Keeping pace with disaster recovery

Microsoft and rivals continue to roll out impressive backup wares

Roughly five years ago, I wrote a book titled "Enterprise Storage Solutions" that centered on the latest and greatest in disaster recovery methodology: SANs, NAS devices, Fibre Channel, robotic arm tape libraries -- the works. With disk space getting cheaper and cheaper, solutions such as backup-to-disk-to-tape were all the rage.

Microsoft, not to be left out, introduced storage enhancements with Windows 2000 such as the Removable Storage Manager (RSM), the Remote Storage Service (RSS), reparse points, volume mount points, Windows File Protection (WFP), the Indexing Service, Sparse files, Single Instance Storage (SIS), File Replication Service (FRS), and the Distributed File System (DFS).

But the technology continued to evolve in both large and small ways. For example, Volume Shadow Copies (also called Volume Snapshot Service or VSS or Previous Versions) is a technology introduced in Windows XP SP1 (and available in subsequent products) that provides the ability to take a snapshot of your data to provide a restore point back to a specific moment in time.

VSS continues to evolve, and we need to stay up on the latest improvements with each server and client OS. The storage team at Microsoft invested a lot of time to improve the VSS services in Server 2008 and Vista SP1. For example, in Server 2008 there is a new VSS requester (which is used to create and manage shadow copies) called Diskshadow. There are also new or updated writers for Server 2008 and Vista SP1. Read more about this from the storage team blog site.

With some of the enhancements made in terms of high-availability solutions, some experts have asked the question, "Are backups obsolete?" Consider, for example, approaches that are possible with Exchange 2007. If you use some of the "free" high-availability solutions such as Cluster Continuous Replication combined with Standby Continuous Replication -- and throw in some of the enhancements to features such as database portability and recovery storage groups -- you might be able to get away with a backup-free world (at least with Exchange)!

Is Microsoft saying you should stop backing up Exchange? Not quite -- although the fact that Server 2008 is the first release of the product line that doesn't allow you to automatically perform backups of Exchange could be an indication of the direction the company is leaning. The idea may make you feel a bit nervous, in which case you may look at more cost-effective backup/recovery software for your environment to supplement your high-availability implementations -- especially if you want to perform VSS backups of the passive side to your HA solution. Hey, it never hurts to have a spare tire -- even if you have guarantees of 40,000 miles on the brand-new ones you just bought.

We've seen it all in the past five years. And yet solutions continue to evolve and new companies with new ideas continue to spring up. So, aside from familiar players such as Symantec Backup Exec (formerly Veritas), CA, and CommVault, you might consider newer options on the market. For example, Microsoft is now offering as part of its System Center product suite the Data Protection Manager (DPM). DPM offers continuous data protection for Windows application and file servers. So, if you're running SQL, Exchange, SharePoint, and Server 2003/2008 in your environment, Microsoft is offering to solve the problem of protecting and recovering data -- certainly a worthy product to investigate.

What about the possibility of remote data backups? Having an automated backup SaaS (software as a service) solution may be a more cost-effective means to handle your disaster-recovery needs. Companies such as Spearstone, Carbonite, Memeo, Mozy, iBackup, Box.net, and SpiderOak are vying for position by improving their SaaS backup solutions. Note: Some of these solutions, such as Spearstone, have a neat feature where its DiskAgent product can remotely destroy data on a system that is lost or stolen -- similar to a mobile device's remote wipe feature.

One company that has really impressed me in the backup-recovery space for Exchange (which is usually where my mind is centered these days) is RoboBak. I had the chance to investigate and see a demo of the company's soon-to-be-announced "thin backup" solution for Exchange. RoboBak offers an agentless solution designed for remote and branch office data protection. The amazing reduction in time on an Exchange backup is impressive. Once a standard full backup is performed, RoboBak allows for "incremental forever" backups, combined with de-duplication for single instance of data. The recovery process is sweet, with on-demand "synthetic" full restores.

Now for those of you who are new to backup/recovery solutions, some of the terms I just threw out at you may be unfamiliar. Let's break it down. The concept of de-duplication (often called "intelligent compression" or "single-instance storage") eliminates redundant data. Rather than backing up the same document or message over and over again, you back it up once. This reduces the time it takes to back up data and the amount of storage necessary to store the data.

Incremental backups are the norm for in-week backup solutions. For example, you might perform a full backup of all the data from the past week on Friday night, when everyone goes home. Throughout the week, however, you may perform incremental backups (which only backs up the data for that day).

Ordinarily you used to have to perform a full backup each week or so in order to provide a quicker recovery in the event of a disaster. The fear in times past was that you were going to spend forever restoring -- but with on-demand "synthetic" full restores, the backup solution can provide a one-step restore to any point in your incremental backup history. Impressive stuff coming from the folks at RoboBak (see the cool video of the company's latest product) and other companies who are only now getting noticed because the industry is changing so much.

What other solutions are on the horizon? One of the more interesting spaces to watch (beside the SaaS cloud computing approach to backups -- which is also worth watching) is the virtualization and disaster recovery solutions. Virtualization is typically noted for the reduction in hardware while providing the same services. Combine it with HA and concepts such as physical-to-virtual replication or virtual-to-virtual replication, and you have some exciting material for a future column. Stay tuned!

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