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VMware backup improving, but still problematic

Organizations are turning to VMware and other vendors to virtualize servers running mission-critical applications. But backing up virtual servers is still difficult.

Virtualization is no longer just for lightweight file-server consolidation. Today, organizations are turning to VMware and its burgeoning ecosystem of vendors to virtualize servers running mission-critical applications like Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server, to virtualize and centralize the applications themselves, to virtualize storage, and even bring virtualization into enterprise-class data centers. So much is happening so fast, leaving many storage managers scratching their heads.

Backing up virtual servers

Backing up virtual servers has proven especially problematic. Companies can back up virtual servers the same way they do physical servers by installing backup agents and managing each backup individually, but the results are generally unsatisfactory.

At VMworld 2008, however, a number of announcements promised improvements in virtual server backup. For example, Vizioncore Inc., a third-party VMware server backup leader, announced new and improved virtualization management for data backup and recovery. BakBone Software Inc. announced a NetVault backup VMware plug-in to provide a simple way to achieve VMware data protection. Symantec Corp. now offers Veritas NetBackup support for restoring individual files or a full virtual machine (VM) with a single VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB) backup pass. Previously, organizations faced a choice of backing up virtual servers for the ability to restore individual files or to restore the entire VM, an either-or proposition.

Still, there remain three basic virtual server backup and recovery options as outlined by Ashley D'Costa, enterprise solutions architect at Mainland Information Systems. They are:

  1. Conventional server backup with the use of individual backup agents on each VM
  2. Backup management tools provided by the virtualization vendor, VMware, or a third party
  3. Use of a standalone backup proxy server, such as VCB, or appliances from third-party vendors

The third option, especially VMware's VCB, has emerged as the preferred approach.

Virtual data center

The big announcement coming from VMworld 2008, one indicative of the direction VMware intends to take virtualization overall, is to transform the VMware infrastructure suite into what VMware calls the Virtual Data Center Operating System (VDC-OS).

According to VMware, the VDC-OS will expand the virtual infrastructure in three ways. First, VDC-OS will provide infrastructure services called Infrastructure vServices, to aggregate servers, storage and network resources as a pool, forming what amounts to an onsite cloud of resources. The cloud would allocate the resources to applications as needed.

Second, it will deliver application services, which VMware calls Application vServices. The services provide availability, security and scalability to all applications independent of how they were built or the architecture on which they originally ran.

Third, VDC-OS will also provide cloud services, called Cloud vServices. The cloud services are intended to federate compute resources between onsite and offsite clouds. Cloud vServices will be supported by VMware's newly launched vCloud Initiative, for which it is rounding up the backing of various third parties like Sungard and T-Systems.

Analyst reaction was supportive but guarded. Charles King, senior analyst at Pund-IT, Hayworth, CA, reports: "VDC-OS aims to leverage and extend VMware's deep virtualization expertise beyond servers to integrate and optimize end-to-end data center infrastructure processes. Is this reasonable? We believe so, though we also expect the company to encounter significant challenges along the way."

Those challenges will come most immediately from Microsoft Corp., which is just rolling out its long-awaited Hyper-V virtualization initiative, and Citrix Systems Inc., which acquired XenSource, the open-source virtualization leader. King also questions how enterprise Unix and mainframe vendors will respond. IBM Corp., an enterprise data center leader, has cloud computing and virtualization initiatives of its own.

Laura DiDio, senior analyst, Information Technology Intelligence Corp. (ITIC) conducted a recent survey in conjunction with Sunbelt Software and found an unexpectedly diverse virtualization landscape despite VMware's commanding industry lead (70% share) in the server virtualization market. For example, the study found both Microsoft and Citrix making strong showings with survey respondents. Similarly, DiDio reports that "HP [Hewlett-Packard], IBM, and Sun Microsystems all scored well among their core constituencies," which make up the bulk of the high-end enterprise data centers. Even among x86-based data centers, DiDio's survey found "IBM has about 5% market share; HP has 2%; and Sun has 4% of the x86-based virtualization."

Still, the ITIC study supports VMware's move to extend virtualization with VDC-OS beyond server virtualization. The survey respondents, DiDio notes, "are overwhelmingly moving beyond server virtualization as a simple hardware consolidation play and inexpensive disaster recovery and backup solution." Businesses of all sizes, she found, are now actively deploying virtualization for desktops, applications and storage. IT data centers and even cloud computing environments also are on the radar of the majority of the survey respondents. Apparently only network virtualization lags significantly behind with the survey respondents.

Ongoing research from IDC, a leading industry researcher based in Framingham, MA, is pointing in the same direction. "We're already seeing big changes resulting from virtualization. We're seeing changes in how organizations deploy servers, storage, and networks; in how they do disaster recovery and backup," says Laura DuBois, analyst, IDC, Framingham, MA.

About this author: Alan Radding is a frequent contributor to

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