About a month ago AppAssure released the first version of their backup software since being acquired by Dell.  Dell AppAssure is one of the great sponsors on this blog so I figured hey, why not grab myself the trial version, install it, and share my experiences with my readers.  I tried to take note of as many of the features as I could, but being in a limited nested workstation lab there was only so much I could do.  So honestly, if you like what you see, I would go on over to AppAssure.com and get yourself your own free trial and give it a go.  Also, although I only tested from within a VMware environment, AppAssure actually supports protecting machines across your complete infrastructure, being Hyper-V, VMware, and even physical machines.  

INSTALLATION

AppAssure Installation Prerequisites

First off is installation.  AppAssure is installed on top of either Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2, or Windows Server 2012 (you must have a 64 bit OS, 8 GB of RAM and obviously some sort of storage.)  The installation process was a breeze.  There were a few prerequisites but as you can see the installer had the option to go ahead and install them for me.  This is a small but great feature to have as there's nothing I hate more than searching around for prerequisites and updates.  For the most part it was a 'Next->Next->Done' install.

CONFIGURATION

Once you have the AppAssure core installed you can access it by pointing your browser to http://HOSTNAME:8006/apprecovery/admin and logging in with your local administrator username and password.  At this point you could click around and set everything up manually, but the 'Setup Core' button located near the top right of your screen will guide you through configuring mostly all of the parameters and functions that need to be setup in order to make AppAssure functional.  The 'Setup Core' guides you through the following areas….

Display Name – This is simply the name you want displayed within your AppAssure core console – not a lot to talk about here.

Email Notifications – Here you can configure your SMTP settings, Email subject, and your to/from Email addresses.  Another really small but very cool feature here is the ability to customize the actual message that the core is sending out.  Using variables you can basically move information around in the message.  As I said, a very small feature, but certainly a useful one.

 

 

 

Repository – This is the section where you define where you want your backups to go.  Essentially you create a repository and then add one or more disk targets to it.  The targets can be either direct attached storage or a cifs share somewhere on your network.  By showing/hiding the details you can get very granular on how the repository stores its data by changing items such as bytes per sector, average bytes per record and whether or not you want Windows or AppAssure to handle the write caching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encryption – Another very useful feature especially for those with strict security standards.  Here you have the ability to create an encryption key in order to fully encrypt (AES 256 bit) all of your backup data.  This is not something that I see included with most backup software and it's certainly a nice to have feature.

 

BACKUPS

Now that all of the setup and configuration is done, we can get down into the core purpose for this application, and that's backing up your infrastructure.  The 'Machines' tab is where we will spend most of our time for this section.  This is where we will add and protect (this is the term AppAssure uses for backing up a client) our critical machines (AppAssure's term for a server, whether it be virtual or physical).  

The first thing we need to do is deploy the AppAssure agents to a machine.  The agents are used for many things but its main objectives are tracking changed blocks, performing quiescence of the applications, and handling all communication between the core and the client.  This can be done by manually by installing the agents from the target machine, or you can simply use the 'Remote Deploy' wizard from the core.  This will initiate the install of the agent and all of the required pre-requisites to the target machine.  To do the latter, simply select 'Actions->Deploy Agent, provide the hostname and some credentials for your target machine and you are done.  The status of this and almost all tasks can be monitored through the 'Events' tab.

After the deploy has completed you still will not see the server listed on the Machine tab.  We still need to add or protect the machine.  To do so, select Actions->Protect Machine.  In the dialog that appears we need to provide the hostname/ip and some credentials to connect to the machine.  During this process you will also be able to edit what AppAssure calls their protection schedule.  By default AppAssure will snapshot the machine every 60 minutes and perform a backup, however you can change these values during the addition of the machine by selecting 'Edit'.  You can once again get very granular with how often you are performing the snapshots.  You can specify different schedules for peak and non-peak times, as well as set different schedules for weekends as opposed to weekdays.  Also, you can get as simple as saying one snapshot per day, or just disable protection all together.

Once the Protect Machine tasks have completed you should see your machine listed in the Machine tab.  At this point you could just walk away as the protection schedule will kick in immediately and follow the parameters and policies that you set up during the wizard.  Probably not the case however so as you can see below there are a few more tabs that we can go through dealing with this machine.

On the configuration tab there are several additional options that can be applied to your protected machine.  First off the settings area allows you to change the display name and port/encryption information.  Under Configuration->Events you can override the global email alert settings and configure alerts that are specific to this machine.

Under Retention Policy you can either use those core defaults that you set up earlier, or you can set up a customized retention policy for this machine.  As you can see from the screenshot you are able to get very granular on how retention is handled and they have a very nice graphical representation of the retention information that you have selected.  This is always a very confusing item for myself to configure and it's nice to have a visual to see how simple changes to your retention schedule affect the recovery points that are being saved.

Licensing, Protection Settings, and Transfer settings are again simply individual overrides from the global configuration.  One huge note here (and I didn't have a chance to test all of this) is that if the target machine you are protecting is running SQL, Exchange, or SharePoint you will be given additional options such as the ability to truncate logs, etc.

From here you are basically good to go.  You can let the protections settings take effect and start taking snapshots your machines.  Or, you can immediately force a snapshot of your machine.

RESTORE

AppAssure handles restores in a few different ways.  

Exporting Data to a VM
 
This option basically will take a selected recovery point and restore it to a virtual machine located in your infrastructure.  You are not just limited to ESXi/vCenter either; As you can see in the snapshot above AppAssure supports VMware Workstation as well as Hyper-V for export targets.  Again, this process is dead simple and basically only requires a recovery point, a target host and authentication to get started.  Outlined in the screenshot there are many other options you can set while performing this restore such as Location(datacenter, resource pool, datastore) as well as which volumes you want to restore, and how the disks are to be provisioned (thin/thick).
 
Bare Metal Restores
 
Bare Metal restores allow you to take a backup of a physical machine and completely restore it to either the same machine, or even a machine with dissimilar hardware.  Now I didn't have the resources to completely test a Bare Metal Restore, but from the documentation it appears that it basically encompasses creating a boot CD image, burning the image to disk, booting up the target server from disk, connecting to the recovery console instance, mapping volumes, initiating the recovery, and then monitoring the process.  I can see this being a very handy tool for those physical boxes that companies still have, not only for disaster recovery, but even for major hardware upgrades as well.
 

Performing a rollback.
 
Rollback is essentially a full restore of a volume or volumes back to the state they were in when a snapshot was taken.  These are performed directly on the production machine or can also be set up to rollback one machine to an alternate machine somewhere else.  Again, select the desired recovery point and then click 'Rollback'  As you can see from the screenshot it is possible to do a live recovery, which is a very cool feature.  Once you are all set up simply click 'Rollback' to go back in time.
 
 
 
 

Mounting for a file-level restore

 
The first step of a file-level restore is the same as all the others; Select your recovery point to which you want to restore.  From there, you can simply click Mount.  Here you will get the option of which drive to mount, where to mount it, the write permissions on the mount point and whether to add a Windows share to it or not.  Once completed, if you browse to c:\ProgramData\MountPoints\ (assuming that is where you mounted it to) you should be able to see all of you files and folders from the recovery point you have selected.  From there you can copy and paste any file you need out of the mount point and back to the original VM or whatever location you desire.  Once completed, don't forget to dismount by going to Tools->Mounts and selecting dismount.
 
Object-Level Restore
 
Similar to the file-level restore, AppAssure can actually restore application objects and items from SharePoint, SQL, and Exchange.  Meaning you could restore SharePoint objects (individual documents and items, sites and subsites) , SQL objects (databases), and Exchange objects (Storage Groups, Datastores, Messages, Volumes) without interrupting your production servers and without taking to the time to completely restore a full backup.  Object level restore is a must for any organization as it saves you valuable time when corruption occurs.  And speaking of corruption, AppAssure will consistently monitor your SQL databases and Exchange datastores for corruption and alert if you it finds any.
 
REPLICATION
 
AppAssure handles replication by basically connecting two cores together.  The core that you chose to replicate to can be either local to your datacenter, in a remote location, or even a subscription service from a third party that supports AppAssure backups.
 
During the replication configuration you have the ability to set up a 'seed drive' which will basically house all of the AppAssure recovery points and allow you to physically transport the drive to the secondary location and perform the initial seed manually.
 
By utilizing AppAssure's replication you have the ability to perform a full-out or individual machine failover to your replica site.  Also, you have the ability to failback to your production site once you have solidified the issues.
 
Again, I didn't have the resources to fully test AppAssure's replication.
 
VIRTUAL STANDBY
 
Virtual Standby by AppAssure is a pretty nice feature that allows you to essentially perform a P2V of a physical machine and have a complete copy of that machine sitting within your virtual infrastructure.  A Virtual Standby will contain all of the recovery points that you have within your backups stored as snapshots.  This allows you to perform a very fast recovery of a machine in the event that it 'disappears'.  You can configure a Virtual Standby through the VM Export process explained above.  Basically, every snapshot taken during the backup process will incrementally update your Virtual Standby machine.  A very nice feature to have for those companies with a lot of physical infrastructure still running.
 
AND THE VERDICT IS…
 
So there you have it, this is my experience while checking out AppAssure 5.  The application certainly has a lot of nice features, some of the most exciting to me is the ability to backup/restore both your physical and virtual infrastructure from within one application, one interface.  I love the ability to create a Virtual Standby for a physical machine.  This function certainly makes DR a lot easier for those physical boxes kicking around and helps save you a bit of money on hardware/resources on the secondary site as well.  Although I'd love to see some Linux support, AppAssure certainly provides me everything I need from within my Windows environment.  The interface is clean, consistent, and very easy to navigate around and use.  Again, I didn't have the resources to completely test out everything, but from what I have seen they seem to have a very scalable architecture in place.  The item-level recovery for Sharepoint, SQL, and Exchange is an awesome feature…No need to restore complete servers when I can just restore a single mailbox!   Another great feature is the ability to take a recovery point and restore this to a completely different subset of hardware.  This feature somewhat steps outside the realm of backup and allows you perform hardware upgrades (especially of physical machines) with ease…  I'd certainly recommend heading on over to AppAssure.com and grabbing a trial copy of AppAssure and checking it out yourself…. As always I'd love to hear your comments, concerns, opinions or experience with AppAssure below in the comments area…