How to Choose the Best Server Backup Software
The top performers in our review are Acronis Backup Advanced, the Gold Award winner; NovaBACKUP Business Essentials, the Silver Award winner; and Barracuda Yosemite Server Backup, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Your server ecosystem is like the central nervous system of your business. Without it, the body cannot function properly. As an essential component of your business operations, your servers need a thorough backup strategy to ensure that you're protected against data loss. At the core of this strategy should be server backup software – the tool that automates the backed-up data and allows you to restore data as efficiently as possible. While all server backup software fulfills the same essential purpose – to create a restorable copy of your data – these programs often achieve this purpose in different ways. The best server backup software complements your server ecosystem.
Owning and maintaining a server ecosystem isn't just a luxury for big companies that can afford IT departments and office space for floor-to-ceiling servers. You can build your own server from an old desktop. The components are the same – a motherboard, a processor, some memory and a hard drive. All you need is a server operating system and client software, and you can have a server for backing up all of your employees' computers or for simply hosting a website. With your own server, you are the master of your domain. You control the data. You control the costs. You control the security.
However, maintaining your own servers isn't without its challenges. Most servers need to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even the highest-quality components wear out and need replacing, like lightbulbs and batteries. As such, data loss is an inevitable reality that you have to plan for. With a third-party cloud service like Amazon Web Services (AWS), you don't have to worry about components wearing out, firewall protection, or what will happen if the server catches fire, because the service takes care of these concerns for you. With your own server, you have to account for these concerns yourself to ensure that you're protected against hackers and natural disasters.
Maintaining a server ecosystem gives you control over the known and unknown variables related to data management. However, to enjoy these advantages, you must have someone with a high degree of technical aptitude and IT experience. Even the easiest server backup software to use requires an above-average knowledge of computers. If you're a novice, you'll quickly find yourself treading deep water without a life jacket.
Server Backup Software: Determining Your Server Strategy
Most small businesses can get away with one to three small servers to facilitate a private cloud for your employees, email and a website. But what about the future? Your server strategy needs to account for data growth and the life cycle of your server hardware. Even if your company doesn't experience much growth, your data will increase by at least 40 percent each year, on average. In addition, the average life cycle of server hardware is between four and five years. You can use these two considerations as the starting point for determining your server strategy.
For example, if your current data needs require 5TB of server storage, then you need a server strategy designed around at least 40 percent yearly growth over a five-year cycle. This means that you should build your servers to handle 27TB of server storage. But this scenario just considers the original data. What about the backed-up data, which is, at the very least, a complete copy of the original data? If you require 27TB of storage for the next five years, you'll also need to account for the storage needed for the backed-up data, which puts your server strategy at 54TB. With server storage, it is better to have and not need than to need and not have.
After analyzing your data storage needs, you'll want to look at how you'll allocate that server storage. You can partition some of the storage as an Exchange server for email. You can devote another portion to web hosting. You can set up a private cloud for your employees to access shared data while also backing up their computers. This part of the server ecosystem strategy varies according to your business's needs.
One key part of the server ecosystem strategy, which leads into your server backup strategy, is the backup server. This is a specific server designated specifically for storing the backed-up data. You can back up to a specified drive located on your server, but what if the server room catches on fire? You'd lose the backup and the original. As such, it's a good idea to have a specific server for the backed-up data, which is located in a different building.
If you don't want to back up to a physical server, you can use the server backup software to back up to a cloud service like AWS or Amazon Glacier. These services store your backed-up data in geo-redundant locations, which provides the best type of protection against data loss due to natural disasters. However, restoring your backed-up data through a cloud service can be slow and subject to variables that you cannot control, so it doesn't come without its caveats.
Server Backup Software: Determining Your Backup Strategy
After analyzing your data needs, the next step in server management is a thorough and effective backup strategy. If your server goes down, whether through a logical error caused by accidentally deleting files or actual physical damage to a server caused by a flood, how would you restore the data? To begin, you have two questions to ask for every scenario that you encounter: How long can you afford to have the servers down, and what type of backup and recovery process do you need in order to restore data within that time?
The answer to the first question is your recovery time objective (RTO). To find your RTO, you have to carefully analyze your business needs and determine how long the servers can be down before the incurred cost is too much. For example, if you're hosting a website on your server and the website is your revenue stream, then every minute the server is down, you lose money. As such, the backup strategy for that data on your server should plan to have the data restored within minutes. However, if the private cloud for your employees goes down, then you can likely afford to send your employees home for the day while you work on restoring the server that hosts the cloud. Another scenario is the long-term recovery of archived data, which we'll cover in a bit.
Once you've determined your RTO, then you need to figure out your recovery point objective (RPO). The RPO is far more complicated to determine, as it's different for every situation, but the principle is the same – you want to find the point in your backup log that allows you to restore your servers within the determined time frame of the RTO. For example, if you have a short RTO of only two minutes for a website, then restoring a backup from earlier in the day might take too long, because it's too much data to restore within the necessary time frame. Instead, you determine that a backup from a week ago is small enough to have the site restored within the RTO. And while that earlier backup keeps the website up and running, you can work on restoring the most recent backup from earlier in the day.
For data that changes often and doesn't have a short RTO, like a private cloud of collaborative documents, you should use an incremental backup strategy. After a full backup is completed, an incremental backup only includes files that have changed since the last incremental backup. For example, you complete a full backup on Sunday. On Monday, the incremental backup consists only of changes made since Sunday. Tuesday's backup only consists of changes made since Monday, and so on. You can think of each incremental backup like a building block – the foundation is one large block that consists of the full backup, and incremental backup is another, smaller block added to the structure.
Incremental backups are fast and don't stress the server's processor, which enables you to perform them a lot more often. This gives you the ability to have your restored points on an extremely granular level – from days to hours to minutes. The disadvantage to incremental backups is the complicated recovery process. Because the backed-up data consists of all these incremental building blocks, you have to reassemble each block, in the right order, to recover the data. Server backup software performs this puzzle automatically, but it means that the recovery time is longer. It's also riskier because of the added variables. If any of the incremental backups in the structure are corrupted or deleted, the recovered data could be ruined.
For data that you need to recover quickly, like a server hosting your website, you should consider the differential backup strategy. A differential backup includes all the files that have changed since the last full backup. For example, if you perform a full backup on Sunday, a differential backup on Monday would only include files that have changed since Sunday. On Tuesday, the differential backup includes all the changed files from Monday and Tuesday, and so on.
With a differential backup, all you need is the full backup and one differential backup to restore the data. In this way, you can implement the recovery process much quicker, and the recovery is generally more reliable than it is in an incremental backup. However, differential backups take much longer to complete. In addition, this technique makes it far more difficult to restore within a specified recovery point. For example, if on Friday, you need to restore data back to a point on Tuesday morning, the closest point you might reach is Tuesday's differential backup, which includes the full day. The files you want from that morning may have been overwritten already.
Managing your own servers is an intimidating task. If this all seems too complicated, you should consider hiring an IT consultant. Independent IT experts are a cost-effective way of receiving IT help and direction without hiring a full-time IT manager or having an IT department. They can help you design, plan and execute your whole server network and teach you how to maintain your servers. You determine your business's data needs, and the IT expert designs the server architecture and backup strategy to support your needs. To learn more, read our articles about server backup and restore software.
Server Backup Software: What We Tested, What We Found
Testing server backup software is complicated because it's designed to work within a technical ecosystem of machines with countless unique scenarios to consider. However, the best backup strategy is usually the simplest. Complicating the strategy only serves to provide more opportunity for data loss to occur. To this end, we tested the basic backup and restoring properties of each server backup software under the same environment with the same operating system and the same data sets. Our tester is experienced with servers, but not an expert. This was designed to simulate a small-business scenario where the company doesn't have a full-time IT manager.
We performed each test multiple times to account for unknown and known variables. Then we averaged and graded the data to indicate how the software performed in relation to other programs. We also evaluated how easy each program was to install and navigate with the perspective that you shouldn't need a master's degree in information technology to operate the software.
Backup Compression Rates
One of the key features of server backup software is the compression settings. These compression features are designed to save storage space. All the server backup software in our review allows you to adjust the compression of the backed-up files. File compression works by removing unnecessary or repetitive data in a file. This way, the backed-up version doesn't require the same amount of storage as the original. Many of the software developers claim that they are able to compress much higher rates than were present in our tests. Since compression rates vary according to file type, your experience may be different depending on the type of data you back up. However, in our tests, we made sure that each program was backing up the same data. This provided a comparative analysis of the products' compression abilities.
To test the compression ratio, we set each software's compression to the highest setting and backed up the same data set. Then we compared the size of the backed-up data set to the original data set. We were surprised to find that many of the products showed very little compression. The best compression in our test only decreased the size of the original data by 35 percent. This is significant with large data sets, as 35 percent of 1TB is 350GB, which means that the backed-up version of your 1TB drive is 650GB. As mentioned earlier, many of the manufacturers claimed higher compression rates, though this was not reflected in our tests.
We also tested the compression rates of the default compression setting, which was generally set either in the medium or low range. This reflects the compression you'd get if you didn't adjust any of the configuration prior to initiating a backup set. It's important to note that, while the higher compression rates are designed to save storage space, these backup sets take longer and produce a larger resource footprint on your CPU and RAM.
Server backup software often requires a significant amount of your server's processor and memory. The more resources the software requires, the more difficult it is to access data from the servers when a backup is in progress. There are two parts to this story – the server side and the client side. The server side looks at the average CPU usage on the server while running backup and recovery sets. The client side, which simulates the server you're backing up or an employee's computer that you're backing up, also requires software so that the backup server can communicate with the client. This can also put a strain on the client side of the interaction.
To evaluate the resource footprint, we looked at the average CPU usage while running multiple backup and recovery sets on both the server and client side. We tested each product with the same processor and memory so that we could make comparative grades according to the resource footprint. Some products use little resources, which allows you to run other programs while you back up and restore data. However, on the other end of the spectrum, many products required a lot of the CPU resources, which means you should only run backup sets during off hours when the server and client are not actively running other programs. Otherwise, you could crash both, which did occur multiple times in our tests.
Ease of Use
Server backup is one thing if the software performs well. It's an entirely different issue if the software is difficult to use. However, none of these products are designed for novice users with little aptitude for technical software. If you've never worked with servers, even the simplest software in our review will be challenging. So to gauge the software's ease of use, we simulated the scenario of a small business that has an employee with some technical aptitude but no full-time IT manager. As such, our tester was someone with some experience working with servers, but not an expert – somewhere between a novice user and an expert IT manager.
With the tester, we considered the installation, backup and recovery features, interface, and cloud integration. Then we graded the tester's experience at each stage. We looked at how difficult it was to install the software: Did the tester require help from the manufacturer's tech support at any stage? Was the interface convoluted with too many tabs and subtabs? How easy was it to backtrack? Does the software seamlessly work with third-party cloud services like AWS? The products with an A proved to be exceptionally easy with no learning curve for our tester. Products with a B were average. They weren't exceptionally easy or difficult, but they had a minor learning curve. However, products with a C or D were difficult to learn, confusing or required help from tech support.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the software in our comparison with support from some manufacturers while also relying on time limited trial software from others. The companies had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Server Backup Software: What Else to Look For
Fundamentally, all server backup software programs do the exact same thing. They all back up your data to a variety of local and remote locations. They all provide management consoles. And they all integrate with your systems. You can expect your backup software to manage restore points and perform disk imaging, agentless backup, data encryption, file versioning, backup verification, database journaling and bare metal restore. However, these are some features that aren't ubiquitous among the software.
You should consider a few backup features that aren't shared by every program in our review. The most notable feature is deduplication. This feature removes duplicate files to save storage space, which is a common situation when you have multiple backup strategies. Another feature to consider is the system state backup. This feature backs up the relationship between programs and applications on your operating system.
What sets one server backup application apart from the next is how it does what it does. While some have a large memory footprint that meets your own complex work and storage environment, others are barely noticeable. A few also failed to offer recovery in place, which is important if you need to deploy your backups right away to keep your workforce moving.
Help & Support
The best support begins with excellent documentation and ends with a representative doing what they can to help recover your system. All of these companies offer emergency service, most of which include remote recovery and restoration. This software can be a good portion of your budget. You will want to make sure the developer will be there to support you when you need it most.
Server Backup Software: Our Verdict and Recommendations
The best server backup software in our review was Acronis Backup Advanced because it combines comprehensive features with strong performance and ease of use. It also doesn't hog all of your CPU resources on either the server or the client side. NovaBACKUP Business Essentials, our Silver Award Winner, also proved to have comprehensive features, ease of use and a small resource footprint. Our Bronze Award winner, Barracuda's Yosemite Server Backup, had an exceptional compression rate, comprehensive features and a small resource footprint. It was also proved to have average ease of use through most stages except cloud integration, where it was below average.
Most server backup software is not cheap. If you're looking for an affordable server backup option, BackupAssist and EaseUS Todo Backup Server are only a few hundred dollars. Both programs outperformed many of the more expensive products in our review, and they are among the easier ones to learn and deploy.
Deploying a hassle-free, dependable server backup solution is not just good practice – it's necessary for your business to succeed. Data loss could sink your business. Server backup software and a well-developed backup strategy is critical for protecting your business from running into potential icebergs.