Breaking down the Windows Server Backup tool for Windows 2008

The NTBackup program has been a Windows fixture for many years. While previous Windows releases of the tool have never included many of the fancier features found in commercial backup programs, the Windows Server Backup feature for Windows Server 2008 is completely different from earlier versions.

On the surface, it appears that Microsoft has decided to dumb down the utility somewhat. I say this because the new version no longer allows you to back up individual files or folders. Instead, you are forced to back up an entire volume, even if you are really only interested in a single file.

When I first saw the new backup interface while beta testing Windows Vista, I was disappointed with it, but assumed that Microsoft was trying to make it easier for users to back up their computers. I was absolutely horrified when I learned that this same version had also made its way into Windows Server 2008. As it turns out, though, there is a lot more to the new version than meets the eye. Although I may not agree with Microsoft's decision to remove as much of the flexibility we'd had with NTBackup, the company had some good reasons for doing so.

The main reason is that Microsoft designed the new Windows Server Backup to be more intelligent. After all, a backup is your first line of defense after a disaster, and it would really be a shame to lose data just because the backup was configured incorrectly.


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disk space management

One of the new data management mechanisms that Microsoft includes with Windows Server Backup is automatic disk space usage. Let's say, for example, that you were writing your backups to a network volume or external hard drive. With the old NTBackup, you had to schedule the backups in such a way that repeated backups would not cause the volume to run out of disk space. With Windows Server 2008, however, you can automatically manage disk space on the volume containing the backups. If Windows Server Backup detects that the volume contains insufficient space to hold a backup, it will automatically delete one or more older backups to make room for the new one.

Did you know?

Windows Server Backup for Windows 2008 has been designed to automatically back up the system volume (and the system state) so that you are protected against server failures.

Block-level backups

Another nice change with Windows Server Backup is that it uses block-level backups, which means incremental backups are smaller than they would be with NTBackup, and they complete more quickly. This is because an incremental backup normally backs up files that have changed since the previous full backup. Windows Server Backup follows this approach, but rather than backing up the entire modified file, it only backs up the blocks that have changed.

This same block-level backup technology is put to work in file restorations, because Windows Server Backup is file version aware. So, instead of requiring you to manually restore data from multiple incremental backups, Windows Server 2008 allows you to select the file that you want to restore and then enter the date of the backup that you want to use.

Restoring a backup to a different server

It's also possible to restore Windows to alternate hardware with Windows Server Backup. In all the years that Windows Server 2003 has been around, only once have I been able to pull off restoring a backup to a different server (one time, that is, when everything worked perfectly and several times when there were glitches I had to deal with). Even Windows Server 2008 requires that the alternate hardware be somewhat similar to the original server; but, even so, it makes the process a whole lot easier.

Recovery from system volume losses

Finally, in my opinion, the biggest improvement with Windows Server Backup is how it allows you to recover from the loss of a server's system volume. If you lose the system volume on a Windows 2003 server, you have to hope to have a full, system state backup of that drive. Assuming that you do, you then have to replace the drive, restore Windows, apply the correct service pack, adjust a few backup settings and finally restore the backup. This restoration method works, but it can be a little bit tricky to get the process right.

Windows Server 2008 allows you to perform a bare metal restore to a new drive without having to install Windows first. This greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to recover from a failure, but, more important, it improves your odds of recovering the server successfully -- mainly because you no longer have to deal with the complexities of trying to overwrite the server's current operating system as you did with Windows Server 2003.

As you can see, Microsoft has made numerous changes to its backup tool for Windows Server 2008 -- some good and some bad. If you would like to read about all of the new backup features for Windows Server 2008, check out the TechNet article on Windows Server Backup.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities, and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal Web site at www.brienposey.com.

This was first published in October 2008

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