Windows Server 2012 Essentials: Thinking About Backup Strategies

While I’ve tried to steer people away from obsessing too much about technology, there is one technology topic that many of us don’t obsess over enough. And that’s backing up our data. If you’ve chosen to centralize all of your important personal and professional data in Windows Server 2012 (or another storage-attached product like Windows 8, a NAS, or whatever) you need to understand your options and obligations for backing it all up.

Paul Thurrott

October 20, 2012

9 Min Read
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While I’ve tried to steer people away from obsessing too much about technology, there is one technology topic that many of us don’t obsess over enough. And that’s backing up our data. If you’ve chosen to centralize all of your important personal and professional data in Windows Server 2012 (or another storage-attached product like Windows 8, a NAS, or whatever) you need to understand your options and obligations for backing it all up.

I’ve consolidated my own operations under Windows Server 2012 Essentials, of course, so that’s the focus of this article. But the general themes here, and even some of the specifics, are equally applicable to related solutions like Windows 8 and Windows Home Server 2011.

With regards to the term “backup,” I’m not even sure this is the right word. I tend to think of this general process as “replication” more than backup, since in my mind the goal is to ensure that your most important data is replicated across different physical storage devices. And this replication ideal occurs locally (at the PC level), centrally (at the server level), and off-site (to a cloud storage solution).

It doesn’t have to happen consistently. On my PCs, I use SkyDrive to sync the exact same folder structures between each. So when I access the Documents library on my desktop PC, I see exactly the same folders and files as when I access the Documents library on my Ultrabook. The contents are synced automatically between each PC, and to the SkyDrive cloud-based storage scheme.

Windows 8 offers a number of backup/replication technologies, and since I’ve been using Windows 8 exclusively for almost a year, these are very important to me. Some, like File History, can be used in tandem with Windows Server 2012 Essentials, and while this is a more recent addition to the Thurrott home office, it’s no less important to me.

Looking at Essentials 2012 specifically, a number of backup/replication technologies exist.

Storage Spaces

Essentials allows you to mirror the storage on two or three physical hard drives, creating a simple, redundant storage pool that looks, acts, and performs exactly like a single hard disk. To the operating system and any server applications, this things, this storage space, is indeed just another disk, with its own drive letter, NTFS (or ReFS) file system, and all of the normal behavior one would expect from a single disk.

But under the covers, this storage space is mirrored across multiple disks. So if one fails, you’re all set: The data is safe on one or more other disks. Furthermore, these storage spaces are portable: If you plug one or more of the disks from a storage space into another Windows Server 2012-based server, or a Windows 8-based PC, it simply works normally, not just as a regular hard disk (or disks) but as the originally configured storage space. So if the server goes belly up, the data is safe.

Because Storage Spaces has some serious disk requirements, I’ve decided to only use it with truly important data. (To me. What constitutes “important” will of course vary from person to person.) Working within the scheme of the Essentials 2012 server folders, my Music, Pictures, Users, and Videos folders are all replicated within a mirrored storage space. But my videos are just stored on a single hard disk. I don’t care if they’re replicated.

Centralized PC backups

As discussed in Windows Server 2012 Essentials Tip: Configure PC Backups, Essentials 2012 includes an excellent and centralized PC backup feature by which you can redirect Windows Backup from individual PCs and configure those system image backups to occur on the server instead. That way, if a PC’s hard drive fails or you simply need to reimage a PC and start over from scratch, you can do so using the server-based backup and a client recovery boot disk.

I don’t happen to use centralized PC backups, at least not the system image aspect of it, other than for testing purposes on some non-essential PCs. That is, I don’t actually use this feature on the PCs I really use each day. In my case, I feel that the SkyDrive-based replication functionality combined with Windows 8’s PC Reset rapid recovery functionality is all I need. Now, getting a PC back up and running after a disaster takes just a few hours rather than the better part of a day. (My PCs do centralized their File History backups to the server, however.)

But for those who need or want this functionality, centralized PC backups is a crucial feature and provides peace of mind. Interestingly, you can enhance the safety of these backups, as well as the Windows 8-based File History backups that are created as part of the process, by replicating the Client Computer Backups and File History Backups server folders on a storage space, by backing them up with Server Backup (see below) and/or by backing up that information to the cloud as well (again, see below).

Server Backup

As with Windows Home Server 2011, Essentials 2012 provides a useful Server Backup feature that lets you back up the server to a separate physical disk. This backup can include a system image backup, as with PC backups, so you can recover the server. And you can configure which drives and folders are backed up. Oddly, you can only use one backup drive at a time, and that drive must be dedicated to Server Backup; once it’s configured for this purpose, it actually disappears from File Explorer. But you can in fact utilize multiple Server Backup disks, so that you could, for example, move one off-site while the other is being used, rotating them over time.

I do use Server Backup, with a single 3 TB external hard disk, and as with Storage Spaces, I’ve opted to only protect my most important data, which is found in the Music, Pictures, Users, and Videos server folders. So I’m not backing up videos. But I’m also not backing up Client Computer Backups (which I don’t really use anyway), Company (which I do not use), File History Backups (because I don’t feel this is important to backup), Folder Redirection (which I will write about soon), or Recorded TV (which I don’t use). Again, your needs may/will vary.

Cloud backup

The previously described Essentials 2012 backup and replication features are all wonderful and everything, but they all have one problem, too: They’re not geographically redundant. That is, if your home, home office, or small business burns down, is robbed, or suffers some other disaster, replicating and backing up isn’t going to help in the slightest if every copy of your data was destroyed (or taken) in the same event. You need to make sure that your most important data is replicated somewhere else, physically.

In the old days, when 1 TB of data was a lot and an external 1 TB hard disk (Firewire 800-based, which required a special card in my server) was expensive ($999), I used to perform manual weekly backups and physically rotate of these two hard drives between my home and my parent’s home. This was ponderous in addition to being expensive and slow, and of course recent advances in cloud computing have made this kind of thing passé around here. It doesn’t hurt that FIOS offers crazy-fast broadband speeds either.

(If cloud backup isn’t possible, then by all means do the sneaker shuffle with external hard drives. If you don’t have family or friends in the area you trust with this data, consider getting a safety deposit box at a bank.)

I’ve been using CrashPlan for a while now and like it quite a bit. It’s only $60 per year, and comes with unlimited storage. My backup plan involved backing up my most important data first—those Music, Pictures, Users, and Videos server folders—and then, once that completed—the initial upload isn’t just slow, it’s glacial, as in weeks—continually adding more server folders to the backup set. Eventually, I even added the Videos folder. What the heck, it’s unlimited.

Since Essentials 2012 only recently shipped, I’ve restarted this process while keeping my previous WHS 2011-based backup up in CrashPlan just in case. I’m still part-way through the initial backup of my Music, Pictures, Users, and Videos server folders, and will do as before, adding more over time.

There are other cloud backup solutions, of course, but if you are using Essentials 2012 or another server product, your options will be limited and potentially very expensive. (Carbonite explicitly forbids using Windows Server on anything but its most expensive, high-end plan. My 1.1 TB core data backup would cost $1200 a year on Carbonite, compared to $60 at CrashPlan.)

Essentials 2012 also offers integration with Microsoft’s Windows Azure-based Online Backup functionality. I’ve not tested this yet, but will, but my experience with Azure thus far has amounted to a lot of confusion over how much this stuff will cost in the real world. My guess is that Online Backup will be a lot more expensive than CrashPlan. In fact, it’s a near certainty.

Big picture

Looking at my own environment, I have a small set of Windows 8-based PCs I use regularly, and these utilize a data set that is replicated between each PC and the cloud using SkyDrive. File History is enabled on each, and centralized to my Essentials 2012 server. (File History caches some backups to the PC so they can be used when you’re disconnected from the network.) The Essentials replicates my most crucial data—those Music, Pictures, Users, and Videos server folders—across multiple disks with Storage Spaces and backs up that data to an external hard disk. All of data (eventually) is backed up to the cloud, in my case to CrashPlan. (Or will be, over time. I’m only partway through the initial upload.)

I feel like this is a reasonable backup strategy for my own environment. But as you examine your own needs, you should look at all of these features, including PC backups, and develop your own strategy. In a best case scenario, all of this backing up and replication happens automatically, with no real intervention on your part after the initial configuration. And if you’re truly lucky, you’ll be swapping out disks for larger capacity disks instead of frantically picking up the pieces when something does go wrong.

But even if something bad does happen, at least you’ll be prepared, especially if you’ve chosen Essentials 2012. There’s no excuse for losing data these days: All it takes is a little planning and a little work.

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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