Exchange Server Backups: 5 Best Practices for Administrators

Exchange Server Backups: 5 Best Practices for Administrators

May 30

It’s been said that no system is infallible. Impervious to failure. Perfect. You’ve heard it all before, but when it comes to your business mail server, you want as close to 24/7 uptime as possible. With the internet shattering geographical boundaries and timezones alike, it’s highly probable that your team needs around the clock access to Exchange Server. It’s times like these that your administrator earns the cushy salary their position commands.

Protecting Exchange data isn’t simply a matter of having a backup plan – it’s about having a full blown backup and disaster recovery solution. Following are a few best practices administrators can apply to ensure that company data is available at all times.

Understand Limitations of Native Backup Features

Microsoft aims to give business users a peace of mind with BDR-friendly features such as Volume Shadow Copy Service or VSS. Bundled into Windows desktop and server editions, VSS allows users to easily make snapshots and backups of files in applications such as SQL Server, SharePoint, and our good buddy Exchange Server.

Despite being a very handy utility, VSS has some vulnerabilities such as the occasional error like the dreaded “Backup aborted! – Failed to Create Volume Snapshot …” error. This error, and others, pop up occasionally and have a wide range of causes, though typically are the result of an improperly configured system or issues with software on the system itself. VSS is a complex technology, and therefore requires systems to be configured properly to function most effectively.

VSS is merely one piece of the backup puzzle when it comes to complex servers like Exchange. The best backup solutions are ones that leverage VSS to take solid snapshots, which is Microsoft’s suggested method. VSS, along with a third-party Exchange backup tool will ensure that you get the pristine snapshots you’re after.

Create Custom Recovery Standards

Recovery time objective (RTO) and recovery point objective (RPO) are two of the most important metrics in a disaster recovery strategy. In this particular instance, RTO basically indicates how long you can afford to go without access to Exchange in the event of an outage, while RPO is a measure of how much data you think can afford to lose. These metrics determine how often you need to backup and what type of medium should be used. So if your RPO is 24 hours, backing up to tape, which has a history of being notoriously slow, could put you behind you in a time crunch.

Optimize Storage for Recovery

Exchange data can be restored by individual database files. Keep in mind, however, that bigger is not always better, especially when it comes to recovery time. You want to get back up and running as quickly as possible in the event of an outage, so try to keep these databases to a manageable size below their advertised storage quotas. Administrators can help their organizations save even more time by allocating databases across multiple groups and recovering on an individual group basis in versions of Exchange that support Storage Groups.

Single Out Temporary Data

Industry standards that dictate the duration of data preservation have made backup and disaster recovery even more challenging.  Combined with the ever hovering concern of storage expenses, compliance rules requiring that consumer information only be held for so long has some companies feeling mixed emotions about temporary data. This data is important for as long as it’s under your care, so you just can’t say the heck with it.  A savvy administrator can lessen the complexity around this conundrum by making sound use of Exchange’s handy retention capabilities.

In Exchange 2010, Microsoft introduced in-place holds and other features that handle information based on compliance requirements. These holds allow administrators to save items from a user’s primary mailbox and archive even after they’ve been deleted. The time-based hold is ideal for compliance data as it lets you save items for a specific amount of time, then trashes them once that time has expired. These retention polices and features help satisfy compliance and streamline data protection by automatically removing those items from the backup scheme and preventing administrators from having to manually hunt them down.

Schedule Regular Backups

What we often try to preach when discussing this backup and business continuity stuff is that disasters can strike at any time. There’s no way to predict when a gang of thieves will break into your business location and clean out the server room. You’ll never foresee the vicious storm that sweeps through and

knocks out the power at your service provider’s data center. To be on the safe side, your Exchange Server data should be backed up on a regular basis. And though it may sound excessive, performing full backups everyday is not overkill. It’s actually recommended.

To say that administrators are challenged at managing Exchange Server backups would be an understatement. In addition to pulling the right strings in the way of features, it takes a lot of planning and preparation to ensure that everything flows as smoothly as possible. Successfully adopting these best practices will transform IT administrators into the undisputed superstars of their respective organizations – at least as far as Exchange is concerned.

Top Photo Credit: Chris Potter via Flickr