Can current backup and replication technologies for virtual environments compete with old-fashioned backup solutions that are mostly file-level backups? Our contributor decided to find out. van Zanten created a test environment in which he put four virtual server backup technologies (in no particular order): Veeam Backup and Replication 3.1, Vizioncore vRanger Pro 4 Data Protection Platform, esXpress 3.6 VMware Backup, and VMware Data Recovery 1.0, to the test.
This was not performance testing, so you won't see columns and reporting on statistics, but usage testing – after all, isn't that what it's all about? If an admin has trouble using a product, he or she will probably choose a different product.
Testing the four major virtual machine backup products -- Veeam Backup and Replication, VMware Data Recovery, esXpress and Vizioncore vRanger Pro -- taught me some new things about virtual machine (VM) backups -- things I hadn't checked previously because they seem so commonplace for traditional enterprise backup products. Some of the key capabilities are the ability to locate VM backups, how the products work with multiple virtualization administrators, file-level restores and user management.
While these backup and restoration capabilities seem obvious for the top vendors to have included in data backup offerings, they turned out not to be.
Where is my VM?
To evaluate these four backup products, I used my home lab with three hosts and 40 virtual machines, and all worked well in my virtual environment. I can easily locate the VM on which I have data and then back up and restore the data, but how this will work with 1,000 or more VMs is questionable. All four products are missing good search functionality. Administrators could benefit from search-performed backup sets and quickly find a specific VM.
Some of these backup products have filtering capabilities, but even this functionality may not prove useful with 1,000 or more VMs. With Veeam Backup and Replication, restoring a VM requires you to browse through and open all the backup jobs; a VM can be part of more than one backup job. Right-clicking a VM and starting the restore wizard is the only way to determine which restore points are contained within a backup.
GUI and Web interfaces
Both Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger have a Windows interface that can be accessed only on the backup server. This connection will mostly be made through a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) session to the Windows server (or VM) on which the product runs. This poses a problem when your environment has multiple virtualization administrators.
When managing a large virtualization environment and trying to troubleshoot a problem, I often have to ask my colleague administrators to log off from a Windows session because there are no more available RDP administrator connections to a server. When managing backups and restores with multiple administrators, you're bound to encounter this issue with Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger. Additionally, in the case of either backup product, when a restore is in progress, you cannot continue management because the restore window stays in focus and doesn't allow you to click on the management interface.
With esXpress and VMware Data Recovery, you won't run in to these problems. VMware Data Recovery uses the vCenter client to give each backup administrator his own console, and esXpress is accessed through a Web graphical user interface (GUI). I find VMware's solution most compelling because of the integration with vCenter.
Although the means to connect to esXpress and VMware Data Recovery is better than with Veeam and Vizioncore, these are not automatically the best GUIs offered. I do like the speed of the Web-based GUI that esXpress offers, but this has its drawback too, since not all management and restores can be done from the GUI.
Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger have interfaces that offer the most useful options, including file-level restores, which VMware Data Recovery doesn't offer. It is fair to say that Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger offer the best GUI interfaces.
All reviewed products are VM-centric when trying to do a file-level backup. Instead of opening VMs to look for the existence of a file, I want to be able to search for a single file and see all backed-up versions. A user never says, "Hey, sorry, but two weeks ago, I accidently deleted this file." Most calls I get are more like, "Hey,Gabe, I'm pretty sure this file was there last time I looked, but now it's gone, and I didn't do anything."
Here again, Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger work similarly. They both mount a backed-up Virtual Machine Disk File (VMDK) in the management console and allow you to copy the data over a network share to the destination VM. It is a manual job, and replacing in-use Windows systems files is difficult. With Veeam Backup and Replication, a drawback is that you lose the NT File System (NTFS) file permissions if you don't set a special registry key; conversely, Vizioncore vRanger doesn't pose this problem. When restoring many files and subdirectories in Vizioncore vRanger, each top-level subdirectory becomes a separate job, which can create problems if you try to stop a backup, as I discussed in my review of Vizioncore vRanger.
File-level restore in VMware Data Recovery and esXpress are not at an enterprise-solution level. VMware Data Recovery offers an unsupported method through the vdrFileRestore utility that often fails. In my review of PHD Technologies' esXpress backup product, I explained the potential problems with the large .zip downloads from esXpress and made clear that it's is not suitable for large restore jobs.
Handling Fault Tolerance-protected VMs
In a test lab or even a production environment, you can stumble on strange events. I learned that VMs protected by VMware's new Fault Tolerance (FT) technology cannot be backed up. Technically this makes sense, because an FT VM cannot have a snapshot, and snapshots are used to create backups. What struck me was that within a job, all four backup products try to make a backup, try again, and retry a few more times before skipping the FT VM. Why don't the VM settings include a parameter that indicate that this is an FT VM and that backup should be skipped? Better yet, new releases should be able to back up FT VMs. If a VM is important enough to protect with VMware Fault Tolerance, you should be able to make a backup of it.
All four backup products lack in user management or user permissions. For a larger environment, you wouldn't want only the administrator to have access to the backups. You would want department administrators to have access to backups as well, but preferably only to backups for their own department. VMware Data Recovery, however, has a little more to offer on this than the others. Permissions set in vCenter Hosts and Clusters view will work through to the Data Recovery view. Just as with the other backup and recovery products, role management at the backup level is missing.
Is there a winner in this review? In short, no. That is mainly because the purpose of my review is not to declare a "best" product but to make potential customers aware of these products' capabilities and flaws. My criticism is not a reason not to buy a particular product, but you should understand these backup and restore products' pros and cons before you decide whether to purchase one of them.
Veeam Backup and Replication and Vizioncore vRanger are similar products. The two have some significant differences under the hood, but I did not performance-test these products; this review centers on about usability and features. Both products approach being fully developed backup solutions for virtualization environments, but they aren't necessarily true competition for the backup products already in place at some large enterprises. A smaller company with only one or two administrators, may benefit from these virtual machine backup and recovery products.
Compared with other backup products, VMware Data Recovery has considerably less functionality, but it's far from useless. Backing up and restoring virtual machines is pretty easy with VMware Data Recovery, and if you still have your old-style file-level backup in place via other software, VMware Data Recovery is a good tool.
Gabrie van Zanten (VCP) has been in the IT industry for 12 years. Currently he is a virtualization architect for a worldwide consultancy company and has designed and maintained virtual infrastructures for a number of customers. He has written articles for magazines and frequently publishes in-depth articles at his weblog, GabesVirtualWorld.
This was first published in November 2009