Volume 10, Number 3 -- January 19, 2010

Unitrends Delivers Backup Simplicity with D2D Appliances

Published: January 19, 2010

by Alex Woodie

Complexity can be a killer in the IT business. Layer too many moving parts into a given business process, and you can be sure that somebody will find a way to break it. One IT vendor that's been helping small and mid-sized businesses root out complexity from their backup and recovery processes is Unitrends, which has quietly amassed a substantial customer base with its all-in-one line of disk-to-disk (D2D) and D2D2D backup appliances.

Mark Campbell, the CTO and COO of Unitrends, knows a thing or two about the lasting power of simple yet elegant designs. Campbell was running NCR's worldwide server business in 1988 when IBM launched the all-in-one Application System/400. Twenty-two years later, the Power Systems server (as the AS/400 is now called) is still protecting users from the pitfalls of IT complexity through features like its integrated database, which simplifies programming and maintenance.

Campbell, who received his PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of South Carolina-Columbia after leaving NCR, says the Unitrends boxes deliver a similar level of simplicity as what made the AS/400 a successful and lasting design.

"The iSeries was designed so you don't have to worry about the database," Campbell says in a phone interview. "We designed [the Unitrends backup appliances] so you don't have to go through the guts of backup. We're a vertically integrated solution. It's about the experience and making it easy to use, integrated, simple, elegant. It's also about reducing that operational expenditure."

With more than 1,500 customers, you could say that Unitrends' mantra about simplicity and cost-effectiveness has resonated in the marketplace. What drives these organizations--mostly SMBs with between 20 and 200 employees and modest backup requirements--toward Unitrends solutions is the capability for users to "set it and forget it," says Campbell, who joined Unitrends in June 2008. "We don't sell to too many companies who have a backup expert," he says. "At most they have a storage expert. They're just looking for something that works and they can forget about."

Unitrends Feeds and Speeds

Unitrends' line of Data Protection Vaults and Cross Vaults range in size from desktop-sized units that cost $4,000 to big rack-mounted systems that cost more than 10 times that. The devices are based on quad-core X64 processors, inexpensive SATA drives, and a streamlined implementation of Linux. On top of this server core, Unitrends deploys a full application that powers the backup, recovery, replication, compression, and encryption routines.

Organizations with multiple offices can install a Unitrends appliance at each site and replicate data across a WAN for archival and disaster recovery purposes, while relying on those same devices to back up local servers on the LAN, a form of protection called "cross-vaulting." Configuring local and remote storage is not complicated, and requires nothing more than dragging and dropping a pie chart on Unitrends' Adobe Flex-based Web interface.

Unitrends' appliances work with more than 100 different operating system variants out of the box, including i5/OS version 5, which the company started supporting in 2006, and i/OS version 6. For most computer platforms, Unitrends deploys a small backup agent, which communicates with the Unitrends appliance over a LAN (no tape emulation for Unitrends, which is not a VTL vendor).

Unitrends previously offered a backup agent for i/OS. But about two years ago it found that it got faster throughput by basing its setup on concurrent FTP primitives to stream System i backups to the appliance, Campbell says. While Unitrends includes its own backup software with the solution, it uses the System i's native save commands to back up data and the assorted objects, such as user profiles and configuration settings, that make System i backups unique. "That's one of the challenges of iSeries," Campbell says. "If you have the data, that's just half the battle."

Sales to i/OS shops (or at least enterprises that have an iSeries, System i, or Power Systems server running somewhere in their organization) have picked up recently, Campbell says.

"We've really been pushing the iSeries a little bit more in last six to eight months," says Campbell, who estimates Unitrends has about 50 customers using the appliance to back up their i/OS servers. "We don't go out and say 'We're the greatest iSeries backup solution in the world.' We say, under certain circumstances, if you have a certain amount of iSeries data--100 GB to 200 GB, max--we can be a good solution for you, if you're trying to lower your operational expenditure and trying to consolidate cap-ex."

Powering Simplification

Unitrends competes against the traditional backup and recovery software vendors, including Symantec's BackupExec, IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager, EMC, and CommVault. It also competes against tape-based backup and VTL appliances, and, increasingly, online backup providers (although bandwidth limits the amount of data one would want to recover off the "cloud"). The vendor competes indirectly against Data Domain and other data de-duplication vendors as well.

Unitrends has displaced a fair number of Symantec BackupExec implementations, Campbell says. "If you have BackupExec, you're either very happy . . . or you want something a little bit less expensive and not having to worry about file fragmentation on the application or storage server," he says. And when incompatibilities arise between backup products and the underlying operating system, such as what occurred last year with Microsoft and Symantec with Backup Exec 12.5 and Windows Server 2008 R2, customers get stuck in the middle. "They just get sick and tired of it," he says.

"We don't have a lot of bloatware associated with guys who place their backup software on Windows," Campbell continues. "When I joined the company, I was attracted to the simple premise of 'Windows is fine. I like Windows,' and all that. But when you're backing up a terabyte of data, you're going to fragment the living heck out of that disk, unless you wrote some software and are using a different kind of file system. That's why we use a Linux distribution for the underlying appliance."

The focus on simplicity extended into licensing with last year's release of the Recovery-7 Series line of D2D and D2D2D appliances. With that release, Unitrends no longer charged based on the number of servers connected to the appliance or the amount of storage they used.

"People just wanted to be able to buy an appliance and use it. They don't want to pay an agent tax. They don't want to be nickel and dimed for the amount of storage they use. That's what Recovery-7 Series was about. We introduced the concept of 'no limits licensing.' Buy this thing and use it forever."

Other enhancements delivered last year include the new Flex UI, "grid-level" software that lets users monitor multiple appliances from a single UI, better data ingest rates thanks to new parallel commit techniques, and RAID enhancements. In 2010, Unitrends is likely to unveil a new hybrid cloud storage strategy that gives customers the option of backing their data over the Internet to an offsite storage provider. "We definitely have customers who have asked us for the ability not to have to worry about running their own vault and would like to vault up to the cloud," he says.

At the end of the day, Unitrends has a clear and straightforward goal. "What our customers care about is getting most backup bang for the buck," Campbell says. There's nothing complicated about that.


Unitrends Adds OS/400 Support to D2D Backup Appliances

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Editor: Alex Woodie
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
Shannon O'Donnell, Timothy Prickett Morgan
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