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Unified backup management: The search for the Holy Grail

Managing physical and virtual backups together is tough. No single tool can meet all your needs, but there are some strategies to make backup management easier.

Backup management is always a challenge, but things can get pretty dicey when you try to manage physical and virtual backups together.

More and more vendors are coming out with tools to perform unified backup management, but these often don't meet every administrator's needs. Until they do, the search for the backup management Holy Grail continues.

Luckily, there are some backup management strategies you can employ to get a handle on your physical and virtual backups in the meantime. Members of our Server Virtualization Advisory Board share their tips as they answer this question:

How challenging is it to manage physical and virtual backups together?

Greg Shields, Concentrated Technology

In the "old" days, it was very hard. Why? Virtual backups were pretty much like physical backups. In order to get data back, you needed to kick off some kind of restore job, usually from tape. That took time and consumed resources -- even with the early-generation virtual backup solutions, which could locate their agent on the host rather than in each VM.

Today's real measure of successful backup (virtual or physical) means getting off that tape-based infrastructure and embracing disk-to-disk. With disk-to-disk, your backups can be a file system filter driver -- moving block-level changes to disk as they occur -- rather than a glorified file copy. With it, there are no more backup windows and no more lengthy restores. Every good disk-to-disk solution also includes secondary backups to tape, so you haven't lost your investment in your tape infrastructure. Better yet, today's best-in-class disk-to-disk solutions behave the same, no matter if they're located on the host or in the VM. Backups just happen, and restores can be to by-the-minute granularity.

Our industry has been approaching this problem completely backwards for so many years. Stop focusing on a backup solution, and start focusing on a restore solution. You'll find that some may back up well, but not restore well. Others reverse that priority and will save your kiester when the inevitable bad day happens.

Eric Siebert, Boston Market

When companies have mixed environments of VMs and physical servers, I think many of them tend to stick to doing traditional OS backups. By doing so, they are treating the VMs just like physical servers, which is terribly inefficient.

Using one of the many tools designed specifically to backup virtual environments increases efficiency and has many value-added features. The challenge is that many of the best backup tools for virtualization only handle VM backups and not physical servers, so two different backup systems are often needed. All-in-one solutions are available that back up physical servers via guest OS agents and back up VMs through the virtualization layer, because most of the traditional backup vendors now have support for virtualization.

However, while an all-in-one solution may sound attractive, don't count out the virtualization-only backup tools. They often are better integrated, more efficient and have better features. Keeping two separate backup systems can add complexity, but once operational procedures have been established, they are easily manageable, and you get the best of both worlds.

Rick Vanover, Alliance Data

The challenge is great. We are in a period of transition, and many organizations unfortunately may never hit the 100%-virtualized mark. The solution is to deliver a better offering for the virtual machines than what can be delivered for the physical machines.

An administrator can utilize virtualization-optimized backups and store backups off site (if the bandwidth is available to other locations in their organization, either as a private cloud service or through some other design). For physical systems, that same level of protection may not be attainable.

Have a question for the Server Virtualization Advisory Board? Email Colin Steele, Senior Site Editor.

This was last published in October 2010

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