On January 26th, 2015, Altaro released version 5 of their flagship backup application for Hyper-V. I’ve had it running in my test lab for a while now and am pleased to report that this is a grand step forward.
|Disclaimer: I am not an employee or a customer of Altaro Software. However, I do write blog articles and provide other as-needed assistance for Altaro. The details are posted on my About page. I have not received and will not receive compensation for this posting, either as incentive or reward.
There are a lot of impressive things about this product right from the beginning. As in previous versions, the installation routine is extremely quick, with the only configuration option being where you want to place the files. If you’re upgrading, you’ll be told that you have to stop, uninstall the old version, and then install v5. I’d like to see the installer modified to take care of that automatically, but it’s not a major deal. After that, you go right into the console where you are asked to connect to a server:
AHB Console Connection Screen
As someone who works in a high-security organization with firewalls everywhere, I appreciate how they show the port number right on the connection screen. It beats digging through manuals or jumping through all the hoops so many other companies force me to go through. Since this particular installation is local, I can just accept the “This Machine” option and click “Connect”. If the console detects that there was an earlier version installed, you’ll get this screen:
AHB 5 Upgrade Prompt
I had managed to somehow break my v4 installation very badly, and it’s a lab environment, so I opted to “Reconfigure from scratch” rather than risk bringing forward whatever terrible thing I had done. So, I don’t know what the actual upgrade process is like. Altaro has written an article with a number of notes on the process. It looks pretty straightforward, but it also looks like it might take a really long time. It seems that, as with the v3 to v4 upgrade, there is a change in the backup file format. That version didn’t have a converter, so this is certainly less painful.
The next thing you’ll see is the dashboard screen. It knows that you haven’t configured the system yet, so it presents you with a Quick Setup workflow. Since I was installing on a cluster and had only installed on one, the top left shows that my host “Needs Action”:
Dashboard – Initial Setup
I don’t intend to go through every little bit of the installation and interface, but there are some things I’d like to show. I recall mentioning in one of my reviews of the earlier versions that the application lacked some polish; this version has polish in spades. When I went into step 1 of the quick setup to select my hosts, it had the option to push the installer, just like version 4. The interface is much cleaner and modernized. Upon clicking “Install’, I got a quick pop-up to provide the credentials:
One thing that you can see in the screenshot, though, is that it expects a fairly high screen resolution. Elements overlap awkwardly when you shrink the screen very much. After getting the hosts configured, you can then just proceed right down the left side of the screen. During the setup phase, each of the screens that you need to visit is clearly marked as “Step 1”, “Step 2”, and “Step 3”, as you can see in the earlier screen shot. As you complete steps, they’ll turn green. I did have some trouble on the selection screen for backup location. I couldn’t get it to successfully connect until I used the FQDN of my backup server. Just using the shorter \\host\share format didn’t work; it had to be \\host.domain.tld\share. I don’t know if that’s due to something crazy in my domain configuration or if that’s an unstated requirement. As I recall, I had the same problem in version 4. The issue with it was just that the application only told me that it failed its connection attempt. It was up to me to figure out why. The app may not have any way of knowing why, though. Anyway, my troubles aside, I really like the way this part of the interface has been tuned up. It’s much clearer than it was in previous versions. As an added bonus, it tests connectivity from all cluster nodes to the storage location all at once and shows you the outcome. That’s a very nice touch. I also like how you can now add multiple target locations and select exactly which locations should hold the backups for which of your machines. I’m not sure if that was included in v4, but if it was, it’s far more obvious now how to do it. I noticed while tinkering on this screen that if you attempt to navigate away without saving a change, the pop-up box gives you the opportunity to fix it right there. That’s another minor annoyance from earlier versions that’s swept away in v5.
I mostly like the improvements to the Scheduling and Retention Policy screens. I did encounter a bit of unexpected behavior. You can drag items into their respective schedules or retention policies, but you have to click the X to get them out. I was expecting that I could just drag items anywhere. Not a big deal, but seemed a little unintuitive. I also liked that I could leverage the primary and secondary storage location to set up a short-term and long-term rotation for the same virtual machines. I’ve got a regular daily backup for my domain controllers that is kept for one month and a monthly that goes to a secondary spot that is kept for a year. The only thing I don’t like is that I couldn’t set these up together. You can pick a secondary to go along with the primary, but you can’t have a weekly primary coupled with a monthly secondary. That requires two separate schedules. You also can’t have a secondary without a primary.
Overall, I also like the changes on the Advanced Settings screen, although I found it a bit counter-intuitive to use at first. Here’s a screen shot for reference:
In order to change the settings for a VM, you check the box to its far left. Then, the reddish “Configure Backup Settings” button lights up. Upon clicking that, the screen shifts so that only the checked items appear. Then you can change their settings. I assume that this scheme is intended to protect you from accidental clicks, since it’s sort of a minefield of checkboxes. You can click the box at the very top of the list to check/uncheck all VMs at once. The new (was it in v4? certainly not in v3) feature to exclude drives is quite nice. If you’re doing fancy things like setting up separate page file drives to exclude from replication, you can exclude them from backup as well. One place where I will use this is to exclude the data volume on the guest that has my WSUS installation.
I think the encryption key still works as it did in the earlier versions, although the interface is updated. Something I’d like to see is the ability to use multiple keys along with the master key, sort of the way that Encrypting File System allows you to use individual keys to lock files but with a Recovery Agent able to get anything back. But don’t get me wrong: this feature allows you to encrypt your backups and that’s very important. Just remember not to lose that key and protect it as though your organization depends on it (because it does).
I also went through the backup verification and test procedures. These features work exactly as promised. I found the new interface to be quick and intuitive. The verification process checks the file repository of your backups to ensure that they are in good shape. I’m not sure exactly what it does, but it does do some form of file scan. The “Test Drill” restores virtual machines as sandboxes so you can verify them yourself. This feature group is one of my favorites in this product, as I know from experience that the one thing most organizations fail at is testing their backups. Altaro Hyper-V makes it so easy that you really haven’t got any more excuses.
Finally, there is the reporting feature. While I usually manage to break my Altaro installations within a few hours (and most other software installations — it’s not them, it’s me), I wound up not getting any errors in the first week of product usage. So, I didn’t get to see how the error reporting mechanism worked. I considered intentionally breaking something just to get a look, but I hate to wreck this streak. If I find anything that I just have to talk about, I’ll update this post. Anyway, the standard report looks very nice:
Overall, Altaro Hyper-V Backup is an extremely well-designed and robust product. It has come a very long way since I first started using it. Its speed and usability are top-notch and its feature list is very impressive, especially in its price category. Even the free version is more than respectable. First, we’ll go over the “check box” feature list:
- Backs up Hyper-V virtual machines
- Works with virtual machines on local storage, including remote storage that is presented as local storage, and on SMB3 shares in all editions. The Premium edition adds support for Cluster Shared Volumes and cluster disks.
- Virtual machines are backed up “live”, i.e., they are not paused or saved or turned off during the backup. This includes Linux virtual machines.
- Virtual machines whose operating systems use VSS and that have applications that are VSS-aware will be backed up in an application-consistent state. This covers server applications such as Microsoft SQL and Exchange servers.
- Virtual machines whose operating systems do not use VSS or that have their backup integration service turned off or that have no applications that are VSS-aware will be backed up in a crash-consistent state.
- Granular restore of files and Exchange mailbox items
- Restore a VM as a clone
- Deduplication is achieved through “Reverse Delta”; the latest version of a file/object is saved. Only “deltas” to replay back to older versions are saved. Optional to periodically save full backups so that you don’t have to go through a really long delta chain to get back to a really old backup.
- Compression is available and on by default.
- Encryption is available but must be turned on.
- Backup to local internal disk, local USB/eSata disk, remote disk, RDX-capable equipment, and to a remote system running Altaro Hyper-V Backup Server
- Secondary backup location and scheduling available
- Notification of job status
- Detailed reporting
- Ability to use a completely dedicated, centralized backup server
- Remote installation of management console
Things I’d Like to See
The product is maturing nicely. As I look back over my old “wish lists”, I see that there’s not much that hasn’t been fulfilled. Tapes! Although, if we wait much longer, tape technology might disappear. But still, tapes! My new wish list:
- Tape support
- A PowerShell module
- Exportable reports
- Completely independent scheduling between a VM’s primary location and its secondary location; i.e., one with a day of week schedule and one with a monthly schedule
Bonus Information from an “Almost-Insider”
So, it could be argued that my relationship with Altaro makes this review somewhat biased. I suppose I don’t have any real defense for that. Feel free to download their trial and see for yourself if I overstated or understated or lied about anything.
Either way, my relationship does give me a fairly unique perspective. I work with the good folks at Altaro on a very, very regular basis, much more so than any customer would. I’ve worked with their CEO, a few people in the marketing department, and a few people from their support team. This has been going on for several years now. In all that time, they’ve been nothing but gracious. It’s clear that they are determined to make their mark in the backup software world by producing quality products and taking care of their customers. What this means for you is that you’re getting a product that was truly designed to make this part of your Hyper-V administration easier. I’m not sure how to best express this, but I suppose I feel that this product is “sincere”, if that makes any sense. If this product’s usability, stability, pricing, and support were the norm for the software industry, systems administration would be a luxury job. While we’re on the topic of support, if you ever need to work with Altaro’s team, I suspect you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. They know their product and they stick with you until your problem is taken care of. Working relationship or not, this is a product that I have no reservations about recommending to any small and medium business implementing Hyper-V.