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Virtual backup: Still caught between two worlds

Most IT pros back up virtual and physical machines with separate tools -- an administrative headache. What IT shops want instead is a single point of management.

When it comes to data protection of virtual servers, IT managers are frequently caught between virtual and physical worlds.

To back up virtual machines (VMs), they frequently alternate between newer image-based backup software with tight virtualization integration and traditional backup tools that support physical and virtual machines. Consolidating tools to manage both worlds is a long-term goal, but getting there is easier said than done.

Because virtual backup tools evolved specifically to back up virtual OS images, only recently have users been able to back up all aspects of a VM with the same tool -- let alone back up physical and virtual systems with one. As a result, many IT shops use two sets of backup tools.

Living in two worlds
For many IT professionals, an all-in-one tool for physical and virtual environments could reduce the management headache of straddling physical and virtual universes.

Andrew Gahm, a systems and security engineer at South Jersey Healthcare, a charitable nonprofit health care organization based in Vineland, N.J., uses Quest Software Inc.'s vRanger Pro for virtual servers and software by Seagate Technology's i365 subsidiary, EVault Inc., for on-premise backups of physical servers to disk. The company has about 150 VMware Inc. vSphere virtual servers and 100 HP ProLiant physical servers.

If Vizioncore did physical servers the way it does virtual servers, I would probably switch in a second.

Andrew Gahm,
systems and security engineerSouth Jersey Healthcare

Originally, the company began with EVault as its exclusive backup tool and, as it began to virtualize its servers, simply backed up guests as though they were physical. The company then bought Quest's (then Vizioncore's) Essentials software package, which included the vRanger backup tool, vFoglight for monitoring and reporting, and vReplicator because a host-level vRanger deployment was lower cost than paying for individual Evault licenses, Gahm said. VRanger's simpler interface and focus on protecting virtual machines was also a draw. "If Vizioncore did physical servers the way it does virtual servers, I would probably switch in a second," said Gahm.

But for now, products like vRanger and its main competitor, Veeam Inc.'s Backup and Replication, are only just beginning to gain OS- and app-level awareness that is a mainstay of traditional backup products. vRanger works by copyingthe virtual machine operating system image, including system state information, which in the physical world is known as bare-metal restore. In contrast, traditional backup software protects the system from the inside, creating a file system view of the system. And while recent editions of vRanger can make both types of copies, it's still an option only for virtual machines.

Budgets stymie virtual backup progress
For companies that don't have the budget for newer equipment, it can be difficult to eliminate traditional backup. Lines are blurring between linear backups of data on a daily basis for operational restores and replication to redundant hardware or secondary sites for disaster recovery, but some small firms still find traditional tape backups sent offsite to be the most affordable approach.

Kendrick Coleman, a network engineer at a nonprofit organization in Indiana, has removed the management headache of agents inside each guest server using Veeam Software's image-level backups, which are sent to an on-site disk repository. From there, the data is backed up by UltraBac to tape for off-site backup. Currently Veeam does not support direct backups to tape.

"For a small company like mine with one building, sending data off-site comes with a huge capital cost," Coleman said, involving replication software licenses, bandwidth and off-site infrastructure. The organization is considering using a hosting company and Veeam to replicate critical servers into the cloud, but for now, "we run two backups every night."

Other users have been waiting for advancements in virtualization-specific tools before they can consolidate. Like South Jersey Healthcare's Gahm, Bob Swipes, senior microcomputer technical support specialist at Erie 1 BOCES, an organization that serves as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for K-12 school districts in New York state, said he's eager to switch over to his virtualization backup tool, Veeam, for physical servers, now that it supports granular application object-level restores from image backups.

In the meantime, Swipes backs up Veeam's files to tape with IBM Tivoli Storage Manager. Data volumes are protected by snapshots on a Dell Inc./EqualLogic iSCSI SAN with off-site replication. "Once we have the latest VMware update installed we're going to revisit backing up the data volumes with Veeam and see how that goes."

Shannon Snowden, a manager of delivery services at consulting firm New Age Technologies in Louisville, Ky., said the logistics of doing virtualization projects often makes it unmanageable to upgrade server and backup environments simultaneously, so bringing backup up to speed with virtualization doesn't happen till later. As companies get closer to 100% virtualization, he predicted that the tools users have adopted for virtual machines will begin to take over by default. "It's a transitional time," he said.

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for Write to her at

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