Optimizing the cost of your cloud backup

A well-known challenge of new technologies such as cloud backup is that there are no set standards. Take pricing, what would you expect to pay for storing 10 GB of your data on cloud today? Given that the answer can be anything from zero to a few hundred dollars, how do you know that you are not paying more than you really should for your requirements? The question worth asking essentially is - since businesses are different and have different backup needs, why shouldn’t they be allowed to control how much they want to pay for cloud backup?

We broached this question in our recent Zmanda Cloud Backup (ZCB) webinar titled “How to get the maximum out of ZCB” (recording available here) and looked at ways to optimize ZCB costs for one’s requirements. While exploring different options, we realized something interesting – ZCB’s flexibility not only makes it very versatile, but when combined with its pay-as-you-go pricing model, it also allows great leeway in optimizing backup costs. In this post, I will try to explore the options available in ZCB to do just that.

Before we begin, allow me to clarify – while the bulk of this post focuses on cost optimization options with ZCB, the intent is to provide a systematic way of thinking about cloud backup costs. If you are a ZCB user, you can use these options directly. And if you are not a ZCB user, you can map some of these options to your backup solution (and for the benefit of all of us, please do remember to post your results in a comment below!) and see how better (or worse) it fares.

First, a look at the ZCB pricing model

ZCB’s pricing model has two components:

  • Fixed monthly license fee: $4.95 per month
  • Usage based fee:
    • Storage: $0.15 per GB-month
    • Upload to cloud: $0.15 per GB
    • Data download from cloud: Free

Admittedly, this does look more complicated than a fixed monthly cost, but its complexity really emerges from its flexibility, which does leave a lot of room for optimizing costs. Let’s see how.

Step 1: “Divide and conquer” the monthly license fee!

Got multiple machines to back up? Congratulations! Unlike most other backup services, which charge a fee per machine, ZCB allows a single ZCB license to be used to protect an unlimited number of systems. So if you have, say, 5 or 10 machines to be backed up, the fixed monthly cost per backup system becomes non-significant. (However, just be aware that machines that share a ZCB license can potentially access the backup data of each other – although use of encryption can alleviate the potential privacy issue).

Step 2: Optimize the usage based fee!

The usage based fee with ZCB simply means you pay for data storage and data uploads. Thus, optimizing this fee can involve two steps:

Step 2.1: Optimize your total backup size

Let’s first try to see how much data you really need to backup and how to shrink the size of backup media to store the backed up data. ZCB offers following options here:

  • Carefully choose what data needs to be backed up: While backing up applications such as Exchange with ZCB, you can select specific datastores instead of all datastores. For file system backups, you entirely control what gets backed up (ZCB does NO automatic selection of *.mp3, *.jpg files etc.) and you can also specify an “exclude list” to skip backing up large user files by mentioning patterns such as *.mp3 or *.mov. This point may look obvious, but doing this is not easily allowed by many cloud backup applications which attempt to maximize your backup data size, for obvious reasons ;).

    Figure 1: Exclude list

    Figure 1: Exclude list

  • Use backup levels: Incremental and differential backups contain only the data which changed since a last backup and hence reduces backup size. Use incremental and differential backups judiciously to reduce data size while still adhering to your backup strategy.

    Figure 2: Differential backups – backup changed data since last full backup

    Figure 2: Differential backups – backup changed data since last full backup

    Figure 3: Incremental backups – backup changed data since any last backup

    Figure 3: Incremental backups – backup changed data since any last backup

  • Choose backup frequency: How often you backup directly impacts your total backup data size. So you need to choose the right backup frequency which fits your backup requirements but also keeps your total data size manageable. With ZCB you can choose to do only manual backups (when you want) or choose from powerful scheduling options to perform backups every 15 mins to a certain date in every year.

    Figure 4: Choose backup frequency

    Figure 4: Choose backup frequency

  • Enable compression: Depending on your data type (document, text files are more compression friendly), enabling compression may help you shrink your storage requirement by about 10-50%.Here is a figure which summarizes all of these ZCB options:

    Figure 5: Summary of all options to optimize total backup size

    Figure 5: Summary of all options to optimize total backup size

Step 2.2: Optimize how much cloud storage is used to store backup data

Now that you have optimized the total backup data size, let’s see how you can reduce the storage required on the cloud for keeping this backup data. Here are your options with ZCB:

  • Blend cloud storage with local storage: ZCB allows you to store all or some of your backup data to your local or network storage. e.g. you may choose to store only certain full backups on cloud storage while using your local/network disk storage for your primary/frequent backups. Below is an example:

    Figure 6: A sample backup strategy to minimize cloud storage (only monthly backups go to cloud, rest all backups go to local/network storage)

    Figure 6: A sample backup strategy to minimize cloud storage (only monthly backups go to cloud, rest all backups go to local/network storage)

  • Judiciously choose the cloud data retention policy: ZCB allows complete control over the retention period for your backup data. So you can choose to adopt as aggressive retention policy as your backup policy allows, such as “retain full backups for 2 weeks and retain incremental backups for 2 days”.
  • Monitor, Monitor and Monitor: Monitor your cloud usage regularly and purge old backup runs which you don’t require. For monitoring, you can use Amazon bills, ZCB Global Dashboard and jets3t tool. And for purging old backup data which is not required, you can click on File > Purge Backup Runs Before and select a historic date all the backup runs before which will be deleted by ZCB. Do note that deleting any data which is required by subsequent backup runs (such as deleting full backups while retaining incremental/differential backups) may make your dependent backups useless for any restoration requirement in future.

    Figure 7: Purging old backup data which is no longer required

    Figure 7: Purging old backup data which is no longer required

  • Exploit the ZCB free tier: ZCB offers 5 GB free cloud storage and uploads for each of the 5 Amazon S3 regions, making it possible to use up to 25 GB free cloud storage across all 5 regions completely free! You can scatter your data across all the 5 AWS regions to fully exploit this free tier. (With two more AWS regions supported in ZCB 4.1, this free tier will soon become 35 GB free tier and hence this option becomes even more effective!).

    Figure 8: The ZCB free tier

    Figure 8: The ZCB free tier

Quite a handful ways to optimize costs, isn’t it? And perhaps the best part is - since ZCB as well as the pricing model is super-flexible, the above is not even an exhaustive list!

Are you a ZCB user? If yes, do consider these steps and let us know if/how they worked for you. And if you are not a ZCB user, I’m very curious to know how you are optimizing your costs with your current solution?

Have a “cost effective” new year!

-Nik

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