Queen’s University School of Computing
Queen’s University’s School of Computing in Canada needed to replace its more than ten-year-old LTO-4 tape system and associated software. “We had been using the same software for over 20 years. It had served us well but didn’t offer the flexibility in licensing or clients that we needed for our planned future growth”, said Ben Hall, Senior Business Analyst at Queen's University.
Some of their applications and data types are quite obscure. Therefore, it needed compatibility with a very broad array of different technologies. This was a key part of the challenge for the IT team. Its overall environment is heterogeneous, with a variety of hardware on multiple architectures, frequently incorporating legacy hardware and software. At the same time, the university continues to create unique, new environments, such as developing new IOT devices on unusual platforms.
“We needed a backup and recovery solution that was as future-proof as possible. There were some other very important requirements – the fact that we also needed flexible and reasonable license costs. This is something that seems to be largely foreign to enterprise backup solutions in 2020. An ability to work well with the vendor was also key. Our needs are niche and relatively unique - not every vendor we contacted understood this. Bacula System’s sales representative quickly put us in contact with engineers and developers. Bacula’s open source roots are clear at every stage” said Ben.
The School’s IT environment needed something special to meet its challenges. Its deployment needs were somewhat led by the fact that it has no consistent data profile; all of its servers are quite unique. There are a host of Solaris, Linux servers, file servers, and the School frequently needs to save machine states so that it can quickly re-create research environments.
Two main areas of backup that need taking care of are research backup and administration backup: “The administration backup is reasonably straightforward, similar to any other organization”, said Ben. “But it takes a powerful solution to meet our research needs: we have more than twenty-five research labs, all of them with very different data. Some of them have many tens of TBs of data, spread over many different storage pools. The database of records of files for just one of our machines is over ten Gigabytes per run.” said Ben.
“We made the decision to migrate away from Sun-licensed Legato software. Sun was bought out by Oracle, and Legato was bought out by EMC who were purchased by Dell. All parties changed their licensing models since our initial and subsequent purchases over the years. Given this odd and convoluted history for all parties, there was no upgrade path or migration path for our existing software licenses. By comparison, Bacula offers a clear choice of licensing models that is fair and easy to understand. It’s also great to know that there is no charge for data volume, so it makes it far easier than other vendors to predict future costs”, said Ben.
“When it came time to replace our aging hardware and software, I naturally reached out to several enterprise vendors of Open Source software. I appreciated the fact that Bacula’s sales responded quickly but in a way that wasn’t pushy. They let us come to them. This has since turned into a very collaborative relationship that we value.” “I contacted other backup and recovery vendors, but their sales contacts were frequently pushy and pretty aggressive. Bacula’s sales team were instead more reasonable and pragmatic - not to mention helpful”, said Ben.
Queen’s University began discussions with Bacula in late 2019. It started a technical trial in November and purchased the software at the end of calendar 2019. It is now bringing it on-line in a production capacity. “This ~six month setup window would have been shorter if our needs were simpler, if we had been able to devote more time to the process, and if training hadn’t been delayed largely because of COVID-19” said Ben.
“We took Bacula Systems’ new online live training. It was seamless and very fluent. One of the things that impressed me was that it was given by Bacula Systems senior experts. As a result of taking the training, we were able to understand the software on a much deeper level. We were also given a free version of BWeb which I consider to be an essential part of the day-to-day operation and monitoring of a Bacula solution. I have to say that the remote training was fantastic” said Ben.
“What’s also helped is that Bacula's engineers have been readily available and have provided tremendous input as well as going the extra mile for us. For example, they compiled custom versions of Bacula software that are compatible with our technology. We are always able to talk quickly and directly with Bacula's senior technical team. In my experience, this is quite remarkable, and usually is just not possible with other vendors, even those we have been doing business with for years” said Ben.
“We found Bacula to be wonderfully agile, and very often be able to cover additional niche apps and operating systems that other vendors just couldn't do. We chose Bacula because of the technical features, our access to their engineering and support teams, their willingness to work with us, and the price of their solution. Another major consideration was their open source roots. This is an excellent fallback for us. - we think of it as a safety net. We do not worry about being in an uncomfortable position again in the future regarding licensing, because at the end of the day, Bacula’s enterprise offering is built on its open source base and sits comfortably within the open source community” said Ben.
“The performance thus far has met our expectations”, said Ben. “We are confident that current bottlenecks are with our network and not the software. We are also confident that between the open source plugins, enterprise plugins, and Bacula’s roadmap, they will continue to meet our needs in the future. Meanwhile, we are seeing some nice performance improvements: for example, one of our machines has several hundred million small files on it. Just traversing the file system ahead of a backup can take weeks, depending on our approach. For example, if we did an rsync of two data pools to replicate this data, it used to take more than a week to complete - and that was just to check that the files were the same in both places. With Bacula, we were able to reduce that time by 80%. And we know we can make further improvements to our infrastructure to reduce that time”, said Ben.
Regarding costs savings, Ben stated: “Although a straight apples-to-apples comparison is hard to do, I can say that one of the competing quotes for the software was twice the cost, another was honestly ten times the cost for something approaching similar capabilities. With Bacula Enterprise, we found a solution where we have confidence that the product would adapt and evolve over time. We plan to use Bacula for at minimum 10 years”, said Ben.