Microsoft releases backup server public beta

Microsoft's beta for its first backup server is out, with the aim of making backups smoother and recoveries faster. But to achieve success it still needs the support of the big tape backup players

Microsoft on Wednesday released the beta of its first heavyweight data backup product, Data Protection Server.

The beta of Data Protection Server, or to use its full name Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM), has been in trials with a small number of companies since the autumn, but is now available for general download.

Ben Matheson, DPM group product manager, said the goal is to "take something that is high-end today and make it mainstream." The software, which is due for production in the second half of 2005, has not been priced yet, though Metheson said it is "not unreasonable to assume it could be under £1000, or even $1000."

Data Protection Manager runs on a dedicated Windows 2003 server to smooth backups and speed recoveries between production servers and tape backup systems, said Matheson.

"We have had a lot of feedback from customers saying they experience a lot of pain with backup, and the same problems keep being raised," said Matheson. Time to recover a crashed system is one issue, he said, citing instances where it can take an hour to recover a single file from tape. Complexity and costs are the other issues that crop up time and again, he added. "We will make recovery faster — we want you to wait minutes instead of hours [to recover a lost file]. The other thing is to make that solution manageable and easy to use."

Data Protection Manager works by taking a full backup of a production server and then using agents on that server to detect when files changes. When a write operation is detected, just the file concerned — or in the case of very large files, a part of that file — is copied across to the backup server running DPM.

Matheson said DPM will run on a single or dual-processor machine without a great deal of RAM but with lots of disk storage: "Our rough rule of thumb is that you need 2.5 times the amount of storage on the DPS machine that you have on the machines protected by it." This, said Matheson, should ensure that 30 days worth of data backup can be stored on the server's hard disks. "We found that most recovery is done within 30 days of when a user realises a file has been deleted, so we reckon that 30 days worth of disk storage will allow 90 percent of backup operations."

The file structure on the DPM server itself can then be backed up to tape as usual. Microsoft reckons this has the dual benefit of removing the traditional gap that appears between file updates and scheduled backups, and of removing the hit on performance of the production servers when they are being backed up.

"In a medium-sized company most people do a full tape backup at the weekend and an incremental one each night," said Matheson. "This has limitations in that you are subject to 24 hours of data loss. On top of that, production servers take a huge CPU hit when you do backup because backups work at the file level so the whole file is backed up even if only a bit is changed."

DPM uses the Volume Shadow Copy Services that appeared in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 to take system snapshots for OS and application rollbacks. The difference in the DPM implementation, said Matheson, is that the agent can co-operate with applications to ensure that caches are written out to files before those files are backed up, thus ensuring a clean snapshot.

To be a success, DPM needs third party tape backup vendors to adapt their offerings to recognise and work with Volume Shadow Copy Services. "There's not much work they need to do but there are some things because under the covers [of DPM] there is a Sequel database and you need to back that up too." Matheson said Microsoft has the backing of Legato, CA, EMC, Iomega and Sun, among others for DPM, though they have yet to express this themselves.

Sean Jackson, European marketing director at BakBone Software, was dismissive of Microsoft's release. "We view Microsoft as complementary — they are just moving data from disk to disk," he said. "It is a very Windows-specific environment, whereas our software works in heterogeneous environments — Linux, Unix and Mac OS too."