Buyer's Guide: Exchange Server Backup and Recovery Software

Pick the right solution and you can forget all about backup troubles

Backup: the most important thing in IT that everybody loves to hate. Am I right? You know it's important but—dang!—what a bother. And it's not just the backing up process itself; after you've made that backup, you need to be sure you can recover data from it, in whole or in part, should the need arise. And when you're talking about your Microsoft Exchange Server, recovery might mean anything from one accidentally deleted email message to a user account to a mailbox database to a whole server. It's not a pretty picture.

Fortunately, there's a plethora of third-party products that can help you automate this process. Furthermore, Exchange Server 2010 has changed the landscape and requirements for backup software through the introduction of database availability groups (DAGs), which gives you something else to consider if you've made the move—or are planning a move—to the latest Microsoft mail server. The accompanying table gives you a snapshot of some of the products available and should help you start your search for a backup and recovery solution for Exchange. Let's review some of the key differentiators you might want to keep in mind as you begin your search.


Big Differences

The first question you might ask is whether you need a dedicated Exchange backup product or something that can do global backups of your IT infrastructure but is also Exchange-aware. You'll find plenty of both options available. If you go with the larger product, the Exchange piece might need to be purchased as a separate add-on or module. Just remember, the added backup functionality brings with it added cost and complexity.

Perhaps the next consideration is what method of backup best suits your organization. Keep in mind that how backups are taken can potentially affect the granularity of restore. From brick-level full server backups to byte-level replicated changes, there's something that should satisfy every organization and budget. Make sure your current infrastructure includes the necessary hardware and software prerequisites, or you'll need to factor in additional upgrades as you calculate your costs for the product.

Related to how things are backed up is how easily data can be restored. Obviously, any backup is worthless if you can't pull from it what you need when you need it. If you're hoping to keep in the good graces of the C-level exec who constantly deletes that most vital email message, make sure the product you choose will be able to quickly and easily locate and restore single mail items. Some products also work at or near continuous data protection (CDP), which means minimal loss of data when disaster strikes—or they might be useful for failover if your primary system fails.

Finally, keep in mind the storage medium the backup saves to. Many products will give you options—disk, tape, even cloud storage these days. As always with backups, it does you little good to keep your backup copy in close physical proximity to the original data—you don't want to live with the possibility that both versions could be damaged or destroyed at the same time. Another thing to look at is whether the solution lets you make multiple backups, possibly to different locations.


Exchange 2010 DAGs

Speaking of multiple backup copies, that's exactly what Exchange 2010 makes possible with the DAG feature. In case you've been ignoring Exchange 2010 and its improvements over previous editions, the DAG is probably the biggest architectural change that came with this release. It lets you set up copies of the primary mailbox database such that the system will automatically failover to a copy if the currently active database encounters a problem. You can establish as many as 16 copies of each mailbox database.

DAGs require you to run Exchange on the Enterprise edition of Windows Server 2008 or Server 2008 R2. You also have to consider the cost of additional server hardware and licensing; depending on the size of your organization and the number of DAG copies you choose to create, the cost could end up being quite high. However, a well-designed DAG architecture with at least three copies of every database could eliminate the need for a third-party backup product if you're running Exchange 2010. Microsoft claims to have been running without traditional backup since it implemented Exchange 2010 internally during the product's development.

Depending on your organization's needs, you might want to implement DAGs and use a third-party backup product as well. The only requirement to keep in mind for such arrangements is that the backup solution must use Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS) for backup; streaming backups will not work with DAGs.


The Total Package

The accompanying Buyer's Guide table isn't comprehensive, but it should give you a start. Naturally, there are many other products out there. Additionally, this guide doesn't address cloud-based backup and recovery solutions, and there are many vendors in that space as well. If you're in the market, do your research and be sure to pick the product that offers the total package that works best for your organization. And don't forget to test those backups once in a while—no one wants to find out their backup files are no good when they really need them.

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