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How I Backup Virtual Machines Locally and to Another Server

April 3, 2010

I did some searching on the internet and found a couple of scripts to backup VMs.

We use Hyper-V and VMware on our server farm but because we are an educational institution we don’t have much money to invest in sophisticated stuff (well they seem to have money left over for other things that are debatableūüėČ

Anyways, so I tried the scripts but all those VB or batch file scripts require the machine to be put to sleep or switched off. Since we needed real backups without turning anything off that didn’t help much.

I kept browsing and found this interesting article How to Backup Virtual Machines While Running  and set it up.

Interestingly this tool also backs up SQL Server databases using the same principles. It unlocks the files while in use and copies them somewhere else. Unlike the scripts, however, it doesn’t need to pause the VMs¬†and uses delta compression to write incremental files. I recall from my early unix¬†days the rsync utility. It appears it’s pretty much a similar thing because it creates a¬† ‘delta’ file with the changes in the VM¬†that it found¬†since the previous day’s backup.

Sending it off to another server: we tried two things which both worked. We have another server location where we¬†access the network shares¬†on the¬†WAN. The BackupChain¬†utility also comes with a FTP server to send and receive backups but I didn’t need bother it because the delta was all I needed. We run backups at night and are left with about 2 to 10% file changes¬†per day, which in our case brings the backup down to just a couple GB per day on average.

Because I’m a big fan of external harddrives¬†I prefer using this tool to backup¬†to USB. I think¬†we got already our money’s worth because¬†we didn’t have to buy another extra drive. A new 2TB drive still costs about $150 so that won’t be necessary until¬†we add a couple of VMs.¬†However, don’t expect a full blown enterprise-ready monster solution with fancy web interface and all that.

Setting it up took a while, but that seemed to have been caused by my ‘over-optimization’ of the serverūüėČ Ensure the Volume Shadow Service and all Hyper-V services are enabled. I had the VSS disabled and that didn’t work initially.

Which Windows Version is/was the Best in Your Opinion?

April 3, 2010

What to do with an External Hard Drive

April 3, 2010

1. Use it as a backup file destination. It’s cheap, very fast, and portable even between Macs and Windows PCs. No more wasting money and time burning CDs and DVDs! Check out¬†a backup tool for file synchronization or an imaging solution.

2. Put your virtual machines on it. Absolutely nice. You can take your VMs to work and hook them up there. Gone are the days where you had to stick to corporate policiesūüėČ

3. Use it for TB file sharing. Meet your friends and bring your USB drives. Share an entire movie collection in a small 2.5″ gadget. How efficient! Run a virus scan, though, when you plug in that friend’s driveūüėČ

4. Install and run Windows from USB directly if your PC supports boot from USB in its BIOS.

5. Mail it: you have some friends abroad or far away that need some of your stuff (photos, CDs, etc.) Put the drive in a USPS flat rate box and ship it! It’s much faster, cheaper,¬†and safer than downloading.

6. Archive your stuff on it. Don’t forget that the data won’t last for more than 3 years on it without being re-written!!!

Performance Tips for Your PC and Server

April 3, 2010

1. Run a defragementation every week at night or manually

2. Delete temp files

3. Turn off Anti-Virus scanner when you are not online (at your own risk….)

4. Check if your paging file is defragmented. To defrag your paging file, turn it off completely and run a defrag. Then:

5. Set the paging file to a min and max value that is at least 2x your RAM size. So if you have 1GB (old PC huh) then set it to 2.5GB minimum and maximum. By setting the same value for min and max we avoid that the system keeps growing and shrinking the virtual memory paging file.

6. Add more RAM

7. Buy a faster spinning disk with SATA2 interface. 7,200 rpm should be minimum these days

8. Go for a RAID-0 interface (striped) and combine several drives

9. put your data on a different drive than the system

10. Put the paging file on a different drive than the system

11. Once a year, wipe your system by reformatting it and reinstall windows. Hold on to the Windows activation files before doing so or else you will need to re-activate Windows.

12. Turn off the indexing service

13. uninstall Windows Search if you have it and get a 3rd party program to search files on your desktop

14. set windows automatic updates to only notify you but not to download and install.

Here is a nice Defrag Tool that does the job. For searching files we use WinGrep which is not the best but good enough, certainly better than the search built into Windows. Don’t you wish we had the Windows 2000 search feature back the way it was???

The Pros and Cons of Disk Cloning and Imaging Backups

April 3, 2010

As an admin I find good use for image backups, but I guess it depends how you want to use your backups and whether you are a home user or a professional admin.

I would recommend using disk cloning and imaging backup software:

1. if you need to support a large number of PC users who are likely to run into problems with their PCs. Such as viruses, configuration problems.

2. If you are a home user who wants to protect the system from a hard drive crash or other damage

Advantages of image backups:

1. The entire system is stored  in a single file which you can copy to an external hard drive

2. System can quickly be restored on the same computer after replacing a hard drive.

Disadvantages of image backups and disk cloning:

1. The new hard drive is likely to be bigger than the old one. You end up with some extra space left over and will need another tool to enlarge the partition or create new ones. In Windows 7 you can do that via the disk management console.

2. Strictly speaking, you need a new software license on your new PC if you want to restore a backup from your crashed PC

3. Images are stored in a proprietary format. You can only access your files using that program (which you need to buy in case you don’t have it anymore or in case you want to restore the system elsewhere)

4. Microsoft and other software vendors lock software to the hardware of your PC. If you restore the image on the same PC you will be able to get it to work fine. However, on a new PC the hardware codes and IDs are different and you need to re-activate Windows and all the other software

5. If you restore the image on a new PC, it’s likely that you will get blue screens or worse, intermittent¬†crashes. So either the system won’t boot, or it will be unstable. This is because the drivers don’t match your new PC’s hardware. Most of the time I tried to restore an image to a new system, it didn’t work and couldn’t be made to work either.

6. Image backups take a long time to complete, even in incremental/differential backup mode. If your system is big you’re better off just backing up specific folders using file backup software.

7. Image backup software isn’t that smart yet. It’s all or nothing. Either the image can be created/restored in full or you end up with nothing. For example, if your external drive ends up being too small you won’t know until you have the backup run for hours and then it will stop saying ‘drive is full’. It will complain about the drive being full and leave you with no backup at all. At least with a file backup, you would have most of your files in case of an emergency.

8. On a new computer it is generally recommended if not required to reinstall everything from the beginning. At least then you know you have a clean system running smoothly!

So before you head off and run Acronis¬†or CloneZilla or the like, think of the whole picture and all its implications. Most likely you’re better off with a file backup in your pocket which you can use on all other PCs without a purchase. We use typically Backup Exec and BackupChain at work for that purpose.

However if you want to protect against simple hard drive failure, it’s definitely the way to go because it will save you time restoring the system. Whether you use image backups or file backups, I found external hard drives very convenient and fast. They are way faster and cheaper than DVDs and CDs and last much longer.