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Q&A: Exploring virtual server backups today

In this Q&A, Rachel Dines discusses some of the most recent trends in virtual server backups and challenges facing IT pros today.

Virtual servers offer organizations flexibility and ease of management. But virtual server backup presents problems, particularly if administrators are relying on an agent-based process that installs copies of backup programs on each virtual server or if cost is an issue when deciding on what backup process to use in order to protect the data of a virtual server.

In this Q&A with SearchDataBackup, Rachel Dines, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, discusses some of the most recent trends in this space and the challenges facing IT pros. She also helps put some of our most recent reader survey data on virtual server backups into a larger context.

The options for virtual server backups have improved a lot over the past few years, but a recent survey we conducted shows that many of our readers continue to use traditional agent-based backup to protect virtual servers. Have you seen a similar trend, and if so, any thoughts as to why that is?

Rachel Dines: Even though there have been many more efficient techniques for backing up VMs [virtual machines] for many years, many companies are still using older and less efficient methods like placing an agent in each individual VM. This is partly because many organizations don't have the resources to dedicate to making an update to the process, but other organizations don't see the value in making a change if they haven't experienced a problem with the approach in the past. There is also sometimes the additional barrier of licensing advanced virtualization features from their backup vendors, something they may not be willing to pay for.

Another virtual server backup challenge our readers report is that they have to back up too much data. How does dedupe figure into the virtual server backup picture? Are there specific challenges, and if they are backing up too much data, wouldn't deduplication help?

Dines: Increases in the amount of data that must be protected is a significant challenge across the physical and virtual worlds. Some organizations are deploying source-side deduplication, which can be very effective in virtualized environments that tend to share a lot of redundant data. Deduplication, however, treats the symptoms of data growth, but not the root cause. Companies should investigate archiving to move older data out of production, and also backup retention cycles instead of retaining backups for years at a time.

Our survey reported that 11% of our readers are using their traditional backup application versus only 7% using a VM backup-specific application. What do third­party VM backup apps offer that traditional apps don't? Has the playing field been leveled at this point?

Dines: Many of the enterprise backup software vendors have reached near-feature parity with the VM-focused backup solutions, but there are still reasons that companies will use the VM-focused solutions. First, they will often be faster to work with new releases and new versions of hypervisors. VMware vCloud is a good example of this -- many of the mainstream backup providers do not have robust support for this yet. Additionally, the VM-focused providers are often extremely cost-effective and can be more attractive than a traditional solution, especially if VM capabilities are licensed separately.

How common is support for backup of multiple hypervisors at this point? I've heard that some users are using VMware for some servers and Hyper­V for others. Does this present additional backup challenges?

Dines: Pretty much all of the backup software vendors are offering support for multiple hypervisors at this point. However, the vast majority of end users are primarily using VMware.

How are snapshots being used today to improve virtual server data protection?

Dines: Snapshots, especially when using a hypervisor-aware array, can be a very effective way to back up virtual environments. Snapshots can either be cataloged in the backup application (depending on the backup software's capabilities), or else backups can be taken from the snapshots. Either way, backup windows are significantly reduced. If snapshots are saved in their native form, they can be used for rapid recovery as well.

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