Should You Use Windows Server Backup?

Should You Use Windows Server Backup?

Learn to work with the limitations of NTBackup's replacement in Server 2008

Executive Summary: Windows Server Backup, the Windows Server 2008 replacement for the built-in Windows NTBackup backup and restore utility, has some differences that IT administrators might find annoying. Learn how you can work with Windows Server Backup’s limitations and whether you might need a more full-featured backup and restore solution for your Windows servers.

We’ve often been reminded by Microsoft that NTBackup—included with Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, and Windows Server 2003—wasn’t intended as a full-featured, enterprise-level backup solution. Nevertheless, many of us would use it that way in a pinch. Since Windows Server 2008’s release, however, we can’t get away with using Windows’ new built-in backup tool for large-scale, enterprise backups as easily we could with NTBackup. That’s because Windows Server Backup, the Server 2008 replacement for NTBackup, functions much differently from NTBackup. I’ll take you through some of the annoying differences between NTBackup and Windows Server Backup, tell you how you can sometimes work around those annoyances, and explain why you might need to consider a more fully featured backup solution.

Related: Windows Server Backup for Active Directory and New Windows Server Backup Features in Windows Server 2008 R2

Annoyance #1

Windows Server Backup Isn’t Installed By Default. Unlike NTBackup, which was installed by default on Windows 2003 and Windows 2000, Windows Server Backup isn’t installed by default on Server 2008. To use Windows Server Backup, you need to use the Add Features wizard, which lets you install Windows Server Backup, and the wbadmin.exe command-line utility, which you use to back up Server Core computers.

The lack of default backup software can be very annoying in certain circumstances. Say you’ve been called in to look at a server that’s behaving erratically, only to find that it has never been backed up and that you can’t install any new software. I like to back up a server before I do more invasive mucking about, and not having backup software installed by default can make investigating a server problem more of a challenge. I’ve found that companies—especially small businesses—often don’t consider backups until problems occur.

The only way to avoid the problem of getting caught without Server 2008’s backup software installed is to install the Windows Server Backup and wbadmin.exe features when you deploy Server 2008. Unfortunately, you’re still likely to get called to look at servers that have never been backed up and probably don’t have Windows Server Backup installed. It’s a pity there’s no warning on Server 2008 that asks you to regularly back up the server in the same way that it nags you about configuring automatic updates. With such a warning, only the most recalcitrant administrators would fail to ensure that their data was safely backed up.

Annoyance #2

No Tape Drive Support. One of the most surprising facts about Windows Server Backup is that it doesn’t support tape drives. You didn’t misread that: Windows Server Backup and the wbadmin.exe command-line utility can’t be used to write backups to tape. There’s at least one perfectly good reason why that’s the case: Tape drives are going the way of the floppy disk. Not only can today’s hard drives store insane amounts of data, they’re also significantly faster than tapes during the backup and restoration process. However, most IT shops have an existing backup tape infrastructure, and good tape drives never came cheap. Going to Server 2008 might mean that expensive tape drive starts collecting dust.

If you’re migrating from a previous version of Windows to Server 2008, you might have to decide to ditch the legacy hardware and purchase some removable hard drives or perhaps go with another vendor’s backup solution. You’ll also need to devise a plan for recovering data stored on tapes once you fully migrate to Server 2008. Although Windows Server Backup doesn’t let you import backups made with NTBackup, and you can’t use NTBackup to restore backups made with Windows Server Backup, Microsoft provides a restore-only version of NTBackup at This version of NTBackup can read from tape drives, but can’t write to them. You can extract your existing backup data from the tapes, but you won’t be able to use the tapes anymore after that. To use the Server 2008 restore-only version of NTBackup with a tape drive, you need the correct Server 2008 driver for that tape drive. Because Windows Server Backup doesn’t support tape drives, some tape drive manufacturers are reluctant to support Server 2008.

Annoyance #3

A Dedicated Disk Is Required for Scheduled Backups. Windows Server Backup requires a dedicated disk (not just a partition) to store scheduled backups. When you run your first backup to the new disk, the disk is repartitioned and formatted. You won’t be able to use it for anything other than storing backup data, and you can’t view it in Windows Explorer. You can have Windows Server Backup write data to an internal hard drive or to a USB 2.0 or IEEE 1394 compatible disk. Microsoft recommends that your disk be roughly two and a half times larger than the amount of data you’d write in a full backup, and the smallest amount you can back up is an entire volume. The default Windows Server Backup settings involve a full backup followed by incremental backups. Windows Server Backup manages data so that the oldest backup is automatically removed when the disk begins to run out of space. The idea behind this approach is that you can set up and schedule your backup, then forget about it until it’s time to perform a restore.

This method is pretty good for a bare-bones backup solution, but if you’re used to the configurability of NTBackup, it can be a bit annoying. You can perform a one-off backup to a network location or optical media, but you can’t schedule backups to these locations. Clever administrators might write a script called by a scheduled task that uses wbadmin.exe to write a backup, but you won’t be informed if the target location has enough space for the backup to finish successfully. Going outside the parameters of what you can accomplish with scheduled backups is one of those “you can do it, but you probably shouldn’t make a habit of it” things that systems administrators are always being warned about.

Requiring a dedicated disk also makes the practice of rotating backups to offsite locations more challenging. Many organizations take one set of backups offsite each week, enabling data recovery in the event that the building burns to the ground, is flooded, or is hit by a meteor. Windows Server Backup works on the philosophy that the backup volume is tethered to the server and will probably not be rotated offsite. If disaster recovery is a concern, you need to look at a more full-featured solution.

Annoyance #4

The Volume Is the Minimum Backup Selection. Unlike NTBackup, which lets you select individual files and folders to back up, the smallest item that you can back up using Windows Server Backup is an entire volume. This limitation exists because Windows Server Backup uses a full disk image rather than just writing files and folders to a location and compressing them into a binary blob. You can still restore individual files and folders, however.

One thing that surprises many admins is that Windows Server Backup can’t perform a system-state–only backup. It’s possible to perform a system-state–only backup using the wbadmin.exe command start systemstatebackup, but some admins aren’t comfortable using the command-line environment to complete what should be a relatively straightforward task.

Why Use Windows Server Backup?

Windows Server Backup works best if you remember that it isn’t designed to be an enterprise-level backup solution. Many administrators find this limitation annoying because that’s essentially how they’ve been using NTBackup for much of the past decade. If you take it for what it is—the WordPad of backup programs—you’ll find that what it actually does do, it does quite well. If you use Windows Server Backup to schedule a regular backup to a removable disk or an internal hard disk, it’s very simple to perform a complete restore of the entire Windows OS. You wouldn’t use Windows Server Backup to back up your Exchange Server or SQL Server systems, but you probably didn’t use NTBackup to do so, either.

Learn more:  Can I back up Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 by using Windows Server 2008's new Windows Server Backup feature?

Orin Thomas

([email protected]) is a contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and a Windows Security MVP. He has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books for Microsoft Press.

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