Data Migration Guide: Strategy Success & Best Practices

Wondering what you need to know about data migration? Our guide to success will provide you with all the information you're looking for! 
Michael Buckbee
7 min read
Last updated October 6, 2023

For most businesses, data migration is a necessary business process that takes place on a regular basis. Whether it’s implementing a new system or shifting information to more secure storage locations, having a solid data migration strategy that helps organizations is imperative for executive and information technology teams.

But according to recent Gartner data, about 50% of all data migration projects will either exceed predetermined budgets or harm the overall business due to flawed strategy or execution. That’s because data migration projects are often complex, time-consuming, and involve multiple systems, technology, and tech teams.

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Thankfully, there are a variety of tools, techniques, and strategies you can use to make data migration more seamless and less costly. Read on for our comprehensive guide to data migration to make your efforts more successful every time.

What is Data Migration?

efforts more successful every time

Data migration is the process of transferring data between different types of file formats, databases, or storage systems. It’s often more than just simply moving data from one system or database to another. Data migration can involve more complicated processes like data mapping and re-formatting.

Moving data to a new storage appliance to replace an old system or moving from an on-premises to a cloud storage solution are just two common examples of data migration. You might also be upgrading an application database with new hardware, necessitating data migration to new devices or equipment.

No matter what type of data migration you’re undertaking, there are several key factors you’ll need to take into account:

  • Data Integrity
  • Business Impact
  • Cost
  • User Experience and Impact
  • Potential Downtime
  • Data Assessment
  • Data Quality

Data Migration vs. Data Integration

While data migration and data integration might sound similar, they’re two completely different endeavors. Each requires different tactics and strategies, so you’ll want to make sure you’re using the correct tools for each job.

With data integration, you’re taking two different data repositories and merging them into one large one. You’ll often see this in big data projects that require large stores of data to be made available for various analytics tasks.

In data integration, various types and formats of data are merged under one roof. With data migration, you’re moving information from one store to another, with all information usually needing to be in the same format.

Why is a Secure Data Migration Strategy Important?

Data migration occurs for a variety of reasons, but usually, it’s to enhance the performance and competitiveness of both your IT operations and overall organization. Better organized data can be leveraged more efficiently, and data housed in one place in a single format helps reduce the need for — and cost of — multiple systems and hardware.

The consequences of poorly executed data migrations can also be significant. The result can be inaccurate data, redundancies, or other issues that require remediation after the fact. The reality is that a poor job of data migration can even ruin data that is accurate, well-structured, and organized.

A comprehensive data migration strategy helps avoid missed deadlines, budgetary overruns, and incomplete plans that can cause the project to fail altogether. A full migration strategy also helps keep all stakeholders and team members on the same page, accomplishing the necessary tasks quicker and more accurately.

And most importantly, your data migration strategy should be secure and compliant. Not taking the right cybersecurity and regulatory measures could potentially result in a data breach or fines and penalties for non-compliance.

Types of Data Migration

Types of Data Migration

Data migrations can take a variety of different forms. Below are some of the most common types of data migration and what each one entails.

  • Storage Migration. These types of migrations focus on transferring data from one storage device to a new or different one. This can take place either on-premises or in the cloud. Although storage migrations are the most straightforward type of migration on the surface, it doesn’t mean you can simply take a copy/paste approach with something like 5TB of information. You’ll need a solid plan coupled with execution, along with understanding where data is going and who should have access to it.
  • Database Migration. With database migrations, you’re typically upgrading a database engine and moving the entire installed database of files to a new device. Database migrations are typically more involved than storage migrations, largely because you’re dealing with higher volumes of data that might be formatted differently. You’ll need to back up the databases, detach them from the engine, and migrate the files to a new engine. The files can then be restored to the new database and location.
  • Application Migration. This type of migration can be a combination of both database and storage migrations. When you’re moving an entire software application from one place to another, they typically have databases, folders, and installation files that all need to be relocated to a different server, for instance. You may also need to work with the application vendor to take any additional steps that are specific to that software to ensure things go properly and the application functions properly post-migration.
  • Wholesale vs. Incremental. While the above types of data migrations refer to the more technical aspects of migration, there are different strategic approaches to migration. You may choose a wholesale approach, where the entire migration is done at once and completed within a specified time. You can also migrate incrementally, and transfer data in phases. A wholesale approach is good because it’s simply “one and done,” while incremental migrations allow you to keep systems online during the process. You’ll need to assess your business needs and technology strategy to decide which approach is best for your organization.

Key Data Migration Strategy Components

Relocating sensitive or important data isn’t an affair to be taken lightly. For that reason, it’s extremely unwise to begin a data migration without a concrete plan and strategy in place. Thankfully, there are a set of tried and true principles that will serve you well when formulating your data migration strategy.

Migration Planning

Decide what data will need to be moved and the systems that will be affected. Migration planning means evaluating and anticipating the effect the project will have on business stability.

Project Initiation

Every data migration plan needs a set date and action steps for initiation. Identify key stakeholders and brief them on what role everyone will play.

Analyze Landscape 

Get a feel for how the migration fits within your larger IT ecosystem. Establish processes like how you’ll decommission legacy systems.

Design Solutions

Map out from a technical standpoint how you’re going to move which data and to where. Put processes in place to ensure data quality.

Building & Testing

This is where you’ll code the software logic that will help automate the migration. Make sure to test the code in a mirror sandbox environment.

Execute & Validate

You’ll need to demonstrate that the migration software and processes will be effective in moving data safely and is viable for business use.

Decommission & Monitoring 

Shutting down and disposing of old legacy systems is the final key component to your migration strategy. Have a plan to do so securely.

By integrating these key elements into your data migration strategy, you’ll ensure that information reaches its proper destination securely and with minimal disruption to your business and IT operations.

Common Data Migration Challenges and Solutions

Even with a comprehensive data migration plan and strategy, you can still expect to encounter some hurdles and challenges common to most migration projects. 

Migrating Bad Habits

Some organizations fail to weed out poor data, business, or IT practices during a data migration. More specifically, migration project managers can inherit broken files or data structures that will create additional headaches if migrated as such. Be sure that when you switch over, you’re leaving poor processes or corrupt files behind.

Failure to Automate

Data migrations require a lot of moving parts, and a lack of automation and complementary software solutions can slow down the process or result in errors. Use tools like a data transport engine to automatically move data from one storage server to another. This will save time and reduce overhead all while maintaining and updating file access permissions.

No Contingency Plan

One of the biggest data migration failures that take place is not having a backup plan for potential missteps. You need to treat data migration as if you were moving large sums of money to another bank or financial institution. Data is highly valuable to any business, so you need to have potential failure points mapped out and a contingency action plan in place.

Tips to Make Your Data Migration Seamless

Moving critical information is a delicate task and should be treated as such. Here are some best practices to ensure your migration project goes smoothly.

  • Create and Follow a Migration Plan. You should have a concrete plan for what data needs to be moved, where it’s going, and how you’ll get it there. Your plan should also set parameters for who should have access to said data. Your migration plan should outline each step and who will be involved. Also, consider the potential downtime to your system and potential technical or compatibility issues. Data integrity and protection should also feature prominently in your data migration plan.
  • Fully Understand Your Data. Closely examine the data that you’re going to be migrating. More specifically, look for weed-out data that’s stale, outdated, or no longer necessary. Setting that data apart for disposal will not only make your migration easier but also allow your team to work with a clean dataset post-migration. Also, understand if there’s regulated data that needs certain security controls for compliance purposes. 
  • Implement Migration Policies. It’s not enough just to have a plan in place. You’ll need to formulation organization-wide data migration policies and have mechanisms in place to enforce them. Your policies should ensure that data is going to the right place and that it’s safeguarded properly once migrated. You can even automate your migration policies to make destination data more secure, and create rules to re-permission data during migration.
  • Test & Validate Migrated Data.  After you’ve successfully migrated, you’ll want to make sure everything is where it should be. Part of testing and validating is creating an automatic retention policy to prevent data leakage. Also, make sure to clean up stale data and double-check permissions. Back up old legacy systems as well so that if any systems happen to go offline, you’ll have access to them in a separate, secure location.
  • Audit and Document Processes. One thing that your compliance team will appreciate is full documentation once you’re complete. Depending on your industry, regulators may require proof that you’ve taken adequate or reasonable care of sensitive data like financial or healthcare information. Auditing the process will not only provide a record that you’ve done everything correctly, but it’ll also help you spot things to improve on for the next migration.

Data Migration Tools to Automate and Simplify

Data migrations can be large — and difficult — endeavors. This is particularly true when you’re transferring sensitive or critical data subject to regulatory compliance. That’s why it’s so important to have both a plan in place for secure migration, as well as the right technology tools to ensure things go smoothly.

One tool that’s extremely useful is the Varonis Data Transport Engine, which helps you move large amounts of data between systems, storage devices, and across software platforms. You can even transfer data to SharePoint if you lean on the Microsoft enterprise suite. The Data Transport Engine can help stage data for cloud migrations and streamline the process by implementing rules that separates the relevant data that you need to migrate from the old and stale data that you can delete or ignore.

You’ll also be able to use the Data Transport Engine to map permissions from one system to another, even if you’re moving from Microsoft New Technology File System (NTFS) to Network File System (NFS).

Another useful tool is DatAdvantage, a data mapping tool that helps bring complete visibility to where your data is, who has access, and who uses their access throughout your migration. DatAdvantage provides clean, detailed visualizations that will help minimize risk before, during, and after your migration.

Data migration is like moving your valuables from one home to another. You want to take extreme care and caution that your most prized possessions — data in this case — get safely where they need to be. Creating a data migration plan, implementing the right technology, and finding experienced partners are all key elements that ensure your project goes smoothly and that your data arrives securely in its new home.

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