Chains Explained: Why You Need Chain-Free Backup

Be Cyber Smart – Going Chain-Free is the Smart Move

A modern chain-free backup solution can replace legacy chain-based backups, but what does that mean? Why is it important? And how does it affect an MSP’s ability to restore client data? In this post, we’re taking a deep dive into today’s backup technology, how it has changed, and what that means for business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR).

A Primer on What Chains Have to Do with Backups

Chain-based technology is also referred to as traditional/forward or inverse/reverse chain backups. Traditional/forward chain is the backup architecture that started it all. To understand chains, we need to start with their role in the backup process.

First, all of your data needs to be backed up and then replicated to the cloud so when disaster strikes, you can restore those backups, ensuring data access and business continuity for clients. The problem is, this first step of backing up and replicating to the cloud takes a lot of time. So to be efficient, subsequent backups are incremental. This is where things start to differentiate…

What is Chain-Based Backup, Anyway?

In a traditional or forward chain-based backup architecture, each forward-facing, incremental backup depends on the previous incremental backup. When undetected data corruption or a malware infection hits, this can cause catastrophic data loss due to the chain’s dependent nature. Because forward chain-based backups are dependent on the previous incremental backup, all backups occurring after the unforeseen data corruption or infection are entirely unusable.

To recover, a whole new chain must be started with another full backup and cloud reseed. This process can take days to complete and unnecessarily wastes resources and costs.

Another strain on a chain-based backup is storage. Because the original backup and chain have to be maintained, you waste a lot of precious storage. Many vendors don’t offer unlimited storage options, which adds surprise fees to your monthly bill.

“You lose data integrity forward of the corruption with forward chain backups, thereby corrupting all future backups. In reverse or inverse chain infrastructure, you lose integrity and the ability to recover prior to the cyber incident. Your likelihood of data loss creeps up with every passing minute as your backup chain gets longer and longer and longer…”

Chain Direction and Data Loss in Reverse Chain Architecture

Chain-based infrastructures can be structured both forward or in reverse. It’s essential to understand the direction of your chain, so you know where in time you can expect data loss. You lose data integrity forward of the corruption with forward chain backups, thereby corrupting all future backups. In reverse or inverse chain infrastructure, you lose integrity and the ability to recover prior to the cyber incident.

Chain-based backup data is only useable if it is touching the first backup or the ‘base image.’ With an inverse or reverse chain, the base image is constantly rolling to the most recent backup, so let’s imagine that the most recent backup was today. Unfortunately, if corruption occurred in a backup a few days ago, it no longer has an intact dependency or link to the base image, so the chain is broken. As a result, all backup data stored before the corruption is lost. Thus, when you rely on chain-based backups, you risk losing everything before and after the accidental deletion, hardware failure, corruption, or malware attack.

Failed Backups and Consolidation Headaches

Some chain-based technology includes alert settings to notify if backups appear invalid for any reason. However, sometimes backups can appear normal even after a break in the chain. Imagine discovering that a month’s worth of hourly backups – hundreds of backups – have all failed. Because chain-based backups require consolidated data from older links in the chain to be valid, all of these backups are lost, and the data is unusable.

To solve for this common problem, some chain-based technologies come with ‘consolidated daily’ or ‘consolidated monthly’ backups to create fewer links susceptible to breakage. So hourly backup links are reduced from 24 links in the chain down to just one. Some technology can even consolidate a whole year of backups into just one link. The problem with consolidation, however, is it reduces backup granularity. When you consolidate, you lose the ability to restore from an exact point in time, thus increasing downtime and the complexity required to restore client data.

You cannot trust a chain-based architecture past 12-24 months. With a 24-month maximum, the sheer quantity of backups to maintain and store is enormous.

Compliance Costs, Data Storage and Reseeding, Ad Infinitum

From a compliance standpoint, chain-based backups threaten adherence to HIPAA standards and legal regulations that require multi-year backup retention. Therefore, chain-based architectures should never go on past 12-24 months. With a 24-month maximum, the sheer quantity of backups to maintain and store is enormous.

For MSPs to meet industry compliance standards with chain-based backups, they have to go to each client and start from scratch every year. A tracking system is also necessary for the appliances or storage media holding data. Technicians have to go on-site, copy the data, migrate and store it somewhere else, and start the chain from scratch. Obviously, the time, technician expertise, storage resolution, and reseeding adds substantial costs to your MSP.

Legacy Chain Pain Points That Never End

Regardless of the direction of the chain, chain-based backups are considered ‘legacy’ at this point because the infrastructure is risky, problematic, and puts BCDR in jeopardy. As most businesses now accept, data loss will occur. It’s no longer a question of if but when a data breach will happen, and that’s when backups are critical to business survival. It’s these challenges that have MSPs breaking the chains of backup:

  • Storage Bloat: Even consolidated data cannot be deleted unless a specific deletion policy is created and maintained. Due to the needed consolidation functions to keep the quantity of links (points of failure) in your backup down to a minimum, it is also doubling your storage footprint for the time prior to your retention policies trim your backup data. This storage bloat requires MSPs to accurately forecast each client’s proper hardware stack and storage space to avoid surprise overages and fees.
      Some vendors actually require you to over-provision storage. When you need to virtualize data on an appliance, you have to use the untapped hard drive storage space to copy over the VM you want to virtualize and create the staging area. This requires a large amount of reserved empty space, about 50%, that MSPs have to purchase and keep open as a precaution. You may think your 4 TB appliance is ready because you’re only storing 3 TB of data, but you won’t have the space if you need to virtualize on that appliance.
  • Compliance: Many industry-specific standards require multi-year retention, but chain-based technology should never be used without maintenance past 12 to 24 months and requires yearly reseeding. This discrepancy in retention standards and data chain integrity can hurt an MSPs ability to remain competitive in the channel.
  • Recovery Speed: When disaster strikes and you need your backup data, you have to consolidate the base image to the time and data you want to restore, and then restore the data from an accessible ‘now-readable’ file. This process is long and resource-heavy, which puts unnecessary downtime on your client’s business, especially when virtualizing cloud data.

Why Chain-Free Backup is Awesome

To put it incredibly simply, chain-free backup is a modern solution that eliminates the pain points of chains. Chain-free backup starts off the same way as chain-based. You still do your first full backup, and you still do incremental backups, but that’s where things change. With chain-free, data is stored in a native virtualizable state with a pointer array algorithm. This means that each recovery point is independent.

Now, when corruption or malware occurs, bad data blocks are isolated and can be independently deleted without any risk of breaking any kind of data integrity in your backup dataset. Previous backups can still be recovered almost instantaneously, with new incremental backups being taken. There is no data loss and no wasting time or storage having to start new chains or reseed. Axcient’s technology even alerts you if storage corruption occurs so you can fix it before it becomes a problem.

  • Unlimited Storage: Now that storage or data bloat is never a problem – because there isn’t any duplicated backup data being created – there’s no risk of surprise overages, large storage space requirements, or ‘just in case’ storage. There is no need for a vendor to limit your storage with a chain-free solution.
  • Unlimited Retention: Easily meet multi-year compliance standards and shorten recovery time with always-available backup data. Because the points of failure don’t increase with each backup, since there are no dependencies to break, each backup is entirely independent, forwards, backwards, upwards, sideways, and any other direction.
  • Near-Instant Recovery: No chains means no base image requirements for restore, no consolidation, and no staging space. This significantly reduces the complexity of recovery to keep clients’ businesses running with uninterrupted business continuity.

Axcient’s Patented, Always-On Chain-Free Backup Technology

All of Axcient’s backup products – x360Recover, x360Cloud, and x360Sync – are built on our proprietary and patented chain-free technology as the basis of our BCDR x360 Platform. As a 100% channel-focused solutions provider, Axcient developed our chain-free backup technology in 2017 to eliminate storage and retention limitations, improve recovery time efficiency, and reduce complexity.

Discover the benefits of chain-free backup with a Free 14-day Trial to see how it compares to your current solution.


Cory Hintz Axcient Sales Engineer Manager

About the Author:
Cory Hinz // Sales Engineer Manager, Axcient

Cory Hinz is experienced and passionate about technologies and sales engineering with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and managed services (MSP) industry. Cory’s professional skills include solutions engineering, network architecture, data center, software as a service (SaaS), and training. He has a strong business culture focus, a professional mindset, and is constantly looking for better ways to improve the business-to-vendor relationship while being the catalyst between the Product and Revenue teams.

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