Data Centers

Consider drive imaging as your disaster recovery solution

If you are shopping for a low-cost disaster recovery solution, you might want to consider drive imaging as an alternative. This article by consultant Jerry Templado offers his experience with Symantec Ghost and Acronis True Image.

By Jerry Templado

Finding the ideal disaster recovery (DR) solution can be a daunting task, and even more so when faced with tight budget constraints. As a consultant, it has been my experience that a lot of the "old school" IT professionals have a tendency to lean toward tape backups, utilizing a variety of platforms ranging from NetBackup to ARCserve to Backup Exec, and everything in between. Those products are all great solutions, but when you examine the costs of implementation and management, you might see your budget dwindle fairly quickly. In addition to the potentially higher operating cost, you're faced with the complexity of the software platform. You almost need to have a DBA or a DR specialist on staff to adequately manage some of these solutions, and for small businesses, that's not likely to be in the budget. With these issues in mind, I would like to recommend an alternative DR solution that takes advantage of drive imaging technology.

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You're probably thinking, "Isn't that what they use for those recovery disks that ship with PCs?" The answer is yes, but that technology can also be a much cheaper alternative for DR, especially now that drive-imaging technology has become a competitor of the well established tape-driven DR solutions applied on an enterprise scale.

Drive imaging as a DR solution is well worth considering, especially when you look at the costs of implementation and the relative simplicity of the software. There are two products that I have had a great deal of success in using: Symantec Ghost Enterprise Edition 7.5 and Acronis True Image Enterprise Server 9.1. You may be familiar with Symantec Ghost and its primary application for desktop PCs, but it is also very useful on servers. For those who have not heard of Acronis True Image, it is a backup software that works much like Ghost in that it makes images of the drives or data sets that you are backing up, and has extended capabilities that make it a complete DR solution.

Should you consider Symantec Ghost as your DR solution?

There are a few key issues to consider before you make a decision about the DR solution to deploy. You need to examine the number of servers, the key role of these servers, and how current the backed up data needs to be. If your network infrastructure is comprised of a relatively small number of servers with a fairly static database and little change over the span of time between backups, then Symantec Ghost would be an ideal solution. Backups can be performed locally on the machine from disk-to-disk, or across the network to a network share, using the GhostCast Server application and a bootable disk or CD for the GhostCast client. You will need to take the server out of production in order to perform your backup, so this operation will not harm an Oracle or SQL database. The cost of management would be well worth the expense, and you could easily archive the images to DVD-Rs, which are a fraction of the price of most tape cartridges. One of the aspects of backing up with Symantec Ghost is that if the image exceeds 2 GB, then it starts to span the images into 2-GB portions. That makes it easier to offload images from your storage location should you need to free up some space.

Symantec Ghost will also install on Windows 2000/XP, sparing you the added cost of building a separate server. You can actually get away with just copying the GhostCast Server executable and running it on a laptop with Windows 2000/XP. You can then take it to a remote location to back up a server, so as to spare your bandwidth across WAN links, and later upload the image to a network share. DR is just as simple a process as the initial "ghosting" of your disk image, and Ghost has an application called Ghost Explorer, which allows you to explore and image, and extract files as needed in the event that you must restore individual files.

Ghost is also a great tool for multiple server builds, and can save you a lot of time. In this application, you just back up the first completed server, and restore or—as Symantec likes to refer to it—"ghost" it to the other servers. There are some caveats, however, to using Ghost in this way. Microsoft doesn't recommend it, because each ghosted machine is an exact copy of the original, and you will run into issues with duplicate computer SIDs. Microsoft's Sysprep utility can fix that issue, but they suggest you perform that task prior to ghosting. Also, should the need to recover from a catastrophic server failure occur, there are some limitations to Symantec Ghost: Symantec does not support restoring the image to a dissimilar machine. This does not mean it can't be done, but it isn't a part of Ghost's normal operation. Performing backups with Symantec Ghost is a manual process, which hinders any attempts to automate it. While I would not necessarily knock the application of Symantec Ghost as a DR solution, I do think you should be aware of its limitations.

Acronis True Image extends your options for DR

Now, if you are in the market for a more complete solution, then Acronis True Image Enterprise Server 9.1 would be a great candidate, regardless of the size of your network. True Image is a simple and versatile platform to employ as your DR solution and installs on many different platforms. You aren't restricted to running True Image Backup Server on just server-class operating systems, and it can be installed on almost the entire family of Windows operating systems, including the 64-bit versions. The backup agent supports all current versions of Windows workstations and server-class operating systems, as well as many flavors of Linux.

Flexible storage media

True Image supports hard disks; tape drives; USB 1.0/2.0 and FireWire devices; SANs and NAS; ZIP and Jazz drives; FTP servers; and CD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-R/RW. At this time, you will need third-party CD/DVD recording software, but according to a member of Acronis' marketing department that I contacted, Acronis is currently developing that feature and will make it available as a free update in the future.

Data consistency and continuity

Unlike Symantec Ghost, Acronis True Image can make disk images while the machine is live, so it does not need to be taken out of production. With Windows Server 2003 Volume Shadow Copy Service support, you can back up VSS-compatible databases such as Oracle, Exchange, and SQL Server without having to take them offline, which ensures data consistency and continuity. This is an especially great feature for a server that you can't afford to have offline. With the management console, you have a great deal of control over the kinds of backups you want to perform, and flexible scheduling capabilities to ensure good continuity of data.

Flexible backup scheduling

With Acronis True Image, you can perform three levels of backups: Full, Incremental, and Differential. You can back up individual disks or all disks (into a single image), and you can even back up individual files and folders, or exclude certain files and folders. In the management console, you have the ability to schedule your backups on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. You can also choose to schedule each server individually, or as a group. You have control over the backup priority, so you can minimize the impact of other services running on a particular server or throttle the amount of bandwidth to minimize impact on your network.

There is even the ability to password-protect your images, and send pre- and post-data capture commands, such as unmounting and remounting the database that is being backed up. You can set the level of image compression, and split archives to limit the maximum size of each image portion—allowing for easier management and storage to smaller-capacity storage media.

Automation options

You can completely automate the management of your archives using the task-scheduling tool, as well as some of the archive maintenance tasks by setting quotas and time limits. Depending on your retention policies, you have the ability to set time limits on how long archives are kept and can have them deleted once they expire; and with quotas, you can set the maximum number of full, incremental, and differential backups that are kept.

Recovering files and servers

Recovery of files or an entire system with True Image couldn't be any easier. Right-click on the archive you wish to restore or "mount" that archive as a virtual drive and use Explorer to navigate through it like any other drive. The recovery capabilities are what really set True Image apart, because you can perform a bare-metal recovery and have the server back up and running in minutes, even while True Image is still restoring that server. There is also a utility included to make bootable disks for systems that have become unbootable.

With Acronis Universal Restore, you have the ability to restore to servers with dissimilar hardware. Unlike Symantec Ghost, Acronis automatically detects the machine type and installs the appropriate drivers for HAL, which is something of a tedious task to do manually in Ghost. Acronis also allows you to add drivers during recovery, making for a more complete restore, and it has a centrally-stored driver repository so that you won't have to go looking for those drivers again.

Summary

While Symantec Ghost can give you a good, basic DR solution for a small-business environment, Acronis True Image Enterprise Server 9.1 is a complete package for DR for any size network. With its robust platform and simple management interface, it makes the daunting task of implementing and maintaining a good DR plan much less of an ordeal.

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