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Interview - Microsoft Azure disaster recovery available to SMBs

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The importance of backing up business data can’t be overstated. We’ve all experienced those heart-stopping moments where you realise something’s gone wrong with a server or computer and the things you thought were safely saved – documents, files, applications, databases – have gone. Of course, you knew this would happen one day and you have a backup. Don’t you?

That could be anything from another server to a tape drive, or a simple external hard drive. You probably check it all the time to make sure it’s working properly. You’ve also got another backup offsite – in case of flood, or fire, or theft, or some other environmental disaster – another system you check regularly. Right? What happens now? Call the IT support guys and let’s get everything back on track. Except they get in and tell you your backups haven’t been working properly; all the backups were in the same place and have been lost along with the original; the backup hasn’t worked for the last month (been meaning to do something about that) and you just lost 30 days of critical project data (timesheets, files, drawings, budgets, forecasts, project communications…). 

These potential disasters are real – they have all happened to Synergy clients. Losing 30 days of timesheets and project accounting is close to being a showstopper for a time-billing service provider. It’s absolutely vital that you secure your businesses data and files in the most robust, trouble-free way possible.

Microsoft Azure is offering exactly that service for SMEs for the first time, and it’s pretty cheap. We had a chat with the Microsoft Australia Azure team to get the lowdown for you.

CLEAR BLUE… CLOUD

Microsoft Azure is Microsoft’s cloud based platform offering storage, compute, network and many other integrated services. Two key services for businesses are backup (Azure Backup) and disaster recovery (Azure Site Recovery). Until recently, these services have primarily catered to larger enterprises and required the use of installed software (System Center) to manage on premises infrastructure. Last month (February 2015) Microsoft announced that Azure Site Recovery has now been enabled for any small business using Windows Server 2012 R2.

Azure Backup enables customers to backup data to Azure – either from a Windows Server (or) from System Center Data Protection Manager (SCDPM). With these services, small and mid-market customers, including branch offices, can now take advantage of Azure for their backup and disaster recovery needs.

WHERE’S MY DATA?

Microsoft opened two Azure datacentres in Australia last year and now offers a local solution for keeping business data secure in the cloud. This includes storage, backup and disaster recovery. Microsoft Azure product manager Mike Heald says it’s now an option to keep backups only in Australia [where previously data would have been in other countries].

“With the Sydney and Melbourne datacentres we can offer geo-redundant backup, which means your data stays onshore, in Australia,” Heald says.

“When you backup your server, it copies everything to multiple servers in one datacentre, then replicates that to the other datacentre so you’re backed up across multiple machines, in more than one geographic location, while remaining onshore in Australia.”

Microsoft senior product and programme manager Praveen Vijayaraghavan says the recent updates are designed to make Azure a backup business strategy for all businesses.

“We want customers to look at Azure as a viable offsite backup option,” he says.

“In effect Azure offers bottomless storage and the economic benefits of cloud. It allows businesses to move away from tape drive backup options that require manual effort and human responsibility, while offering broader connotations… With Azure we provide options that allow you to choose how long you keep your data and how often you want to back it up. For example, you can retain financial data for a longer duration, but it’s unlikely your operational recovery will need to go beyond 30 days. You can have daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly backup schedules.”

Tapes, servers, hard drives and other physical storage options sooner or later need to be replaced. They also require a bit of effort to ensure they’re working and taken on/off site daily. With Azure you just pay for the service, your data is safe with three copies kept in a local data centre, plus, in the unlikely event of an entire Azure datacenter failing, it’s backed up to the secondary datacenter in Australia (i.e. there’s a parachute under your seat!). Backup data is encrypted in the customer’s machine before being sent to Azure and is sent over a secure HTTPS connection. The data remains ‘encrypted-at-rest’, and only the customer has the encryption keys, which are required during recovery processes. 

Azure

HOW DISASTER RECOVERY WORKS

Backing your servers up to Azure sounds great, but what actually happens when your entire site goes down and you need to get back to business. The Azure team says you can be fully operational on your backed-up data within anything from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the complexity of your deployment.

Praveen says Azure Site Recovery provides an end-to-end solution, which replicates the customer’s virtualised infrastructure to Azure. Replication frequencies can be set to 30 seconds, five minutes or 15 minutes and the whole setup requires no additional capital investments (e.g. setting up a second site for disaster recovery purposes or server costs).

“If you suffer hardware failure, environmental disaster or virus attack and you lose your servers or site, you will only lose the amount of data since the last replication,” he says.

“To recover it you just need to logon to your Azure portal (from any machine), navigate to ‘recovery services’, select the virtual machines that have been replicated, and select the ‘failover’ option [Azure terminology for the recovery process]. This brings up an Azure virtual machine and will take 10 to 15 minutes to boot up.”

Mike Heald says it’s equivalent to logging on to your server.

“It will look the same as your server and the beauty of it is you don’t need any on premises software to manage it,” Heald says.

It’s important to note, though, that you do need to be on Windows Server 2012 R2 with Hyper-V activated.

Of course, there are situations where it may be a little more complex than that, depending on how your server is set up and what applications you’re running and need access to, like Synergy.

Praveen says the fundamental promise of Azure disaster recovery is that it will get the virtual machines running along with some minimal network ‘fix ups’.

“The more detailed your infrastructure, the more dependency on the underlying network,” he says.

“However, with some pre-planning, use of recovery plans, and frequent test failovers, you can minimise the overall ‘recovery time objective’ (RTO).”

Still, given this is disaster recovery and, by definition, you’re in the stew, a few hours isn’t too bad.

“There’s no one standard answer for RTO, except ‘yes it will work’,” Praveen says.

“Whatever your on premises setup is, you will need to do the same things in the Azure virtual machine, it’s all the same, you’ll just be logging in to the Microsoft datacentre online.”

Like the Azure Backup service, Azure Site Recovery enables customers to encrypt the data on premises and send over a secure HTTPS channel. The data remains ‘encrypted-at-rest’ and is decrypted only during a failover.

END TO END

Disaster recovery is what Microsoft refers to as a ‘one day’ product – it’s used to go back a day (or potentially 30 seconds) because something has gone wrong and you need to be back in business as soon as possible. It just has to recover your business with minimal data loss. Microsoft says Azure is designed so there are no roadblocks to what a customer can bring across for storage – it will take data, files, applications, everything that runs on a normal server, and more.

Backup, on the other hand, is a very different use case, Praveen says.

“Customers might want to be able to back up data and access a specific date in history, even 10 or more years from now. In 10 years they could go to, say, 19 March 2015 and access files and versions as they were on that date.

“That’s not to say you actually bring this up in Azure like accessing cloud storage [such as OneDrive or Dropbox]. The use case for backup is different, as are the workflows. For example, if your on premises server goes down you can recover to some other server, to a specific date. If you want to restore your data you can restore to another server on premises or boot up a virtual machine in Azure and restore to that. It’s a manual workflow where you install an agent and recover the data.”

HOW MUCH AND HOW TO GET IT

Infrastructure-as-a-service costs a monthly fee, and it’s surprisingly low. At the time of writing, the cost for backup is around $0.20 per GB per month. A company with 100GB of data would pay $240 per year for backup. Disaster recovery is $54 per virtual machine per month. Depending on your IT setup, the cost of replacing tape drives, back up servers, or external drives, will probably work out to be more than this over the course of a typical five year hardware cycle.

To get set up, any SME can contact a Microsoft channel partner who will help them get started. The business can either let the partner help on the technical side, or have their 
IT support company work with the partner.

It seems Microsoft Azure is aiming to make cloud backup and disaster recovery a service small businesses can’t go past. If you’re looking to enhance your data security it’s worth looking at Microsoft Azure.

[NOTE: since publishing this article Azure backup pricing has changed. See graphic below and go to this Azure blog to find out more.]

Azure-Backup-Pricing-change-blog