Backup and Recovery Issues with Windows Server 2008 (Part 1)

by [Published on 14 May 2009 / Last Updated on 14 May 2009]

Issues that you need to know about before attempting to backup your Windows 2008 server.

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please go to Backup and Recovery Issues with Windows Server 2008 (Part 2).

Introduction

Windows Server 2008 offers a lot of improvements over Windows 2003, but the backup program is not one of them. This article discusses the issues that you need to know about before you attempt to backup your Windows 2008 server.

Microsoft has included a low end backup utility (NTBACKUP) with Windows Server ever since Windows NT 3.51 was released. Although NTBACKUP has undergone a few changes over the years, it has always retained the same basic structure. When Microsoft created Windows Server 2008, they decided to completely rewrite the backup application. In doing so, they have made some major changes to it that any Windows Administrator who is considering deploying Windows Server 2008 needs to be aware of.

Compatibility Issues

The first change that many administrators notice is that NTBACKUP is no longer called NTBACKUP, but rather Windows Server Backup. The new name is far from being the most important change though. From an administrator’s standpoint, the most important change that you need to be aware of is that Windows Server Backup is not compatible with backups that you have made using NTBACKUP.

If you use NTBACKUP to back your data up to an external hard drive or to a network drive, then the data is encapsulated within a .BKF file. Although Microsoft has used the .BKF format for many years now, they have discontinued support for it in Windows Server 2008.

All is not lost though. If you have data that is backed up in .BKF format, you can restore that data to a Windows 2008 server. You just can not do it natively. Instead, you will have to download Microsoft’s Windows NT Backup – Restore Utility. This utility will not allow you to create backups in .BKF format, but it will allow you to restore your data.

That is the good news. The bad news is that unlike its predecessors, Windows Server Backup does not offer support for tape drives. Therefore if you have been using NTBACKUP to write data to tape backup, then you are going to want to leave at least one Windows 2003 server on your network so that you can retrieve the data off of your backup tapes should the need arise.

Access to Windows Server Backup

Another thing about Windows Server Backup that seems to throw some administrators a curve ball is the fact that it is not installed by default. In the past, Microsoft has always included NTBACKUP in a default Windows installation, but if you want to use Windows Server Backup, you have to install it first. Fortunately, this is not difficult to do.

To install Windows Server Backup, open the Server Manager, and click on the Features container. Next, click on the Add Features link, and Windows will display a list of the available features. Select the Windows Server Backup Features check box, and click Next. Take a moment to look at the summary screen and verify that you have selected the correct feature to be installed. Assuming that everything looks good, click the Install button. When the installation process completes, click the Close button.

Loss of Flexibility

Some of Microsoft’s decisions in the way that they designed Windows Server Backup almost make sense. For example, I can see why they dropped support for tape drives. It is probably because tape drives are starting to go extinct in favor of disk based backup solutions. Good tape backup drives do not come cheap though, so I wish that Microsoft would continue to allow us to use them, but I digress.

Some of the other design changes really do not make sense to me. For example, if you want to run a scheduled backup, you have to provide Windows with a dedicated hard drive that it can use. Granted, hard drives are cheap these days, but requiring a dedicated drive all but rules out backup media rotation or storing backups offsite. You can use external dedicated hard drives, but there are practicality issues to consider.

Furthermore, when I say that a dedicated drive is required, I do mean dedicated. Windows will not even give you access to the drive through Windows Explorer. You can only access it through Windows Server Backup.

Fortunately, this does not mean that a dedicated hard drive is your only option for backing up Windows. If you are running a scheduled backup, then you pretty much have to write the backup to a dedicated hard drive (although you can get around this restriction if you are into scripting). If you are performing a non scheduled backup, you have the option of writing the backup to a UNC share, or even to removable media.

In my opinion, the area in which Windows Server Backup has lost the most flexibility is in the fact that it does not allow you to backup individual files or folders. Yes, you read that right. The lowest level of granularity that is supported is an entire volume. You can backup a volume, or the entire server, but you really do not have any other choices.

I tend to think that this has something to do with the new backup file format that Windows Server Backup uses. Rather than using .BKF files, Windows Server Backup writes backup in .VHD format. I will talk more about this in the next section.

Why Did They Do It?

So why did Microsoft take a feature that has been working well for the last decade and basically ruin it? Well, I have not had the opportunity to ask anyone at Microsoft this question, but I suspect that it may have something to do with trying to discourage administrators from using Windows Server Backup as an enterprise backup solution.

Microsoft has always told us that NTBACKUP should only be used as a lightweight backup solution, and yet I know plenty of administrators who use it as a comprehensive backup solution for their entire enterprise. Windows Server Backup’s restrictions make it easy to backup an individual server, but make it completely impractical to use it to backup an entire organization.

I think that another reason why Microsoft has made these changes may have to do with the new backup format. Rather than writing backups as .BKF files, backups are written as .VHD files. As you may know, .VHD files are virtual hard drive files. You can not take a Windows Server 2008 backup file, link it to Virtual Server, and boot off of it (although that is probably going to be possible at some point in the future). You can however, mount a Windows backup file as a volume in Virtual Server. This feature provides administrators with a very easy way of extracting individual files from a backup set.

Conclusion

If you have read through this article, then you know that I consider Windows Server Backup to be a major disappointment. Even so, it is important to remember that you do not absolutely have to use it. You can still run NTBACKUP off of another server, or you could resort to using a third party backup application. It is also important to keep in mind that Windows Server Backup does have a few good points. I will talk about those good points in Part 2.

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please go to Backup and Recovery Issues with Windows Server 2008 (Part 2).

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