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Optimizing Exchange and Active Directory Backup and Recovery

By Pat Hanavan

Microsoft Exchange has become the de facto application for business communication today. Exchange servers house everything from confidential records to intellectual property to key business contacts and more and are often the primary source of storing business critical information.

Needless to say, protecting this data is a business priority. Should a system crash, a database become corrupt, or another event occur that results in the loss of Exchange data, recovery must be rapid and reliable. What's more, because Exchange uses Microsoft Active Directory as its enterprise directory, it is also critical that the directory's data is also protected and quickly recoverable.

To optimize backup and recovery of Exchange and Active Directory environments, organizations can leverage a growing number of advanced tools that overcome the challenges of traditional approaches. These new tools give businesses a more simplified and streamlined process that reduces their backup windows, provides continuous protection and delivers efficient granular recovery of the critical business information.

Challenges of Traditional Approaches to Protecting Exchange
To maintain the availability of Exchange and protect its mission-critical data stores, organizations typically do an online backup of the Exchange database. Such a backup is mandatory because it provides the only means for retrieving all Exchange Server data. Fortunately, because many backup solutions leverage Microsoft's Exchange backup API, most of today's backup applications perform an Exchange database backup in much the same way.

If the organization needs the ability to quickly recover individual email messages or mailboxes-for example, to meet regulatory or emergency needs-they traditionally must also perform separate brick-level mailbox backups. Done weekly at a minimum, this level of backup enables organizations to restore an entire mailbox, single email message, calendar item, note, or other Exchange item for those mailboxes that are backed up.

The trouble is, these mailbox backups are very costly in terms of time and storage space, much more so than those mandatory Exchange database backups. After all, the administrator must run two separate backups of the same data, which more than doubles the time commitment and introduces twice the opportunity for error. They also typically result in larger catalog sizes, quickly consuming tape and disk space and adding to an already significant administrative burden.

That's not all. Most organizations also need to do incremental backups of the Exchange database and incremental backups of individual mailboxes so they can meet strict recovery point objectives (RPOs) as well as recovery time objectives (RTOs).

With most IT organizations today looking to replace inefficient processes with more efficient and effective strategies to meet their Exchange backup and recovery requirements, yesterday's approaches must give way to more advanced practices that yield more promising returns.

Challenges of Traditional Strategies for Recovering Active Directory
Active Directory may be the cornerstone of organization and management in Windows-based environments, but far too often Active Directory objects are accidentally modified or deleted, their attributes overwritten by faulty scripts, or a hardware failure corrupts the entire database. Not only does this result in reduced user productivity, it can also cause a negative ripple effect on other Active Directory-dependent applications, including Exchange.

To recover Active Directory, some organizations opt for a standalone utility separate from their backup application. While these utilities can be effective, they also add another layer of complexity because they must be managed separately from the existing backup infrastructure.

Other organizations use command-line utilities included with Windows. With these free utilities, IT administrators can eventually recover Active Directory, but it is not easy or fast. They must reboot in recovery mode, perform a full restore of the system state, pull the network cable, reboot again, use the utility to elevate objects to recover, attach the domain controller back to the network and reboot again, and then wait for outbound and inbound replication to occur. This can take hours or even days. Meanwhile, systems and users are down.

To stay in line with critical RPOs and RTOs, organizations must be able to dramatically reduce Active Directory recovery time. This, in turn, would minimize the potential for ripple-effect problems, protect uptime, and ease administrative hassle.

Practices for Optimizing Backup and Recovery
Traditional approaches to backup and recovery for Exchange and Active Directory environments no longer meet the proximate and pressing RPO and RTO requirements of today's information-driven organizations.

Consequently, a growing number of businesses are choosing backup and recovery tools that allow them to not only restore Exchange but also Active Directory quickly and efficiently down to a granular level. With these advanced recovery features, IT organizations can optimize their backup and recovery processes and ensure that their critical data is protected and easy to recover.

For example, with the latest recovery technology, just a single pass full, incremental or continuous backup of the Exchange database enables the organization to recover the entire database as well as individual email messages and mailboxes, public and private folders, calendars, and contacts-including their embedded Active Directory objects and attributes.

And if an organization leverages continuous backup technology for Exchange it allows organizations to recover back to just minutes before the corruption or disaster occurred - ensuring no data loss. Continuous protection technology for Exchange replicates transaction logs and automatically consolidates them into recovery points that can be easily managed and drilled into for granular data recovery. As a result, backups take a fraction of the time of traditional approaches, while also providing flexible and speedy email and mailbox recovery.

Furthermore, optimized backup and recovery products have emerged that also restore Active Directory and Active Directory Application Mode (ADAM) objects and attributes. The most advanced tools enable the administrator to perform an authoritative or non-authoritative full restore without rebooting-in minutes or even seconds.

The process is quick and straightforward. The administrator does a normal System State full backup of their Active Directory domain controllers and then use the backup products's more granular restore capabilities to recover selected objects, attributes, specific sections of the directory, or even the entire Active Directory without taking a single domain controller offline.

Better yet, these optimized backup and recovery methods work the same in a virtual or mixed physical-virtual environment. As a result, organizations get a truly efficient and cost-effective backup and recovery solution for infrastructures that include multiple applications and hypervisors.

With a single-source solution for safeguarding business-critical and business-supporting workloads, organizations can be sure their information is recoverable with minimal downtime and data loss, thereby protecting business continuity and optimizing their IT environments.

Related Reading

Separating Backup and Archiving: Securing Your Digital Information

Granular Application and System Recovery for Virtual and Physical Environments

Making a Case for Tape: It Still Plays a Vital Role in a Digital World

An Overview of Continuous Data Protection

Aligning People and Processes to Maintain a Resilient IT Infrastructure


About the Author
Pat Hanavan is Vice President, Product Management for Symantec Corporation.


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