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Backup-and-recovery products protect the enterprises we manage from the accidental loss of applications and data. Within the broad spectrum of storage-content protection, needs vary widely. The products in this Buyer's Guide address the entire range of requirements.

You might start by truly trying to understand your organization's needs. In which areas does your company culture promote centralization, and in which areas does it promote responsibility at the group or individual level? Businesses often decentralize some important data, and protecting that data might require the active cooperation of other people in the enterprise. I advise finding ways to automatically back up your islands of data, letting people spend their energy using the technical infrastructure instead of being a part of it.

At a technical level, the diversity of your organization's IT platforms and applications should be a key factor when you select a backup-and-restore product. Does your network contain different flavors of Linux- and UNIX-based systems in addition to Windows-based systems? If so, you'll want to select a vendor whose products offer cross-platform support. Don't forget that you'll need to back up email. Email is so central to corporate communications that occasionally you'll have to restore a mailbox or message. How many database management systems (DBMSs) does your organization use? Your backup strategy might require a product that includes the appropriate agents for your particular DBMSs. Or it might require that you use DBMS utilities to back up data to a data set on a centralized server and use a standard file-oriented backup to copy the backup file to tape for offsite storage. Do you use Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS)? If you do, make sure your backup product supports this feature.

When it comes to offsite storage, keeping track of backup tapes—where they're stored and which tapes you can reuse—can be challenging for all but the smallest organizations. Is vault management a crucial function for your IT organization? Job- and media-scheduling and reporting tools, including failure alerts, can make the difference between an effective, reliable backup strategy and one that ultimately fails.

Do you need speed? Large data sets, small backup windows, and requirements for rapid restoration of a downed application can easily drive this requirement. Perhaps you require software that supports interleaved backup (i.e., striping one data set over multiple backup devices).

Of course, the proof of a product isn't its backup features but its restore capabilities. Because many applications have a penchant for stashing crucial data in odd places, such as the system registry or Active Directory (AD), backing up application-related files and databases often isn't enough. You can't truly say an application is recoverable unless you can perform a bare-metal restore of it—that is, successfully restore the application and data to a server that has no OS installed and has no remnants of an earlier installation of the application. Several of the products in this Buyer's Guide tout their ability to create bare-metal-restore backups. Given the complexity of installing an OS and application from the original media—a process that often includes multiple software updates, security patches, and server-specific configuration parameters—the ability to do a bare-metal restore can save you time and headaches.

Don't forget the human factor in your backup strategy. For example, I worked for a company whose backup strategy required that we back up all the disk volumes that contained crucial application data and religiously check to make sure that every job finished successfully. Unfortunately, someone changed the location of a data set without including the new volume in the backup procedure. Months later, the new disk drive failed, and 7 years of data disappeared. Fortunately, a data-recovery service was able to spin up the drive long enough to retrieve the data. This example shows that, even with the best backup strategy in place, human error can result in disaster. Try to evaluate your backup strategy with this fact in mind, and look for ways to anticipate and compensate for such errors.

The point of a backup-and-restore strategy is having additional copies of crucial data so that you can get an application running after a failure of some kind, so pure data-replication software might also play a part in your recovery strategy. For information about replication products, see the article "Alternative Clustering Solutions," page 37. Whether you need to back up one workstation or an entire enterprise, you're likely to find a product that fits your needs in this Buyer's Guide.