Comparing VMware vSphere backup software options for SMBs

SMB admins have a lot of VMware vSphere backup software options, including the free VDP appliance. Here's how VDP stacks up to third-party options.

For IT managers at small and medium-sized businesses, there are lots of product to choose from when selecting VMware...

vSphere backup tools.

Virtualization does not eliminate the need for backups. On the contrary, virtualization can magnify the challenges of performing and maintaining proper backups. Consider backup options before committing to a virtualized infrastructure or overhauling your existing deployment. Some tools are tailored for smaller virtualized environments.

Here we'll compare the vSphere backup tool -- VMware Data Protection (VDP) -- with third-party backup products such as Unitrends.

VMware vSphere backup options

VDP. VMware Data Protection is included in Essentials Plus, Standard, Enterprise and Enterprise Plus vSphere editions. For all practical purposes, VDP is "free" to VMware administrators, except those who use VMware vSphere Essentials. Free is good, but VDP does have limits, such as when scalability is a concern.

The technology behind VDP -- EMC's Avamar backup -- is unassailable; it has been around for years and has earned a loyal following and a solid reputation. Thanks to Avamar, VDP offers live image-level backups of running virtual machines (VMs) and deduplicates its backups to avoid wasted storage space. Each VDP virtual appliance, however, is limited to 2 TB or 100 VMs.

VMware's Advanced edition of VDP integrates application-specific agents.

Third-party options. Some third-party vSphere backup tools have feature-set depth that VDP can't match. For example, Unitrends offers its backup tool as a hardware or virtual appliance. Like VDP, Unitrends performs deduplication for vSphere VM backups. It uses VMware's vStorage application program interfaces to execute image-level backups of running VMs. Unitrends backs up not only VM images, but also specific files within virtual or physical machines. It supports every major OS and most of the minor ones as backup clients and works with large applications such as SQL Server, Oracle and Microsoft Exchange.

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Pricing for the Unitrends hardware appliance is simple; you can back up as many of whatever you want, so long as it fits within the hardware appliance's storage. If you want to use Unitrends' virtual appliance, budget planning will be more complicated, but the virtual appliance has options for any conceivable scenario.

Most enterprise backup products -- including the full version of EMC's Avamar -- can do what's listed above. Unitrends pulls away from the pack by helping systems administrators blur the lines between the virtual and physical worlds. A Unitrends hardware appliance can back up VMs and -- should the need arise -- light up Windows VMs on the appliance, turning into a virtual host to cover downed hardware emergencies. Unitrends can back up from a VM to a physical box, from a physical box to a VM or from one physical box to another with completely different hardware. It can light up images of physical systems as VMs in case of emergency. Competitive products like Veeam and PDH Virtual Backup and Replication protect virtual infrastructures but lack this integration with physical machine backup. 

What do you need in a VMware vSphere backup tool?

Another consideration beyond cost or feature set in sourcing a backup tool is how frequently the software backs up systems. Does it offer continuous data protection? Do you need continuous data protection? Backup tools will differ in their support for replication: appliance to appliance, appliance to network-attached storage (NAS) and appliance to cloud are all options, depending on your backup vendor choice. Archiving and vaulting to long-term storage media, such as tape, is also a critical consideration for large volumes of data or for companies with regulatory storage requirements.

The backup options available to the vSphere administrator are so widely varied -- and virtualization so broadly supported -- that VMware admins now have the option of shopping among many experienced vendors. Rather than altering workflow and processes to match the available software, virtualization admins have the option of defining their requirements, then shopping for a product that will meet these needs. Considering this, there's no excuse not to back up your data.

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