5 Features You Need in Backup Software for Microsoft Exchange and/or SQL Server


5 Features You Need in Backup Software for Microsoft Exchange and/or SQL Server
By Ben Maas, DCIG, Sept. 30, 2013, 3:06 p.m.
DCIGOver the years both Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server have gotten the reputation (well-earned, I might add) of being difficult to backup and recover. Yet with the vast majority of all size companies running one if not both of these applications in their environments, using backup software that can effectively protect and recover these applications is no longer optional – it is a prerequisite. To ensure a company is effectively performing these tasks, here are five features backup software must offer to protect and recover Microsoft Exchange and/or SQL Server.

Independent studies confirm what many organizations suspect to be true: Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server are found in almost every business. According to Microsoft, Exchange has more than a 78 percent share of insourced email in businesses with more than 25 seats. Likewise, SQL Server has an equally commanding presence as it is used in as much as 83 percent of businesses. While these percentages may be a bit inflated as they come from Microsoft or Microsoft-friendly publications, there is little dispute that these two applications are widely deployed in businesses.

Despite their wide adoption, the ability to protect and recover these applications has never been easy. Ever since their initial release both Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft SQL Server have had a reputation for being difficult to backup and recover. 

The source of their data protection issues stem from both Exchange and SQL Server storing data in proprietary binary formats. Storing data in this format precludes the backup software from “seeing” data inside these applications so they become a “black box” from a backup and recovery perspective. This creates at least two issues:
  • First, when backing up or recovering this application data, it is an “all-or-nothing” proposition. Since the backup software cannot natively “see” email messages, email mailboxes, indices or tables inside these applications, it cannot just backup or recover items that have changed – it has to backup or recover the entire database of these applications.
  • Second, the application must stop until the backup is complete. If the application is running while a backup is occurring and data changes, the backup copy may not be restorable. The only way to create a recoverable backup is to stop the application in its entirety until the backup completes.
In the early days of Exchange and SQL Server if you wanted to backup either program you needed to get their APIs (think “keys to the app”) so it could see the details of their databases and do the backup and recovery at a granular level. These APIs also gave organizations the flexibility to protect or recover them while the application was running. These techniques were neither easy nor cheap to implement.
Thankfully this is no longer the case. Backup software providers have made great strides in making Exchange and SQL Server more cost-effective and simpler to do backup and recovery by integrating these APIs into their products so even small and midsized enterprises with limited or even no technical resources can successfully protect and recover these two applications.
However not all backup software implements these APIs equally well. As such, here are five features that small and midsized enterprises should verify that backup software needs to offer in order to easily and effectively protect and recover their Microsoft Exchange and/or SQL Server applications:
  1. Support for Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS). Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) does all the heavy lifting of achieving application consistency for these programs without the backup software needing to know the internals of either Exchange or SQL Server to back them up. By integrating with VSS, the backup software can invoke VSS. VSS prompts Microsoft Windows to acquiesce Exchange or SQL Server so the backup software can do a complete backup of either of these applications without incurring any application downtime.
  2. Flexibility to restore individual databases and emails. Exchange data stores can range from tens of gigabytes up to tens of terabytes and larger. Being forced to recover an entire data store would be both extremely time consuming and it may not be recoverable.To avoid either of these scenarios, backup software that supports Exchange and/or SQL Server must be able to achieve database and data store consistency and the safest way to achieve this consistency is through using VSS. VSS knows about the internal structure of these data stores on Microsoft Windows so it can retrieve more detailed information from within the data store. This is how solutions such as Eversync leverage VSS to backup and restore individual Exchange email messages or SQL Server tables.
  3. Synthetic full backups. Before synthetic full backups, administrators had to backup all of their data on a regular basis to tape and then do smaller backups in between (incremental backups.) If data needed to be recovered they first had to restore their last full backup, then each incremental until they reached the point in time they needed. Synthetic full backups eliminate this problem. When a synthetic full backup job is first created, solutions such as Eversync create a full backup of the data. From that point forward only the data that is changed or different is backed up (differential backups.) Eversync recognizes which versions of the data are associated with which snapshot. In this way when restores are needed the proper data can be retrieved immediately rather than being forced to do restores of data from multiple different backups.
  4. Data deduplication and compression. Deduplication takes all the parts of data that are the same and only keeps a single copy of that data, while compression removes unneeded space in the data. The more uniform your data, the bigger the savings in storage capacity. Solutions such as Eversync use both block deduplication and compression to greatly reduce the amount of data that gets stored to disk. Exchange and SQL Server are well suited to block deduplication as their respective database structures contain large amounts of redundant data as well as large amounts of empty spaces that are reserved by these respective applications.
  5. User friendly interface. An often overlooked aspect of backup software is a well-designed user interface, especially for small and medium sized businesses. Users in these shops are often IT generalists who have neither the time nor the inclination to pull out the manual every time they need to use the product. Eversync does a good job helping users visualize what data has been backed up, where it is and how to retrieve it if necessary. A web based user interface is typically the best suited for businesses as most users are now web-savvy.
Identifying and putting in place a backup software solution that supports all five of these attributes is critical for any organization wanting to protect both their Exchange and SQL Server deployments using a single backup software solution. This is really where products like Eversync come into play.
Today’s increasingly virtualized organizations are caught between a rock and a hard place. They want a solution that protects their virtual machines (VMs) but they also have applications like Exchange and SQL Server that are often still physical and may not be virtual anytime soon.
Using Eversync organizations get the best of what backup software targeted at the midsized enterprises has to offer. It gives them the top notch data protection that their virtualized environments need. But it just as importantly provides the five key features that they need to protect these business critical applications that other solutions targeted only at virtualized environments can rarely provide.
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