How to do VSS backups with Windows Server 2008 and Exchange 2007

It turns out you can build your own backup utility instead of buying one. But you have to be brave.

Back in September 2008, I described some of the changes that came with Windows Server 2008, particularly that ntbackup was replaced with the new Windows Server Backup, which boasted a slew of new features. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of that move was the ability to do any form of Exchange backup without a separate product, sending unaware admins scrambling either toward new applications or into the open arms of Microsoft's new System Center Data Protection Manager services.

This week, however, I sat in on a very interesting session by Michael B. Smith at The Experts Conference (TEC) in Las Vegas. It was filled with information on how to cheat the system by using Windows Server 2008 Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) through a tool included with Windows Server 2008 called Diskshadow, which is a new command-line tool. Note that you do have to run a PowerShell script that uses VSS-based backup and recovery, robocopy (a tool introduced in the Windows 2000 Resource Kit), PowerShell scripting (logically), and some additional set of tools from the Windows Server SDK. So, no need for a third-party solution! (For the full set of instructions from beginning to end you might want to check out Smith's blog.)

[ See why the InfoWorld Test Center calls Windows Server 2008 "the host with the most." ]

Initially, I was a bit bummed out that it was so many steps to get this all up and running. But as I studied the available information, I realized that there were many things that all admins who handle Windows Servers should be up on.

For example, if you run the script proposed, you aren't actually creating a backup but a snapshot -- a copy of the MFT and the in-use bitmap for those drives included in the bitmap. Whoa! You might be thinking, What is an MFT and an in-use bitmap? The MFT is the Master File Table that includes all sorts of information about the data on your disks, including file and folder names for everything on the disk. The volume bitmap is a simple array containing a list of blocks that are in use. Together, the two make up the state of a volume. Joining the MFT and the in-use bitmap let you create a point-in-time snapshot of the volume. Obviously, for that moment all activity has to freeze for the snapshot to be taken.

So, although Smith has found a way to avoid using a third-party tool and thus save on product acquisition costs, performing a backup without a third-party product is really, really complex. Only the admin who is not faint of heart should attempt the entire process to get this done for free.

Microsoft can and should create a nice simple tool (as it's been promising for a long time now) to do this backup so we don't have to script this out.

In the meantime, what are your options? There are several: Buy a product, try Smith's workaround, or don't install Server 2008 with your Exchange Server 2007 (technically, it isn't a necessity -- not even with Exchange 2007 SP1).

If you decide to give Smith's approach a try, let me know how it goes. I'm going to walk through the steps myself when I return home from this conference so we can either commiserate together or can praise each other on being admin masters of the universe. Hopefully the latter.