Vendor spotlight: PHD Virtual shows off expertise with VM backups

Startup PHD Virtual's expertise with VM backups goes past VMware to Citrix XenServer, with plans to add multi-hypervisor management.

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Virtual machine backup usually focuses on protecting data on one hypervisor -- in most cases VMware and occasionally Microsoft Hyper-V. But startup PHD Virtual is building toward supporting multiple hypervisors through one backup application.

PHD Virtual isn't quite there yet. It supports VMware, of course, and Hyper-V is on the roadmap for this year. One thing that sets it apart from other vendors specializing in virtual machine (VM) backups is its support of the Citrix XenServer hypervisor.

PHD Virtual claims it grew revenue 34% in 2012 and finished the year with more than 5,000 customers. The Philadelphia-based startup targets small businesses by promising simple management and installation.

"What Apple is to consumer electronics, we are to virtual machine protection," said Joe Noonan, PHD Virtual's senior product manager. "You don't have to read a manual or take a class to use our software."

PHD Virtual, which has been around since 2006, sells a virtual backup appliance (VBA) that runs inside a VM. It plugs into the hypervisor console and requires no extra servers or hardware. PHD's VBA is Linux-based, so it doesn't require an operating system license and third-party applications, such as antivirus software that can raise the price and overhead of Windows-based virtual appliances.

PHD also has a Virtual Monitor product that provides visibility into virtual and physical servers from one dashboard.

Noonan said the vendor is moving towards a Web-based interface to offer centralized management of VMware and Citrix, and eventually Hyper-V. "We'll have all three major hypervisors managed through one product."

He said it won't be much trouble adding support for other hypervisors, such as Red Hat KVM and Oracle VM.

XenServer is only a small part of the hypervisor market, but supporting it gives PHD Virtual a clear shot at those customers. Citrix is a PHD Virtual investor, which also helps the startup. Noonan said about half of PHD Virtual's new customers last year bought the Citrix product.

Relief for XenServer customers

Steve Wilson, IT manager of Cincinnati Thermal Spray, said his company switched most of its backup from Symantec Backup Exec to PHD Virtual after picking XenServer as its hypervisor in late 2011. The company makes spray coatings for industrial pumps, and needs to protect its engineering drawings for about 200 users in five plants.

Wilson said he picked XenServer because it cost less and had the features he needed. However, "We quickly discovered that backup was going to be interesting with XenServer. You're on your own. We weren't able to find any other players that supported Xen. It was slim pickings. Xen's the ugly sister nobody wants to talk about. But we love her."

With a scarcity of XenServer backup, Wilson's team at first wrote scripts and used the Xen command line. "That resulted in a large amount of downtime because the snapshot and copy process required that the VM was powered off," he said.

He switched to PHD Virtual a few months later, and said, "We've grown with them. The product has gotten better. The replication piece was huge when they added that."

Cincinnati Thermal Spray has PHD Virtual in its five sites, replacing tape for remote backup. Wilson said his remote offices keep a minimum of a week of backups on-site for quick recovery if there is a problem with the office's primary server.

Winslow Systems Limited, a Greensboro, N.C.-based company that provides managed and consulting services, protects VMware ESX 3.5 with PHD Virtual.

David Winslow, president of the consulting firm, said he uses PHD Virtual for his internal backup and recommends it to clients looking for VM backups. He said he's been using it for about four years because he was unhappy with the way Backup Exec protected virtual machines and required a license for each VM.

He said he uses direct-attached storage for his production VMs, and found PHD Virtual "simple to set up and manage."

That also goes for his disaster recovery (DR) process. He uses PHD to replicate data from a data center in Atlanta to a DR site in Dallas. "It's an awesome way to test restores; you simply fire up a VM in Dallas," he said.

Winslow gets a 19-1 reduction ratio with PHD Virtual's client-side dedupe, using 1.2 TB of capacity for 23.4 TB of data. He said that is one area where the startup can improve.

PHD Virtual dedupes across all VMs on the backup target, which can be easier to manage, but less granular than other products' dedupe.

"The ratios are not as high as you might see with an [EMC] Avamar-type product," Winslow said. "It's not variable-type level dedupe. If I have a 1 MB block on disk and 1 K changes, PHD will see the whole block has changed and back up one meg instead of just changing 1 K. That's one thing I'd love to see them look at in the future."

An eye toward cloud backup

PHD Virtual's Noonan said the vendor is working on adding cloud capabilities. He said PHD will soon integrate with public cloud providers Amazon, Google and Rackspace for backup, and will eventually support archiving and DR in the cloud.

The data protection landscape is crowded, with traditional players Symantec, EMC, IBM, VM backup specialists Veeam Software and Dell's vRanger, and smaller players concentrating on the small- and medium-sized business market.

Robert Amatruda, IDC's data protection research director, said PHD's challenge will be to build up its partner ecosystem while maintaining its lead on the multi-hypervisor front.

"The key thing is multi-hypervisor support, that is critical to PHD to continue to differentiate and grow against some of the big guys," he said. "Unfortunately, it's not always about the technology. Sometimes it's about route-to-market and partners, and that's another area PHD needs to focus on."

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