Data protection needs to mirror the way in which applications are deployed and data is consumed in our IT infrastructure. As part of the Tech Field Day Dell Technologies Power Up the Portfolio presentations last month, I was hoping to hear about a fresh approach to backup. Instead, what we saw was a simplified product that attempts and fails to bridge the gap between old and new.
I highlighted many of the problems with current backup solutions in a blog post written in 2019. In summary, the main challenge is the lack of focus on applications and continuing to think of data protection in terms of infrastructure. Look at any backup solution today, and we still see references to virtual machines, physical servers and NAS servers. Even application-specific entities such as databases aren’t typically referenced by application name.
Why should we be making a change now?
Application packaging is moving to be more transient. Physical servers lasted in the data centre for maybe 3, 4 or 5+ years. Virtual machines have a shorter lifetime, mainly because the process of refresh is slightly easier than physical servers. Containers are coming and will introduce lifetimes measured in hours or days. Serverless technology means there’s no specific application entity to manage.
The obvious transition here is that we’re moving to a world where the data is the main asset to be protected, and that protection will be independent of application code or container. This move is a positive simplification process but challenges our existing data protection solutions.
Data protection for the next ten years needs to be much more focused on applications. Both the metadata we collect and how this information is presented to the user needs to have an application perspective.
Think of a simple example; imagine a virtual instance running MS SQL that starts life on-premises, moves to AWS and then to Azure. In Azure, the data moves to native SQL managed offering. How would this data (and any associated files or objects) be tracked across a data protection platform? It’s likely the technique would involve tags or some other metadata, but it’s doubtful the business owner will be able to see a single unified view of protected data over time.
What happens if I need a restore from 6 months ago? Where was the data living at the time? Backup solutions need to transform into a system of record for data protection that transcends the need for individuals to remember what server, VM or Kubernetes cluster was used to support an application at any given time in the past.
PowerProtect Data Manager
OK, so the message is clear. We need to be application-focused with our backups. With the introduction of PowerProtect Data Manager (PPDM), Dell had an opportunity to start this transition. Dell Technologies announced the solution at DTW in 2019, launched in July later that year and is moving to the 19.5 release at the time of publication.
It may seem a surprise to be at version 19.5 already; however, Dell hasn’t tried to pull off an IBM magic trick and start at version 10. Instead, all the previous Dell backup products were aligned to use year.release version names prior to the PPDM announcement (thanks to Preston for the explanation in this blog post). This move both simplifies and confuses the understanding of what PPDM really is. In one respect the software seems to be a new platform, in another, it looks like the continuation of one or more of the family of Networker, Avamar and/or Data Domain products.
New for Old
Let’s assume that PPDM is totally new. In that case, Dell Technologies should have taken the opportunity to rethink the backup process. However, as we saw in the canned demonstration at TFD, PPDM continues to refer to assets that represent servers, virtual instances/clusters and databases.
I’m not alone in thinking that PPDM seems like a step backwards from where Dell was before. Around 16 minutes in, my good friend Enrico Signoretti questions the depth and diversity of the platform too.
OK, let’s step back for a moment. As we highlighted in a previous post, the Dell acquisition of EMC transferred in thousands of customers with many petabytes of backup data under management. Tens of thousands of Dell customers still use Networker/Avamar and will be reticent to move away from those technologies. This inertia means Dell Tech needs to both address new customers with modern data protection needs (like containers) while continuing to find a path forward for existing customers that may or may not want to modernise away from Networker/Avamar. It’s the classic adage of being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
A Way Forward
There is a way to move forward. With a clean slate, PPDM could have been a well-structured, modern data platform that provides an application focus. In parallel, customers can be encouraged to move from older platforms with incentives and transformation assistance. We know that over time, applications are re-written and moved to newer technology. This opportunity becomes the point to switch over backup to a new solution. In the background, legacy or “museum” environments gradually fade away, leaving long-term or permanent retention images to be managed.
So why hasn’t this transformation happened?
With so many customers still using legacy technology, the lock-in is significant. Dell sees recurring licence revenue for these customers year on year. Why spoil a good thing? Perhaps the inflection point will occur when legacy solutions cost more to maintain than the income received.
The Architect’s View
As I reflect on this post and the content in the PowerProtect presentations, in the future, I hope to see:
- Clearer representation of the Dell PowerProtect portfolio and the individual components. I’m still not sure exactly which products are available for purchase and how the legacy Networker and Avamar platforms fit in.
- A roadmap for transformation to an application-focused solution, including support for containers and eventually serverless.
- A greater understanding of how public cloud and SaaS applications are protected. I don’t recollect seeing any Dell solutions for protecting Office 365, or Salesforce, for example.
As a mammoth organisation, Dell Technologies has to steer the container ship in a new direction, and there’s a lot of inertia in that process. However, there are many competitors in the backup space, and the lock-in of legacy doesn’t last forever. The coming decade is going to be an interesting one in seeing how the transformation process takes place.
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