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What Does Virtualization Mean for Backup?

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Dale Shulmistra

Data Protection Specialist @ Invenio IT

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virtualization

Downtime can be enormously expensive for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). A massive data-loss event, such as a ransomware attack or server failure, can disrupt an organization’s entire operations with widespread effects. Businesses might lose the ability to conduct transactions, employee productivity could stall, and customers might permanently disappear.  According to a 2021 survey by the International Data Corporation, approximately 45% of businesses lost employee productivity due to downtime, and over 30% lost revenue.

The ability to rapidly recover data after a disaster is crucial for every organization. It minimizes damage to your reputation, limits the financial impact, and potentially saves your business from having to close its doors forever. In an ideal situation, businesses recognize the importance of rapid data recovery and have a strong backup system with multiple recovery methods that allow them to use the quickest and most efficient restoration option for their specific circumstances.

One of the data recovery methods available is virtualization, which has become a game-changer for business continuity. It enables organizations to restore a protected machine — including files, applications, and operating systems — almost instantly, drastically reducing the chances of extended downtime. While virtualization itself is not a new concept, many smaller organizations have yet to discover the crucial role it can play in business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR).

Keep reading to learn how virtualization works and what it could mean for your organization’s backups.

What Is Virtualization?

As the name suggests, virtualization is a type of computing technology that creates a virtual version of something, effectively transforming your hardware into software. It’s important because it allows you to use multiple operating systems as virtual machines on the same physical hardware.

If you’ve ever used remote desktop software to control another computer from your own device, that’s a very basic form of virtualization. However, to get a better understanding of how this technology revolutionized backups, let’s unpack the process a little further.

You probably already know that computers are made up of several components, including:

  • Central processing units (CPUs)
  • Memory
  • Storage
  • Networks

Most people in a typical organization use only a small percentage of these resources on their individual computers, leaving the unused resources sitting idle. As such, it makes sense for those businesses to convert their vast IT physical resources into virtual resources that they can put to work rather than to waste.

This revelation is nothing new. Virtualization has been around since the 1960s and the early stages of the internet, when companies like IBM and GE championed its use. Until relatively recently, it was primarily useful for supercomputers. However, as the technology has progressed alongside increases in bandwidth, virtualization has become a feasible option for SMBs with much less extensive computer systems.

How Does Virtualization Work in Backups?

Virtualization isn’t exclusively a technology for data backups. For instance, developers rely on virtual environments as a means of testing software and applications. For organizations concerned about BC/DR, however, it has a very different purpose.

Backup Virtualization in Action

Backup virtualization is a process that allows businesses to temporarily establish a restore point as a virtual machine (VM). As just one example, they can turn isolated servers, storage, and networks into virtual resources. These VMs run independently while sharing the resources of the host machine.

Organizations can determine what they need and divide these pooled resources into multiple virtual environments. This process, referred to as creating hypervisors, is similar to loading an entire operating system directly onto a computer, giving instant access to every single file, folder, and application on that system. You can do this on one machine or multiple ones, as long as they have networking capabilities.

How Virtualization Relates to BC/DR Needs

The ability to duplicate the contents of physical computers in virtual environments has huge implications for business continuity.

Through virtualization, businesses can instantly regain access to mission-critical systems after a catastrophic data-loss event, even if the actual full data restoration will take much longer. This enables them to continue operations until they can permanently restore any machines affected by a disruption.

Additionally, some BC/DR solutions continue performing backups in the virtual environment and capture any changes to data until the full restoration is complete. As a result, you don’t lose any data in the time it takes to bring your system back online, and everything is completely up-to-date when it’s all said and done.

When to Use Virtualization

Your organization should use backup virtualization any time you need fast and full access to a protected machine. That way, you can access the data and systems you need without waiting for the restoration process to finish.

With that said, don’t assume that your virtualization will work when the time comes. Performing virtualization tests, both locally and in the cloud, is a vital part of your disaster recovery planning. It allows you to identify any issues before you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.

What Virtualization Looks Like in an Actual Disaster

For the sake of clarifying the concept of virtualization, let’s play out how it would work when the worst happens.

In this hypothetical scenario, a ransomware attack has infected your local servers and individual PCs across your network, bringing your operations to a total standstill. While that may not be a disaster you care to imagine, it’s well within the realm of possibility considering that global ransomware attacks were up 95% in 2023 compared to 2022.

When that ransomware attack hits, it places your business in a perilous position, with your financial stability and customer trust hanging in the balance. Your ability to recover depends largely on what backup system you have in place. If you’ve implemented a high-quality solution, you might have a few recovery methods available. For example, you may have access to a rollback option that allows you to bring your system to a point before the attack occurred. This essentially undoes any widespread file changes without the need for a full restore.

In the event that you do need a full restore, it’s likely to take some time, particularly if you have a substantial amount of data. Unfortunately, every minute that goes by when you don’t have access to your data and applications affects your bottom line and how customers view your company.

The beauty of backup virtualization is that you don’t have to wait. When you virtualize a protected machine, it gives you instant access to the critical systems you need to keep core operations running. In practical terms, that means you can bring essential systems back online within minutes rather than days. Your customers don’t get frustrated by the disruption, and your organization comes across as capable and well-prepared.

The Positives and Negatives of Virtualization

When you put it together, all this information paints a fairly rosy picture of virtualization. While it’s true that virtualization can be a valuable BC/DR tool, it’s also important to recognize that there are limits on what it can do.

Benefits

Virtualization offers a variety of advantages for businesses that want to ensure they have readily available backups when disaster strikes. The most significant upsides of backup virtualization include:

  • Faster access to protected machines
  • The ability to virtually restore not only files but also operation systems and software
  • Almost instantaneous data recovery
  • Continuity of mission-critical systems and operations
  • Reduced or eliminated downtime

Backup virtualization adds a layer of protection that gives businesses peace of mind. It ensures that they won’t lose access to their most critical systems, even in the worst data-loss scenarios. As long as they can boot their backups as virtual machines, they can get back in business in mere seconds. That’s a far cry from the hours, days, or even weeks that it can take to complete a full recovery.

Virtualization also has benefits outside of backups. For starters, it offers cost savings and infrastructure efficiency by maximizing existing hardware resources. Because businesses simply turn to resources they already have, they don’t need to spend money on additional equipment. It also keeps costs predictable and generates a higher level of efficiency for in-house equipment that’s already operating, cutting down operational costs. Finally, organizations can get by with less physical space since they don’t have to sandwich additional equipment into an office or other workspace.

Drawbacks

In the general sense, virtualization has more advantages than disadvantages, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect solution. Depending on the systems they deploy, businesses might discover these problems with virtualization:

  • Not every application or server works correctly within a virtualization environment. This limits what businesses can accomplish with it and may prevent them from quickly bringing essential operations back online.
  • There’s an increased risk when businesses rely on one physical host to run multiple important applications and servers. If an incident takes that primary host offline, it can have a ripple effect throughout the organization, which is why it’s so essential to have a disaster recovery plan that accounts for this possibility.
  • When an organization relies solely on virtualization, the threat of a data breach might be more dire. You can help mitigate the risk by taking a multi-faceted approach to backups.
  • Backup virtualization isn’t the best recovery method for every data loss scenario. It’s typically only necessary when you want fast and full access to a protected machine, whereas a file or folder-level restore is usually your best option for smaller-scale data loss.

Another concern about backup virtualization is that a business could suffer further data loss while employing it. Most organizations want to avoid data loss at all costs, but they sometimes neglect to consider the file changes that they make in the virtual environment. With some systems, that data isn’t recoverable because backups stop until systems are back online. To work around this issue, make sure you use a solution that continues the backup process while virtualization is in use.

Perhaps the most significant limitation of virtualization is the fact that it’s not a permanent solution. Organizations that see backup virtualization as the end-all and be-all of their BC/DR plan are setting themselves up for problems. However, it’s a good option for businesses that want to keep imperative processes running until they regain full access to their systems.

The Differences Between Local, Cloud, and Hybrid Virtualization

Some backup solutions give you the option to perform virtualization locally or in the cloud. There’s also a hybrid option, which intelligently uses resources from both the cloud and local device for optimal performance. Let’s look at a breakdown of each type and explore why you might want to use them.

Local Virtualization

Local virtualization uses your on-site hardware to power the virtual environment. For instance, if you have a local backup device, it can serve as the power source for your virtualization. Depending on the backup solution you chose, this device might also continue to consistently perform backups even while restoration of the primary machine is underway.

In most cases, local virtualization is your best bet for speed, performance, and simplicity. It ensures that your virtual environments run smoothly with minimal application hiccups, while also simplifying the restore of the original protected machine.

Cloud Virtualization

Cloud virtualization relies primarily on off-site hardware and powers the virtual machine over an internet connection. Within BC/DR, cloud virtualization offers a crucial extra layer of protection for scenarios in which local devices are not accessible.

Imagine that a natural disaster, such as a fire or flood, destroys your physical infrastructure or your local device is completely infected with ransomware. Your local virtualization is suddenly useless, leaving you unable to restore your organization’s critical operations. If you have cloud virtualization, you can still fall back on it to virtualize backups that you stored in the cloud. Some data backup providers give their customers access to cloud resources with stringent security measures, so your data is available and protected from unauthorized access.

While cloud virtualization can have solid performance, it’s rarely as fast or efficient as local virtualization. For that reason, your organization should probably rely on the cloud only if your local devices have become inaccessible or unusable.

Hybrid Virtualization

When virtualization relies on both a local machine and a cloud service, it’s known as hybrid virtualization. A good hybrid solution automatically connects to a VM through a secure virtual private network (VPN). Hybrid virtualization, like its cloud counterpart, is also a good choice for organizations to use when they’ve lost access to their local virtualization.

Putting Backup Virtualization to Use in Your Business

Backup virtualization might not be new in the technology world, but it’s an unfamiliar concept to many SMBs. Some organizations assume that backing up their data in virtual environments requires a lot of technology know-how or comes at a price tag that’s far beyond their budgets. However, virtualization is a much more common practice than some business leaders realize, and it’s available even with affordable backup systems designed for small businesses.

Backup virtualization is one of many things to consider when you choose a data backup method. To learn more about all the recovery methods available for your organization, reach out to the experts at Invenio IT. Set up a call with a data protection specialist who can tell you more about backup virtualization and help you find the solution that’s the best fit for your needs.

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