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How to backup essential data but not the garbage

Something as simple as how you tell your backup product which files and databases to backup can have a massive impact on your recoverability. Proper backup selection is essentially a balance between ensuring that everything that should be backed up is indeed backed up, while also trying not to backup worthless data.

Physical server inclusion

Virtually all backup products require some initial installation and configuration at the level of a physical server. This means that for any of the tactics mentioned in this article to work, one must first install the appropriate software and authorization on each physical server in the data center. This means every VMware or Hyper-V server (not to be confused with each VM on those servers), every physical UNIX or Windows server, and any cloud services that are being backed up. Someone must make that initial connection and authentication before the backup system can perform its magic.

Selective inclusion

The most common method of including files, objects, or databases in a backup system is to manually select them when configuring the backups of a given system. Here are three examples of selective inclusion:

  • Clicking through the vCenter or Hyper-V control panel and manually selecting which VMs to backup
  • Manually selecting one or more databases from a list of all databases
  • Manually selecting one or more filesystems or subdirectories

The reason this is the most common method is that it fits the way people think; they want to perform backups, so they specify what they want to back up. It also helps minimize the amount of data backed up that has no value, because very few people would select a test VM or database, or a file system such as /tmp on UNIX.

The concern with selective inclusion is what happens over time. If only systems you manually select will be backed up, what happens when the configuration changes? For example, what happens when you add new VMs to a given VMware server? What happens if you move a given VM from VMware to Hyper-V, or even the cloud? If you manually selected it in VMware, it will not automatically start getting backed up when it moves to another configuration. Backup experts generally warn against this type of backup selection method because the risk of data loss is simply too high.

Automatic inclusion

Once a given VM or database server has been added to the backup configuration, another very common method is to simply specify that all VMs, databases, or filesystems found therein should be backed up. This is the safest method of backup inclusion because it ensures that every new data source will be backed up. It addresses the concern about selective inclusion because VMs – or a VM that was moved from one type of configuration to another – would automatically get backed up without anyone having to be notified.

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