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Spurred by disaster, firm invests in email backup system

Three days without e-mail makes it much easier to shell out for a new backup and recovery system, especially in a sector like venture capital funding, where time is of the essence.

"E-mail is our most important application. Lately it's been more critical than the telephone," said Dave Benton, director of MIS for Austin, Texas-based Austin Ventures. So when the company's cluster of Microsoft Exchange servers melted down last November, the 72-hour restore process was deemed intolerable, especially for those involved in a $10 million deal that almost didn't go through.

With more than $3.1 billion under management, Austin Ventures concentrates on investments in software, semiconductor and communications companies. So it's either ironic or serendipitous that Austin Ventures has funded large storage players like McData Corp. of Broomfield, Colo.; Banderacom Inc. of Austin, Texas; and IBM's Tivoli unit. Regardless, it was prime time for the venture firm to start sampling the goods in a sector where it has sprinkled seed money.

Sometime after the servers and applications got restored, Benton began establishing service level thresholds. Primary among the new requirements was e-mail access that couldn't be interrupted, regardless of internal or external conditions. Additionally, his department had to ensure that the company experienced no more than four hours of downtime and no more than two hours of data loss annually.

"The best solution we found was to have multiple Exchange

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servers, but we have people with 2- and 4-gigabyte mailboxes," Benton said. "To give those mailboxes restore capabilities would require five to seven servers, with all the additional administration overhead and points of failure."

That approach just wasn't feasible for Austin Ventures, he said.

Moreover, apart from application availability and business continuity, November's meltdown brought other storage problems into sharper relief at Austin Ventures. Even under normal operating conditions it was taking as much as 10 hours to complete the backup of Austin's e-mail, financial, research and operational databases. Benton said that the complexity of the system, coupled with the staff hours needed to maintain to it, was a drag on the department and the organization.

There was no formal request for proposals for the backup and recovery upgrade, Benton explained. He just wrote down a list of requirements and sent it to some prospective vendors. The responses included both LAN-free and serverless backup solutions. But some of them required replacing specific devices and making major infrastructure changes that Austin Ventures wasn't willing to entertain.

LAN-free and serverless backups are gaining ground with more enterprises, which are buying and using them to deliver on three simple but strategic objectives: reduce the time it takes to create a backup copy, minimize the impact on the server environment while copies are being made and decrease or eliminate the impact on network environments.

And while the company looked at serverless backups as well, it ultimately rejected them.

"We couldn't use serverless solutions because the database backups would be corrupted if we didn't shut the database services down prior to backup," Benton said.

After considering a handful of proposals, Austin Ventures chose a combination of the Spectra 12000 advanced intelligent tape backup from Spectra Logic Corp. of Boulder, Colo., and a new disk array from XIOtech Corp. of Eden Prairie, Minn. Austin Ventures also tapped Galaxy agent technology from CommVault Systems Inc. of Oceanport, N.J.

"Every vendor has backup capabilities, but it's the restore functions you really have to test," he added. Prior to the new implementation, Austin Ventures went through a number of solutions, and the resource restore functions of Exchange never worked right. "We did three weeks of intensive testing, running backups and restoring during the day," Benton said, before the company added the components and software to the enterprise network.

"Now we can go from a bare-bones box and install the OS and Exchange in recovery mode and restore all the data in about two hours," Benton said.

This aspect has been the real bonus with the Spectra Logic gear, he said. The time required for this same function prior to the new implementation was so prohibitive that Exchange resource restore was only done every six to nine months, he added. Now it's being done on a quarterly basis.

Benton said Austin Ventures spent about $150,000 on the upgrade.

"What this company has done is what a lot of companies want to do, but what's stood in their way is the cost," said John Webster, a senior analyst and founder of Data Mobility Group Inc., which is based in Nashua, N.H. Austin Ventures paid a reasonable price for what it got, he said. He added that, in general, LAN-free and serverless backup prices are coming down.

"Many enterprise[s] buy these things as an insurance policy and hope they never have to use it," Webster added. "These kinds of disaster recovery plans are the lifeblood of the company. I don't think many CEOs really understand that distinction."

For more on Austin Ventures visit its Web site.

Additional information on Spectra Logic can be found here.

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This was first published in October 2002

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