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Getting Synched Up

Protecting data files using synchronization.

Today’s digitally-driven businesses require 24/7 access to data–the spreadsheets, documents and email that make it go. Organizations both large and small invest great sums in securing their data, from implementing tape-based backup to sophisticated disaster recovery schemes.

One approach that is often less understood–not to mention implemented–is file synchronization, the automation and replication of files and folders among laptops, desktops, servers and any shared storage resource. It works with varied network media, including NAS disk drives and optical devices. Synchronization is the updating of any existing files or addition of new files in a target folder using a source folder as the guide.

Upon completion, the target folder will contain all of the files in the source folder with matching content and time stamps. This article will show the shortcomings of the most popular data protection approaches and illustrate why file synchronization is a more efficient, flexible, reliable and cost-effective alternative.

Traditional backup technology has revolved around event-driven software applications that copy critical files to another storage medium such as tape or other magnet media for later data retrieval. However, the very nature of a scheduled or event-driven backup means that data can become stale quickly. Most sites perform backups on a daily basis, which means in the case of a drive failure, as much as a complete day of work could be lost. Multiply that by hundreds of users, and the cost for that day’s labor added to down time can quickly grow.

Additionally, data stores can become corrupt simply due to the excessive amount of time a backup can take. In many instances, portions of data files, such as indexes or message stores, can change during an active backup, which then can lead to data corruption during a restore.

To counter hardware failures, many businesses have implemented RAID solutions. While mirrored or striped volumes do a good job protecting against data loss due to a drive failure, today’s hard drives have increased in reliability and are not usually the first components to fail. In other words, the drive array is no longer the weak link in the chain–most failures occur due to other components.

A better alternative is to keep a second copy of the data files continuously available to the user. This can be accomplished via file synchronization, which synchronizes data files across both physical and virtual locations. File synchronization is more flexible than traditional backup (processes can be done in real-time), less costly (tape remains an expensive medium), less time-consuming and far less intrusive (from the standpoint of bandwidth requirements).

Traditional high availability solutions are built around complex technologies, ranging from mirrored server farms to automatic fail-over devices. Before trying to build a high availability solution, businesses need to consider other options. First, is the proposed solution overkill for businesses needs? Second, what services, software and data files need to be constantly available?

File synchronization offers a robust, turnkey solution for those looking to build a high availability environment. File synchronization technology offers the ability to keep two or more exact copies of data files in different locations.

Imagine the following scenario: A desktop computer attached to a network with the “My Documents” folder is replicated and synchronized on a network share. Using synchronization technology, if the network share becomes unavailable, the user still has access to up to date critical files. The same concept applies if the user’s PC fails–the user can switch to another PC and access the up to date data files on the network share.

One of the best ways to protect valuable data is to keep a fresh copy at another location. Traditional backup solutions handled that by rotating tapes off site, but that created additional overhead and added expense in the form of both media and time.

What’s more, even if tapes are rotated off site daily, the recoverable data will be at least a day old. Those services tend to be expensive and put a company’s data in the hands of a third party. Additionally, online backup is typically based on scheduled backups, which means data is only as fresh as the last backup.

With the low cost of readily available broadband Internet connections and the low cost of storage products, file replication and synchronization-based backup becomes an affordable alternative. For instance, with certain synchronization tools, a small business owner can use his or her own home computer as a replication point. Larger businesses can use a remote office with a NAS device.

IT typically supports mobile or remote users by training them to copy or email files, or by requiring logon scripts that copy files from a share to the workers PC. However, in many cases traveling workers inadvertently copy an older version of the files and destroy the updated versions, or become confused by folder structures and scatter different file revisions around their local hard drive and network shares.

With file synchronization users need not worry where a file is and if it is up to date, which has the added benefit of relieving IT of frequent help desk calls. What’s more, a file synchronization platform can be extended to include backup capabilities, which means critical files such as a user’s local mailbox, can be included in the synchronization process.

It’s important to understand that file synchronization must be a two-way process, especially in the case where a user has more than one system (i.e., a desktop at work and a notebook for travel). In that situation a share can be setup to store all critical data files and then synchronized or replicated files to the local hard drives of each system.

The synchronization process will ensure that only the latest files take precedence. Not only is that a good solution for the traveling user, it allows users who work from multiple locations (a home PC and an office PC) to switch between systems with no complications.

A disaster plan first poses the question: What do we do if the office is unavailable? File synchronization facilitates the geographic distribution of data (as explained in a previous section) or, for smaller locations, enables data to be backed up to a portable computer that can be removed from the site daily.

This data can be quickly retrieved for use at an alternate location by synchronizing the backed up data directories with the replacement hardware, or by using the data directly from the backup location. These techniques are faster and more seamless then traditional tape restoration.

The rise in virus attacks or computer worms are ever-present threats to business continuity. These threats can be significantly reduced by including multiple-event drive replications as part of a backup strategy. After the problem is resolved, IT managers will find restoring data from a synchronized share much quicker then those relying on tape.

Additionally, file synchronization can help keep PC’s backed up in real time, without any intervention from the end user. Using technology such as open file management, all critical local files, ranging from email PST files to accounting software data files can be replicated to another location.

File synchronization offers the ability to preserve multiple copies of files across various IT resources, helping to keep up to date files available to users under most any circumstance. As this article demonstrates, file synchronization–if properly implemented–provides organizations of all types and sizes with an easy-to-maintain, flexible, fast, cost-effective and virtually “unbreakable” data protection solution.

Paul Marsala is president of Peer Software in Hauppauge, N.Y.

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