There’s some good news for IT managers deploying Windows Server 2008: Backup and Restore has been reworked in this edition to leverage the Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) and block-level transfers for faster backups, and it also integrates with recovery tools for simplified restoration of files and the operating system.
Windows Server 2008 disposes of the aging NTBACKUP utility and introduces Windows Server Backup, an optional feature that can be installed through Server Manager. As in Vista’s Complete PC Backup, Microsoft’s virtual hard drive (VHD) format is used to create file-based images of disk volumes. Before I address how to work with the new software, it’s important to note that several important features of NTBACKUP have been dropped from Windows Server Backup.
The software is primarily designed for disk-to-disk use; tape drives are not supported. While disk-to-disk backup promises a simple, reliable and affordable solution, the lack of portability for offsite backups could be an inconvenience with some hardware. Even though bays for removable drives are becoming more common in low-end servers, removable hard drives are expensive compared with tape. Limited support for writable DVD is provided (no recovery operations for individual files, folders or application data are allowed), along with external USB drives.
Much like Complete PC Backup in Vista, you can’t back up individual files and folders, only complete volumes. Another NTBACKUP feature, the verify option, is available only when the backup destination is removable media, so you can’t always run consistency checks. While it’s possible to set the backup destination to a mapped drive or NTFS mount point, it’s no longer possible to back up a network drive, or local drives that are not formatted with NTFS. Backups of the system volume contain everything necessary to restore a working server, but if you want to back up just the system state, you’ll need to use the command line.
The situation looks a little better in the recovery area, with the added ability to select individual files and folders using the GUI or the command line. The Windows Recovery Environment can be used in combination with backups to restore files and folders or entire volumes and perform bare-metal restores.
Software that supports the Volume Shadow Copy Service can be registered with Windows Server Backup via a VSS writer, but the ability to make an online backup of Exchange is no longer available. The lack of support for Exchange seems a little off the mark, considering it’s unlikely anyone wants to make offline database backups regularly. Microsoft’s Exchange team promises a VSS plug-in for Windows Server Backup sometime in the future. They also say that Windows Small Business Server 2008 will include support for backing up Exchange.
Windows Server Backup offers two types of backup: VSS copy and VSS full. VSS copy, which is the default and recommended option, preserves application logs (if they exist) on selected volumes without updating files’ archive bits. Archive bits are file attributes used to mark files as backed up. This lets Windows Server Backup work in parallel with third-party software that’s used to back up applications such as Exchange, without interfering with incremental or differential backup schedules that such applications support.
In contrast, VSS full backups truncate application transaction logs and update the archive bit of all backed-up files. While there’s no option to select an incremental backup in the GUI, if you use a volume that contains a previous backup, only changes made since the last backup will be saved, giving ultra-fast performance.
Regardless of the limited functionality, it’s worth knowing how to perform basic tasks with the built-in software. Log on to Server 2008 using an account with local administrator privileges:
If you have multiple disks available for use with Windows Server Backup, the Backup Schedule Wizard lets you specify more than one backup destination. When a scheduled backup runs, a disk will be chosen randomly, if more than one configured destination disk is connected. Therefore, you should make sure that only the required disk is connected before the scheduled start time.
The system state is included in our full backup, but what if we want to run a quick system state backup without the overhead of the entire system volume? The Windows Server Backup console doesn’t provide for this, but we can perform this task from the command line:
Restoring files can be done from the command line using wbadmin or from the Windows Server Backup console. Let’s use the console to restore a file:
In the event of a disaster, backups made by Windows Server can be used in conjunction with the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) to get your server back up and running with a minimum of fuss. Boot your server into WinRE from the Windows Server 2008 media or from the hard disk if WinRE’s preinstalled:
From the System Recovery Options window, it’s also possible to launch a command prompt and use wbadmin. In WinRE, wbadmin offers more flexible recovery options than the Windows Complete PC Restore wizard. wbadmin start recovery is for restoring individual volumes, applications or files/folders. wbadmin start sysrecovery is for running a complete PC restore. To run a complete PC restore from the command prompt:
The restore features in Windows Server Backup are appealing, but let down by inflexible backup options and lack of support for Exchange Server and tape drives. Windows Server Backup might be useful in scenarios where disk-to-disk is used as the primary backup method. However, all but the most basic removable and disk-to-disk backup systems feature their own management and backup software, or are compatible with popular applications such as Symantec’s Backup Exec. Whatever your backup strategy, it’s likely that Windows Server Backup won’t provide for all your needs. That might change in the future when support for Exchange is added.
Russell Smith is an independent consultant based in the United Kingdom who specializes in Microsoft systems management.