A New Era for Disaster Recovery

It isn't just about getting information systems back online quick after shutdowns anymore: it's about keeping a business running when primary systems are down and administrators are recovering data.

As Microsoft prepares to launch Windows Server 2008 -- complete with new backup and recovery bells and whistles via Windows Backup Server -- experts agree that the overall business approach to disaster recovery and risk management must evolve, in the same way Windows Server has since the days of Windows NT.

Erick Henry is more than familiar with the need for thorough disaster recovery and business continuity planning in a Windows environment. Based in Houston, where severe weather can often decimate whole buildings, let alone electrical and computer systems, Henry considers such planning a top priority.

"You've got a head start with Windows because the OS platform is the same across the board and is for the most part solid," said Henry, Director of Technology Strategic Planning for Administaff, an HR consultancy. "But it's when you get into how you customize Active Directory and then deal with complex applications that the true challenges present themselves."

Tape is Dead

Most agree that even with new Windows OS backup upgrades on the horizon, Windows Active Directory (AD) upkeep and restoration is one of the first places to start. AD is the gatekeeper to any Windows-based system as it stores information and access settings. It also allows administrators to assign policies, customize and deploy software, and apply critical updates across the entire enterprise.

Henry is taking a "wait and see" approach with Windows 2008: waiting on the DR upgrades and also anxious to see how the early adapters apply and utilize the backup technology. Meanwhile, like many others, he stills works with Windows 2000 and 2003 versions. Currently, Henry's company uses customized identity management software, setting it up in AD to track and recover settings and information. He also uses other Microsoft products such as SQL Server database replication mirroring technology to isolate and preserve pertinent files. And even those replications are backed up to disk instead of tapes.

One major change sure to come in the wake of Windows 2008 is the impending obsolescence of tapes used as a back up medium. For the first time ever, the Backup tool in Windows Server 2008 will not use tape storage devices. This is a sign of the times, experts say, as there are cost, storage and speed advantages to disks that tapes just can no longer match up to.

One example of this exodus is a conversion to disk by the Information Technology Department of the Office of the Provost at University of Southern California. The office once used tapes as a backup medium, but announced in early September that it decided to deploy SonaSafe, which automates the disk-to-disk backup and recovery process for Microsoft Exchange, SQL and Windows Server disaster recovery.

"In a [DR] situation, it's all about quickness and continuity," said Vas Srinivasan, vice president of marketing for San Jose, Calif.-based Sonasoft Corp., which makes Sonasafe. "If your e-mail is down for as little as two hours, your business may come to a grinding halt." Srinivasan added that he believes disaster recovery and business continuity planning in general is no longer nice to have -- "it's a must-have, particularly in a Windows environment."

Climate Change

For all its market girth and ubiquity, Microsoft has never been a huge player in disaster recovery technology. Its products usually provided the minimum functionality with the ability to customize backup scheduling and procedures for an individual IT processing environment.

But with the planned release of new backup features in Windows 2008, designed to simplify backup and storage on disk and streamline business continuity and disaster recovery planning, Microsoft seems to be aware of the changing disaster recovery planning climate at different organizations of all shape and sizes.

For example, Microsoft describes its new Windows Server Backup feature and the accompanying Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) as a "faster and more efficient backup technology."

The software giant promises that Windows Server Backup will help technologists recover the full operating system, along with files, folders, and data volumes, with more freedom of choice as to what to back up and restore and what to discard.

To that end, VSS has been improved in a number of ways:

  • You can recover specific files from an individual folder, or all the contents of that folder.
  • You can now choose the date on which you backed up the version of the item you want to restore.
  • Backup scheduling is easier, with the new ability to choose the date on which you backed up the version of the item you want to restore. Previously, you needed to manually restore from multiple backups if items were stored on an incremental backup.

In addition to the ability to automate backups through the use of scripts or job control language, Windows Server Backup also splices VSS functionality into applications like SQL and SharePoint Server to protect data on the application level. There is also automatic disk usage management, which monitors and manages backup disk space.

Remote administration capabilities will also be a plus for IT managers looking at the possibility of procuring Windows 2008. If a systems admin or CIO can monitor network, OS and application performance from pretty much anywhere, the mobility factor can be a plus in the event of a disaster or even a small power outage at headquarters or the main data center.

Plan Your Work, Work Your Plan

While tech executives, systems administrators and consultants stand by to evaluate beta results from Windows 2008 as well anticipate the subsequent rollout, DR deployment concerns still abound. These concerns are centered on the degree and severity of risk and how that plays into IT operations planning: Should you over plan for a nuclear attack or simplify to the most business critical areas -- or neither, or both? And how do Windows OS and server products help or hinder this process?

Rachid Sijelmassi, co-founder and CTO for Bethesda, MD-based Optinuity, a business process software company, says with Windows, it's easy to know when your server isn't performing at the optimal level; but it's up to administrators to plan, implement and monitor the DR process, as new features won't mean anything without an understanding of user roles and how data is allocated.

"I think you should approach backup and recovery from a multi-layered perspective," said Sijelmassi. "In other words, let your OS people, your shared middleware people, your network people and your applications people play their positions separately, back up what they work on frequently and then bring it all together. Disaster planning needs to be localized first, in that sense."

Gil Kirkpatrick, an AD expert with Phoenix, Ariz.-based NetPro, a Windows security and infrastructure consultancy, sums it up like this:

"It depends on the size and scope of your business and how critical IT is," Kirkpatrick said. "You have to do your own risk analysis and ask yourself: do you take the 'belt and suspenders' approach and save any- and everything, or do you augment your records with paper documents, do backups, send your tapes off site and hope for the best?"

Evolve or Die

Whatever the case may be, Windows 2008's launch is right around the corner; gone are the days of large white emergency binders buried in the server room, only to be frantically thumbed through when something goes wrong. Likewise, the backed-up data tapes, gathered periodically and sent offsite, are soon to be a thing of the past, with a possible exception being long-term archiving. With complex applications sitting on constantly patched OSes, a new, real-time, "get-the-system-back-up-yesterday" approach is needed, adds Kirkpatrick.

Kilpatrick also feels that initially the main "inconvenience" of Windows 2008 for some companies will be converting from tape storage to disk, whether it's CD, DVD or removed hard disk. In an effort to ease that transition, Microsoft has said Windows 2008 will still offer a modicum of support of tape storage drivers, as backup techniques continue to evolve.

"But whatever your storage preference or tolerance for risk, or whether you use a white binder or a .pdf file, you have to be certain no matter what that you can recover your system and your directory and your applications from scratch," Kilpatrick said. "There are some very significant backup upgrades with [Windows 2008], but tools can't fix anything if they're not used. You can't restore what you haven't recovered."

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