Backup Strategy for Window 2003 servers

Posted on 2006-04-04
Last Modified: 2013-12-01
I need to design a backup strategy for my small network that consists of two Windows 2003 servers and Exchange 2003. How would  I protect the network data and what software and hardware might I need to purchase and configure. Assume there is about 20 GB of data in total.
Question by:LKamoku
    LVL 95

    Expert Comment

    by:Lee W, MVP
    This is my "canned" response.  If you have more specific questions to my comments, please feel free to ask.

    First, there are three MAJOR types of backups:
    1.  Full backups - They backup EVERY file on the system (in theory).  Disk Images, such as those created by Ghost, can be considered Full backups.
    2.  Differential Backups - They backup everything that has changed since the last Full backup.  Expect that each night a differential is run and there hasn't been a full, the differential will grow larger and larger.
    3.  Incremental - Backups up Everything that's changed since the LAST backup.  These backups are often fairly small and consistant in size (assuming your work habbits don't change much).

    Fulls can take a LONG time to backup and aren't typically recommended or done on a daily basis.  Usually, fulls are done on a weekly, every-other-week, or monthly basis.  (NOTE: depending on your business/purpose, they may occur more or less frequently).

    Differential backups, as noted, grow in size.  So eventually, they can get quite large.  This is why Fulls are often scheduled so as to prevent differentials from growing too large.  A monday-friday Differential followed by a weekend full is a common practice.  If the worst happened and you needed to restore things on Friday morning, you would need the last full backup and the last differential backup to restore all your data - effectively two restores.

    Incrementals, while they use less backup space every night, would require EVERY backup job be restored since and including the last full backup.  So if Friday morning, you needed to restore your systems, you would need to restore the fUll from the weekend, then Monday's incremental, Tuesday's incremental, Wednesday's incremental, and Thursday's incremental.  Not terribly efficient for the restores.  In my experience, Incremental backups are not done very often, in part for this reason.

    What software to use?  I'm not familiar with Linux, Unix, or Mac backup solutions, so this advice is largely windows-centric.  NTBackup, included with XP Pro, 2000, and 2003 is a suitable if not terribly fancy program.  It lacks some features you might otherwise like to have, but it will backup everything you NEED backed up for no additional cost.  If you have a large server environment, you'll most likely want to purchase third party software such as Veritas/Symantec Backup Exec or Brightstor ArcServe and their various agents for things like Exchange, SQL, and other OS platforms.

    When people talk of backups, MOST people think of tape.  I'll get into my logic for not using tape MOST of the time a little later, but first, some important notes about tape:

    Given costs of drives, media and various other issues with tape I discuss later, getting a tape drive with a native capacity of less than 300 GB just isn't a wise idea, in my opinion.  This will limit you to getting SDLT or LTO tape technologies.  LTO3 can hold 400 GB Native and the newest SDLT technology can handle 300 GB per tape.  ***EXCEPTION*** - If you need to keep your backups for lengthy periods of time, for example to comply with HIPAA or Sarb-Ox, then you can get a smaller tape drive for backup purposes.

    Hardware or Software Compression?  Hardware is faster.  Most backup software will DISABLE software compression if hardware compression is available.

    Do NOT base your capacity and tape requirements on the advertised compressed capacity of a tape.  Most people will find the supposed 800 GB LTO3 tape only holds 550-650 GB compressed.  Your milage WILL vary based on the type of date being backed up, but I've backed up a wide variety of data over the years and NEVER seen a tape come CLOSE to a 2:1 compression ratio as advertised.

    In my opinion MOST businesses will find daily differential backups appropriate and weekly or twice monthly full backups.

    When considering backup solutions you need to consider a variety of factors:

    1.  How long must you save the backups?  (Some companies may be legally required to keep them for years while others may have no need to keep data that is more than 30 days old).
    2.  How frequently does the data change AND how much data changes?
    3.  How long can you wait to restore the data?  (Data on tape can take longer to restore than data on a hard disk.  In addition, if anything goes wrong with the tape drive, you may not be able to access that backup.  If it's on a hard disk, you can put the drive physically in just about any system and get access to the data.  Data on hard drives is RARELY permanently lost to the point a data recovery service couldn't recover it (and I've never had to go that far).
    4.  How much money/revenue/income would your company potentially lose if you lost an hours worth of data?  A days worth?  A week?  A month?  Figure it out and be prepared to spend AT LEAST a day's worth of income on a backup solution.  And consider it insurance, because without the backup, if you go down, you'll lose at least that much.  
    5.  How much you can budget for NOW to implement the backup solution.  (This should be factored in with 4).
    6.  What you are backing up.  (Databases will compress and require less backup space than video files, pictures, or mp3s would.  Exchange and databases, such as SQL Server or Oracle  databases, might also require special consideration as normal backups usually won't work for them).
    7.  Reliability of media. (Tape can wear down and tape heads can wear down over time.  A new tape used on an old tape head MIGHT not restore on a new tape head if you replace the tape drive because it fails or gets outdated).
    8.  Cost per GB of stored data.

    The REV Drive option:  Do the math.  Take the cost of a REV drive itself (the unit that reads the disks), then add in the cost of enough REV Disks to support your backup needs.  Now compare that to the cost for a hard disk - external - or an external hard disk adapter, such as a DriveDock from  In almost EVERY instance the REV drive and disks will cost more per GB stored.  And, if something ever happens to the REV drive itself, you can't just put the disks in another system - you have to have another REV drive.  Using external hard drives does not pose such a problem - you can just open up the external drive casing and plug them into ANY computer, internally, thus providing relatively quick access to the disk and to recover your data.

    If you need to store each and every backup (or each and every full backup) long term, then you should consider using tape.  Long term, it's cheaper than any other method.  And even if there are problems with tape heads and reading the media, OFTEN BUT NOT ALWAYS, some expensive data recovery services can get you access to the data.  This should rarely happen though.  If not, if you can overwrite data 6 months old and older, than, provided you are not using LARGE (Terabytes or closing in on terabytes) of data, then I tend to recommend using a hard disk solution.  These, in my experience, tend to be more reliable, faster, and cheaper in cost per GB.

    If your data isn't changing much and you only have a few megs per day, you may want to consider using a third party service to backup your data offsite.  They would effectively upload the data to their site and scheduled times, instead of using tape or media.  You could possibly get cheaper service and use a 3rd party web host with large amounts of storage if you are prepared to do a little extra legwork yourself in maintaining things - removing old files, scripting the upload, etc).

    What you are backing up will make a different in your overall required costs.  If it's JUST files, then you don't need any special software.  If it's Exchange then you would be better off buying backup software that can do a "brick level backup" (This ability is often part of a seperately purchased agent that works with commercial backup software) which would allow you to restore individual email messages.  The built in backup tool with 2000/2003 will backup exchange and restore it, but's an all-or-nothing thing.  But with e-mail as important as it is with so many businesses, a brick level backup often makes a lot of sense and can save a lot of dollars.  Then there's the Windows system states - A normal FULL, DIFFERENTIAL, or INCREMENTAL backup will NOT properly backup Windows OR the Windows active directory.  To do this, you MUST do a system state backup.  The built in backup tool will do this for you and save it to a file.  I STRONGLY recommend doing system state backups of ALL domain controllers and Exchange Servers whenever making changes to the domain.  Not doing so is an unnecessary and risky gamble.  High end backup software, such as Veritas Backup Exec or Brightstor ArcServe will do system state backups as well.  Then there's your database servers.  If your company runs a SQL class database, you need to consider the expensive backup tools like Veritas or Brightstor.  They have available (at extra charge) agents that will backup the databases without shutting them down.  This can be critical if your database needs to be running 24x7x365.

    Lastly, cost per GB.  Though old tape's cost per GB for backing up LARGE amounts of data (TB in size) still can't be beat.  LARGE tapes cost between 30% and 50% less than a hard drive of equal size. But the tape drives often costs many hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  So, for example, if you are backing up 10 GB of data every night and want a way of doing this automatically, then I would suggest two or three external hard drives that would be swapped out once per week.  This would cost you perhaps $300 and potentially last you 2-4 years.  Whereas tape, even though the tapes might be $50 each, the drive will likely cost $400 or more - depending on type of drive.  So you end up spending $500-$800 over 2-4 years, at least, and you're using a technology where, if your tape drive dies you have absolutely no access to your backups.  On the other hand, you can always attach a hard drive to any computer and read the backups.

    In short:

    CD/DVD option:  If your data doesn't grow that much, you can use a CD/DVD recorder to backup your differential data.  The backups are fairly fast, the media is compact and cheap, and the data can be accesssed - usually - by any system with a DVD drive.  The problem is, most people can't get a complete backup on a DVD and getting them to work in an automated fashion CAN be difficult.

    External hard drive option:  Costs are relatively inexpensive and depending on the hardware you buy, cost can be as little as 33 cents per GB - or less.  For fast, reliable, easily performed, and easily recovered backups, I believe this is the best solution.  You will, of course, need at least two drives so you can cycle one off site.  Only drawbacks are that if you need to store data for long periods or have large amounts of data to backup (over 400GB), it can be more expensive than tape.

    Tape option:  Unless you are backing up terabytes of data and/or need to keep each backup for a lengthy period of time, tape can be more expensive and less reliable than an external hard drive.  for LARGE backups and storing backups for long times, it is still the most cost effective solution

    Internet backup option:  I don't necessary recommend this company, but here's one option -  The idea is great - you get an off-site, quickly recoverable backup of your important data.  This is an important factor that can make the cost per GB (compared to other backup methods) less important.  You will typically want to have a reasonably fast internet connection and keep in mind that LARGE amounts of data (GB's worth) CAN take hours to restore and initially backup.  Once backed up, you can typically backup changes fairly quickly.  For a "poor man's" method of doing this, you can always script an FTP connection to a remote ISP and upload important files, such as accounting files, via the script nightly - you just need to periodically delete old backups or most likely run out of space.

    Aside from backing up your critical data, don't forget to configure your SQL databases for backups, Microsoft Exchange (if used), and when backing up Windows 2000 or 2003 servers or 2000/XP workstations, MAKE SURE you backup the System State, which contains Active Directory information on domain controllers, your registry, and essential files that your computer uses to know it's vital information.

    Oh yes, one more VERY important detail.  TEST YOUR BACKUP PLAN.  Pick a weekend and fake a problem.  For example, turn off your server and consider it dead.  Rebuild the server on another system and do a restore to see that everything works.  What good are your backups if, when the time comes and you need them, you can't get them to work?

    [Version 1.5, Last Modified March 16, 2006]
    LVL 44

    Expert Comment

    WIth only 20GB, it is not worth considering Tape, but with exchange, you would need a good "snapshot" technology backup that can freeze all the open processes (hundreds when exchange is running) otherwise your backups will be only of data, and you will never get a complete backup of the server profiles.  So you need one of the very latest backup programs with "snapshot" technology, check out Symantec, they have ghost, but they are coming out with exactly this kind of product, most backup compaines who claim to save the registry and running processes do not, they are deceiving the public.

    You could do this entire backup strategy to a slave 120GB drive sitting on one of the computers, so the backup program needs to be able to clone to DISK, not just tape or DVDs.  One 120GB would hold all your backups, it would be very neat and compact.  Make the drive reliable, something like an IBM-Hitachi.  For the incrementals, recommend DVD, you can use the same backup program for this too.  Basically you have to search all backup products on the net for the key parameters, "snapshot" and backup to HDD.  Then pick the one with the features you like, but be warned, 90% of them don't fully backup a server.
    LVL 2

    Accepted Solution

    We have a similar setup to you, 2 Windows 2003 server, Exchange 2003 and SQL. The software we use is BackupAssist ( and it is considerably cheaper than Symantec BackupExec (old Veritas) and a lot easier to use as well. It uses NTBackup to do the actual work but it takes all of the bugs out as far as scheduling and actually getting the backup to run properly. As scrathcyboy said, you want something that has a good snaphot function, and BackupAssist seems to work well for us.

    We dont have a lot of data to backup (about 30GB) so to make our life easy we do full backups of the data Mon-Fri and include system state, exchange backup and SQL. We use 2 external 200GB USB drives to store the backups and only keep about a weeks worth on each drive, that way we can take one drive off-site in case of a real disaster. The drives only cost about $300 and the software was about $150, so we haven't had to spend to much to get something that works and is easy to use.

    LVL 95

    Expert Comment

    by:Lee W, MVP
    Spend money if you like - but the built in Windows backup is more than sufficient.

    Author Comment

    mattchssm: what if I wanted to back up more than a weeks worth, does that mean I need to purchase more than 2 external USB HDs? Ideally I would like to have at least 3 months worth of data. Where does the HD go when off-site? With administrator or company or bank safe deposit box?
    LVL 95

    Assisted Solution

    by:Lee W, MVP
    Did you read my comment?

    If you do periodic fulls and differentials the rest of the time (for example, a full backup every 2 weeks), you can put up to probably 8 full backups on a 200 GB disk (depending on the size of your differentials).  With fulls every two weeks, that means with two 200 GB drives, you can fit 16 full backups, spanning 32 weeks - which is MORE than 7 months worth without reformatting a drive.  Though having 3 disks wouldn't be a bad idea either, just in case something happens to one.  Cycle them out so that each one gets a full backup every 6 weeks.

    And if you want to do a full every week, that still gives you OVER 3 months space using 2 drives.

    The hard drive goes off site - the idea is to have a backup available to restore in the event the building burns down or something.  IDEALLY, it the backup will go 200+ miles away to protect it from potential natural disasters (such as hurricanes and Tsunamies), but those are less likely than fire.  Sure, put it in a safe deposit box if you like, but you're going to have to retrieve it EVERY DAY assuming you are cycling these things out every night so the most recent backup is always off site.

    Author Comment

    I did read your comment 2x actually. My 1st thought was to use tape and concentrated on that part, but when mattchssm comment came up. I naturally turned to him to ask...which I  temporarily forgot your canned response... I do appreciate your time. Thanks!

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