Did the backup work?

Losing sleep over backups? Then check out backup reporting tools--they may be your dream come true.

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Why you need a backup reporting tool
Collecting data from multiple servers can often be tricky. To get backup information without a backup reporting tool, you need to write a lot of shell/batch scripts or log in to as many servers as possible every day and manually check them.

Complicating the problems of getting useful backup reporting data is that many environments have more than one backup product, significantly increasing reporting complexity. You may be in the painful process of converting from one backup system to another. Or maybe you have two backup products because one handles most tasks, and another is assigned to one particular platform or application. For example, you might use Computer Associates' ARCserve or Syncsort's Backup Express for your Windows servers, but another product for your Unix servers.

One common problem with many backup products is that they require administrator or root access to use them. While this issue is being solved with some products, very few offer an easy way for nontechnical people to understand how backups are working. Another issue is that administrators may have privileges on their own system, but not on the backup system. They'd like to find out how backups worked for their own systems, but they can't, so they have to rely on the backup system administrator to tell them something is wrong.

If it's a struggle each day to determine whether overnight backups were successful, then you need a backup reporting tool.

Your choice of tool depends on what kinds of reports you need and the level of detail they provide as well as whether or not the tool works with all of your backup programs. But with the right tool in place, you will be able to tell what went right and wrong in your storage environment, and some tools now have the capability to predict what will happen in the future.

Common functionality
All backup reporting products collect data from multiple backup servers from a central point. Most offer multiple customizable reports, and are presented in formats that can be easily exported into other tools, such as spreadsheets.

First and foremost is the successes and failures report. Presented as a series of graphs, the report shows how backups worked across the entire enterprise, including all backup servers and all backup software products. You can narrow it down to the last n days to see how backups worked for the last few days, weeks, months or quarters and to see which clients have been failing the most often.

The next critical information that backup reporting tools provide is how much data you're backing up over time, including full and incremental backups. These numbers can show alarming trends, such as a backup server that's going to run out of space. One common configuration mistake often highlighted by these reports is when something that shouldn't be backed up isn't being excluded. For example, a new database server is added to the backup system, and its databases are being backed up via a database agent, but the exclusion of those database files from the file system backup was overlooked. These reports would show a drastic increase in incremental backups, and allow you to pinpoint the problem, solve it and stop wasting tape.

Not only is it important to know if your backups are successful, it's also important to know when backups are running. This information is also often displayed graphically, allowing you to easily see in one view when backups are running and when they're not.

Media utilization reports show which tapes are full, which are on site and which are off site. They can often provide insight into why you're running out of media.

The more complex your storage environment, the more you need comprehensive configuration reports. These reports, easily viewed from a central point, let you know whether configuration policies are being followed. A throughput report tells how fast your tape drives are running, and how much data is being transferred per second through each of your backup servers.

All backup reporting tools provide predefined reports. However, most of these products also allow you to create custom reports so you can add or delete information and get exactly the data you're looking for.

Tek-Tools Profiler provides a backup summary of servers.

Product differentiators
When you move beyond the basics of backup reporting, not all of these products provide specialized reporting. While some report criteria may seem arcane, if it's relevant to your backup environment, it may become a determining factor in what backup reporting tool you ultimately select. For example, not all backup reporting programs provide information related to:

  • Disappearing clients
  • Backup orphans
  • Most unreliable clients
  • Slowest clients
  • Why backups are failing
  • Chargeback and SLA compliance

Slices represent different client platforms: Unix, Windows 2k, and Windows 2k Pro.

Among its many backup reports, Tavata's Enterprise Storage Manager (TESM) can show details of tape drive usage. This graph, a report for Veritas NetBackup, shows usage statistics for a number of tape drives over a period of a year.

One common problem with most backup applications is that if you disable a client, it doesn't show up as an error. Disappearing clients are a big problem, especially when they're accidentally disabled. Or perhaps a client was disabled on purpose, and then was never re-enabled. Some backup reporting products would help expose this situation by showing the condition as an error; alternatively, for an intentionally disabled client, you can tell the reporting application to ignore it.

As opposed to a disappearing client, a backup orphan is a system that isn't being backed up by any system. Backup reporting products watch all of your backup servers and backup products so that they know what's being backed up. But some go further and can scan your entire network to find servers whose host names don't appear to be listed in your backup system. This is an extremely useful feature that hopefully will be expanded to include file systems or databases that aren't being backed up.

This Legato NetWorker report displays the amount of data, number of files and number of save sets for a selection of groups.

The most unreliable clients follow Murphy's Law for backups: The odds of your needing to restore a given client are inversely proportional to the success rate of its backups. The more unsuccessful a client is, the higher the likelihood that you'll need to restore it.

While all backup reporting tools will tell you that backups are failing, SysDM Inc.'s WysDM can also tell you why it's failing. It collects environmental data such as file system sizes, memory and process lists, system messages and so forth. You can easily drill down and see all of the elements of your environment that might have contributed to that failure.

SysDM's WysDM for Backups provides status information for every device being backed up in the enterprise. Success and failure comments are highlighted and color-coded in green and red.

Utility computing is gaining traction as IT departments try to pass the cost of computing back to the users of that service. (See "Storage on demand.") One of the best ways to do that is through chargeback. If you want to charge per gigabyte, per backup or per restore, a few products--such as Bocada's BackupReport and StorageTek's Global Storage Manager--create chargeback reports based on your criteria. And if you've defined an SLA for your backup and recovery system, these reports will tell you how close you're getting to meeting that SLA. It can be used as a success report for management, or as supporting evidence for the purchase of additional hardware.

BackupReport from Bocada shows total system utilization, including, in this example, an understanding of actual drive utilization over the course of a day, highlighting underutilization across 20 drives.

Backup reporting tools

Different approaches
There are a number of differences among backup reporting products. None of the differences, however, make the products better or worse than the others; they are just different ways to accomplish the same thing.

Take agents, for example. Some products require you to install agents--or data collectors--on your backup servers and/or clients. The use of agents makes installation more difficult, but the agents make data collection a little easier. On the other hand, an agentless design is cleaner, and doesn't require updating every system when you upgrade the reporting software.

Another design difference among these programs is the control console; some use a Web-based console, while others provide a native console. A Web console is more ubiquitous, but a native console can often provide more detailed reports because the reports aren't constrained by HTML/XML.

You'll also need to determine if you want your reporting product to talk in real-time to your backup server or at preset intervals (e.g., once an hour). Real-time reports can provide more up-to-date information, but they also place a greater load on your server, and can take longer to generate data.

Passive or active reporting is another consideration. A product that supports active reporting can page you when bad things happen, while a passive program would not provide those kinds of alerts. Not all products support active notification based on established parameters.

A product designed by your backup software company may work more seamlessly and provide better backup reports, but it probably won't report on multiple backup products. There are, however, exceptions. For example, Computer Associates' BrightStor Portal can report on Legato's NetWorker, Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) and Veritas' NetBackup and Backup Exec--along with the full line of its BrightStor backup products.

Many standalone backup reporting tools report on more than one backup product. But that raises another issue: Do you want a common view with common terminology across all products, or do you want a report that has been customized for a particular product? For example, if you're a TSM customer, you may want a reclamation report, while a NetBackup system would have no such report.

Some other considerations that will help determine your choice of backup reporting products include:

  • Do you want a reporting tool or a management tool?
  • Do you want to be able to configure your product in the tool? Most of these reporting products don't do that.
  • How easy is it to create customized reports? Do you need to learn SQL?
  • Which database product does the backup reporting tool use to store its data? Are you going to need a new DBA, or require your current DBA to learn a new database?
  • What environment does the backup reporting product run in--Windows? Unix? Both?
Any one of these backup reporting products (see "Backup reporting tools.") will help you know if your backups are working. As the products mature, vendors will be adding advanced features such as warning you which backup devices are likely to fail; notifying you if there's a configuration change in your storage area network; or even suggesting ways to improve your system.
This was first published in July 2004

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