Comprehensive VMware ESX Data Protection Requires more than just VCB Support

The ongoing success of virtual server environments is unprecedented in terms of shrinking the footprints of servers in data centers, decreasing the time to deploy new applications and delivering needed cost savings to corporate IT organizations. Yet one component of the virtual environment that is often overlooked, and that can introduce new levels of complexity, is the backup and recovery processes required to protect virtual server environments. In fact, it is only now that significant advances are occurring that are making the protection of virtual servers a simple and straightforward operation.

Many companies found that the creation and maintenance of a good recovery mechanism for early releases of VMware and other virtual server platforms quite a nightmare as they really only had three viable options.

  1. Backup the entirety of the VMware ESX server and all of its guest operating systems at one time
  2. Load an agent on every guest and treat each of them like a physical machine
  3. Skirt the issue entirely by using storage array-based snapshots.

Unfortunately all of these approaches create relatively complex issues during both backup and recovery. If backing up an entire ESX server at one time, there is no detail in the backups so companies cannot restore individual virtual machines (VMs) or files within the VMs – the restore is an all or nothing scenario where companies must restore the entire VMware ESX server.
Loading agents on individual VMs provide this level of detail so companies can restore individual VMs or files on an ESX server. However this second approach introduces problems scheduling the backup jobs on the server. Administrators must take care so that when configuring the backup jobs on individual VMs they do not schedule too many to occur at the same time so as to create undue overhead on the underlying physical servers. Conversely, if they do not start the backup jobs by a certain time, the backup may not complete by the next morning.

The final method that many organizations use to skirt this issue is the use of storage array-based snapshots. This does remove the ESX server resource contention problem by offloading it to the storage array. However the backup administrator still needs to recover the entire vmdk file, mount it, and only then can the backup administrator recover data inside the VM guest itself.

To tackle this problem, Symantec Backup Exec and NetBackup now offer a new layer of abstraction that simplifies the protection of VMware servers, ensures granular recoveries and avoids the performance overhead on the physical server. To do this, these products take advantage of VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB) feature to perform an off-host backup of each VM’s vmdk file.

While other competitive products also use VCB to protect files, Backup Exec and NetBackup differentiate themselves by cracking open the individual vmdk files so they can recover granular elements of the guest system like individual files and/or folders. An entire guest can also be restored with the flexible capabilities available during the restore like restoring to another ESX or changing the server name or LAN address.

Symantec NetBackup and Backup Exec accomplish this using its Granular Recovery Technology. The Granular Recovery Technology provides an option to run an entire ESX level backup, crack the vmdk file of the individuals VMs and store the metadata for all the files on the guest in their respective Backup Exec or NetBackup catalogs. This process eliminates the need for backup administrators to mount and then unmount vmdk images in order to recover a single file inside the guest.

The Symantec management consoles for both Backup Exec and NetBackup also now facilitates the discovery of existing and new virtual machines via VMware’s vCenter Server. Discovering new VMs on VMware ESX server requires the use of a VMware proxy server which is a role that a Backup Exec or NetBackup media server can assume, assuming it is running on a Windows host.

This heightened integration with VMware coupled with the new Granular Recovery Technology now found in both Backup Exec and NetBackup automates the protection of VMs while still ensuring that administrators can set the proper level of protection of all the VMs in their environment. This automation not only simplifies discovery of VMs, but also, for initial installations, provides a simple and fail-safe way to ensure accurate recording of backups of a virtual infrastructure.  Because of this integration, backup administrators don’t have to worry as much about day-to-day changes to their VMware environment because this integration will automatically register changes as they occur and alert backup administrators as to when they occur.

The support and integration with VCB by all data protection products has increased significantly in the past year. However companies are advised to look beyond just the superficial support that many products provide to the deeper integration that Symantec Backup Exec and NetBackup now offer with VMware in general and VCBs specifically. By introducing the automated discovery of VMs on VMware ESX servers as well as granular backups and recoveries in the most current releases of these two products, backup administrators will find that they can eliminate much of the time and effort that managing, installing, and maintaining virtual server environments currently consumes.

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