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VM backup: VM-specific software vs. traditional enterprise data backup software

VM backup is a thorny problem at many companies. Learn what factors should be considered when deciding whether to offer a VM-specific backup tool for customers or a traditional data backup software application.

Sometimes storage integrators find themselves between a rock and a hard place. In the case of VMware, that often happens when the discussion turns toward VM backup. Should you provide the module for VMware that your enterprise data backup partner provides, or should you sell a VM-specific software application?

Most storage integrators have a strong relationship with a particular enterprise data backup software vendor. It's the one they recommended 99.9% of the time. This relationship may have developed because at one point the organization felt it was the best available application or it was the one that the engineers knew the most about. Over the past five years or so, these applications have became more similar than they are different, and because of the sheer size of the code, vendors have struggled to keep them in sync with the very latest initiatives in the data center.

In the server virtualization space, VMware was slow to develop an acceptable API set for data backup software vendors to tap into to support applications such as Exchange, Oracle and SQL Server (though the company has made significant changes to that API set in its latest release). The major data backup software vendors, in turn, were slow to add support for VMware.

With a lack of good data backup tools for a VM environment, companies like Vizioncore, Veeam and PHD Virtual were born and developed, respectively, vRanger Pro, Veeam Backup & Replication and esXpress. These tools are licensed per socket rather than per server (though experts and users caution that it doesn't always equate to lower costs), and they enable recovery of the virtual machine disk (VMDK) image for greatly simplified disaster recovery (DR) preparedness, as well as recovery of individual files within the VMDKs. (Traditional backup tools operate from within the VM, so early on, they were adept at file-level restore but required multiple steps to restore entire VMDKs.)

With these tools in the mix for VM backup, life was pretty easy for storage resellers addressing the issue with their customers. They could push back on their enterprise vendors because their VMware support was either weak or nonexistent. Providing a VMware-specific backup solution to customers caused little friction with the big data backup software vendors.

Now, though, the data backup software vendors have either closed the gap or are starting to, leaving resellers with a more difficult decision to make: provide the probably still feature-advanced VM-specific data backup product, or provide their data backup software vendor's "pretty close" VM module.

Factors in VM backup tool decision

When confronting the question of whether to recommend VM-specific tools or the enterprise data backup tools, there are a few points to consider. The first point relates to the effect on the environment. Often, VMware-specific backup applications are significantly easier to get from installation to point of first protection. Enterprise data backup applications that are protecting VMware as a module, even assuming that all you are adding is the module, are typically more complex to integrate. The point from install to first backup is almost always faster with an application-specific solution. The downside to a VMware-specific solution, of course, is that it adds yet another wrinkle in the overall data protection process that needs to be accounted for and managed.

In making the decision, you need to consider whether the customer has a significant investment in its current data backup software and whether that application's VMware module provides adequate protection for the environment. If either is lacking, it may make sense for you to propose a VMware-specific data backup solution to manage both protection strategies within a single process, via a management tool like those available from Bocada, Tek-Tools or Aptare.

Another alternative comes into play when virtualization is the primary infrastructure, meaning that the customer is reaching 100% virtualization. Ironically, we are seeing this not only in large businesses but also in small businesses, where because of the small number of servers, total virtualization can be accomplished quickly. In this environment, a VMware-specific backup tool may be the only solution needed, eliminating the need for additional enterprise backup products.

The second point to consider is whether there is a significant capability offered by either the VMware-specific tools or the enterprise data backup software that you or your customer thinks is a "must have." It's important to remember that point solutions typically end up in a game of leapfrog, delivering very advanced features in a new space, which are eventually matched by the more comprehensive systems. The VM backup technology area is no different. The leading edge of functionality will change quickly. As an integrator, you should interview and keep a scorecard of which vendors can provide which functionality and then weigh that against what your customers need.

About the author:
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.


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