I’ve recently been doing some testing around Block Based Backups, and specifically recoveries from them. This has acted as an excellent reminder of two things for me:
- Microsoft killing Technet is a real PITA.
- You backup to recover, not backup to backup.
The first is just a simple gripe: running up an eval Windows server every time I want to run a simple test is a real crimp in my style, but $1,000+ licenses for a home lab just can’t be justified. (A “hey this is for testing only and I’ll never run a production workload on it” license would be really sweet, Microsoft.)
The second is the real point of the article: you don’t backup for fun. (Unless you’re me.)
You ultimately backup to be able to get your data back, and that means deciding your backup profile based on your RTOs (recovery time objectives), RPOs (recovery time objectives) and compliance requirements. As a general rule of thumb, this means you should design your backup strategy to meet at least 90% of your recovery requirements as efficiently as possible.
For many organisations this means backup requirements can come down to something like the following: “All daily/weekly backups are retained for 5 weeks, and are accessible from online protection storage”. That’s why a lot of smaller businesses in particular get Data Domains sized for say, 5-6 weeks of daily/weekly backups and 2-3 monthly backups before moving data off to colder storage.
But while online is online is online, we have to think of local requirements, SLAs and flow-on changes for LTR/Compliance retention when we design backups.
This is something we can consider with things even as basic as the humble filesystem backup. These days there’s all sorts of things that can be done to improve the performance of dense filesystem (and dense-like) filesystem backups – by dense I’m referring to very large numbers of files in relatively small storage spaces. That’s regardless of whether it’s in local knots on the filesystem (e.g., a few directories that are massively oversubscribed in terms of file counts), or whether it’s just a big, big filesystem in terms of file count.
We usually think of dense filesystems in terms of the impact on backups – and this is not a NetWorker problem; this is an architectural problem that operating system vendors have not solved. Filesystems struggle to scale their operational performance for sequential walking of directory structures when the number of files starts exponentially increasing. (Case in point: Cloud storage is efficiently accessed at scale when it’s accessed via object storage, not file storage.)
So there’s a number of techniques that can be used to speed up filesystem backups. Let’s consider the three most readily available ones now (in terms of being built into NetWorker):
- PSS (Parallel Save Streams) – Dynamically builds multiple concurrent sub-savestreams for individual savesets, speeding up the backup process by having multiple walking/transfer processes.
- BBB (Block Based Backup) – Bypasses the filesystem entirely, performing a backup at the block level of a volume.
- Image Based Backup – For virtual machines, a VBA based image level backup reads the entire virtual machine at the ESX/storage layer, bypassing the filesystem and the actual OS itself.
So which one do you use? The answer is a simple one: it depends.
It depends on how you need to recover, how frequently you might need to recover, what your recovery requirements are from longer term retention, and so on.
For virtual machines, VBA is usually the method of choice as it’s the most efficient backup method you can get, with very little impact on the ESX environment. It can recover a sufficient number of files in a single session for most use requirements – particularly if file services have been pushed (where they should be) into dedicated systems like NAS appliances. You can do all sorts of useful things with VBA backups – image level recovery, changed block tracking recovery (very high speed in-place image level recovery), instant access (when using a Data Domain), and of course file level recovery. But if your intent is to recover tens of thousands of files in a single go, VBA is not really what you want to use.
It’s the recovery that matters.
For compatible operating systems and volume management systems, Block Based Backups work regardless of whether you’re in a virtual machine or whether you’re on a physical machine. If you’re needing to backup a dense filesystem running on Windows or Linux that’s less than ~63TB, BBB could be a good, high speed method of achieving that backup. Equally, BBB can be used to recover large numbers of files in a single go, since you just mount the image and copy the data back. (I recently did a test where I dropped ~222,000 x 511 byte text files into a single directory on Windows 2008 R2 and copied them back from BBB without skipping a beat.)
BBB backups aren’t readily searchable though – there’s no client file index constructed. They work well for systems where content is of a relatively known quantity and users aren’t going to be asking for those “hey I lost this file somewhere in the last 3 weeks and I don’t know where I saved it” recoveries. It’s great for filesystems where it’s OK to mount and browse the backup, or where there’s known storage patterns for data.
It’s the recovery that matters.
PSS is fast, but in any smack-down test BBB and VBA backups will beat it for backup speed. So why would you use them? For a start, they’re available on a wider range of platforms – VBA requires ESX virtualised backups, BBB requires Windows or Linux and ~63TB or smaller filesystems, PSS will pretty much work on everything other than OpenVMS – and its recovery options work with any protection storage as well. Both BBB and VBA are optimised for online protection storage and being able to mount the backup. PSS is an extension of the classic filesystem agent and is less specific.
It’s the recovery that matters.
So let’s revisit that earlier question: which one do you use? The answer remains: it depends. You pick your backup model not on the basis of “one size fits all” (a flawed approach always in data protection), but your requirements around questions like:
- How long will the backups be kept online for?
- Where are you storing longer term backups? Online, offline, nearline or via cloud bursting?
- Do you have more flexible SLAs for recovery from Compliance/LTR backups vs Operational/BAU backups? (Usually the answer will be yes, of course.)
- What’s the required recovery model for the system you’re protecting? (You should be able to form broad groupings here based on system type/function.)
- Do you have any externally imposed requirements (security, contractual, etc.) that may impact your recovery requirements?
Remember there may be multiple answers. Image level backups like BBB and VBA may be highly appropriate for operational recoveries, but for long term compliance your business may have needs that trigger filesystem/PSS backups for those monthlies and yearlies. (Effectively that comes down to making the LTR backups as robust in terms of future infrastructure changes as possible.) That sort of flexibility of choice is vital for enterprise data protection.
One final note: the choices, once made, shouldn’t stay rigidly inflexible. As a backup administrator or data protection architect, your role is to constantly re-evaluate changes in the technology you’re using to see how and where they might offer improvements to existing processes. (When it comes to release notes: constant vigilance!)