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How to Make Sure Your Exchange Backup Plan Has No Gaps

Backups – they are one of the most critical responsibilities of any systems admin, no matter what the system is. But if there is one technology where good backups, or the lack thereof, can have instant and companywide impact, it’s your email system. Show me any other system on your network that everyone in your company directly uses other than email. Ensuring that you have reliable backups of your email system is an absolutely essential component of basic administration, and will be ranked very high on any Business Continuity/Disaster Recover plans, so we want to be sure that our Exchange backup plan doesn’t have any gaps, and we’ll also take a look at how Exchange archiving can help you deliver a complete solution.

What to back up

The easiest question on this list is what to back up. The answer is “everything”. Get every Exchange mailbox server and every mailbox database on those servers, to ensure that you have complete coverage of user data. You will also want to ensure you have backups of your other Exchange Servers including CAS, Hub Transport, Edge Transport and Unified Communication roles as appropriate, but each of those can be rebuilt fairly quickly. User data is in mailboxes, within mailbox databases, on mailbox servers, and those are the most important ones in the environment.

When to back up

Backups take time, and place load on the systems which can also increase response time for users. If your mailbox database resides on only one server, after hours is the only real time you can perform a backup. But if you implement DAGs and keep a copy on a server that does not normally handle user requests, you should be able to back that server up in the middle of the day if you wish.

How to back up

Whether you use what is built into Windows, or a third party system, you need to take advantage of Windows’ Volume Shadow-copy Service. That’s the only way to create an Exchange backup that is supportable. Take complete backups of databases, and frequently perform a test restore to ensure that your system is working properly. VM snapshots do not take the place of backups.

How long to keep back up

How often you rotate your tapes and how many days back you want to keep backups will be determined both by budget and business need, but you should go ahead and make sure you keep at the very least one week’s worth of backups, plus a backup taken at the end of every month for as many months back as you can afford. If you have the capacity, taking another extra backup at each quarter’s end and even for the end of the year may prove extremely valuable, though it may be many months or years before you need it. Ensure that you rotate tapes according to the manufacturer’s directions, and do not keep any backups longer than your company’s retention policy.

When to restore

When a user needs deleted items brought back, that’s the time to perform a restore. But that is not the only time. Remember what we said how to back up. Perform test restores regularly at least once a month, to ensure that you can restore data when needed. Logs and data verification are not substitute for actually restoring a database and retrieving mail from it to prove your backups are working.

Where to restore

Many admins keep a server on standby, both to take over if another server fails and to provide a ready location to restore backups when needed. If your budget allows for that, it’s a great way to go. Just make sure that the volume you have for restoring data is large enough to handle any particular mailbox database you might need to restore.

How to meet backup and restore SLAs

As mailbox sizes increase and databases grow, completing a backup during a backup window becomes more challenging. And when you need to do a restore, it is usually for an urgent request. Those big mailbox databases take increasingly longer to backup and restore, but you don’t want to limit how much data users can save. That is where email archiving comes in. Create a separate set of mailbox databases to store users’ mailbox archives, and then use a combination of user training, rules, and mailbox retention policies to move older and less critical email from the primary mailbox to the archive mailbox. Your users will still have access to their email, but you will reduce the size of individual mailbox databases, making it much easier to back up and restore them in shorter periods of time.

Don’t forget those PSTs

Users frequently have large amounts of business critical information squirrelled away in PST files. Whether they are on local hard drives or file shares, they are not getting backed up like the rest of your mailbox data, and are at risk for data corruption and loss. Plus, data in PSTs cannot be easily searched, discovered, or managed. Eliminate the risks and problems that come along with PSTs with email archiving. Instead of users moving email to PST when they are running low on space in their mailbox, they can move it to an archive mailbox. As the email admin, you can centrally manage it, and ensure it is backed up and restored, and users will still have that older content just in case they need it.

If you did not purchase Exchange enterprise CALs, or want advanced features like single instance storage, easy search capability, to leverage SQL for storage, and more, look at one of the great third party email archiving solutions available. You will be able to add features to your email offering, while saving money at the same time, and ensuring there are no gaps in your Exchange backup strategy.

This guest post was provided by Casper Manes on behalf of GFI Software Ltd. GFI is a leading software developer that provides a single source for network administrators to address their network security, content security and messaging needs. Read more on how to improve your Exchange archiving.

All product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.

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