The great debate: Image vs. file-based backups

Nick Cavalancia

As an advocate for your customers, it’s critically important to you that the solutions you implement have your customer’s best interest at heart. After all, the moment you stop putting them first, they’ll stop depending on you, right?

So, when it comes to backups, the most important point in time is when you select the solution you’ll use. That inflection point is going to determine whether you are going to be successful at recovering that Excel spreadsheet, the SQL database, or the entire business. And it’s important to remember that when each of those “disasters” (admittedly, some less “disastrous” than others…) occur, you need to be able to address them with equal levels of speed, intensity and deliverability.

file-recoveryUsually service providers (and customers) are concerned about where their data is backed up to. There are a number of places to choose from, such as the cloud, local disk, and a combination therein. The more important issue to address (that will impact the success or failure of you providing services to your customer) is the what gets backed up. And by that I mean the battle of backing up images or files.

File-based backups have been a staple since the dawn of the modern network. Files makeup the foundation for every piece of data, every application and every system to be recovered. But in recent years, some backup providers have sought to differentiate themselves by backing up an entire image of a server (or workstation). It’s an interesting concept and, I must admit – it even caught my eye.

But are image-based backups a good choice for the Service Provider?

The answer lies in what your customer wants to recover.

What do you want to recover?

Get to the root of it all – what exactly does your customer need backed up? The simple answer is something like “Whatever it takes to get them back up and running.” Completely fair. So, to dig a bit deeper, the what at the point of backup really depends on what kind of recovery you think you’ll need to perform.

And that’s where we need to focus our energy for this topic.

Image-based backups are just that – a backup of an entire system. Now, they do perform incremental backups of changes so you’re not backing up an entire image every time. But the focus is to get the whole system backed up.

Fast forward to recovery time, the question needs to be raised, how often do you need to recover an entire system? More than likely, you need to recover a folder worth of files, or a database, or a specific mailbox far more often than you do an entire server. To be fair, image-based backup solutions do allow you to recover individual files from an image – it’s just that they lack the intelligence for you to request recovering, say, an SQL Server database (and log files) as a single checkbox. Instead, you’d need to mount a backup image, select each file (db, logs, whatever) and recover them individually. And that’s going to take awhile.

So what’s the best kind of backup?

What today’s smart service providers are using are solutions that are concerned with the applications that need to be recovered – Active Directory, Exchange, etc. Extending my previous example, you (and your customer) want you to be able to backup (and recover) an SQL Server database with a single checkbox. It needs to be that simple or you’ll be taking too long while your customer is unhappy. File-based backups provide more flexibility in choosing what needs to be recovered by including application-level intelligence to ensure every needed file is part of a backup and, therefore, a recovery.

Image-based backups could be a truly viable solution if they supported the easy recovery of application-specific subsets of an image. Without that ability, they resolve themselves to only being able to easily recover entire systems. When a customer’s business demands the ability to have instant recovery of an entire server, image-based backups have their place.

But for most of your customers, the complete disaster scenario is improbable, and you are more concerned with smaller “disasters” that only file-level backups can readily address quickly.

Choosing what’s right for your customer

Both image and file backups do backup your customer’s data and systems. Ultimately, when you are choosing a backup solution for a given customer, start with what data sets they need recovered, and at what level they want to recover – system, application, or file – to choose the best solution for them.

Thoughts and ideas are always welcome! Feel free to leave a comment below!