Backup in a virtual world

by Kay Ewbank

How do mainstream tools compare with specialist solutions when it comes to backing up virtual machines?

HardCopy Issue: 56 | Published: May 1, 2012

When you store data on standard machines, the task of backup is clearly defined and understandable. Admittedly, backups are still scary because they can be unreliable, and there’s always the nagging worry that you’ve omitted to back up something vital; that your backup is faulty; or that open files such as mail stores and databases won’t be included because of locking problems.

Add virtual machines to the mix and life gets even more complicated. It can be difficult keeping track of just what virtual machines you have in your organisation, and what data is associated with them. Will your backup software identify virtual machines that aren’t mounted, and will it find any related data devices? Can you be sure all the data is being backed up? Here we look at how a number of popular solutions cope with such problems.


Veeam Backup & Replication

If you want backup software that is designed specifically for virtual machines and that is really fast in use, then Veeam should be on your shortlist. Users generally give Veeam glowing reports, and it isn’t as expensive as some of the alternatives. Veeam started life as a product just for VMware, with both free and commercial versions available. However, more recently it has added support for Microsoft Hyper-V.

One of the main reasons users give for liking Veeam Backup is that you can create backups directly from shared storage, which can result in very fast backup speeds. This improvement is achieved by setting Veeam up to take incremental backups. Once the first full backup is taken, Veeam writes the incremental changes into the existing file to create a new ‘synthetic’ full backup. This means that you can recover from a single backup rather than having to go to the original full backup then incorporate all the increments. You can also retrieve single files, database records or emails.

IFF Research

IFF Research is one of the largest independent research companies in the UK. It employs Acronis vmProtect 7 for the backup and disaster recovery protection of its VMware vSphere servers using ESX hypervisors. Simon Hulbert, IT Manager at IFF Research, says: “Acronis vmProtect 7 is intuitive and effective. It provides all the backup tools we need for our virtual environment, making my job easier.” Hulbert went on to explain that the web-based interface from Acronis simplifies management and enables even non-technical staff to easily access and carry out file-level recovery to restore data as quickly as possible.

Another important feature of Veeam is that it tests each backup by creating a virtual machine of its own based on the backup, and checking that it runs without errors. This isn’t proof positive that it can recover all your files, but it does show that the backup is correctly formed. The virtual machine is fully isolated, so the only drawback is the additional overhead.


Quest vRanger Pro

This is one of the longest established products designed specifically for backing up virtual machines and outperforms many bigger name rivals on a ‘price per feature’ basis. Its advanced feature list should meet most people’s requirements, and it has licensing options that mean you get maximum bang for your buck. vRanger was originally developed by Vizioncore where it gained loyal fans. Its takeover by Quest caused a few ripples, but recent versions have largely overcome the reservations. However it only supports VMware ESX and ESXi.

vRanger comes in two versions. The standard version lets you take full backups of a virtual machine, or differential backups of changes since the previous full backup. vRanger Pro adds support for VMware replication if you need something more advanced. All the backups can be taken while the virtual machines are running, and you can cut down on the amount of time taken to back up multiple systems by using multiple ESX hosts.

Quest’s licensing options for vRanger recognise that the data in some machines is more important than others, so allows you to buy licences just for the vital servers for backup and replication, leaving the others to be backed up but not replicated. Once you’ve created your backups, vRanger Pro makes them easy to find by browsing through a catalogue. It also has the facility to restore data using a Storage Area Network Fibre Channel instead of clogging up your normal network with the extra traffic.


Symantec Backup Exec 2012

Like many of the products covered here, Backup Exec has a complex history, most recently being owned and developed by Veritas before Symantec took over. It has just undergone a major revamp that has left many fans fuming, with changes not only to the menu structures and commands, but to the way multiple server groups can be managed. However, long-term users are clear that Backup Exec has the benefit of reliability: set things up correctly and it does what it claims on the tin.

The Backup Exec family is a general-purpose set of tools that has moved in to the virtual machine market, which means it can backup both physical and virtual machines. If you’re looking for something specifically designed for VMware ESX or Hyper-V environments then there’s the Symantec Backup Exec 2012 V-Ray Edition which provides backup and recovery for virtual machines, and includes de-duplication, which is normally an optional add-on, as part of the package.

One big benefit of Backup Exec comes if you’re using other Symantec products as well, you can then set up rules to trigger a backup depending on alerts generated elsewhere. Backup Exec also comes with good support for application servers such as Exchange and SQL Server. The rules you can define mean you can identify individual or group mailboxes, or tables within SQL Server for archiving, and in the case of Exchange, whether messages should be deleted from their original location, and how long data needs to be stored.

Another potential advantage of Backup Exec is a cloud-based version that sends an encrypted copy of your data to Symantec’s data centres. You can choose exactly what data to send and you’re charged just for the storage you use. This is a good option for keeping your most important data safe.


CA ARCServe Backup

ARCServe has historically been the choice for companies with large networks and a range of operating systems, and wouldn’t have appealed in simpler situations. However recent releases, and in particular ARCServe r16, have been made more attractive in smaller and simpler environments, although the large complex environment still seems its natural home.

ARCServe Backup comes in a variety of configurations, starting at the top with All Inclusive to back up everything including the kitchen sink – or at least, physical and virtual file servers, email servers, database servers and application servers. If you want to be more selective, you can pick options for specific operating systems, file servers or application servers.

The most recent version has improved support for virtualised machines, with support for VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V and Citrix XenServer. The ARCServe agents work well with the individual interfaces, so for example, if used with VMware will make use of its Consolidated Backup (VCB) interface to ensure you run a single agent as part of VMware rather than an agent on each virtual machine.

You can also use de-duplication on your virtual backups to ensure most efficient use of backup storage. One advantage of ARCServe in this area is that de-duplication is included as standard, rather than having to be bought as an extra as is the case with Symantec’s standard Backup Exec licensing model. When working with VMs, any that are currently running are backed up as snapshots, and those that aren’t running are backed up in their most recent saved state.


NovaStor NovaBackup

NovaBackup is aimed to be easy to use, with a browser-based interface that lets you manage a variety of clients from a dashboard that shows you the status of all connected devices. It also uses wizards to guide you through the actions available, again focusing on ease of use.

In the past, a potential drawback was that NovaBackup required you to have exactly the same configuration for the restore as you had for the backup, right down to identical serial numbers. This obviously caused a problem if you were restoring because a machine had failed. Fortunately, there’s a new version of NovaBackup that should overcome this problem with the inclusion of ‘True Universal Restore’ which is based on Windows PE and allows recovery of entire systems to dissimilar hardware.

NovaBackup 13 can be used to protect both physical and virtual machines, with support for Hyper-V and VMware. NovaBackup 13 has also been improved to allow access to individual files and folders within a backup image. If you have applications such as SQL Server and Exchange Server, these can be backed up while users continue to use them.

As well as offering online backup to single companies, NovaStor also has an option for IT service providers. NovaBackup xSP is designed to give service providers, system integrators, resellers and other IT companies the means to offer customers backup services such as cloud backup. This means that services such as Fasthosts’s online backup service can offer smaller companies a secure and easy way to use online storage for a small monthly fee, giving customers the ease of use of NovaBackup without the overheads.



Acronis has two options if you need to protect virtual machines. Firstly, Acronis Backup & Recovery 11 gives you a single package that can be used to back up both physical and virtual machines. The virtual machines can be running on VMware vSphere, ESX or ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix XenServer, Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization or Parallels Server 4 Bare Metal. Acronis supports unlimited migrations to and from one physical host, and you can use a single host-based agent for VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V to manage all the virtual machines at once.

Acronis Backup & Recovery 11 dashboard screenshot.

The Acronis Backup & Recovery 11 dashboard in action.

Alternatively, if you want to concentrate purely on virtual machines running under VMware, Acronis vmProtect 7 is designed specifically for protecting VMware virtual machines, can be used with vSphere and supports the ESX and ESXi hypervisor. It doesn’t work with the free version of the VMware hypervisor. When using vmProtect you can back up to network drives, local storage or the cloud if subscribe to the vmProtect Online service. However you can’t back up to tape or optical disks.

Acronis Backup & Recovery can also be used to store your data online courtesy of Acronis Backup & Recovery Online. This is fully integrated and managed from the same console as Acronis Backup & Recovery 11. Acronis comes with integrated support for applications such as Exchange and SQL Server, so you can both back up open files and if necessary can restore down to individual email or record level.

Whichever backup tool you choose, remember that it’s only useful if you actually use it. This might sound obvious, but far too often I’ve encountered companies where they’ve not backed up because they’re too busy, it takes too long, or they thought someone else was doing the backup. Also, backups are only as good as the media you use. If you’re still using the same tape drive that you used when flared trousers were in fashion, it’s unlikely you will ever get your files back. Indeed it’s good practice to test your backup and restore process on a regular basis.