Choosing the right Exchange backup and restore solution

Ever since the earliest days of networked PCs, organisations have relied on tape backups for their email and server data.

Increasingly, however, the levels of IT sophistication available to even the smallest business have enhanced the process of network resource backup and restore functionality to the point where intelligent search facilities are now possible.

Thanks to this facility, even small-to-mid-sized organisations can now have access to powerful email and data resource search routines operating in parallel with their backup systems.

If you've read this far, you may be forgiven for thinking that your existing backup facilities are more than sufficient for your needs, especially if you use one of the growing number of online backup services such as Backupmystuff, Clearly Business and Datafort to mention but a few.

Online or tape backup facilities are only part of the equation, as few organisations - especially in the small business sector - ever get round to testing a complete restore of their systems from scratch.

Even if they did, they would quickly realise that restoring a system from scratch is an extremely time-consuming affair. And in real life, trust me, it can also be a nerve-jangling episode.

Microsoft has gone a long way to meeting the needs of its Exchange users by including a series of backup-friendly utilities as a standard feature in most modern versions of the software.

Creating a usable Exchange backup is actually quite a complex task, since it centres on using a application programming interface (API) at the storage group level.

These APIs, which are also known in Exchange jargon as ESE Backup APIs, allow the entire Exchange database to be committed to disk - or the online/network storage resource.

This is an important feature, as without it, all usage of the Exchange environment would have to stop whilst the backup was in progress. And in a business environment, especially one where customer information is constantly being updated, this would clearly be inappropriate.

Even if the ESE Backup API technology is allowed to run quietly in the background, saving and re-saving the entire Exchange database to a storage medium of the business user's choice, what happens when only part of the database needs retrieving?

In theory, Microsoft's Exchange server clustering technology could be used for intelligent backup, but there is a risk that the database could become logically corrupted.

This is particularly true if the data has been backed up in multiple stages, perhaps using a delta blocking technique, as a number of tape and online backup applications use by default.

This is where an advance Exchange backup/restore utility like Ontrack PowerControls enters the frame.

At its most basic, the software supports interactive searching of an Exchange Database (EDB) file, and can export any or all of the searched data to another EDB file or, more likely, a PST file for use by a third-party application.

Ontrack PowerControls is unusual in being billed as interworking with users' existing Exchange backup systems.

This isn't as crazy as it first sounds because - you'll remember - Microsoft has included a range of backup utilities as a standard feature within Exchange itself.

Could you search an EDB file manually? Certainly, using search utilities like good old GREP (a Unix search tool), but the process would only be semi-automatic and would take up that most precious business commodity: time.

The hosted backup option

You could also turn to some of the more advanced secure online backup services such as EVault, based over in California.

EVault's Infostage online backup/recovery software and its Protect managed service, provides an interesting alternative to localised (and searchable) backup services software like PowerControls, since its services were designed to meet the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rules on data archiving.

There's even a hosted option of EVault's services that supports those companies that rely on their Internet service provider to host their email, as well as options for anti-virus protection and spam filtering.

Another online US-hosted service aimed at Exchange users is RocketVault from Intradyne, a relatively new entrant to the online backup marketplace.

Rather than relying purely on user-installable software, the Minnesota-based firm requires small-to-mid-sized businesses to install a RocketVault appliance on their network.

The appliance continuously backs up network data - including all available Exchange databases - to its own drives, and then intelligently chooses which data to back up online.

The idea behind this solution is to offer small-to-mid-sized businesses both secure on-site and off-site backup facilities, rather than requiring them to choose between the two.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that users have instant and high-bandwidth backup access to their files - via the appliance - at all times, and a broadband or similar connection can support a disaster recovery scenario, if the need arises.

Both EVault and Intradyne's services are designed for an American market, meaning that any regulatory compliance rules introduced in the UK - mirroring the US Sarbanes Oxley Act - are unlikely to be supported, at least in the shorter term.

This pushes most UK businesses wanting searchable online backups that are compliant with shareholder or similar requirements back into the world of PowerControls.

Do-It-Yourself

But could any competent programmer develop their own Exchange backup system similar to PowerControls? The answer, surprisingly enough, is yes, as the building blocks for a customised suite of software already exist.

Small-to-mid-sized business online services such as Backupmystuff, Clearly Business and Datafort allow users to download the relevant client software and then choose which folders and files they want to back up.

The first two of these services, which use the Netstore client software and servers, can easily be programmed to intelligently choose which folders and files need to be backed up online.

To do this, however, requires the user to be conversant with the structure of the Exchange environment, including how the storage group architecture splits files between mailboxes and public files.

A good IT manager in a mid-sized and upwards corporate environment should know this structure like the back of his/her hand, but the small business user cannot be expected to understand such matters.

There is also the problem of the fact that most businesses may be using older editions of Microsoft Exchange.

Many of the PC utilities designed to search through the various Exchange files do not support all known versions of Exchange, especially now that Microsoft has been aggressively marketing Windows Server 2003 to users of Exchange 2000 and earlier editions.

This means that an appliance-based approach to backup - similar to the Intradyne RocketVault solution mentioned earlier - may be the best option to follow if a a small-to-mid-sized business wants to develop its own on-site Exchange backup solution.

Pick up a penguin?

Because of the sheer variety of Microsoft Windows and Exchange environments that can be encountered in a typical small-to-mid-sized business IT environment, there is a solid argument for a Linux-based Exchange backup appliance solution.

Not only are such appliances considerably cheaper to install on up-front basis, but their ongoing update and support bill is also likely to be a lot less than a Windows-based appliance.

The only downside with using open source Linux-based appliances is that the interface with Microsoft environments is not as flexible from a programmer's perspective.

Put simply, this means that, unless the IT manager for a small-to-mid-sized business has a good programming knowledge, it is not that easy to interface an Exchange environment directly with a Linux-based appliance.

Or is it? Arkeia, the enterprise backup specialist, reckons it has the answer with a server/appliance-based backup offering that features a MySQL plug-in for hot (real time) backups.

The US-based company says its Arkeia Server backup for Linux, when combined with the MySQL online backup plug-in, is a solid backup system that provides affordable protection for an Exchange server.

Because the software is Linux-based, the pricing is a lot less than competing Windows appliances, with prices starting from under $500 (£300). There's also a 30-day trial version of the software available on the company's Web site.

The company says that its MySQL plug-in is easy to install and configure, with databases and table backups selected via the software's graphical user interface navigator.

One size doesn't fit all

So which solution is best for a small-to-mid-sized business IT manager wanting to implement an Exchange backup system?

As always with such complex solutions, there is no ready answer to the question. For some users, especially those with a sound IT knowledge, the best choice may well lie in an online backup service, although it should be noted that online databases in excess of 10 gigabytes will cost £300-plus a year to maintain.

A Linux-based solution may also be the answer, but only if the IT manager has a solid knowledge of the IT systems at his/her disposal.

A growing number of application vendors, such as Ontrack DataRecovery, are also coming up with an increasingly innovative pricing model.

Given the tax breaks available to leasing and so-called rentware models, it can sometimes be better to opt for an all-encompassing solution like Ontrack PowerControls, particularly if there is a need to interrogate the Exchange database on a regular basis.

This is because Ontrack PowerControls - like an appliance-based solution - has a zero loading on the Exchange server environment, meaning that even the heaviest interrogation of the database will not slow the main Exchange system down for its users.

Coupled with the removal of the need for a high-speed (ADSL or SDSL) broadband connection to the Internet that the online solutions mentioned earlier in this feature require, The PowerControls option has a relatively rapid return on investment.

Critics might argue, of course, that the return on investment from a Linux-based appliance approach to Exchange backup is even more positive, but that IT route still requires the IT manager to be conversant with multiple operating systems.