Product Reviews

Review: Acronis Shortens Windows Backup and Recovery

The new Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5 is optimized for hybrid cloud environments and provides flexible application support.

Backup and recovery remains one of the most critical IT priorities, yet one that many continue to give short shrift. I often wonder why so many shops are attentive to ensuring enterprise or organizational backups are completed while regular system backups fall by the wayside.

A number of vendors are addressing the system-backup issue. In this new year, Redmond magazine will review a number of new products that have already eased the process. I'll kick off the series of reviews with the latest offering from Acronis International GmbH.

The company's new release, Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5, simplifies the process of data protection by supporting cloud environments and provides flexible application support. The product made its debut in June 2011. It's targeted at hybrid environments, being more tailored for modular environments and optimized for the cloud. To accomplish this, the company has added disk-to-disk cloud staging into what it calls its unified backup and recovery platform.

By automating disk-to-disk-to-cloud backup, Acronis believes it will shorten the backup windows for both live physical machines and VMs, while making both easier to manage via a common management interface. Here's what I observed when testing the new release.

Getting Started
The installation process for Backup & Recovery 11.5 is straightforward, but there are quite a few components to be installed so the process might take some time. During installation, you'll be asked to choose from the components to install by selecting the actions you need to perform, from administering local machine backups to managing a centrally located backup store for multiple endpoints. At this point, you can also choose to select components individually, but Acronis does a good job of categorizing these items to improve the installation experience.

Acronis Backup & Recovery has many components for different scenarios. As your environment grows and more computers are managed with this product, you'll need to license various components necessary for the application features to operate on each computer. Such components include support for Microsoft Exchange Server, SQL Server, and various virtual environments including Hyper-V and VMware vSphere.

The server version for Windows lists at $859, the Advanced Server for SBS is $499 and the Advanced Server for Windows is $1,399. You can select from specific licensing here.

Inside Backup & Recovery 11.5
When Backup & Recovery starts, a dashboard (see Figure 1) is displayed to provide the ability to work with the application as well as display recent activities and alerts.

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Figure 1. The Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5 dashboard shows the status of the machine and lists various alerts and activities.

The main functions include:

  • Create Backup Plan: Create a recurring schedule for backing up the computer.
  • Recover: Search for data to recover.
  • Back up Now: Select files and folders to back up as a one-off process.

Creating a backup plan that performs the same job on a regular schedule means you can set it and forget it. But in reality, backups should be reviewed regularly and have files restored from them to ensure things are working as needed.

To create a backup plan, the software guides you to complete the following steps:

  1. From the Dashboard, select Create Backup Plan.
  2. Because all disks attached to the computer will be included by default, you'll need to click "remove" for any disks you don't want to back up.
  3. Specify a location to store the backup data by clicking the Location link in the "Where to Back up" portion of the screen. There are several options, including Online Backup Storage, Centralized, Personal, Local Folders, Network Folders, FTP Servers, SFTP Servers, Storage Nodes or Tape Devices.

The use of Online Backup Storage requires a subscription to the Acronis Online Backup service. Details about that service and pricing can be found here. A 30-day trial of the service is available for free. Afterward, it costs $49.99 per year for 250GB of capacity.

For my testing, I chose a local backup target pointed at a dedicated volume on iSCSI storage.

Once the location for backup was configured, I selected the Backup Scheme from the "How to Back up" portion of the screen. Options here include:

  • Simple: allows simple selection of what to back up and when to do so.
  • GFS (Grandfather-Father-Son): uses full and incremental backups on a daily, weekly and monthly schedule.
  • Custom: the schedule, content and conditions for the backup are selected by the user.
  • Tower of Hanoi: uses full, differential and incremental backups to ensure up to 16 levels of backup are maintained.
  • Manual Start: you can select the backup type -- full, incremental or differential -- and start the job as needed.

Selecting the simple backup type created a backup schedule that occurred daily at midnight with indefinite retention. Retention schedules can be modified by selecting the dropdown for retention rules, which have the following options: Keep Backups Indefinitely; Delete Backups Older than 30 Days (the number of days here can be modified); Move Backups Older than 30 Days (the number of days here can be modified).

To see more information, such as the backup type and options for moving backup data to a second location, expand the rest of the section by selecting Show Backup Type | Second Location | Validation | Convert to Virtual Machine. (I'll explore the VM conversion feature later in this review.)

After selecting the type of backup to perform, I was able to specify options for the backup job and a name for the job. A default set of options are configured to get you started right out of the box, and these are sufficient for those who need to get backups configured quickly. For more control of the options available for a backup configuration, select the default link under "Plan parameters." The options are showcased in Figure 2.

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Figure 2. Administrators can select from the numerous options for a backup job listed in the left panel of the Options dialog window.

Converting Backups to VMs
Virtualization is still one of the most popular technologies around, and appears in more places every day. Acronis has included a virtualization step in the backup process by allowing backups to be converted to VMs immediately at the completion of the backup or on a set schedule.

When a schedule is used for VM creation, it uses the latest backup to create the image. Depending on the agent licensed for the application, Acronis Backup & Recovery supports multiple virtualization formats, including but not limited to Microsoft Hyper-V, VMware and Citrix XenServer.

Conversion to a VM allows you to mount the backup images to the hypervisor and have these images start as guest machines if needed. This can provide a fast recovery method if certain systems need to be offline for an extended period, or it can allow for faster recovery in the event of a disaster.

Restoring Data
It's great if your solution eases the process of backing up your data, but the backup is only as good as the restores your solution allows. If you're unable to restore information from a backup, the usefulness of the backup is degraded and should be investigated.

With Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5, you select the option to recover data and point the application at the backup to use as the source. Data to recover can be selected from Archive view, which shows the archives by date that were created, or by Data view, which displays the hierarchy of data that you've backed up (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3. When recovering data, the administrator selects the data needed using the Data to Recover Selection dialog window.

In addition to a recovery, which places information back in its original location, you can mount backup images to allow for a more-selective restoration process. For example, if you're working on a document that's included in a full backup of your computer every night and suddenly the document becomes lost or corrupted, recovering the entire computer from backup is a bit extreme. Being able to mount the latest backup image and browse to the file needed is a much more reasonable approach because it allows only the missing file to be recovered and takes much less time.

To mount an image for a selective restore, select Mounted Images from the navigation panel. Select an archive to use by clicking the Source Archive link and choosing from the available archives.

Once the archive is added, select Source Backup to choose the backup for the operation. Finally, you'll need to select the disk image to mount because no images are mounted by default (see Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Administrators can choose which image to mount and apply the appropriate settings using the Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5 dashboard.

When the image is mounted, it's available in Windows as a volume with its own drive letter. This allows for easy browsing of files and a simple copy-and-paste to recover files from the image. Managing simple restoration with a straightforward technique like copy-and-paste is an excellent way to provide file-level recovery. Other solutions provide similar file-level recovery, but this is the first I've seen that brings the image online as a disk in Windows.

App Interface Control
In addition to backup and recovery tools, Acronis provides disk- and tape-management items to allow you to work with these solutions directly from the application interface. This is another great feature, because I don't need to leave the application to retrieve information about disks or tape drives that might be available for use.

Acronis Backup & Recovery also includes command-line tools (installed separately unless using a standalone configuration), which provide direct access to the application from the command line. While previous versions of Acronis products executed commands and carried out tasks from the command prompt, in the latest version, the commands are sent to the application that carries out the task. This should allow for a more-similar functionality, meaning the command line and the UI don't need to behave differently -- which will make life easier on the administrator.

Sometimes recovery of a system that won't boot is required. Acronis includes a recovery boot media-creation tool to help in these situations. When booting from recovery media, the backup images created by the software can be accessed and recovered using similar tools available from within the Windows application.

Selecting Remote Computer Support
When you open the management console for Acronis Backup & Recovery, you can select to connect to the local machine or a remote machine. If you choose to manage a remote computer, you'll need to specify connection information for the remote machine. Once connected, a wizard lets you describe how you want the software to manage the machine.

Because the management experience is the same between local and remote computers, I focused on the application from the perspective of the local machine. Note that managing a remote machine uses similar tools but may have different components, including tools for Hyper-V or VMware, depending on your environment.

Installation: 20%
Features: 20%
Ease of Use: 20%
Administration: 20%
Documentation: 20%
Overall Rating:

Key: 1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent  5: Average, performs adequately   10: Exceptional

What's Missing?
Version 11.5 doesn't include support for Windows 8 computers or devices. Acronis says support for the latest version of Windows is coming in a future release.

The disks for backup are referenced by disk number with no mention of the drive letter assigned to them. If there are multiple drives in the computer you're working with, this could be an issue because the disks aren't easy to locate. Selecting the "Items to Back up" link when creating or editing a job will show the volumes on a selected disk; however, simply displaying this in the main screen by default would be a welcome improvement for Acronis to consider.

The Acronis Backup & Recovery application doesn't leave things to chance and is straightforward and easy to navigate. There are a lot of options within this application that allow it to fit a majority of customer requirements. When planning backups with this application, be sure to understand what your backup needs are and take the time to work through the options to ensure that the backup you need is the backup you're getting.

The ease of use of the program and wealth of features it contains are a welcome departure from some of the other tools in this space. When an application is full-featured, usage can seem difficult; but when usage is easy, sometimes an application is missing key features. I think Acronis has found the sweet spot here, and I hope the trend continues.

Acronis Backup & Recovery 11.5

Server version starts at $859
Acronis International GmbH


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