Backups have sure changed over the years. Just a few years ago, the way we backed up physical servers was to copy the data to tapes. Now we can back up to disks and even to someone else's data center (what some people call "the cloud"). We also have to think about how to back up and recover virtual machines (VMs) and non-Windows OSs, such as Linux. Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.0 can help you with all your backup needs.

Using Acronis Backup & Recovery, you can back up local and remote physical computers running Windows 2000 with SP4 or later (with the exception of Home Editions of Windows client OSs) or Linux with kernel 2.4.20 or later. The latter includes Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4.0 and later, Ubuntu 9.10 and later, Fedora 11.0 and later, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10.0 and later, Debian 4.0 and 5.0, and CentOS 5.0. If you have a virtual environment that you would like to back up directly, Acronis Backup & Recovery supports Microsoft Hyper-V, VMware Infrastructure 3.5, and VMware vSphere Hypervisor (formerly VMware ESXi) 4.0 and later. Supported file systems include FAT16, FAT32, NTFS, Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, ReiserFS 3, ReiserFS 4, XFS, JFS, and Linux Swap.

Installation

Acronis Backup & Recovery comes in a 1GB installation file. Although the installation took some time to complete, it ran flawlessly and was completely hands-off. It even took care of all the prerequisites, such as installing SQL Server 2005 Express.

After the installation was complete, I opened up the management console and proceeded to set up a backup schedule for the domain controller (DC) in my test domain. The first step was to install the backup agent on the remote DC. However, the remote installation of the agent failed initially, as the DC didn't have ports 9876 and 25001 open. After I opened up those two ports, the agent was installed.

You have many installation options for the agents as well as the main program. The most obvious way is to double-click the application executable and walk through the setup routine. However, you can also install the software remotely through a scripted method (e.g., using an .mst file in Windows, using the command line in Linux) or by using Group Policy. I like the Group Policy method. You simply create a Group Policy Object (GPO) for the parent Servers OU to ensure that every new server added to the domain has the correct Acronis components.

Backups

The heart of Acronis Backup & Recovery is the Management Server component. It is used to configure and manage the backups on the network. The first step in backing up a network is to create a backup plan in the management console, which Figure 1 shows. This process involves completing four sections.

Figure 1: The Acronis Backup & Recovery management console
Figure 1: The Acronis Backup & Recovery management console 

What to back up. In this section, you identify which servers or services need to be backed up. This includes entire volumes on servers. You can't choose individual files to back up, but you can choose specific files or file types to exclude, such as hidden or system files and folders, or files with a specific extension (e.g., files with an .mp3 extension).

Where to back up. Acronis Backup & Recovery offers a wide choice of target locations to store your backups. In addition to tape drives (Advanced version only), backups can be stored in a local folder on a hard drive, a remote network share, an FTP or SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) server, a storage node, or online via Acronis Online Backup.

If you want to kick the tires of Acronis Online Backup, you can try it before you buy it. You can back up as much as 1TB of data for free for 60 days. The registration process is quick and doesn't require a credit card. In just a few minutes, I was able to back up my test server online. If the online backup (or restore) fails due to a communication problem, Acronis Backup & Recovery will try again every 30 seconds. It will do this five times by default, but this parameter can be changed.

How to back up. In this section, you specify the type of backup (i.e., full, incremental, or differential). You also configure the schedule, retention rules, and validation rules in this area.

Retention rules can be set to either keep the backups indefinitely or delete the backups that are older than a specified number of days. If you need a more comprehensive backup scheme, older backups can be moved to another medium. For example, the backups can be initially stored on disk drives, then later migrated to tapes or an offsite location.

If you're going to store the backups online at the Acronis data center, you might want to perform an "initial seeding" backup first. This is done by performing a full backup of the server on an external hard drive, then mailing the drive to Acronis via FedEx or United Parcel Service (UPS). This saves time because the initial full backup is usually very large and can take a long time to copy over the Internet. The subsequent backups are incremental. The charge for the Initial Seeding service is on a per-server basis (starting at $100 for 2TB of data per server).

Plan parameters. There isn't enough space to go into the details of every option you can configure in the Plan parameters section, so here are some options that stand out:

  • Archive protection. You can set a password and even encrypt the backup for additional protection.
  • Compression level. You can set the compression level to None, Normal, High, or Maximum.
  • Disaster recovery plan. If you enable this feature, a disaster recovery plan is emailed to the individuals who will be responsible for performing a disaster recovery. According to the user guide, the disaster recovery plan "contains a list of backed up data items and detailed instructions that guide a user through a process of recovering these items from a backup."
  • Fast incremental/differential backup. Instead of determining whether a file has changed based on the file's contents, you can use the file's size and the date and time when the file was last modified to determine if a file has changed.
  • Pre/Post backup commands. You can run a script or program before or after the backup has started or completed.
  • Sector-by-sector backup. You can use this backup method when you need to back up a file system that isn't supported.

There are other options as well, but I found them to be common to most backup software, such as options to enable Microsoft Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) or configure email notifications.

Restores

A backup is only as good as the restore. In addition to the basic restore features, Acronis Backup & Recovery has a unique capability called Universal Restore. This functionality lets you restore a backup to dissimilar hardware -- a real-world possibility if your company falls victim to a fire, theft, or flood.

It's also possible to restore from "bare metal." Instead of installing a base OS and recovery software on the new hardware before restoring the backup, Acronis backups can be applied to fresh hardware right out of the box. A wizard walks you through creating either a Linux-based or Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE)-based bootable media for a floppy drive, CD/DVD drive (.iso file), Preboot Execution Environment (PXE) server, or Remote Installation Services (RIS) server. Acronis supports Windows PE 2.0, 2.1, and 3.0. These boot environments must be downloaded and installed separately before the wizard can create this type of bootable media.

Minor Gripes

As well as Acronis Backup & Recovery is put together, I did experience some strange behavior on occasion. For example, clicking Create Folder while in the online backup storage area generates an error message noting that the operation isn't supported. To add to the frustration, the knowledge base link provided in the error message takes you to a page that states, We are sorry. There is no information about this error available now. It would make more sense to simply remove the Create Folder button when in the online backup storage area of the application.

Final Thoughts

I was impressed with how easy it was to set up Acronis Backup & Recovery. After the product was installed, I was able to quickly configure a robust backup and recovery scheme. The interface is intuitive. The online backup's integration into the interface is seamless and works well (with the exception of the strange error messages that I just mentioned). Overall, I found the product to be easy to use. As you evaluate backup software, be sure to add Acronis Backup & Recovery to your list.

As with all backup and recovery software, be sure to test the backups regularly. The only way to ensure that the backup software is working properly is to perform an actual restore. This might take additional hardware, but it'll be worth it if you ever need to restore a server. Remember that backups always work; restores never do. If you're not testing your backups regularly, you might find out that the backups aren't working after it's too late.

Acronis Backup & Recovery
PROS: Simple to set up and understand; multiple backup target options (e.g., tape, hard drive, cloud)
CONS: Some error messages aren't clear or send you to knowledge base articles that don't exist; no "agent only" price (each server must have a full license at full cost)
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $853 (Standard) or $1,399 (Advanced); one-year subscription to Acronis Online Backup starts at $49 per workstation to back up 250GB of data, $499 per server to back up 1TB of data, and $1,199 per VM to back up 2TB of data
RECOMMENDATION: If you have a hodgepodge of Windows, Linux, and VMs that need to be backed up by one product, Acronis Backup & Recovery delivers.
CONTACT: Acronis • 877-669-9749 or 781-782-9000 • www.acronis.com