Friday, December 30, 2011

Do you need a disaster recovery plan for your small business?

The purpose of this week's article is to raise awareness about the need for a cohesive disaster recovery plan for your small business. I find from the interactions I've had with others involved with small businesses that data loss is not always given sufficient consideration in its possible effect on day to day operations. If you lost the server(s) in your main office, how much would it cost you? If the answer to this is a significant sum of time, and/or money the answer to the question 'do I need a disaster recovery plan (DR)?' is pretty clear.

But what's involved in a DR plan? The factors are fairly simple to come up with through some brain storming. One of the first things you are going to want to consider with a DR plan is your employees themselves. Does your staff have the ability to work from home if the office is inaccessible? Do you have a method of communicating with these employees outside of the work place? These are questions that must be answered, and need to be planned for. A good suggestion is to have a roster of some sort set up, as well as a protocol for what can be done from home effectively and safely should it be required.

Next you'll want to consider your data and your equipment. Do you have backups of all your important data and where do you keep it stored? Some sort of off site backup solution is going to be critical to this portion of your planning. There are plenty of public and private cloud solutions that you can use to achieve this goal. Being that I'm a little biased in this area due to my employment, I might suggest 3X Systems backup appliance for this end if you have a mostly Microsoft oriented environment. On top of merely having the data stored off site it may also be suggestible to have at least some sort of limited backup infrastructure that you can bring online in the event that your office is completely unusable. Bear in mind that by off site I don't even necessarily mean an incredibly expensive facility you are renting out, as with a bit of configuration and a decent internet connection an employee or your own residence can be made into an effective DR site. If you use a virtualized infrastructure for your business it might be a good idea to have a replica of any critical VMs available at this location that you can boot up for temporary service restoration. Services such as email (Exchange or Zimbra for example), your companies web server, and database servers are all included on the list of things you'll want to be prepared to bring back quickly.

The last bit I want to mention in this piece is the need for testing. It sounds like an obvious concept, but it is an often neglected portion of the DR strategy. Scheduling fail-over tests and rating your plan's efficiency and effectiveness will keep you and your staff on top of their game, and your data safe.

It's better to spend the time and resources now to come up with a strategy, than it is to have to spend yet more of it later trying to muddle through. Next week I'll outline the DR strategy I've set up for the small business KTDID, LLC Event planning so you can see an example.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Backing up Hyper-V

In some ways this post is more of a heads up to something you can do with the 3X Systems backup appliance that you may, or may not be aware of. You can actually back up Hyper-V virtual machines (VM) at the VM level by making use of a standard file level backup set, and the use of the shadow copy service.

The ability to do this is nice if you run Hyper-V infrastructure because the built in Windows Server backup only allows for backup to occur at the volume level, meaning you have to back up the entire server just to get back a single VM. The alternative method, using our product will allow you to take a failed VM and restore the *.VHD and thus give you a crash consistent backup, without the need for restoring the entire volume (I'll cover how to do a backup in a more consistent way on my next post later in the week).

The first thing you need to do to accomplish this backup is to create a backup set on the 3X Manager for the Hyper-V machine in question. For the purposes of this article I set up a test machine here at our office. Here's a screen shot of my set up for the test client.

Going in to the backup set options most of what I have set up is the same as a run of the mill file backup. However the differences occur in the advanced options, and in the targets for backup. In this case my install has the default locations that were chosen by the Hyper-V server manager when I created the VM as the targeted directories. In the advanced options under the options tab of the backup set you have VSS options.

The correct settings here is to enable "Shadow Copy all files". This will make sure that we use the shadow copy service to copy the VM files without having to power down or pause the VM in question. Running the back up is the same as any other backup set, though due to the size of VHD files I might suggest doing a local seed if you are going to house the appliance at a DR location.

For a restore the process is also rather simple. All that needs to be done is a run through the restore wizard placing the VHD in an appropriate location. I do not suggest restoring to its original location if you have any worry of writing over the VHD as if the settings are muffed up this can happen. Once the VHD has been copied back over you can go into your Hyper-V manager and assign the new VHD to the VM through that configuration. If there is a desire for it I can post a video showing this process in order to make it clear.

Ryan Koch
3X Systems

Friday, December 9, 2011

Zimbra Open Source: Free Alternative to Exchange

This week I'd like to talk a bit about a web server service I've been playing around with a bit. You see one thing I've found in my time working in IT is that Microsoft Exchange server is very expensive. If you have a small to medium sized venture it can be prohibitively so, depending on how much you are willing to throw into your IT budget. For example, I do some work for KTDID Event planning (LLC) and as a small company they did not want to pay the high price for Exchange. In a search for an alternate solution I stumble onto Zimbra Open Source which is a free as in cost email server software. I'm only going to discuss the solution at an overview level, but links are provided if you would like to look into further detail.

Zimbra is made by VMware, the same people who brought you ESX/ESXi and a load of other virtualization products. The product has a rich feature set, that is comparable to Exchange. Outside of just sending mail Zimbra does include calendars, a 'briefcase', 'Zimlets', and a Social add on. I found the brief case feature particularly useful as it gives your user a drop box, which for an event planner is nice as they're moving around a lot. Zimlets are also interesting as it gives you the ability to link outside services into the client such as LinkedIn. Overall just looking at the surface it looks pretty good.

The install is also rather easy, though it does require you to jump over to a supported Linux distribution, or Mac OS which may put you outside of your comfort zone depending on your background. For my deployment I chose to use the latest Ubuntu Server LTS as I have found this distribution pretty friendly to manipulate. You can find a full list of supported OSes here in the downloads section: . More or less the installation is scripted and on their wiki you can find decent instructions on the process. It is important to have your DNS configuration set up ahead of time and as a good practice I would suggest installing this on it's own virtual machine or physical box to avoid port/service conflicts and to segregate the resources. Once installed the initial configuration is also prompt driven in the terminal window as well and is fairly self explanatory, though the wiki mentioned above can help you with it in detail. As a note though, do avoid installing postfix on your own thinking you'll need it for the service, as zimbra installs it's own version of it on its own.

Configuration of the server after you've completed the install is mostly done through an Administration console. You can get to it through https://<yourserver>:7071 . Here's what it looks like:

The console is pretty simple and gives you all of your configuration needs in a UI. You can implement a GAL, and even integrate the existing one if you have a Windows domain set up. And, you can also integrate with your existing domain for LDAP authentication if you don't want to use the built-in that is set by default. The console is also where your account management is going to take place, as well if you want to make any adjustments to the default settings for spam filtering, attachments, and anything else you feel the need to customize. I didn't feel the need to change a whole lot from the default myself as I have a pretty small deployment, but in the future adjustments could be made as necessary.

I suppose what might be the most important part of looking at this software is the end user experience. A fair amount of insistence on going with Exchange is based around the fact that most people are used to using Outlook as they have done for years. The good thing here is you can use Outlook using IMAP which will give your users the basic functions of the service including Mail, Contacts and Calendar and in the familiar format. As I discovered with my project, the user simply cannot tell the difference once its set up properly. I prefer to use the Zimbra Desktop client though for my own use as it gives you the expanded set of features. For your viewing here is a screen capture of the client:

The look of the interface isn't actually all that different from outlook, though I will admit it could use some prettying up as it does have a dull sort of appearance.

Overall I'd suggest taking a look at Zimbra if you are looking for a cheap/free solution for a small to medium sized business. The software fits the bill, and is easy both to deploy and administer if you're willing to get your hands dirty and do some Linux administration to maintain it. I use it myself and will continue to suggest it to others.

Ryan Koch
3X Systems

Friday, December 2, 2011

Back up solutions for your Road Warriors

In this post I'm going to go through a few products that may fill your backup needs and desires. We're only going to go through a high level view of the pros and cons for each solution, though hopefully you'll end up with some applicable information for your own research. To this end, lets step through each of the three storage locations from the previous post (external drive, cloud, private cloud) and ponder two possible solutions for each.

For external drive backups I've chosen the Seagate GoFlex, and Western Digital My passport Essentials as products to consider. Bear in mind there are a large number of possible external drives to choose, these two just happened to strike my fancy for this purpose.

Seagate GoFlex

    Pros: Small and easy to carry, High performance at 7200 RPM and USB 3.0, interoperability as it comes with an NTFS driver for Mac OS X (10.5.8 or higher), backup/sync and encryption software included.
    Cons: Only capable of completing file level backups with out using 3rd party software, only comes in a 320GB capacity model.

    Comments: This looks like a good bet if your users are impatient as you should get some respectable write times given the USB 3.0 interface and that it's a 7200 RPM drive. The size of the drive will also make it slightly less inconvenient to carry around. If your organization requires anything more than file level backups you will need another solution to go along with this, and at $119 it is a tad expensive for the paltry 320GB it provides. You are more or less paying for the performance as opposed to the storage capacity.

Western Digital My Passport Essentials

    Pros: 500GB Capacity for around the same price as the GoFlex, USB 3.0, Easy to carry, backup and encryption software included.
    Cons: Slower performance comparatively to the GoFlex, requires a reformat for Mac support, and capable of only file level backup without an additional solution.

    Comments: If you are willing to accept standard external drive performance this will server your purposes well, as you do get a bit of a storage capacity boost for your troubles. Unfortunately as with the GoFlex, this drive can really only give you file level protection without additional cost.

The next location to consider is the 'cloud.' With this choice you store your data at a third party owned data center after your data is transferred over a WAN link. There are a fair number of cloud providers these days but for today we're going to discuss Carbonite and Mozy.

    Pros: Hands free user experience, Off site backup (good for disaster planning), central monitoring via a web browser, and easy setup.
    Cons: Limited to file level backups, only a 30 day retention period for data, and possible privacy concerns with having data stored with a 3rd party.

    Comments: Like other cloud services the big pro in this is the fact that your data is stored off site which protects you against disasters that could cause damage to your home office/headquarters. Unfortunately this particular solution is limited in that its only able to do file level backups, and only allows a 30 day retention which can be a deal breaker depending on the kind of industry you are working with. The pricing is a tad easier to understand than Mozy though with only a price per storage cap as opposed to usage and client licensing.


    Pros: Hands free user experience, central management, Exchange and SQL aware backups, option to backup to a local drive as well as cloud.
    Cons: Privacy concerns that go along with 3rd party storage, 30 day data retention, and pricing is a tad complicated and it appears that the cost could rise quite quickly.

    Comments: This solution gives you a bit more in the way of features than Carbonite as you can get SQL and Exchange aware backups. The same off site benefit exists for this option, and the ability to have a duplicate copy made to a local drive is pretty attractive. I do find fault with the 30 day retention window, and the complexity of the pricing however.

Lastly you have the option to back up to your private cloud. As I mentioned in the previous post I'm a tad partial to this method as I think it takes care of some of the short comings of both external drives and purely cloud solutions. I came up with two types of solutions for you to consider here, being the usage of an appliance, in particular one from 3X Systems, and the other being a Virtual Desktop scenario and the use of Veeam Backup and Replication to back up the virtual machines at your data center/headquarters.

    3X Systems Backup Appliance

     Pros: Easy to set up, locater service eliminates need for VPN, bandwidth use is low, bare metal and system state, application aware, and file system backup capabilities, you own your data, and HIPPA compliant encryption capabilities.
     Cons: Limited Mac and Linux support and lack of a central vault management for multiple appliances.

     Comments: The 3X solution gives you the ability to backup remote windows machines without the need for a VPN link, and with very reasonable bandwidth controls. The communication and storage are rather secure and can be set up as HIPPA compliant. As with any private cloud solution you own your data and can either have it on-site or place it at an off-site location of your own. The downside to this solution is the lack of support for Mac or Linux agents, though you can backup Samba shares on those machines using a windows client.

    Veeam Backup and Replication (with a virtual desktop implementation)
     Pros: No data transfer over WAN, user unaware of back ups as they occur, VM, file level, and application level backups possible and secure as important data stays in your data center/headquarters.
    Cons: Infrastructure for a virtual desktop environment can have prohibitive cost, the user needs to connect to the VM to work, and restores require some level of interaction between the user and the IT team.

     Comments: The virtual desktop solution is nice if you have the resources to develop it. It's convenient for the IT team as you have total control of the environment and can create a level of consistency that is lacking in physical solutions. Veeam provides an impressive set of features for VM backup that your user will not need to be aware of. The downside to this type of a solution is cost as the infrastructure required to host this can become expensive once hardware and licenses are purchased.

Ryan Koch
3X Systems

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Backing up your Road Warriors

Around the home office backup strategies can be pretty straight forward. Your machines aren't really moving around very much, and they are always accessible via your local network. But what adjustments are you going to make for your ‘road warriors’ be they sales, executives or otherwise? The answer isn't all that simple, and there are a few concepts to consider when drafting up a disaster recovery plan. 

The first question you’ll want to ask yourself is what exactly you should be backing up. Your user requirements are going to be the heaviest influence on your decision here. Do your users require only a few sets of files backed up, or are you going to require that the OS and applications are backed up as well? There are solutions that can do file level, OS (image), and application/system state level backups well, but in your choosing a path this answer is critical. I might suggest for road warriors that the best method would be a both a file level and system state backup as the chosen route as this will give you protection against file corruption and accidental deletion, as well as a semi quick recovery from OS problems.

So you may very well have some idea as to how you’d like to back these laptops up, but where are you going to store them? The question breaks down to three choices: stored with the user, stored with a third party off site, and stored at your home office. There are pros and cons to each of these options, and each have a plethora of products to serve the need.

The first option mentioned is the ideas of having the user carry around an external device that backs up the laptop for them. The upside to this approach is in performance, as the user will be backing up to a local target instead of having to rely on the bandwidth of whatever establishment they may be located. Also, a lot of the external drives available now give you some sort of built in encryption which is of great import for the user on the go. The downside to this is that you are decentralizing the backup process and effectively losing control of it. If the user’s backups aren’t in line with retention policies set there isn’t really an easy way to know or correct it. Let us also not forget the inconvenience to the user in having to lug the device around, and have it plugged in often enough to get a decent backup set to work with.

If that doesn’t serve your needs there are also a number of products that allow you to back up to a third party owned off site location over the internet. These solutions give your user a more hands off involvement in the process as it occurs while they are completing their daily activities. The process also gives you a decent disaster proof backup as it is stored away from the user and in a controlled environment. Depending on the product your options for central management may vary, and I will get into that in greater detail on the next post discussing specific products. The downer to what sounds like a good option is that you don’t own the infrastructure your data is sitting on. Personally, I’m not very trusting with my data so I view this as a negative, as a larger more public environment tends to serve as a more obvious target for data breach.

The last option (my preferred) would be to set up storage at your head quarters, or an offsite location that you control and back up to it over the WAN. This method provides you total control of your data and the surrounding infrastructure, and still gives your user the hands free appearance of your backups. You are now also able to make use of central management solutions in order to maintain the proper retention periods and to track success and failure the same. I’m a fan of this option as it seems to avoid the risks of a third party company being involved, particularly if the data in question is sensitive, and allows for maximum control of the client machine and data.

The most important thing of all regardless of what solution you choose is that the backups occur and that the restores are as painless as possible for the end user. In the next article I’m going to discuss specific products that my research has found to be effective, easy to manage, and simple to use that you might be able to take advantage of for your disaster recovery plans.

Ryan Koch
3X Systems