In this article I argue that backup methods relying on schedules and backup job configurations are no longer up to date.

Data backups are one of the most important tasks for any IT department. In my view, they are even more important than security. It can get nasty if a virus knocks down your network for a few hours. However, if you lose essential data, it could knock down your whole company forever. If you need some more motivation to read on, check out these statistics according to which 60% of companies that have lost their data will shut down within 6 months.

The problem is that admins are often busy with keeping the network running or meeting project deadlines. Backup management is often the first task that is neglected when admins are under time pressure because daily operations are usually not affected by a faulty backup strategy. But this is only true until a backup is really needed.

I have quite some experience with backup strategies and different kinds of backup software. While it is impossible to cover all relevant topics in two blog posts, I've outlined my four golden backup strategy rules. You'll notice that some of them are perhaps a bit uncommon.

Don't schedule backups ^

If you open a book about data backup, the first thing you usually read is that it is essential to not run backups manually and, therefore, it is essential that you schedule backup tasks. While the antecedent in this sentence is true, the conclusion is wrong.

It is true that backups should always run automatically without the need for human intervention. However, if you are still working with a backup strategy where terms such as full, incremental, or differential backups appear, then you missed an important technological development of the last years. I am talking about Continuous Data Protection (CDP).

With CDP, you don't schedule backup because the data is secured at the moment it is created. The important difference from conventional backups is that you don't lose the data that has been created between the last backup and the time when you need to restore the data.

While it might have been sufficient to run backups once per day, ten years ago, it is, in my opinion, grossly negligent to continue to pursue such a backup strategy. Most businesses now depend a lot more on digitally stored data, and any kind of data loss is no longer acceptable. A backup strategy that allows for possible data loss is what I call a "data loss strategy."

I think, CDP is now ready for prime time. The teething troubles of the first years have been solved. Thus I see no reason why anyone would still need to schedule backups.

Don't configure backup jobs ^

Backup software that relies on scheduled backups has another important downside. Depending on the size of your organization, managing backup jobs can be quite complicated. Backup solutions of major vendors have become quite bloated over the years with myriad features that appear to be quite useful at first but, if not properly configured, only increase the likelihood that restores will fail.

While I am in general a fan of bloated, feature-rich software, backup software is an exception. The difference from other software is that you can usually easily verify whether your setup works properly or not. However, with backups you often only realize that something must have been wrong with your configuration once you try to restore data.

Of course, you also have to configure CDP software. However, the configuration of CDP software is much simpler than that of conventional backup solutions because you essentially only have to configure which servers or clients you want to back up and some general settings such as retention periods. This leaves less room for mistakes and increases the probability that restores really work when you need them.

Some vendors of conventional backup software have added CDP features because they don't want to miss the trend. However, they still need to sell the legacy code of their old software; since CDP and scheduled backups don't really fit together well, things often get even more complicated if you use a conventional backup tool for CDP. Hence, I recommend moving to a CDP specialist and saying goodbye to your beloved backup software that you have been using for the last ten years or so.

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In my next post I will discuss offsite backups and disaster recovery.

16 Comments
  1. Dean 12 years ago

    Interesting article. When you say “data”, I guess you mean files.

    The picture is quite different when you consider backing up Active Directory, Exchange, Sharepoint, SQL server etc.

  2. peet 12 years ago

    CDP isn’t the magic cure it appears. It has serious drawbacks of its own. For example it assumes the failure mode is limited to a data corruption or hardware failure. What happens if the failure is the network you’re running CDP across? Also, don’t forget that most enterprise sized operations require off-site backups for legal or regulatory reasons. That means your CDP has to run not just within your business’s ntwork but across a WAN, too.
    Plus, most large sites will use the backup (or a broken mirror) as a way of refreshing test or development systems – or even of refreshing secondary databases, such as decision support or marketing databases. If you only have CDP, you lose this ability. Finally, it’s not really anything new. Oracle has had redo logs since at least the 80’s which performs pretty much the same function.

  3. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    Dean, thanks! I agree that there are differences between file backup and database backup. However, when I talked about “data” I didn’t make this distinction. In what way is the picture different with your examples?

  4. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    peet, what is the difference between CDP and conventional backups when it comes to network failures? I don’t understand your point. CDP and off-site backups work together well. I will address this topic in my next post. CDP is also perfect for mirroring. Actually, the first available CDP solutions were mirroring solutions. I agree that CDP is not new. It is now a well-established technology and ready to replace conventional backups.

  5. Jamie 12 years ago

    What are some that you recommend? I have been trying to move our company over to CDP but i have a supervisor stuck in 1990 with a Veritas BackupExec love affair. 🙂

  6. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    Jamie, I have been using Backup Exec since the time when it was owned by Seagate and I once was great fan of this backup software. But in my view for Windows shops Microsoft’s DPM is now the best choice. For Active Directory backups I would use Blackbird Recovery.

  7. Jamie 12 years ago

    yeah i almost forgot about Seagate owning backupexec. Like you said i think Veritas is so bloated now and it has always been kind of touchy…ever used Ultrabac?

  8. Dean 12 years ago

    I would rather say – the question is not whether to use CDP, but what kind of CDP.

    As long as Databases are concerned – I am afraid that your rules (at least the two rules above) are not quite applicable, Michael. You do configure and schedule backups as databases are constantly accessed and modified by clients.

    You’ve mentioned DPM 2010; by the way I really like it, and I can apply a couple of snapshots, proving my point:

    http://www.3demo.com/samples/DPM-2010/step2.gif

    http://www.3demo.com/samples/DPM-2010/step6.gif

    Regards,

    Dean

  9. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    Jamie, I agree Backup Exec is indeed bloated. By the way, Veritas is also history. It is now Symantec Backup Exec. 😉
    I think I have tried Ultrabac ages ago. It isn’t a CDP solution, right?

    Dean, agreed databases usually change more frequently than file systems. But it isn’t this one more reason not to schedule backups and secure the data constantly instead?

  10. Andrew 12 years ago

    This article came in at the perfect time. My boss just tasked me with replacing our old backup solution, which just had a hardware failure.

    We had used Commvault, which had been configured by the previous admin. It is a complete nightmare for someone that has never used it before. I am looking forward to using something more modern such as Microsoft DPM with backing up to a SAN instead of tapes.

    Keep the articles coming!

  11. Peter 12 years ago

    Andrew, I agree that Commvault might be a bit complicated for someone who has never used it before. But I strongly disagree that Microsoft DPM would be more modern or better.

    You really should investigate Commvault because it is one of the best backup softwares out there. Once you get solid understanding of storage policies everything starts making sense, I promise that.

  12. Jamie 12 years ago

    yeah i i know veritas is gone..hard to let go sometimes..lol

    We have to send tapes offsite currently so how do you handle that backing up to a SAN instead of a tape system? you would have to move to a backup service that lets you backup remotely? sorry i am not a enterprise level backup admin..i am used to small shops that just had a daily, weekly and monthly job backing up to tape. 🙂

    would you backup with DPM to a SAN and then use tapes to backup the SAN drive? or would you just sync your backup to and offsite service that allows online backups over the web? Most services i saw charges based on size and if you have a lot of data to backup that would get expensive pretty quickly compared to tapes no?

  13. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    Andrew, thanks!

    Peter, I wouldn’t recommend a backup software that requires “a solid understanding”. Ease-of-use has the highest priority when it comes to corporate backups.

    Jamie, you can back up to tapes with DPM, but I am not really a friend of tape backups which I outlined in my second post. So syncing your local backup to an offsite service would be my favorite solution. There are also online backup solutions for SMBs. I am thinking of writing something about this topic.

  14. Alistair 12 years ago

    “Thus I see no reason why anyone would still need to schedule backups.”

    I presume this post is purely aimed at large enterprises, as you have overlooked one critical reason why a company would not implement CDP – cost. The CDP solutions we have looked into have a hefty, enterprise-level pricetag attached to the licensing alone, not to mention the outlay for the systems infrastructure required to operate CDP.

    Working for a startup company (previously spun out from a larger organisation), there is no business justification to invest in CDP when cost effective, scheduled daily/weekly/monthly/yearly jobs, combined with hourly shadow copy backups and regular test restores, covers our bases at present. Cloud backups are not yet an option due to the current legal limitations associated with secure storage of customer financial details, not to mention the sheer amount of data we would need to upload to the cloud each night.

  15. Dean 12 years ago

    There isn’t one perfect solution, Alistair:)

    On the one hand, there are many different CDP solutions – some starting at a very decent price, like $299 USD.

    On the other hand, small shops might seriously consider a combination of different approaches – like using DFS (for redundancy) or SharePoint (with file versioning) and still continue using the old Tape backups.

  16. Michael Pietroforte 12 years ago

    Alistair, as Dean correctly mentioned CDP software doesn’t have to be expensive. And if you just take a simple PC with sufficient disk space, you don’t have to spend much for storage. A tape library is usually more expensive.

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