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Mainframe backup brings different challenges to backup administrators

Alan Earls

Ask Paul Strassmann, a long-time mainframe maven and now a committed cloud commentator, about mainframe backup, and you'll get an earful that boils down to fuggedaboutit.

But despite

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his and others' view that mainframe backup is a dinosaur, mainframe backup issues persist. According to Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Lauren Whitehouse, "It's a very different space than open-system backup. The technologies for mainframe backup haven't kept pace with those for open systems. For example, the concept of filling a tape cartridge doesn't exist, which is why 'stacking' on VTL [virtual tape library] virtual media creates big value benefits," she said.

But that splendid isolation is starting to break down. For instance, she noted, Bus-Tech Inc., recently acquired by EMC Corp., is a "bridge technology" that enables EMC to sell open-system backup products to mainframe shops. VTL vendors like Fujitsu have also opened the door to the sale of open-system tape devices to mainframe environments. For example, it's done this through its relationship with Advanced Digital Information Corporation (ADIC), as well as its own VTL product, "rather than just the Oracle/StorageTek- and IBM-dominated physical and virtual tape devices for mainframes," she added.

"At a high level, the issue of mainframe backup is that the cost point tends to be substantially higher," said Gartner analyst David Russell. He said the types of resources you are using, whether tape or disk, are substantially more expensive than in the open-system world, all of which adds up to real financial pain in difficult economic times. For better or for worse, however, there is still a great deal of important workload on mainframes. He says this combination of critical data and high cost structure has made for an aversion to risk that has tended to keep some of the newer recovery notions "out of reach of many mainframe shops."

"It is a market that tends to be very risk averse. They need higher availability and uptime, and the importance of data is deemed to be very high, so change control is in place and introduction of a new technology is done slowly. But economic factors are on the side of change and there is now a chance to absorb these new technologies," said Russell.

Mainframe backup vs. open-system backup

By contrast, in the open-system world, new technologies have been aggressively deployed in part because of a significant price decline. With that as a backdrop, Russell said there is now a growing acceptance of the idea that things like SATA drives and data deduplication have proven enough in the open-systems world to be considered for mainframe usage, he explained.

Another big issue shaping mainframe backup for backup administrators is that many organisations are at a point where they need to consider acquiring new resources. It could be their tape infrastructure is going out of support, or they may need to buy new capacity and they may believe they will be transitioning more workload to open systems in the future, explained Russell. "So that is increasing their propensity to try to 'future proof' their investments. They want to get technologies that are optimised for mainframes but could also be repurposed for open systems," he said.

Specifically, Luminex Corp. and Bus-Tech are the key players in terms of providing the communications and protocol conversions that can enable adoption of open-system products. According to Russell, Luminex has had a lot of skills in open systems and Bus-Tech more so in the mainframe space -- and each added a lot of credibility to the marketplace with their background and knowledge. Also, according to Russell, Luminex has been best known for being able to translate mainframe attachment to open-system kinds of technology. The company has had a longstanding relationship with EMC Data Domain and has frequently been deployed with EMC Data Domain or other disk or tape library vendors.

Bus-Tech, too, works with other open-system-oriented companies such as FalconStor Software. In fact, EMC represented a substantial portion of Bus-Tech's business. And Russell said he believes EMC looked at them and saw a way to take that intellectual property to build a solution which would be entirely EMC. "Users and resellers are much more comfortable with a solution that's wholly owned rather than based on the long-term viability of a partnership," said Russell.

Shane Jackson, senior director for product marketing at EMC, noted the change won't be too dramatic, since Bus-Tech was already a key partner, integrated into the company's solution selling effort. But longer term, Shane said EMC hopes to broaden access to technologies such as deduplication for the mainframe market.

Russell agreed. For "consumers" not much changes with the Bus-Tech acquisition. However, he does predict that EMC and IBM Corp., in particular, will continue to make efforts to deliver more open-system functionality to the mainframe market.

And, he offers some cautions about setting expectations too high. "Unlike open-systems data, which was less disciplined to start with, mainframe data doesn't dedupe or reduce at such an impressive rate. The 25:1 or even 50:1 ratios that you hear of in the open-system world are more like 5:1 and certainly less than 10:1 in the mainframe world because the data doesn't lend itself to the same level of compression," he noted.

"I think we will see an expansion of efforts to introduce more open-system technology that can help reduce the price point for mainframe backup, but it may not be as dramatic as some expect," he added.

About this author: About this author: Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.