Posts Tagged 'Data Files'

September 2, 2015

Backup and Restore in a Cloud and DevOps World

Virtualization has brought many improvements to the compute infrastructure, including snapshots and live migration1. When an infrastructure moves to the cloud, these options often become a client’s primary backup strategy. While snapshots and live migration are also part of a successful strategy, backing up on the cloud may need additional tools.

First, a basic question: Why do we take backups? They’re taken to recover from

  • The loss of an entire machine
  • Partially corrupted files
  • A complete data loss (either through hardware or human error)

While losing an entire machine is frightening, corrupted files or data loss are the more common reasons for data backups.

Snapshots are useful when the snapshot and restore occur in close proximity to each other, e.g., when you’re migrating middleware or an operating system and want to fall back quickly if something goes wrong. If you need to restore after extensive changes (hardware or data), a snapshot isn’t an adequate resource. The restore may require restoring to a new machine, selecting files to be restored, and moving data back to the original machine.

So if a snapshot isn’t the silver bullet for backing up in the cloud, what are the effective backup alternatives? The solution needs to handle a full system loss, partial data loss, or corruption, and ideally work for both virtualized and non-virtualized environments.

What to back up

There are three types of files that you’ll want to consider when backing up an active machine’s disks:

  • Binary files: Changed by operating system and middleware updates; can be easily stored and recovered.
  • Configuration files: Defined by how the binary files are connected, configured, and what data is accessible to them.
  • Data files: Generated by users and unrecoverable if not backed up. Data files are the most precious part of the disk content and losing them may result in a financial impact on the client’s business.

Keep in mind when determining your backup strategy that each file type has a different change rate—data files change faster than configuration files, which are more fluid than binary files. So, what are your options for backing up and restoring each type of file?

Binary files
In the case of a system failure, DevOps advocates (see Phoenix Servers from Martin Fowler) propose getting a new machine, which all cloud providers can automatically provision, including middleware. Automated provisioning processes are available for both bare metal and virtual machines.

Note that most Open Source products only require an Internet connection and a single command line for installation, while commercial products can be provisioned through automation.

Configuration files
Cloud-centric operations have a distinct advantage over traditional operations when it comes to backing up configuration files. With traditional operations, each element is configured manually, which has several drawbacks such as being time-consuming and error-prone. Cloud-centric operations, or DevOps, treat each configuration as code, which allows an environment to be built from a source configuration via automated tools and procedures. Tools such as Chef, Puppet, Ansible, and SaltStack show their power with central configuration repositories that are used to drive the composition of an environment. A central repository works well with another component of automated provisioning—changing the IP address and hostname.

You have limited control of how the cloud will allocate resources, so you need an automated method to collect the information and apply it to all the machines being provisioned.

In a cloud context, it’s suboptimal to manage machines individually; instead, the machines have to be seen as part of a cluster of servers, managed via automation. Cluster automation is one the core tenants of solutions like CoreOS’ Fleet and Apache Mesos. Resources are allocated and managed as a single entity via API, configuration repositories, and automation.

You can attain automation in small steps. Start by choosing an automation tool and begin converting your existing environment one file at a time. Soon, your entire configuration is centrally available and recovering a machine or deploying a full environment is possible with a single automated process.

In addition to being able to quickly provision new machines with your binary and configuration files, you are also able to create parallel environments, such as disaster recovery, test and development, and quality assurance. Using the same provisioning process for all of your environments assures consistent environments and early detection of potential production problems. Packages, binaries, and configuration files can be treated as data and stored in something similar to object stores, which are available in some form with all cloud solutions.

Data files
The final files to be backed up and restored are the data files. These files are the most important part of a backup and restore and the hardest ones to replace. Part of the challenge is the volume of data as well as access to it. Data files are relatively easy to back up; the exception being files that are in transition, e.g., files being uploaded. Data file backups can be done with several tools, including synchronization tools or a full file backup solution. Another option is object stores, which is the natural repository for relatively static files, and allows for a pay–as-you-go model.

Database content is a bit harder to back up. Even with instant snapshots on storage, backing up databases can be challenging. A snapshot at the storage level is an option, but it doesn’t allow for a partial database restore. Also, a snapshot can capture inflight transactions that can cause issues during a restore; which is why most database systems provide a mechanism for online backups. The online backups should be leveraged in combination with tools for file backups.

Something to remember about databases: many solutions end up accumulating data even after the data is no longer used by users. The data within an active database includes data currently being used and historical data. Having current and historical data allows for data analytics on the same database, it also increases the size of the database, making database-related operations harder. It may make sense to archive older data in either other databases or flat files, which makes the database volumes manageable.


To recap, because cloud provides rapid deployment of your operating system and convenient places to store data (such as object stores), it’s easy to factor cloud into your backup and recovery strategy. By leveraging the containerization approach, you should split the content of your machines—binary, configuration, and data. Focus on automating the deployment of binaries and configuration; it allows easier delivery of an environment, including quality assurance, test, and disaster recovery. Finally, use traditional backup tools for backing up data files. These tools make it possible to rapidly and repeatedly recover complete environments while controlling the amount of backed up data that has to be managed.


1 Snapshots are not available on bare metal servers that have no virtualization capability.

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