George Crump, Senior Analyst

These companies create dedicated virtualization-specific backup applications that leverage the uniqueness of the virtual infrastructure to provide simple, game-changing solutions. These products not only make VMware backup better, but they also make the traditional processes involved in protecting stand-alone servers look archaic. Virtualized backup has become so powerful that some users of these products have begun to virtualize application servers not just for the traditional benefits of virtualization, like consolidation and resource management, but to improve the ability to back up, recover and protect from disaster.

A concern about these dedicated virtualized data protection solutions has been raised, mostly by traditional backup software suppliers, about the viability of these potentially niche software companies. They compare dedicated virtualized backup to other data protection products that are evolving into "features" of the legacy backup applications, like deduplication or continuous data protection (CDP). But these legacy software vendors are ignoring the lessons of the past.

In almost every case, when a new operating system or platform became dominant, a new data protection leader emerged. Novell NetWare begat Cheyenne Software, but as UNIX and Microsoft Windows NT emerged, this NetWare solution couldn’t make the transition to the new platforms. UNIX backup drove the establishment of Legato NetWorker (eventually EMC NetWorker) and Openvision NetBackup (eventually Symantec NetBackup). Microsoft Windows NT drove the establishment of Arcadia Backup Exec (eventually Symantec Backup Exec). Even CommVault, one of the more successful newer backup applications, was driven by the establishment of Windows as an enterprise, mission-critical operating system. In short, each new operating system or platform eventually brought a new data protection application.

Interestingly, despite the constant predictions of consolidation, each of these companies still exists, as do many other smaller data protection companies, each with its own following. In fact, it turns out that backup applications tend to be something that users cling to as long as they can, even though they may have relatively high dissatisfaction with the product. It’s the ”devil you know” syndrome, despite which most industry studies continue to predict that a high percentage of data centers will change their backup applications over the next few years. What these studies haven’t determined is what will cause the change. History provides the answer. IT professionals have historically used a significant platform change to justify leaving the ”devil they know” to try something new. Can server virtualization be that next platform change?

Virtualization: Feature or Platform?

The question as to whether these dedicated virtualized backup solutions will survive begs another question: whether server virtualization is a platform or a feature. History would seem to show that if it’s a platform, then a new data protection solution will become the next dominant product. It is Storage Switzerland's belief that server virtualization is a platform and has now superseded the individual server operating systems as the focal decision point for the data center. Most data centers are not trying to decide which applications they should virtualize; rather, they’re trying to decide how much of the data center can be virtualized and how quickly. Said another way, the decision to virtualize isn’t “if,” it’s “when” and “how fast.” The cost and operational advantages of server virtualization are well documented and are ones that every data center wants to take advantage of.

If server virtualization is a new platform then it stands to reason that a new data protection model from a new company is going to emerge. In each prior instance in history, the leading data protection solution for each platform came from a company that had written a specific, at the time even niche, application for that market. This allowed them to focus on the key aspects of that environment and not be encumbered by having to support legacy code and the legacy way of doing things.

One of the advantages of virtualization as a platform is how it improves the data protection process. Servers are no longer something that the backup application has to log into to access the millions of files they contain. The servers themselves are now nothing more than files on disk. They are more than just a file, however—they’re a file that contains discrete objects. What dedicated virtualized backup solutions do well is understand the relationship of these objects to the server image. This understanding causes many of the backup and recovery challenges that plague the data center to mostly go away.

For example, an interface can be made to the virtualization hypervisor so that only the blocks representing the server image that have changed need to be copied to the backup destination. Once at that destination, those changes can be tracked and an up-to-date copy of the server image or a point-in-time version that can be days or months old can be accessed and used for recovery or other purposes. Some products like Veeam Backup & Replication can use this understanding of virtual images to restart the virtual machine from the backup storage area. This allows for a recovery ”in place” and an immediate start of the application. Then leveraging capabilities like VMware Storage vMotion, the server’s image can be migrated live, back to primary storage. This kind of capability simply doesn’t exist with traditional backup applications and the effort to add those capabilities may not be worth it for those vendors.

Most importantly this type of solution is outside the operating system and has little concern of what the operating system is or its components. This type of solution has the ability to boot these server image files within the backup environment, providing the application owner the ability to use regular application tools to recover discrete data sub-sets. The ability to boot the server image file enables dedicated virtualized backup solutions to recover individual components of a file system, a database application or a mail server without recovering the entire server to a separate physical server. This eliminates the need for backup agents for each specific application or even operating system. Also, one backup supports both full VM and granular recovery, instead of having multiple backups for image protection and for granular recovery. The challenge for these legacy products is that they’re inherently file-by-file data protection solutions. Each time they try to understand the data ”below” or within the file, they have to create specific modules to gain that support.

Are Legacy Backup Applications Becoming Niche?

It is capabilities like this that move dedicated virtualized backup solutions from features or niche products to platforms, and may very well move the traditional legacy backup applications to niche product status themselves. These capabilities create a business model problem for legacy backup solutions. If application-specific software modules become obsolete, how do these vendors tolerate the corresponding reduction of their revenue streams? Once again, history shows that most vendors, especially larger ones, are slow to react to a market change.

Finally, as an increasing percentage of the environment becomes virtualized, it can be covered by this same cost-effective and powerful data protection model. So valuable are some of these capabilities that, as stated earlier, many companies are allowing stand-alone systems to be converted to virtual machines on a regular basis. In other cases, dedicated virtualized backup solutions can pull the stand-alone servers into the virtual infrastructure temporally to protect them, yet still have their images available to take advantage of the enhanced recovery capability.

If server virtualization is not a niche or point solution, then its data protection model can’t be either. In fact, history shows the opposite to be true. If server virtualization continues on the road to domination, then it’s the legacy software vendors that may become niche players and be forced to change. If not, they may be gobbled up by the dedicated virtualized backup software providers.

Veeam is a client of Storage Switzerland

: Feature or Platform?