracts. The companies that manage the machines have custom tools and scripts that they don’ t want to hand over. They may have information around how the machines were configured that they don’ t want to share. What’ s your plan to get out of the cloud or move to another cloud provider if you find the one you are using isn’ t for you? What do you do if the service you’ re using goes down, or the company goes out of business or they change the interface so much that you no longer like the way you use the tool? Will upgrades and outages happen on your timetable or on theirs? When you get used to accessing servers and applications from anywhere there’ s a network connection and then you find the provider has an outage, you want to be sure providers offer information and status updates on when they expect to recover the systems.

I enjoyed reading a blog post from John Scalzi, who was trying an experiment where he would exclusively use Google Docs and a Google laptop computer to write a novel. Technical glitches began causing delays, and he eventually retuned to working from his desktop, saying, “Until ‘the cloud’—and the services that run on them—can get out of your way and just do things like resident programs and applications can, it and they are going to continue to be second-place solutions for seriously getting work done.”

Return to Centralization

While there are definite advantages to the cloud-computing approach in some situations, I can’ t help but think that the whole idea has a “Back to The Future” feel to it, where we take distributed computing resources and try to centralize them again, or worse yet, rebrand existing offerings as cloud offerings so we can say we’ re on the cloud bandwagon. Certainly there are going to be applications and situations that will benefit from moving applications out of data centers. We just need to be sure to do our homework and educate ourselves before making the leap.


Rob McNelly is a System p Solutions Architect for Meridian IT Inc. and is a former administrator for IBM. Rob can be reached at [email protected].