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Windows-Based File Server (SMB) and Point in Time Backups (Shadow Copy?)

Posted on 2016-09-28
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Last Modified: 2016-10-20
Looking to find the best way to serve Office and PDF files to users from a Windows 2012 server with the ability to take point in time backups of the files or volume. Would a regular Windows 2012 file server role with Shadow Copy/VSS on be able to do that?
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Question by:GR JN
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by:Lee W, MVP
Lee W, MVP earned 250 total points
ID: 41820144
That's what ShadowCopy is.  There are limits to it - based on settings you make and defaults/maximums... How many copies is dependent upon the storage space allocated and the maximum copies (default, I believe, is 32.  Registry change can up that to, I believe 512).  And frequency can also determine the oldest copies... with default of 32 copies, assuming you have allocated enough space to the service, and a default schedule of 2 per weekday, you can go back about 3 weeks... but make that DAILY (including weekends) and now you can only go back 2 weeks.  If you want them hourly during the business day then you get 4 days worth...

One trick around that without using a LOT of space and altering the maximum copies, setup DFS with another server... have copies on one that are short term (every 2-4 hours) and on the other server, once every other day.  Now you extend it (using default number) out to about 4 months while giving short term access for the last week to near constant changes.
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Adam Brown earned 250 total points
ID: 41820165
Not effectively, no. VSS can be configured to take regular snapshots of the file system, but it doesn't always capture the files you will want to have on its own and can be *extremely* flaky at times. It is not uncommon for all shadow copies to be corrupted or lost just by a server reboot or power failure.

VSS is designed primarily to provide a mechanism for backup solutions to avoid file locking, open file, and similar issues that are common with backup software. On its own, it isn't really capable of functioning as a long-term backup solution.

That said, it would be helpful if you could clarify what you mean by "Point in time" backups. To my mind, that means if there is a server failure at 10:35AM on Wednesday, you would be able to recover all the files as they were at 10:34AM if needed. In that situation, you would be hard pressed to find a solution that will work well for less than $10,000. This would require a solution that is capable of performing backups as soon as changes are written to a drive, and only high-end enterprise backup solutions are capable of that...That is, if you want to stick with SMB file sharing.

If, however, you're willing to go another route, you have more options. For instance, SharePoint would give you the ability to provide users access to the files without any issue, but because the files (and changes to the files) are stored in a SQL database, you would have the ability to utilize SQL's native backup and recovery capabilities.

When you use a file sharing solution that utilizes a SQL database to store the files, you can get point-in-time recovery capability by ensuring that the SQL database and its transaction logs are stored on different disks (Physical disks, not just different partitions). This is due to the fact that SQL stores all data that has been written to the database since the last full backup in the transaction logs. If the drive holding the Database fails, it's possible to recover the last full database backup and bring it up to date using the transaction log file. If the transaction log file fails, all of the data those logs contain is (usually) written to the database already. With that kind of setup, you can recover from a failure up to the second the failure occurred in many cases.

And if you want to, you can get that capability pretty much for free. SharePoint Foundation 2013 is free and allows you to use Document Libraries, which can be used to store Office and PDF files without much difficulty or configuration. SMB Shares can be directly uploaded to a SharePoint foundation server using drag and drop and will maintain the file structure of the folders you upload. It also includes Office Web Apps, so you can edit files stored on it in a web browser without the Office suite installed. You can also use SQL Express (Also free) as the database provider for it (with the limitations that are normal in SQL Express, which may be too low. Specifically, SQL Express will only run up to 10GB of databases, so you will probably want to shell out for the full SQL server).
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by:GR JN
ID: 41820170
Point in time meaning predetermined snapshot schedules like every two hours or every day or week.

If VSS has the known flaws and don't want to do the SharePoint route (rather use regular Windows SMB files), what other options are there?
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by:Adam Brown
ID: 41820178
Just about any backup solution (Including windows server backup) will give you the ability to perform backups on a 2 hours schedule. They will generally do a backup of the VSS snapshots that get taken regularly, but will be able to retain that data in a less flaky manner. That's generally the best way to provide that level of recovery. If you are able to work with the limitations of Windows Server Backup (it's very picky about backup storage. You can't make use of the scheduled incremental backup features if you use a network share), it's an ideal solution for handling File server backups.

Edit to add: Also, if you're hoping to find a solution that will provide some protection from Ransomware, *do not* rely only on VSS. Almost every ransomware variant out there is designed to clear out all shadow copies before running.
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 41820260
Since Server 2003 introduced it, I've used VSS and Shadow Copies on dozens of servers in at least a dozen clients and have never experienced one issue with it.  

Is there a potential that it doesn't backup a given item, sure but most backup methods these days leverage VSS it's so reliable.  I very much disagree with Adam.  I rely on it heavily and have never experienced a corruption.  It is NOT a perfect solution... it has limitations - the drive dies and your copies are GONE... so while it's a great short term recovery solution it should NOT be your only backup method.
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 41820271
And I also disagree with Adam on the ransomware issue - properly designed networks will not have that problem.  End users who are not domain or server admins cannot alter the settings of VSS.  At best (worst) ransomware causes ALL files to change every bit (literally).  VSS is block level and can easily keep versions of huge files without taking up the same space as the huge file since the huge file often only has a fewl "blocks" change.  But when ransomware infects, ALL blocks are changed.  This results in VSS using up most or all of it's space and wiping out the historical copies.  UNLESS your VSS space is significantly larger than the used disk space.

I just used VSS to restore a church's data that was encrypted by an end user.  VSS settings were MUCH larger than the used space and it wasn't an issue.  Best part is they lost less than 30 minutes of data because the VSS snapshot took place at 9:20 am and infection happened at 9:42am.
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by:Adam Brown
ID: 41820347
I've had constant trouble with VSS losing data or just not having the files I needed to restore. Just yesterday I had to deal with an issue where VSS shadows had all of a specific user's files *except* the one I needed to recover (this was likely due to it being a desktop and not a server). Just a little searching on google can show I'm not the only one in that boat. But I've also had situations where VSS saved the day. It's extremely important to have it enabled and properly configured, but it's just a bad practice to rely on *only* VSS for backup and recovery. And if you want to be as close as can be to 100% certain that you'll be able to recover files properly and always have them available for backup, you need to use an additional backup solution. VSS isn't sufficient in that regard.
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by:GR JN
ID: 41820357
How does the Windows 2012 local VSS feature compare to something like a enterprise storage solution like EMC VNX or NetApp snapshots ?
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by:Adam Brown
ID: 41820372
Generally, any third party solution that does backups against a Windows Server will actively utilize VSS snapshots for the file system if there is any level of Application awareness. VM shapshot solutions usually utilize a VSS Hardware interface driver to access VSS when performing a snapshot. This is to ensure Applications like Exchange and SQL are able to truncate transaction logs following a backup operation. So technically, there's no way to compare those solutions to VSS because they use VSS to function properly. The primary difference, though, is that NetApp and EMC's snapshot systems will perform a full VSS shapshot when they do their work and retain the snapshot data in longer-term storage with (usually) a much greater amount of space available for that storage.
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by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 41820481
Lets be clear, I *ONLY* used server based VSS - I do not rely on client VSS.  That, I will grant you has been unpredictable but I largely blame MS for that since they can't seem to decide how they want it to work on the client.
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