Although the terms backup and archive are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually refer to two completely different processes. Both deal with long-term data storage, yes, but that is where the similarities end.
Backups are designed to provide an organization with a way of recovering its data following some sort of catastrophe. As such, a backup can be thought of as a restorable, point-in-time copy of an organization’s data, or of entire systems.
Conversely, archives are not designed to act as a rescue mechanism to be used following a data loss event. Instead, archives are typically used as a tool for reducing storage costs.
It’s no secret that organizations accumulate data over time. The problem with data accumulation is there are costs associated with storage. If an organization were to allow data to accumulate indefinitely, then that organization would have to periodically add primary storage in order to accommodate all of the new data being created.
Data archiving is based on the idea that data can become stale over time. This is especially true for unstructured data. A five-year-old PowerPoint® presentation, for example, probably isn’t something that gets used every day. Data archiving systems are able to identify data that has not been accessed recently and then move that data off of the organization’s primary storage and onto a less expensive storage medium.
Data archiving solutions vary considerably but can generally be grouped into two different categories:
1. Online archiving
These solutions move data onto less expensive storage, but keep the data online and accessible to its owner. These types of solutions might, for example, be based around cloud storage, or an on-premises storage array that utilizes high-capacity but low-performance hard drives.
2. Offline archiving
Offline archiving tends to be much more cost-effective than online archiving, but sacrifices easy accessibility. Offline archives are commonly written to tape.
In the case of an online archiving solution, a user might not even realize that their data has been archived. Opening an archived document might take a little bit longer than the user would expect, but the document is still available for use. Offline data archiving solutions, however, sometimes give the illusion that files have been deleted. In other cases, archived files are still displayed within the file system, but an icon or other indicator shows that the file has been archived. In either case, the user is unable to access the archived file without getting assistance from the IT department.
This, of course, raises the question of why an organization would even bother with offline archiving. Why not just delete data that is unlikely to ever be needed again? The reasons for retaining aging data vary from one organization to the next. In some cases, an organization may be required by law to retain data for a specific length of time. In other cases, there may be a corporate policy stipulating that aging data is to be retained in case it is ever needed in the future.
So why can’t you use backup software to accomplish this? Why not just back up the aging data and then remove it from primary storage?
Backup solutions tend to overwrite—or retire—backups after a specific length of time. Depending on how an organization’s backups are set up, the system may only retain backups for a month or two. Archives, on the other hand, can store data for decades. Furthermore, an archive system can sometimes automate the process of identifying aging data and moving that data to the archive. If you were to use backup software as a solution for archiving data, this would largely require a manual process.
So, as you can see, backups and archives serve two completely different purposes. Backups are used for recovering data following a catastrophic event, whereas archives are used to move aging data off of primary storage in an effort to reduce storage costs.
Brien Posey is a 13-time Microsoft® MVP with over two decades of IT experience. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities and has served as a network engineer for the United States Department of Defense at Fort Knox. Posey has also worked as a network administrator for some of the largest insurance companies in America.
You can follow Brien on Twitter® at @BrienPosey
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