Creating consistent, reliable backups of business-critical data continues to be a challenge in organizations of all sizes. This problem is particularly acute for small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) that don't have the resources necessary to put in place a proper backup regimen. Some organizations rely on backup utilities that come with their OS or application software, whereas others employ a manual system in which multiple copies of files are created in many different places. Consequently, these organizations are placing themselves at risk. They might have lost, corrupted, or incomplete data, which can lead to an interruption in business operations when they need to restore files from backups. (See also, "Review: Symantec NetBackup 5220 Appliance," March 2012.)
The Symantec Backup Exec 3600 is designed to remove many of the headaches, problems, and uncertainties of backups for SMBs, yet it packs many features that will appeal to enterprises, too. Symantec's goal was to produce an appliance that a user with a moderate amount of IT skills could get up and running in around 45 minutes. I believe that someone with far less skill could get it up and running much faster, especially when accepting the default options during the installation.
The Symantec Backup Exec 3600 is an appliance that comes in packaging that belies its actual size. The size of the shipping box is typical for a full 1U or even 2U appliance. When you open the box, you're confronted with an impressive amount of foam padding designed to protect a much smaller 1U device, as Figure 1 shows. Also included in the box are standard rack rails and a welcome kit that contains everything you need to get the device up and running: all the cables, complete instructions in a printed booklet, and a USB thumb drive, which you can use to restore the device to its factory settings if ever required. A lot of thought and care has gone into the packaging, and it definitely shows.
I got the appliance out of the packaging, attached the power cables, and powered it on in less than five minutes. Following the instructions in the printed manual, I attached the device's first Ethernet port to my laptop's Ethernet port, configured an IP address on my laptop, opened up my web browser, and connected to the management interface. The printed manual walks you through configuration, but this walkthrough isn't really necessary due to the clear instructions presented through the web interface and online Help files. Still, a printed manual is a very nice touch and handy, too. All told, I had the device up and running in around 30 minutes, which includes the time taken to customize some configuration options. If I had accepted all the defaults, it would have been much quicker.
During configuration, the appliance begins to reveal a little about itself. It's designed to work in Windows forest and domain environments, and you're prompted to join a domain. If you're going to use the appliance to back up Windows servers and desktops, you'll want to join a domain. Although the appliance can be used without joining a domain, the configuration isn't as simple and might present problems for organizations without experienced IT staff. The appliance itself runs on Windows Storage Server 2008 R2.
There are five Ethernet ports on the appliance, with the first port dedicated for the management interface and the fifth port dedicated to Symantec technical support. That leaves you with three ports you can use. Once the appliance is configured and restarted, you plug it into your regular network using one of these other Ethernet ports. Afterward, you open your browser, connect to the appliance, log on, and launch the management applications. The management applications are simply RDP configuration files that your Windows system will use to establish a remote desktop connection to the appliance. You then log on using an Active Directory (AD) account that has the rights to log on to a server, which is any account that is a member of the Domain Admins group. You can also log on using the built-in administrator account (whose password you can change during the initial configuration).
My only criticism of the appliance's configuration process is that the crucial step of connecting to the device to manage it is poorly documented in the printed manual. However, the documentation in the online manuals, which you can download from the device as PDF files, is better.
Managing Backup and Restore Operations
When you log on to the appliance, the UI opens for the Backup Exec software, which is an application that runs on the appliance. As Figure 2 shows, the UI is intuitive, well laid out, and, frankly, very appealing. From here, you can browse for Windows servers and desktops in your network and in AD. Using administrator credentials (which you supply), you can deploy the Backup Exec agent to them from the appliance. The deployment process is fast. If it runs into any problems, it provides a wealth of information you can use for troubleshooting. A note of caution, though: If you don't have a healthy AD (e.g., have replication problems or tombstoned objects), the appliance will have difficulty discovering, connecting to, and deploying the agents. In such situations, you can create accounts on the target machines or manually install the Backup Exec agent.
After the agents are deployed to your servers and desktops, you can create backup jobs. You can create a one-off backup job or schedule the backup jobs to run regularly. I found that I could do both quickly and easily, without consulting the documentation to figure out how. The progress and status of jobs is clearly shown in the interface. Restoring folders and files to servers and desktops is just as simple as creating the backup jobs.
Overall, I found the appliance's backups and restores to be very fast compared with other backup solutions I've tried. I attribute this to the unique architecture and intelligence built into the Backup Exec agent. The agent tracks and records changes to files as they're made in the file system rather than scouring every folder and file during a backup, looking for files that changed.
Exploring the Enterprise Features
As I mentioned previously, the Symantec Backup Exec 3600 appliance might be attractive to enterprises as well as SMBs. Although designed to work very efficiently in Windows networks that rely on AD, it works just as well with standalone machines. It should also work well with Linux and Apple Macintosh OSs with the appropriate clients and agents installed. The appliances themselves can be configured to work with tape devices, providing disk-to-disk-to-tape (D2D2T) options, and Hierarchical Storage Management (HSM) capabilities (i.e., one appliance manages others).
The appliance also supports virtualization software. You can back up virtual machines (VMs) and even use machine-level backups of physical servers or desktops to create VMs that can be restored to your virtualization servers.
Last, but certainly not least, the appliance can be used in branch office and workgroup scenarios, where integration into other backup regimens is either not possible or not desirable. The appliance's use of RDP to connect to the Backup Exec software makes it simple to use and enables it to efficiently use bandwidth.
Sad to See It Leave
All-in-all, I was very impressed by the appliance and was somewhat sad to have to pack it up and send it back. It could easily have found a permanent home in my lab, backing up my machines on a nightly basis. The appliance will suit the needs of SMBs, but its powerful features can easily be utilized by an enterprise to supplement its backup environment and to support branch offices.
Symantec Backup Exec 3600