With myriad backup software products available, how do you select the best product to use with Exchange Server? Several readers have asked this question recently, and the subject makes a good topic of discussion this week.

The starting point for choosing a winner from the many backup software products available is to remember that it's a leap-frog game—vendors are constantly improving and fine-tuning their products and technology. This process is particularly true for backup software because the technology seems to be so far behind actual disaster-recovery needs. Processor, memory, and storage technologies continue to surge ahead at an alarming rate, but backup technology (both hardware and software) is moving at a snail’s pace. As backup software developers strive to catch up, products improve with every version.

The most important consideration in your search for a backup solution is support for API-based online backups, which Exchange Server requires. Most products that support Exchange Server implement these APIs—some better than others. Veritas Backup Exec, for example, supports the Exchange Server APIs either through a server-based agent (which improves performance) or without one (touchless). That degree of flexibility is handy.

Support is an important selection criteria. How does the vendor provide technical support for the product? Are phone-, Web-, and email-based support functions available, and how responsive are the support personnel? Good support means having patches and updates available when you need them. Support also means the availability of drivers for various hardware devices. Some vendors provide better support than others. If you plan to move to Exchange 2000 Server in the future, ask vendors about their schedule and support plans. Dig deep and find out how well each of your top contenders scores in this area.

Platform support might also drive your decision. Obviously, Exchange Server runs only on Windows NT. However, if you belong to an organization with a heterogeneous environment (most of us do), you might want a solution that supports platforms such as UNIX, NetWare, and MVS. Legato performs particularly well in this area. I also include clustering support with platform support. If you're deploying Exchange Server in a clustered environment, you need to be sure your product of choice will work, regardless what's happening in the cluster.

Advanced features such as backup to disk, Storage Area Network (SAN) support, item- and brick-level backups, disaster recovery options, and Redundant Array of Independent Tapes (RAIT) support are features worth looking at. CommVault’s new Galaxy for NT is the best implementation of item- and brick-level backups I've seen. For SAN support, Legato Networker seems to be ahead.

Remember, the race among backup software vendors is fast and furious. One vendor might shine this month, and another might bolt ahead next month. When selecting a backup solution for your Exchange Server deployment, keep the above points in mind. On my short list, I would include Computer Associates' ArcServeIT, Veritas's Backup Exec, CommVault's Galaxy for NT, and Legato Networker.