Small Business Server Review: LDA-Mini

Thursday Aug 4th 2011 by Drew Robb
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The Lortu Data Appliance handles data backups, deduplication and makes it easy for small businesses to store files on- or off-site.

The Lortu Data Appliance (a.k.a., LDA-Mini) is basically a small business server for storage, albeit a tiny one; the device is only slightly larger than a standard hard drive. You can also use it to send a copy of your data over the Internet to a remote server for additional data security (this second aspect is known as replication).

Lortu, a company based in Spain, pioneered data deduplication (which gets rid of redundant data) as early as 2003. This article gives an overview of deduplication, a description of the device and a rundown of how the LDA-mini functions on a small network in the real world.

Deduplicated Data Backups

Data deduplication is regarded as an essential aspect of small business storage these days. Anyone performing daily and weekly data backups is potentially storing hundreds of copies of the same file. Here is why deduplication is so important:

One backup of all the files sitting on all the small business servers (or PCs in smaller operations) could well consist of multiple copies of the same files. Say, for example, the boss sends a large PowerPoint presentation to all employees. The resulting backup would make a copy of each of the presentations sitting on each system, and then transmit them to the backup tape or backup disk-based system.

Lortu LDA-Mini; small business server
The Lortu LDA-Mini small business storage server.
(Click for larger image)
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The next day (or week), another backup transmits all those PowerPoint presentations again (even though each is identical) to the backup storage medium. And from then on, it's lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually you end up with a tremendous amount of redundant data.

Let's say organizational data only changes by 5 percent per week. Any backup would transmit 100 percent of the data to tape (or disk) each week. In other words, 95 percent is already backed up and sitting on some other backup tape or server. That’s why backups get so unmanageable. You end up with a mountain of tapes or a backup server that is filled to the brim with multiple copies of the same data.

Enter data deduplication technology. It retains a master file of stored data, making sure that it stores only one copy of any given file. After the first backup, subsequent backups are much shorter, as only new files or revised files get transmitted to the backup device.  The result is a lot less space consumed in the backup process.

If a company has 100 Gigabytes (GB) of data, under a normal backup to tape, ten weeks of backup would mean 1 Terabyte (TB) of data stored. In a year, that company would need at least 5 TBs of storage space for backups (in the real world it would be a lot more as new data is created and stored each week).

With deduplication, on the other hand, that original 100 GBs of data might only take up 70 GBs of space because multiple copies of the same data would be eliminated. Perhaps the organization adds 5 GB of new data a week. Ten weeks later, the backup appliance only contains 120 GBs of data.

After a year, it might swell to 320 GB. That’s roughly 15 times less data than during traditional backups. You would call that a deduplication ratio of 15 to 1. Lortu claims much higher deduplication ratios of 100 to 1. However, amounts vary from organization to organization based on the applications used and the type of computing environment.

In addition to deduplication, the LDA-Mini includes compression technology -- if you are taking advantage of Lortu's remote replication service for external storage. Compression essentially squashes (yeah, that's a technical term) the data into a smaller space.

As an analogy,  consider what a document on a page looks like. It typically has a lot of white space -- gaps between paragraphs, spaces between sections etc. Compression, in effect, eliminates these gaps so that more data can be stored in the same footprint -- typically about twice as much.

First, the data is deduplicated by comparing the new backup with all the backups stored so far in the appliance. Only new data is stored in the appliance. Before the start of the replication process for remote backups, deduplicated data is compressed and encrypted. That keeps it safe from prying eyes.

Together, deduplication and compression significantly reduce the amount of storage capacity needed by any company, which in turn reduces costs.

LDA-Mini Storage Server

The LDA-mini is a small business server slightly larger than a standard hard drive. It weighs about a pound and takes up about the same amount of space as a hardcover book, storing approximately 20 TBs of data backups. Of course, that's a bit of virtual math at work. Lortu estimates that 20TB is how much data you would have to store if you didn’t use its deduplication technology.

In actuality, the box can hold 430 GB of data. Inside, its total capacity is split into three areas: the operating system and replication files take up 130 GB. The device keeps 80 GB available for daily backups. That leaves the remaining 430 GB for deduplicated data.

Restoring data with the LDA-mini is easy compared to restoring from tape. No more rummaging through a pile of old backup tapes to find the right file. And even when you find the tape, it can take hours to restore the data to the server. With the Lortu backup appliance sitting on premise, restores take moments.

Another major feature is Lortu's remote backup service. SMBs can back up as much as 80 GB of data daily over a conventional Internet connection. Retention policies can be set so you can decide which files to retain and for how long. In some industries, legal requirements set retention periods, while in others customer data should be retained for the lifetime of the customer relationship. 

When the LDA-Mini reaches the limit of its capacity, it automatically eliminates the older backups to leave space for new backups. That’s why the retention policies are so important. You don’t want to be surprised to learn that your financials for the first six months of the year are no longer available.

Companies that are likely to fill up the device fairly rapidly would be wise to make a copy every few months or every month -- just as an added safeguard. In those situations, the Lortu replication service might be best. Alternatively, Lortu also offers several other models within the LDA model that provide a lot more storage capacity.

LDA-Mini Server in Action

Initially, I set up the LDA-Mini on my desk and tried to connect it to my laptop. That didn’t work as my wireless network has a router upstairs, and that’s where the Lortu box had to be located. You plug in the appliance and connect it to the router using a standard Ethernet cable. That took moments. (Note: Lortu plans to have wireless capabilities built into a future version of LDA-Mini. Initial attempts to conduct backups wirelessly proved difficult. These problems were resolved by using a wired connection).

Next, I installed the software on my laptop, which was also quick and easy -- the box came with a USB drive that contains the Quick-Install Guide and the software. A wizard guided me through how to add my PC -- and the other computers in the office -- to the list of those to be backed up.

It was straightforward enough to work out a daily backup schedule and to choose which files to exclude from the backup. You can choose to backup everything, but that might rapidly fill up the appliance. I decided to backup only my business files -- not Windows software and business applications

Why? Data is the important thing, not the device. If the laptop fries, I’ll either get a new one and reinstall everything, or I'll get it fixed and dig out my software CDs to reinstall. By excluding all the system files and software apps from the backup list, I used only 7 GBs of storage space. So it could last me a long time in the office.

Lortu makes it clear that the first backup can take a while as all data has to be backed up. I didn’t notice how long it took, as I was out of the house at the time. But when I was there, it certainly didn’t tie up the system and slow it down noticeably.

In each of the following days, a backup took place at the scheduled time. This increased the amount of data stored by a nominal amount. User involvement with deduplication was precisely zero. The process is done automatically inside the LDA-Mini.

I tested how to restore one specific file. It took me a minute to find it on the screen and another few seconds before it was back on my laptop and available to read. That’s a good feature to have the next time the boss loses the document containing his speech the night before he’s due to fly off to the event.

The LDA-Mini costs $950. The Lortu remote backup service for added data security via external storage costs $1,300 per year.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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