The evolution of backup: Interview with Altaro’s Simon Attard

Backup solutions may not be sexy, but they’re as important as food and water when it comes to keeping your business alive and healthy. Altaro is one of the leading vendors in this area, and they offer a wide range of different backup solutions for companies, organizations, and managed service providers (MSPs). To explore some of the capabilities of their award-winning backup solutions and how they have evolved over the years as the IT domain itself has changed and evolved, I recently sat down with Simon Attard, co-founder and chief product officer at Altaro. The following is a summary of our interview.

MITCH: Thanks, Simon, for agreeing to let me interview you about Altaro’s evolution from being a backup company focused specifically on virtualization to the wide range of offerings that are provided today by your company, which now also include backup solutions for physical Windows servers, Microsoft 365 mail, OneDrive, SharePoint, and roaming and on-premises network endpoints. Glad you could share some of your time with us in this stressful season due to COVID-19. Let me start by asking you to briefly describe how the pandemic has affected your company’s operations and impacted the needs of your partners and customers?

SIMON: Thanks for interviewing me, Mitch.

Simon Attard

Yes, COVID-19 has proved to be challenging the world over. At Altaro, we wanted to look out for our team members and their loved ones while remaining fully and seamlessly available to our customers and partners. We, therefore, took the decision to switch from office working to a work-from-home model, which is not our norm. We succeeded in rolling this out quickly, coupled with best practices so that communication and teamwork would continue as before, to ensure optimal customer service and product development.

This way, we were able to support and sustain our worldwide customer base and partner community while also releasing new and enhanced solutions that are well-suited to remote working. We had a bit of an edge there being experts in virtualization, which has become increasingly popular these last few months, and we built on our back up offerings for cloud-based and blended environments, which are in growth mode.

This met customer needs while also satisfying resellers and managed service providers as they had the tools in hand to be able to support their customers. This meant that, even though times are hard, they are selling products and services that are in demand. You can’t afford to neglect data protection, no matter what kind of business you’re running, and this is all more pertinent when you are moving to new and unfamiliar setups.

MITCH: Let’s go back to the past for a moment. How was Altaro born as a company, and what was its original vision?

SIMON: I am one of four co-founders. Pre-Altaro, two of us were working together developing business apps, while the other two had worked together at an international software house for many years. Our collaboration started with a chance encounter at a party. We found we had a common outlook and knew we could build on each other’s strengths and aptitudes to develop something good. We founded Altaro Software in 2009 with an exclusive focus on backup.

We soon concentrated on backup for Hyper-V and later VMware environments, with small to midsized companies and organizations as our target market. We saw that they had been overlooked by the main backup providers and knew what they were going through as we were experiencing that ourselves as a fledgling startup. They were being provided with complex, bloated products that were often unwieldy and required too much time and manpower to run — and they were also more expensive to buy and maintain, with steep learning curves.

Altaro

We wanted to disrupt all that by creating a robust, reliable virtual machine backup solution that made their lives easier and set their minds at rest without breaking the bank. In fact, with Altaro VM Backup, you can be up and running and take your first backup within 15 minutes, without the need for training. We’ve kept to this mindset in all our backup solutions.

Having said that, we don’t scrimp on quality and make sure to provide high performance, enterprise-class functionality that any organization needs to rely on for business continuity and data protection. Our deduplication, for instance, is second to none, dramatically saving our customers storage space.

We also provide rock-solid tech support, as when you hit a data loss crisis, you want to work with responsive people who are experts and who can help you effectively and quickly — this is one of our pillars of operation, and we are proud to offer 24/7 support, with an average call response time of 22 seconds.

And to continue helping sysadmins, especially those strapped for time and unable to attend as many courses as they might wish, we also provide a wealth of free technical resources in our blogs about virtualization, Hyper-V, VMware, replication, and so on, so they get can the lowdown on all things backup.

Through the years, we’ve been building our customer and partner bases and moving steadily from one milestone to the next — all this the fruit of hard work, a commitment to quality, and solid teamwork. Last year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary and flew in Altaro team members to our headquarters in Malta to celebrate together. It was beautiful and humbling to see how much we’d grown as an Altaro family, from that initial kernel, and we still have exciting plans to deliver further value together.

MITCH: What has led to the current decision by Altaro to expand its offerings to include such a wide range of backup solutions?

SIMON: Over the years, we established a strong name as the go-to people for VM backup, attracting more than 50,000 worldwide customers. They were delighted with our offering, taking the initiative to review us on third-party sites, writing into express gratitude and provide feedback and requests, and so on. It’s important to listen, and while you can’t always say yes, it is great to be able to take input on board and act on it.

Our customers and partners had other parts of their networks and configurations that they needed to back up, and they would prefer to do so with the same vendor, preferably a tried-and-tested one. As a result, we kept to our area of expertise: backup, recovery, replication — but we started to expand.

We first ventured out into Office 365 backup; many systems admins using it hadn’t realized that data protection wasn’t part of the Microsoft package. We decided to fill in that gap. Another aspect was physical servers — even in organizations that are fully invested in virtualized environments, there is always going to be a machine or two that is physical, so we decided to develop a solution to back up physical Windows servers. Network endpoints followed on from that. The story isn’t over yet, either!

MITCH: I’m pretty familiar with your Hyper-V and VMware backup and replication solutions but haven’t yet looked closely at your newer offering for backing up Microsoft 365/Office 365. Can you tell us a bit more about this offering and how it’s being used by your customers? Is it popular with many customers?

SIMON: Microsoft 365, until recently, Office 365, has gained global traction over recent years. It’s proven attractive to organizations and businesses the world over as it is very convenient, easy to use, and frees them of the burden in terms of setup and infrastructure and so on, as they don’t need to run their own servers for Exchange, SharePoint, etc.

However, while Microsoft is responsible for keeping the cloud infrastructure services running and accessible to subscribers, data protection services are not part of the package. This means that it is up to subscribers to handle data backup.

That’s where Altaro Office 365 Backup comes in, giving users the ability to back up and restore the data on their Microsoft 365 / Office 365 mailboxes and files stored in OneDrive and SharePoint. It automatically backs up the data a few times a day to Altaro’s secure Microsoft Azure infrastructure, so users don’t have the headache of setting that up either. It provides various restore options, retention policies, central management console, and more, enabling systems administrators to set it as desired and forget it, safe in the knowledge that should disaster strike, they have access to their data backups.

As email is a central repository for an organization’s data, whether by design or not, this is a critical service, and its uptake is evidence of that.

We offer it as a subscription on an annual basis for businesses and organizations, and we also have a monthly subscription version for managed service providers (MSPs) and IT consultants, enabling them to provide it as a service to their customers. It’s particularly popular with the latter as it’s a value add to their Microsoft 365 customers while providing them with another revenue stream.

MITCH: Altaro also seems to target not just SMBs but also managed service providers with many of your offerings. What’s the value equation there? Are more and more SMBs relying upon MSPs for their IT needs instead of handling them in-house?

SIMON: We are a channel-centric company, and we sell exclusively through the channel in most territories. So, while building products for SMBs, we have built a delivery model that enables value-added resellers (VARs), IT consultants, and so on to sell the products to their customers.

Over time, many traditional VARs started delivering IT as a service, sometimes switching to this entirely, other times offering a blended model to be able to better serve customer needs.

As we observed this trend, we decided to create versions of our backup solutions that are purpose-built for the needs of service providers: The same reputable, reliable, enterprise functionality but provided instead as a monthly subscription that service providers can mark up and offer their customers for recurring monthly revenue.

A multi-tenant management console lies at the heart of our programs for MSPs. This means a service provider can manage and monitor all their Altaro backups — VM, endpoint, physical Windows servers, and Microsoft 365 — across all the customers from one central console. This single pane of glass view saves time and hassles. It’s a real powerhouse for MSPs. This way, they have access to a one-stop backup shop, with one central point of contact and one monthly invoice. And they can count on our award-winning 24/7 tech support as part of the package as well!

We continued to focus on ease of use from a commercial perspective too. For instance, we do not require binding contracts; MSPs simply pay per machine or user per month. We have a very low monthly threshold across all their customers combined, and MSPs can pick and choose what kind of backup services to offer to which customers. They can also scale up or down as needed.

Companies that choose to outsource their IT services can benefit from Altaro’s tried-and-tested backup solutions through the MSP of their choice, while those who prefer to manage things onsite themselves can do so too: The choice is theirs. It’s all about customer requirements and how best to meet those needs.

MITCH: What’s your new Altaro Cloud Management Console all about? That also ties into your MSP offerings, doesn’t it?

SIMON: We actually launched the Altaro Cloud Management Console a few years ago with our first offering for MSPs and then continued to build on it. With Altaro VM Backup, users with multiple sites, as well as all our partners — whether they provide managed services or not — can access the console for central backup management.

Altaro

With our other backup offerings for MSPs — physical servers, network endpoints, and MS 365 — as well as Altaro VM Backup, MSPs can access each of these via the cloud management console for multi-tenant monitoring and management.

The console was already groundbreaking when we launched it, but we now believe we are the only vendor to provide an MSP with a centralized view of all its customers’ different backup types from one centralized location. The idea stemmed from a desire to provide ease of use, which permeates all we do.

You can access the console and manage customer backups and restores from wherever you are. There is no need to be onsite or have a VPN. A web browser is all it takes. It provides real-time status updates as well as alerts and is intuitive and easy to use. It’s super convenient and makes an MSP’s life much easier.

The beauty of it all really hit home for many of our partners during the sudden shift to working from home — one headache less!

MITCH: I see that you offer different editions and licensing options. What about free and NFR editions? Are these kinds of offerings still relevant to today’s customers?

SIMON: We provide a Free Edition of Altaro VM Backup that provides free virtual machine backup for two VMs per host, forever. We see this as our way of assisting microbusinesses and those who are perhaps as yet experimenting with virtualized environments. For those who require a commercial edition, we offer different editions of Altaro VM Backup to cater for customers’ different functionality needs. We also enable them to choose whether to purchase the product as a one-off or on a renewable annual subscription.

Customers can also use a Free Edition of Altaro Physical Server Backup for physical Windows servers.

When it comes to our partners, we additionally offer NFR versions of Altaro VM Backup and Altaro EndPoint Backup for MSPs that they can use internally. We plan to do this for Altaro Office 365 Backup for MSPs, too, in the coming months. It is our way of giving back, enabling our partners to benefit from our products themselves too.

There’s a healthy appreciation of free and NFR editions in both communities, and we believe this will continue — there’s something great about gifts of this kind, as long as they provide genuine value and deliver as promised.

MITCH: For some time now, segments of the industry have been promoting hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) as the future for IT, saying that it combines the best of both worlds — secure on-premises infrastructure with highly scalable cloud services — under a single unified management umbrella. The road to actually getting there, though, has been hard for some companies, including Microsoft. I remember working together with someone at Microsoft way back around 2013 on an eBook about Windows Azure Pack, a product that was intended to bring the hybrid cloud into the datacenter using Microsoft Azure technologies. Unfortunately, Azure Pack didn’t gain much traction then with customers, and a few years later, it evolved into Azure Stack, which also struggled to gain acceptance. But today, we now have Azure Stack HCI offered as an Azure hybrid service, and interest finally seems to have awakened in the platform. Is that why Altaro has decided to provide backup support for Azure Stack HCI?

SIMON: Azure Stack HCI consolidates traditional virtual apps that must remain on-premises on industry-standard servers with software-defined compute, storage, and networking. It felt only natural for us to keep abreast of Microsoft’s trajectory in this area and expand our VM backup solution to cater for this new direction. We are excited about Microsoft’s vision and goals for Azure Stack HCI and are happy to be able to support it upon its GA release.

We will be releasing an update to Altaro VM Backup that will enable MSPs and customers to back up any VMs running on Azure Stack HCI for free until June 30, 2021. The free license will be available for use both in production and testing environments.

Altaro VM Backup users will be able to back up VMs running on this powerful new hyperconverged solution that supports hybrid models, enabling organizations that need particular workloads to remain on-premises to keep them local, while enjoying the benefits of the cloud.

MITCH: Is there anything else you’d like to add to our discussion before I let you get back to work? 🙂

SIMON: I believe you asked very comprehensive questions and can’t think of anything to add.

MITCH: Simon, thanks very much for giving me — and our many TechGenix readers this interview — so much of your valuable time.

SIMON: Many thanks for having me! I appreciate it. It was great to chat with you, Mitch, and I also thank the TechGenix community for their kind interest in Altaro.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is Senior Editor of both WServerNews and FitITproNews and is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies. He has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press and other publishers. Mitch has also been a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management. He currently runs an IT content development business in Winnipeg, Canada.

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