Tackling data backup and avoiding data loss in the construction sector

Like many companies in the building design and construction sector, this multi-site organisation was struggling to handle rapidly growing volumes of digital information, from laser scans of sites to blueprints and CAD files. Data loss couldn’t be tolerated. Current storage levels for both production and backup were only just keeping pace; backups were taking longer, and a lot of manual intervention from its small IT team was required to keep the system running. Large amounts of data were held on Network Attached Storage (NAS) at the site where the information had been generated and this data tended not to be accessed by other sites.

When the IT team discovered data loss from one of the sites that relied on locally cached copies, it was clearly time to find another solution. Fortunately, on that occasion, they were able to restore their data using files held on individual user devices although it took considerable time. However, it had become clear that the organisation was not managing its data effectively.

A strategic review identified immediate and longer-term solutions

Following a referral from another construction company, the organisation asked Fordway to carry out a strategic review of its backup systems and processes. It wanted both immediate recommendations, so the in-house team could understand and address the most critical issues, and a strategic roadmap for the future. The organisation’s long-term aim was to move services to the cloud, but in the short-term it needed a solution that would make optimum use of existing IT assets to handle ever-increasing data volumes while reducing the risk of data loss.

The review ranged from tools, systems and hardware to capacity and security. Fordway looked for weaknesses, inefficiencies and single points of failure, and assessed findings against industry standards and best practice. They then provided a detailed RAG (Red, Amber, Green) report setting out immediate tactical and longer-term strategic solutions.

In making recommendations the Fordway team highlighted that backups are no longer an isolated requirement but are increasingly allied to business continuity and disaster recovery. This organisation has to keep files for a sustained period of time to meet the governance and compliance requirements of its contracts. This means data retention periods and long-term data storage have to be part of its strategy. Additionally, although data is siloed by location and customer, there is a significant requirement to ensure copies are available in multiple locations to avoid a reoccurrence of the data loss.

Improving storage efficiency and avoiding data loss in the short-term

Unlike most organisations, the critical issues for this business are not line of business applications but the increasing volumes of data generated from working on customer sites. Fordway pointed out that current production and backup storage levels are only just coping with requirements, and require the IT team to carry out multiple manual interventions just to keep things running, which takes considerable time.

The ideal short-term solution would have been to increase the volume of storage available. However, budget constraints meant that this was not possible. Instead, the organisation has been taking steps to use its existing storage more efficiently, such as manually purging data on a weekly basis before backing it up. Fordway has identified the pain points and areas of potential failure arising from increasing data loads which need to be managed closely, and this has helped to minimise problems.

A staged move to improved resilience and data recovery

In the longer term, Fordway highlighted that the organisation needs to take a more strategic approach. Instead of carrying out time-consuming manual intervention, it needs to understand that data is a key business asset, which means prioritising its data storage and retention needs. The organisation needs to aim for a storage environment where key data is held in two separate locations. This will require significant changes to the existing infrastructure, whether replacing equipment with a higher capacity, higher specification solution or providing higher bandwidth links between the sites and from sites to the cloud to make large data transfers realistic.

The priority should be to address resilience and disaster recovery by having a second copy of critical data, which could be either on-premise and/or in the cloud. Options include Microsoft Azure for the ultimate archive and a closer, more accessible solution, such as transfer to external USB – still the best way to transfer large volumes of data and recommended by Microsoft and AWS among others – and off-site storage or NAS using tape as the off-site storage hardware. While the organisation’s existing backup system can handle both data replication and deduplication, Fordway recommended investigating other tools and methods to find the optimum solution once the organisation has developed its strategy. The process needs to be automated and monitored, and for security reasons data should be encrypted throughout.

To make the strategy effective, processes for data handling and retention need to be clearly defined and standardised. There is currently confusion across departments between backup, DR and BC processes and requirements, and information is either not documented or held in individual spreadsheets. Fordway recommended using different methods of handling the three types of data stored: ‘raw’ data, processed ‘live’ data, and archived data. BCP & DR goals should be agreed, with processes reviewed to ensure recovery can be achieved within parameters that are acceptable to the business.

Next steps: a review of cloud options

In the short-term the organisation has continued successfully managing its backups on a tactical basis using manual intervention. However, the review has helped it to understand the different types of data it handles and the need to put appropriate data retention solutions in place. It has now decided to review a new solution and is working with Fordway to evaluate the options available. While cloud has its advantages, both cost and the time required to download large files mean that it may not be the optimum solution for some types of data. Additionally, new approaches are emerging, such as an intelligent hybrid solution that combines cloud and a local cache of data. As an independent consultancy Fordway continually monitors the market for the latest developments and is able to provide the thorough, impartial analysis that this organisation requires.

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