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Micah Fairchild HR Software-as-a-Service: Improvement Via Virtualization

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 By Micah Fairchild

SaaS HR Virtualization: Understanding The Back-up Issues

An information security survey by Ernst & Young found that “61% of respondents are currently using, evaluating or planning to use cloud computing-based services within the next 12 months”. And, as it pertains to human resources technology at least, this is certainly no surprise. After all, generally speaking, HR Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is cheaper (though countless HR software Total Cost of Ownership facets should be factored in); you have no hardware to maintain; the information technology infrastructure is largely now handled by the vendor; and accessibility is leveraged via a web browser.

For those companies who have been part of the wave of SaaS HR adopters of late, as part of an effective HR software selection process, it’s likely that data privacy and security issues (including researching a prospective provider’s data center disaster recovery plan and asking about third party attestations such as SSAE 16 and ISO 27001) have thoroughly been checked into before the proverbial signing on the dotted line. Still, what far too many HR leaders fail to understand is that ensuring the security of your HR data in the Cloud is an issue of ongoing improvement (and consequent HR software return on investment), rather than just a selection process checkpoint. Indeed, while an information security certification is good to have, the fact of the matter is that as SaaS HR applications become more and more widely used, an ever-increasing cadre of finer details emerge. One such issue that came to light from a report commissioned by Computing magazine is the use of virtualized servers and backup procedures—and issues that could well go to the heart of HR data safety.

Understanding the Virtualized Server Offering of SaaS HR

Although multi-tenancy remains to date the most common SaaS architecture in use (utilizing a single version of the software with a single configuration to handle all customers or “tenants”), increasingly vendors are providing SaaS services using virtualization to effectively offer an exclusive database and/or server per client. For example, Oracle offers a single-tenant deployment of their Fusion HCM and payroll applications on a virtualized server. What that means in essence is that, within the actual hardware, a control program (often referred to as a hypervisor) is used to create and maintain a simulation of a server environment. This simulation is then used to run the HR software—acting as a discreet unit; nicely separated from whatever else might be running elsewhere in the same “box”. This process allows the vendor to run multiple versions of the software (one for each client) on a single server. Traditional servers have to be sized to take account of peak traffic levels (e.g. monthly payroll runs) and spend much of the time operating at a fraction of their capacity. A virtualized server is easily scalable in size and can handle traffic spikes with relative ease. In other words, virtualization can leverage lower hardware costs, greater efficiency and improved flexibility. And as such, it’s no wonder that this model is on the rise.

Parsing out the SaaS HR Virtualization Issues

While generally positive in many people’s minds, virtualization does present some issues. For instance, a survey of CIOs and other IT professionals responsible for data centers, disaster recovery and database management in medium to large organizations conducted by Computing magazine revealed that a number of potential improvements could stand to be made in order to safeguard data (particularly sensitive HR and payroll information) in virtualized servers.

The bottom line issue that this survey uncovered is that, “…backing up applications and data from multiple virtual servers, often using different hypervisors, can present unique performance and management challenges compared with their physical equivalents”. Indeed, backing up large quantities of data inevitably places considerable strain on existing network and storage infrastructure. And given the fact that almost a quarter of surveyed organizations were backing up more than 10 terabytes per month (and sizable SaaS providers are likely handling much more than that), the fact of the matter is that this strain can take its toll.

Granted, this back-up issue largely depends on whether information is being replicated via storage area networks (SANs) or to direct attached storage (DAS) such as disk or tape, but according to recent research, 37% of companies overall either “lacked confidence” in their current backup systems capability or were unsure of its “suitability” for virtualized servers. Why? Well, the main reasons for this caution were:

  • The use of tape media (“there are too many things to go wrong between the virtual environment and shared tape units”);
  • Out of date backup software not being compatible with a virtualized environment;
  • Lack of bandwidth (backup of virtualized servers is bandwidth-intensive, is slower can cause network bottlenecks);
  • Over-complicated methodology (traditionally “virtualized” backup relies either on an agent within each virtualized server to operate at a file or application level, or backing up the entire server as a single file; many organizations deploy both methods simultaneously leading to greater strain on resources).

Grasping the SaaS HR Virtualized Solution

While the specifics of virtual server environments will differ from one provider to the next, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be addressing the backup issue via a number of potential approaches. For example, the use of server-less backups and snapshots can limit loading on any physical host server. Likewise, offloading backup processing from physical host servers to a backup proxy connected to the SAN may also ease strain. Further, performing full, differential and incremental image backup and restore of the virtualized server (in addition to file-level backups) can help ensure data consistency; while deploying disk-to-disk-to-tape (D2D2T) processes can provide a balance between short-term file recovery and long-term archiving. These elements aside, organizations (and vendors for that matter) should be aware that utilizing virtualization management APIs and other tools that can manage both physical and virtual resources are preferable; as is the capability to integrate with third-party backup applications. But it’s also advised that running automated continuous data protection (CDP) tools in virtual environments can reduce backup times and minimize storage requirements (although this must be balanced with both cost and performance).

SaaS Payroll Data Backup – Final Thoughts

From the client point of view, SaaS HR and payroll can be a difficult pill to swallow, particularly when your data is hosted on a virtualized server. As such, customers may wonder where exactly is my data? Further, if the server doesn’t even exist in the conventional physical sense, does that data? Regardless of these trepidations though, the use of virtualized servers can offer certain tangible benefits. The client receives a discrete HR and payroll set up (clearly segmenting that sensitive information from that of other client companies) and the provider gets to reap the reduced costs of relying on less hardware. What should be remembered though is that when conventional backup techniques are applied to a virtualized server they can have a problematic effect on system operation. And anything that causes a problem for the provider’s system also potentially causes a problem for your HR services, data access, and security. The bottom line is that organizations should query their cloud HR software vendor(s) to find out exactly how data is backed up—adjusting strategies, security, and potentially providers accordingly. End

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Although multi-tenancy remains to date the most common SaaS architecture in use (utilizing a single version of the software with a single configuration to handle all customers or ‘tenants’), increasingly providers are delivering SaaS services using virtualization to effectively offer an exclusive server per client.

 

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