Day after day, in the cubicles of IT pros around the world, you'll hear questions such as: Do we have a current backup? When was our last good backup? Can we restore from our backup? Why did the backup fail? Questions like these make backups one of the most discussed items in IT.

Backups can be a painful chore, fraught with problems such as failed backup jobs, broken tapes, bizarre error messages, and the dreaded case of being unable to restore from what was supposedly a successful backup. To avoid such problems, IT pros are always looking for better ways to produce quality backups consistently, with as little impact to production operations as possible.

A few decades ago, backups were simpler. You installed a tape drive, procured some tapes, installed backup software, and set up a single full-backup job to run once a day. Everything important could fit on one tape, and a backup could finish overnight because no one was working then.

Today, backups are far more complex. Backing up directly from disk to another disk is common, as are tape autoloaders, robotic libraries, multiple backup jobs, and tight backup windows due to our "always on" society. Nowadays, there's never a good time to take a backup.

Fortunately, there are many vendors that produce backup appliances in an effort to remedy what ails the IT pro in the world of backups. I recently spoke with representatives from two such vendors -- Symantec and NetApp -- to explore their offerings and see how those offerings compare with traditional backup solutions.

Symantec

Symantec is probably one of the most well-known backup software vendors, offering such products as Backup Exec and NetBackup. Symantec aligns its backup appliances with these familiar software products. But how is one of these appliances a better fit than simply installing a copy of Backup Exec or NetBackup?

According to Peter Elliman, a senior manager for product marketing at Symantec, it's a matter of time. "Why spend time building your backup infrastructure when you can get a ready-made appliance? Building your backup structure from scratch isn't always the best use of your time." As most IT pros know, there is truth to this statement. Building a backup solution might not be terribly difficult, but building one that's consistently reliable and that doesn't require lots of babysitting can be challenging.

"We surveyed our customers and one thing that came out was that people have three to seven different backup servers," Elliman noted. "Customers would switch [solutions] if backup speed doubled." Not only do customers want backup speed to increase, but they also want to reduce management time. One of the goals of the Symantec appliances is to reduce the amount of time spent managing backups by 80 percent.

Aidan Finley, a product marketing manager at Symantec, expanded on how the Backup Exec appliance, which Figure 1 shows, can help customers. "You just buy the box and it has everything: software, hardware, and licensing, including Backup Exec 2012, which includes a brand-new user interface." The appliance also includes features that everyone in IT is interested in these days, such as granular restoration of VMware virtual machines (VMs). Finley elaborated on the granular recovery options with an example: "In a VMware guest machine running Exchange, our granular recovery technology allows for recovery of individual mail messages."

 
Figure 1: Symantecs Backup Exec appliance
Figure 1: Symantec's Backup Exec appliance

The cloud integration of these appliances is strong, according to Elliman. "We support backing up to AWS and Rackspace with WAN acceleration, typically at a 2x improvement, but sometimes up to 10x." Finley was quick to expand on some other features that make the appliances appealing, such as bare-metal recovery and the ability to back up from an HP box and restore to a Dell box, for example. "We also include physical-to-virtual recovery," said Finley. "You can restore a physical server to a hypervisor, and our software injects the recovered machine right into the hypervisor. You can also replicate VMware machines through the appliance to the cloud." Plus, although the appliances back up to disk by default, tape is still supported as an option for those customers who need it.

NetApp

What if you already have a storage vendor, and you have duplicated storage stacks between two or more physical locations? Can that infrastructure be leveraged as a form of backup appliance? To explore these possibilities, I spoke with Nathan Moffitt, senior manager of Backup and Recovery Solutions at NetApp.

"We have something based on a modular architecture. It's more of a platform than a specific product," Moffitt said. For example, if you have a NetApp Fabric-Attached Storage (FAS) system, which Figure 2 shows, already in place, you can leverage its ability to take snapshots as the primary backup-and-restore method. The abilities of the NetApp "appliance" solution go beyond that, though. "Because we're building everything off of snapshots, the backup image you have on the FAS system that's being used as an appliance can be mounted," explained Moffitt. You don't have to do a restore operation to utilize the backed-up data. You can spin a VM off of the snapshot and start running it from there. You can start utilizing data immediately and migrate to a production system later. It allows us to accelerate our recovery time."

Figure 2: NetApps FAS system
Figure 2: NetApp's FAS system 

NetApp's platform model enables the company to partner with other vendors and even work in environments where the primary storage vendor isn't NetApp. "In non-NetApp environments, we developed some software and partnered with others, such as Syncsort. Syncsort tracks the changes made to files on a block level and transfers the changes to a NetApp device," Moffitt explained. NetApp has even done work to integrate the FAS system with products from traditional backup vendors, including Symantec. "Within the last year, we've added the ability for CommVault Simpana and Symantec NetBackup to utilize a FAS system for disk to disk to tape [backups], with the NetApp system as the primary backup storage and the tape using the NetApp snapshots for secondary protection."

For many IT organizations, however, the capabilities of the NetApp FAS system may go beyond the needs of the environment -- and the budget. "In certain cases, a traditional backup appliance might be the way to go," Moffitt acknowledged. "But in other cases, a flexible, extensible platform might be the way to go."

Many Appliance Solutions from Which to Choose

Regardless of your requirements, you'll find plenty of vendors that offer capable appliance solutions to fit just about any backup service level agreement (SLA). No matter which appliance you choose, back up often and make sure you test your restoration process. A backup is only as good as your ability to restore from it.