Guest Column: Solving the backup dilemma

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This article appeared in the 16th March, 2009 issue of CRN magazine.

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Microsoft Exchange is one of the most-used "filing cabinets" in today's office for scheduling meetings, sharing documents and conducting business. For most organisations, this makes the Microsoft Exchange server mission critical. Also, that filing cabinet has to be fully accessible for legal reasons because quite often organisations are required to retain auditing information - including email - for five years.

Exchange administrators need to know how they can protect Exchange data and recover it quickly with the least impact on operations. There are several automated recovery and restoration solutions on the market, so understanding the difference between products is critical to determining which is best for your business.

Microsoft Exchange comes with its own recovery applications, but even a highly experienced administrator rushing through instructions will take hours - or days - to complete a recovery. Not only are resident Exchange backup solutions time-consuming, but it's also impossible to tailor them or segment the backup process to make it a faster, less daunting task.

Third-party backup and recovery solutions specifically designed for Exchange can deliver a range of benefits including reduced strain on IT personnel, the ability for inexperienced staff to perform the restore, reduced downtime, flexible backup options and significant cost saving. It gives confidence that, in a crisis,  a full restore is at their fingertips.

Reduce personnel costs
A well-designed backup and recovery solution should be simple and agile enough to allow even an inexperienced person to take over in an emergency and successfully restore a server. All backup and recovery products highlight their advanced user interfaces, but whether an interface is advanced or not depends on the perspective of the administrator who has to step in.

Keep an eye out for solutions that walk you through the recovery process step by step. Ultimately, this will reduce the cost of personnel, server downtime and the impact on infrastructure. When the recovery process is simple, the Exchange server will demand less regular attention - staff can focus on proactive projects and spend less time doing repetitive backup checks.

Recover in minutes
It is very easy to find yourself in a disaster scenario. Speed of recovery is the number one concern for any IT administrator, but the utilities found in Microsoft Exchange itself will not allow them to recover quickly from failure. The goal is to obtain a tool that not only backs up data stores as efficiently and compactly as possible, but also makes it easy to recover them quickly.

There are two kinds of techniques for Exchange protection - brick-level and database-level backups. Brick-level backups are slow but necessary for recovering individual messages. Database-level backups protect the entire Exchange information store but are unable to restore individual messages or mailboxes.

Completing a brick-level backup is time- consuming and frustrating but necessary to restore individual messages, mailboxes or folders. In the Exchange email world, granularity refers to the level of details contained in an organisation's backup and is key when you are trying to recover individual messages in a hurry. On average, this can take 20-30 times longer than a simple database backup to complete - hours or even days for larger organisations.

Some organisations try to cut the backup window size down by limiting the granularity of their backup, but this can backfire if a recovery requires more detail than the backup captures.
Ideally you want an approach that achieves granularity within an organisation's recovery time objective; the two are not mutually exclusive. This is found in applications that deliver the speed of a database-level backup with the granularity of the brick-level backup using disk imaging technology.

Cut data storage costs
Any backup solution can create a full backup, but few offer the technology or flexibility to save significant disk space and cost. As IT administrators also deal with high network data storage costs, they should look at vendors that use compression technology to shrink backup stores with an eye toward reducing the amount of top-tier storage disks needed for mission-critical applications such as Exchange.

It is possible to compress files by up to 56 percent - this speeds access to Exchange mailboxes and messages. By halving backup requirements, organisations can speed up the overall backup process, reduce the impact the backup regime has on server performance system resources and be backed up and running quickly.

Administrators should also look for solutions that give freedom to choose compression levels and balance the need for rapid backups with the need to limit the amount of disk resources committed to Exchange. This is vital as the infrastructure costs of enterprise-class storage is the single biggest expense in an IT environment.

Prioritise speed of backup
In disaster recovery, the faster a system is restored, the sooner users will be productive. However, meeting your recovery time objective also requires that the database administrator take a holistic view of the Exchange environment.

The administrator needs to balance application recovery with business continuity; one size does not fit all. Having the ability to throttle the recovery settings allows the administrator to balance the bandwidth provided to business-critical applications, even if it means one application might be slowed at the expense of a higher priority task.

Historically, organisations have become resigned to complicated backup and recovery routines. However, disk imaging technology means that backing up and restoring mission-critical applications such as Microsoft Exchange need not be complex or slow. With the right tools in place, in conjunction with a tested disaster recovery plan, Exchange administrators can recover their databases virtually to the point of failure in minutes, not hours or days.

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