Backup in a modern world
by Kay Ewbank
Backup has become a lot more complicated now that we have virtualisation and the Cloud. Kay Ewbank checks out your options.
HardCopy Issue: 62 | Published: February 25, 2014
Backup used to be simple; you had a tape backup system, a set of three tapes in a safe, and another set down at the bank for off-site safety. The situation is now more complex with a wider choice of backup hardware and increased use of cloud and virtualisation technologies. You can no longer just back up data files on your local server and sit back, satisfied the job is done. These days you need to think about whether and how to back up virtual machines, and how your cloud-based systems should be backed up.
The ever-increasing amount of data makes the task more difficult, particularly for smaller companies who can’t justify the cost of a full backup system with its own servers and hardware, allowing you to backup all the data in full on a weekly basis, with daily incremental backups. Smaller companies need backup solutions that don’t clog the network and stop people working in normal business hours. Furthermore, backup is one area where third party software can still offer significant advantages over that provided with the operating system.
Many companies have added virtual servers to their network configuration, and this increases the complexity of backing up data. You need to be clear what virtual machines are present and which contain data that needs to be backed up. Backup solutions need to be aware of virtual machines that aren’t mounted at the time the backup is happening, and which data devices are associated with those machines.
Many companies use snapshots to back up their machines, and their virtual machines in particular. Taking a snapshot means you can restore the machine to its previous working state if something goes wrong. As the name suggests, a snapshots is a copy of the contents of a system disk at a specific date and time, and you can take multiple snapshots at different times to provide different restore points. Most versions of Windows, with the exception of Windows 8, come with a utility known variously as Shadow Copy, Volume Snapshot Service, or Volume Shadow Copy Service which can be used to take such snapshots.
Data in the cloud
Just because your data is cloud based doesn’t mean you can forget about backup. It’s true that many cloud providers also offer backup, but would your data be protected if your cloud provider’s data centre burnt down, or if the provider went into liquidation? If your company relies on being able to access that data, then you shouldn’t be relying on a single point of access.
The need to back up data that is stored in the cloud is one side of the picture; many companies are attracted by the possibility of using the cloud itself as a backup solution. However this isn’t as straightforward as it seems. You need to be sure that the company you choose will be around if and when you want to restore the data, and this is increasingly difficult to predict.
The real disadvantage of using the cloud is the relatively slow connection speed. This is annoying if you’re backing up important data, but even more frustrating if you actually need to download the data. Some cloud backup companies have resorted to copying a customer’s data onto disks and sending them out via courier. This is probably better than waiting days while you download terabytes of company data, but it isn’t really cloud computing as you imagined it.
If you’re attracted to the idea of using the cloud for backup, you need to work out whether you could wait while it’s recovered; cloud is fine for less time-important files, but if you need really speedy recovery for priority data, you need a different solution.
Microsoft Windows Server includes Windows Server Backup which is a combination of a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in, some command-line tools, and Windows PowerShell scripts that together let you back up the server, its drives, or a selection of folders. It’s a very basic solution. A better option, although still limited, comes in the form of Windows Server Essentials which includes a backup facility. This gives you a wizard-based system that can make use of cloud-based backup services, specifically Windows Azure Backup. The system will back up data from connected PCs that are connected to the network on a daily basis, and can be used to restore individual files and folders, or entire PCs. The software has built-in compression, throttling and encryption prior to the data being transmitted to the cloud.
On the desktop, Windows 8 comes with a different backup system to earlier versions. File History does a backup every hour of documents stored in the Libraries, Desktop, Favourites and Contacts folders. You can specify which external storage device to use for the backup, and change the default time period between backups. You can turn it off, and there is a group policy setting if you don’t want your end users copying files in a fashion that is not under your direct control. File History is a useful option for many users, but it can’t be used for full system backups. It is also limited to backing up data to physical devices; you can’t copy to the cloud, or even to Microsoft’s own SkyDrive service.
Windows desktops prior to Windows 8 come with Windows Backup and Restore, which lets you back up folders, libraries, and drives to another drive, a DVD or a storage device connected to the local network. It’s a long way from perfect, which might explain why so few people use it. For a start, if you want to restore an image, the hardware needs to be identical. Equally off-putting is the performance, particularly on Windows 7. Backing up data, particularly for the first time, can take many hours or even several days. What’s worse is that if the machine is turned off part way through, the process starts again from the beginning. Things do improve once you’ve created the initial backup, but are still slow.
Symantec Backup Exec 2012
The latest in a long line of products from Symantec is Backup Exec 2012. This latest release has been radically redesigned, but not everyone approves of the changes. The interface has been streamlined with a new management console that is intended to be easier to use, but some of the more advanced features of earlier releases are no longer available. To run the software well you will need a powerful machine, and it still won’t be fast.
In this latest release you no longer think in terms of specific backups to be run. Instead you create a backup strategy that is applied to systems as you select them. You can treat physical and virtual servers almost interchangeably, and local, network and cloud-based storage are treated equally as destinations for backups. One nice option is the ability to create a backup that will be converted into a virtual machine for either Hyper-V or VMware. You can keep using your network and servers while backing up devices, and there is support for load balancing and bandwidth throttling.
ARCserve Backup is popular with its users, with strong support for cloud storage and virtual environments. You can back up to tape, disk and the cloud, and make use of space saving deduplication to minimise the amount of storage and time taken by each backup. It is available in many configurations, from the top-end editions which allow you to back up physical and virtual file servers, email servers, database servers and application servers; to more selective options targeted at specific operating systems, file servers or application servers.
Virtual support lets you back up at both VM and host-level if you’re using VMware, and VM-level backups if you’re using Microsoft Hyper-V or Citrix XenServer. ARCserve also offers remote virtual standby so you can make an image-based backup, even offsite, and convert it to a bootable VM. Another useful option is the ability to create disk images of servers and desktop machines that can be used to restore to bare-metal hardware.
ARCserve also lets you create synthetic backups, so you can copy only the changes to a server, then have ARCserve combine all the incremental changes to form a single full backup, perhaps on a weekly schedule. You can back up to disk and have the backup automatically copied to the cloud for remote off-site backup, with support for a number of public clouds including Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services EC2.
ARCserve has good support for data deduplication included in the standard licence, with deduplication integrated into the software to minimise storage. If you’re storing the same files week after week with only small changes, then deduplication could save significant space.
Dell NetVault Backup
This began life as Quest NetVault Backup, before Quest became part of Dell. NetVault Backup is aimed at the enterprise market and has strong cross-platform support, together with native support for more backup devices (such as tape libraries) than rival products. There are also relatively easy options for adding capacity as you get more data.
If you need to back up tens of terabytes of data every week, then NetVault Backup is a good option; for smaller companies it would probably be overkill. NetVault is being increasingly promoted for use with Dell hardware systems such as disk backup appliances. When used in this configuration, NetVault users can deduplicate data directly at the source of the backup to reduce backup traffic over the network. It also has a LAN-free option whereby you avoid network traffic by using local or SAN-attached storage devices.
Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices running NDMP are also supported. NetVault also lets you create synthetic full backups by taking an existing full backup and combining it with subsequent incrementals.
NetVault Backup has good security options for regulatory compliance. You can choose which data should be encrypted for backup on a job-by-job basis, and supported encryption options include CAST-128, AES-256 and CAST-256 encryption.
Veeam Backup & Replication
Veeam’s solution has the advantage of being designed specifically for virtual machines, and performs really well in this sector. As the name suggests, Veeam was originally designed for backing up VMware machines, though more recent versions also support Microsoft Hyper-V.
Veeam lets you create backups directly from shared storage, and also lets you take incremental backups, which significantly reduces the time taken. Once a full backup is taken, subsequent incremental changes are used to create synthetic backups. The software also tests its backups to ensure they work by opening them in a virtual environment and creating a virtual machine based on the backup. The virtual machine is then started and checked for errors.
Another feature liked by users of Veeam is its ability to run a virtual machine directly from a backup file. If you need to recover a virtual machine, Veeam starts it from the backup so users can begin using the machine and the applications installed on it straight away. You can then transfer the virtual machine, while it is running, to your local SAN or NAS, without interrupting its users.
Dell VRanger Pro
VRanger Pro was developed specifically for backing up virtual machines, a task that it accomplishes very well. It doesn’t support Hyper-V, concentrating on VMware ESX and ESXi. There’s a standard version that you can use to take backups of a virtual machine, but the Pro version also provides support for VMware replication for more advanced recovery options. VRanger Pro supports incremental backups, and backups can be taken without interrupting the virtual machines. You can also minimise the time taken to back up multiple systems by using multiple ESX hosts.
Although the software is VMware specific, you can still back up and recover Windows physical servers and files. As with backing up virtual machines, vRanger sends data direct from the original servers to the backup target when backing up physical servers, so avoiding the need for a media server. If you are backing up virtual machines, this is achieved by having a virtual appliance on the machine that is being backed up. If you’re backing up a physical server, a local agent is installed to perform the same process.
If you need to restore data using vRanger Pro, you can browse a catalogue of available backups to find the information you’re looking for, then restore the data using a Storage Area Network Fibre Channel instead of having to load your normal network with the extra traffic.