Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is Application Awareness on the Cusp of a Renaissance?

With cloud suites like Microsoft 365 scattering user data across multiple apps and services, application-aware backups and restorations are due for a surge in renewed interest.

As someone who has worked in IT since the early 1990s, I've seen a lot of changes over the years. The industry is almost unrecognizable compared to when I first started out. This is especially true for backups.

Early in my career, making a backup meant putting a tape into a drive just before you went home for the day. The backup job typically started late at night when nobody was in the office and completed just prior to everyone's arrival the next morning.

These prehistoric backups were file backups. The reason we ran them late at night was because the backup software of the time was incapable of backing up open files. Since the jobs ran late at night, nobody should have been logged in, so theoretically there weren't any open files that would disrupt the backup.

The really crazy thing to think about is that the concept of application-aware backups did not exist back then (or if it did exist, I wasn't exposed to it). Application awareness was never an issue until the organization that I worked for adopted Microsoft Exchange Server.

Unlike most of the other applications of the day, Exchange had to be backed up in a very specific way because of the way the Exchange Server databases worked. Creating a file-level backup of an Exchange Server simply wasn't an option. If a file-level backup of the Exchange Server even managed to complete, the backup would have been corrupt.

Seemingly overnight, application-aware backups became a big thing.

A big part of selecting a backup application was making sure it would be able to work with the organization's applications. Today, of course, most backup vendors design their software to work with all of the most popular business applications. Even so, I think we are probably about to see a renewed interest in application-aware backups, but for a completely different reason than before.

This time around, I think application awareness is going to be more closely associated with the data-restoration process than with the backup process. Let me explain my reasoning.

In the past, commercial applications, especially software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, had a very cozy relationship with their data. Consider Exchange Server. All of that messaging data is stored in a series of databases residing on the Exchange mailbox servers.

Of course, there are plenty of applications that store their data in external databases, but even this data tends to be application-centric. For example, Microsoft System Center applications such as Virtual Machine Manager and Operations Manager store data in a SQL Server database. Although the SQL Server itself may store data that is unrelated to the System Center applications, the databases used by the System Center products are reserved exclusively for that product's use.

The thing I find interesting, however, is that cloud applications are increasingly scattering their data across a wide range of applications and services. Microsoft Teams, for example, is part of Microsoft 365 and leverages some of the other Microsoft 365 applications for data storage. Some of the Teams data is stored in Exchange, some is stored in SharePoint and some is stored elsewhere.

So think about the Teams architecture from a backup standpoint. Any backup application that is able to back up Microsoft 365 should theoretically be able to back up Teams -- or any of the other Microsoft 365 applications, for that matter. However, performing a restoration may prove to be a more complex operation. Unless a backup application happens to be "Teams-aware," an administrator would have to know all of the various locations in which Teams stores its data in order to do a successful restoration.

This problem isn't unique to Teams. It applies to all of the Microsoft 365 applications.

This is why I think that application awareness is going experience a renewed interest. It's one thing to be able to back up Microsoft 365, but it's quite another to be able to restore data from an individual Microsoft 365 application.

So far, application-aware restorations haven't been all that big of an issue for Microsoft 365. Exchange, SharePoint and OneDrive tend to be among the most popular Office applications, and these also happen to be the applications that are commonly supported by backup products. As the other Microsoft 365 applications gain traction, however, I think there will likely be an increased demand for backup vendors to enable granular restorations for those applications.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 19-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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