Super-Simple System Recovery

By Joseph Moran | Posted September 27, 2006

You probably don't need to be told how important — make that critical — it is to regularly back up your company's data. But it's almost as important to have complete system backups as well, because desktop systems have become complicated beasts — containing updates and patches, user profiles, application preferences and myriad other customized settings. Restoring these can take hours or even days, during which time you have an unproductive employee.

 Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop Edition 6.5 screen shot
Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop lets you perform a number of different recovery-related tasks
(Click for larger image)
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Of course, it doesn't take something as wrenching as a tsunami or a terrorist attack to trash systems these days — they can be taken down by mundane causes as a failed hardware component, an application or update installation gone awry or a malware infection.

The quickest and most efficient way to recover from a system failure is by using hard disk imaging, a technology employed by Symantec's Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop Edition 6.5 ($69 MSRP). Known in earlier iterations as LiveState Recovery, BESR can take much of the hassle out of backing up and restoring your desktop computers.

Recovery Time
Originally developed as a way to let IT workers efficiently deploy new systems, disk imaging also happens to be a good way to perform system backups. While conventional backups require a time-consuming reinstall (and update) of the operating system before you can restore a person's data files and computer settings, BESR's disk imaging essentially clones a hard disk by copying it's data sector by sector, allowing you to restore an entire system to an empty hard disk.

BESR uses a simple wizard-driven interface that you can use to create disk images (Symantec calls these "recovery points", though they're not to be confused with "restore points" used by the Windows System Restore feature). You can save a BESR recovery point to almost any medium you want, as long as it's not tape. Options include external hard drives, network storage like NAS and SAN or writeable optical media like a DVD-R.

You can create your recovery points manually or set up an automatic backup schedule instead. BESR supports two kinds of recovery points — base and incremental; you use the latter type to store changes to a system that have occurred since the time you made the base recovery point, and you can create them as often as once per hour. BESR can tie the creation of incremental recovery points to specific system events (like when an application is installed) and also periodically consolidate them to simplify restores.

 Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop Edition 6.5 screen shot
The Job Wizard lets you choose the type of recovery point you want to create — base or base with incremental.
(Click for larger image)
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If you need to recover from a relatively minor mishap, such as deleted or overwritten data, a recover wizard lets you browse the contents of a recovery point to selectively recover individual files or folders. You can also mount an entire recovery point as a drive letter on your system.

But it's when total system failure occurs that BESR really shines. The product's bootable CD includes Microsoft's Windows PE (Preinstallation Environment), and it can auto-detect most storage and network hardware. When you boot a system with the CD, it automatically starts a special mode of BESR from which you can locate and select recovery points for restoration. Since the CD installs a host of appropriate device drivers, you can easily access restore points stored on external devices (like a USB hard drive) or network servers.

Normally when restoring a disk image it's best to do it on either the same, or an identically configured, system otherwise Windows will need to identify and load drivers for new hardware. This process is at best time-consuming and at worst can lead to blue screens or other errors that prevent a successful restore.

BESR offers a new feature called RestoreAnywhere that lets you recover a system to a completely different machine. This means you can use BESR not only to restore failed systems, but to upgrade your employees to newer computers as well. You can even restore recovery points directly to virtual machines you create in VMware products like VMware Server or Workstation.

We used BESR to create backups of several Windows XP systems and store recovery points on a NAS device (the software supports only Windows XP/2000 systems), and we had no difficulties recovering them to either the original machine or to a different system. Total recovery time depends on the size and location of the recovery point, but we were able to get systems back up and running within an hour or two, much less time than a conventional OS reinstall and restore would have taken. (Restoring a system to a virtual machine literally takes five minutes.)

Problems Staying Active
BESR's RestoreAnywhere is a great feature, but there is a potential pitfall when using it with Windows XP due to the operating system's activation requirements. When you install and activate a copy of XP, it surveys your system and takes note of various hardware components; if the hardware is ever substantially changed, XP assumes that it's on an entirely different system (which in the case of BESR, it may very well be) and requires you to reactivate the operating system.

The upshot of this is that when we tried to use copies of Windows XP that we had restored with BESR to anything other than the original hardware (including virtual machines) we were always prompted to re-activate the software before we could even log into Windows. That seems reasonable enough, but in multiple cases the XP activation wizard would not successfully complete, and even refused to accept, the original license key, leaving a call to Microsoft's telephone hotline to plead your case as the only available option.

Symantec's Backup Exec
System Recovery
Desktop Edition 6.5
Pros: easy wizard-based operation; can restore system images to different hardware or virtual machines
Cons: only works with Windows-based systems; restoring to different systems may cause XP activation problems
Price: $69.99 (MSRP)

You likely won't have this kind of problem if you use a Microsoft volume license for Windows XP (they typically don't require activation), but if your organization has any OEM or retail licenses (from copies of Windows pre-installed on systems or purchased stand-alone) you should anticipate some activation headaches when using RestoreAnywhere (especially if you've had to re-install Windows before). Although this isn't a shortcoming of BESR, it can obviously be an impediment to the quick and efficient system restoration.

When you lose a system downtime is the enemy. Aside from the potential for XP activation headaches, Backup Exec System Recovery 6.5 does a very good job of creating, updating and managing system images. Even more importantly, it lets you get systems back up and running in record time, which ultimately means less lost productivity.

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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