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Unitrends Free – Review: Part 2

In Part 1 of this review, I walked through the deployment and initial configuration of the Unitrends Free backup appliance.

I’m now going to touch briefly on some of the other features of the product before summarising my thoughts.

Recovery

There’s no point taking backups if they don’t work, right? Well there are a few options available here. The first of them is a file level recovery. This mounts a VM’s backed up disks as file shares on the backup appliance. To test it, I created a couple of test VMs to backup and selected to restore from one.

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A file level recovery “job” is started and a share is created using the backup job number.

 

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It’s pretty easy to browse to the share and the required files could be recovered from there.

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Another restore option is an Instant Recovery. This creates a new virtual machine from the stored backups for a VM. Again, I tried it out on my test VM. The first step is to select the backup that you want to restore from.

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Next up are the recovery options. I’ve selected “Audit Mode”. This creates a virtual machine that runs from a disk image located on the backup appliance. The intention is that it allows you to test if a recovery is possible without putting the VM back in to your virtual datacenter. The VM in Audit Mode will have no network connectivity.

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It took a few minutes to create and boot up but it worked. Note that the VM has no network connectivity.

 

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And here is the VM that got created in vCenter during the restore:

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Some minor issues

There were a couple of little annoyances that cropped up during my testing. They may already have been fixed and none of them are major. Firstly, when trying to configure SMTP settings, each time the configuration dialog is opened, a new email recipient row is added – even if that’s not what I opened it for. And you can’t close the window until you remove the row (or add an email address).

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Quite a few of my VM backups failed several times to begin with so I checked to see if there were any software updates via the update feature. Lucky me, there were.

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But after closing the dialog and reopening it, they were gone. I had to reboot the appliance to get them to show up again. After applying the updates my backups were more reliable (although one of my Active Directory servers still refused to backup).

Do you recall the NTP settings that I made when first configuring the appliance? If not, here’s a reminder:

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I used my own, local NTP server. It’s open and reachable from the network that I installed the Unitrends appliance to. But, when I viewed the appliance options… not there.

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I noticed this due to the discrepancy between the times that I thought I had configured backup jobs to run and the time that they were running. Fortunately, changing the options via this dialog worked.

The initial installation and configuration only allows you to specify a primary DNS server. Personally, I’d prefer it if I could specify a secondary DNS server at installation time. You can add one later though.

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Finally, it’d be nice if the backup jobs could clean up after themselves. When there is a backup failure, vCenter gets littered with lots of messages like this:

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It’s easy to fix manually of course, by annoying. I might see if I can schedule a vRO workflow to take care of it.

My Thoughts

It’s not perfect (what software ever is). Aside from the issues I had above, the only other thing that bothers me a little is the installer. It’s delivered as a single .EXE file that is 2.2Gb in size. The process, once the file is open, is fine but it can take a while to open a file that big. Possibly, given who is likely to use Unitrends Free, it might be the simplest option. It’s just not the quickest.

As far as features go, the important ones are there. VMs can be backed up and restored. Individual files on a VM can be easily recovered as well. If you have a small Virtual Infrastructure, the sizing limitations aren’t likely to be an issue. And if you get bigger, it’s not unreasonable to pay for more features and capabilities.

On the whole, kicking the tyres on Unitrends Free has been a pleasurable experience. It was fairly easy to setup and use without having to read the manual.

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Unitrends Free – Review: Part 1

I was asked to give a new, free backup tool a quick road-test recently.

Unitrends have had an Enterprise version of their backup software for some time. And, as I’ve used it a bit in my lab with an NFR license in the past I was only too happy to give Unitrends Free a go.

Features

As a free edition, you expect a basic set of features. The goal of such offerings is normally to get you hooked, but wanting more.

Unitrends Free offers the following features:

  • Backup from VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V
  • Unlimited VMs and host CPU sockets supported
  • Instant VM recovery (allows you to run a VM directly from the backup files) – this feature also allows for recovery verification testing and use of backups for test and development purposes
  • Unlimited incremental backups (subject to storage space of course)
  • Free forum support

There are limits however. For instance, backups are scheduled daily. You can choose the time and you can choose the days but they’re once per day. Storage is space is also limited, up to 1TB of data is supported. These limitations position the product as ideal for PoCs, labs, smaller deployments (such as for small businesses) etc. For more features and dedicated support, of course there’s the Enterprise version.

Download

To download Unitrends Free, a simple registration form needs completing on the Unitrends site. The software is offered as a pre-built appliance (there’s one download for VMware and one for Hyper-V) only that is comprised of a single file. There are also users guides and release notes files available.

Installation

As you’d expect with a solution that’s based on a Virtual Appliance, there aren’t many steps involved in getting it deployed and running. In keeping with a growing number of products that provide some form of installer to deploy their solution, Unitrends Free is packaged in such a way as to make deployment straighforward. The supplied single executable (.EXE file) can be run from a Windows desktop or server as long as you can reach your virtual infrastructure from it.

1. Once the installer starts, you’re presented with a prompt for login credentials to vCenter or an ESXi server.

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2. I pointed the installer at my vCenter server and was next asked to choose a host and a datastore and supply IP address details (note that it’s sensible to have a DNS entry created prior to deployment).

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3. You’re given the option to create some storage for backups to reside on during deployment. It’s turned on by default but I upped the default 128Gb to something more sensible.

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4. That’s it for now and deployment commences.

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5. A quick check in vCenter reveals the created appliance.

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That’s all that’s required to install the appliance. However, it does require some basic configuration before it can be used.

Initial Configuration

1. Clicking Finish in the installer fires up a web browser pointed at the new appliance where you’re greeted by a License Agreement.

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2. You’re then greeted by a configuration wizard. The first stage is setting the date and time. I chose to use my local NTP server, although this later transpired to be an issue.

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3. The second stage is setting the hostname (note that it’s set to VMware_CE_UEB on deployment) and password for the root account.

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4. Finally, the SMTP configuration is required.

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Once these configurations are saved, the appliance should be all set to go. Except we need to define what needs protecting and to setup some backup jobs.

Backup Protection

What use is a backup appliance without any backup jobs? When you first hit the appliance’s dashboard, there’s a popup displayed containing a couple of tasks that help you to get started. The first of these is registering a host (to protect).

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Since we already know that I’m using vCenter, let’s protect that and all of its VMs by clicking on “Register a Host”.

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The details required are fairly straightforward. As part of the process of adding the host, a quick inventory is performed. Now we’re ready to create a backup job.

This is accomplished either from the same popup or via the “jobs” option on the left of the dashboard.

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Step 1 of creating a backup job is choosing what you’re going to backup. I selected my vCenter server and then excluded the Unitrends appliance – it’d be interesting to find out if it’s intelligent enough to do that by itself later.

Step 2 is defining the schedule etc. This is all fairly simple to accomplish. In theory, that’s my lab VMs protected.

Fast forward to Part 2 to find out how I got on with the backups and my thoughts on the solution as a whole.

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vCenter’s Number – Is It Up?

(This is all based on information that’s in the public domain at the time of writing and is all my own opinion. I may very well be wrong!)

ESXi first saw the light of day as version 3.5 in 2007 / 2008. Rumours were rife after ESXi 4.0 was released in 2009 that the clock was now ticking on ESX “Classic”. With the release of 4.1 in 2010 VMware finally confirmed the rumours and, from 5.0 onwards it’s been ESXi only.

You know this already of course if you’ve been working with vSphere for any length of time. The reason that I’m bringing it up though is because I think it’s a clue as to what’s going to happen to vCenter in the future.

The vCenter Server Appliance (vCSA) first appeared as a technology preview called “vCenter 2.5 on Linux”. It became vCSA as of vSphere 5. Subsequent releases (5.1 and 5.5) have seen many changes and it’s becoming more compelling with each version. Could it be only a matter of time before VMware announce that vCSA will be the only version of vCenter available? I believe it is VMware’s intention, yes.

Consider VMware’s recently published convergence plan for vCD. It states that the functionality offered in vCD will gradually be separated and merged into either vSphere / vCenter or into vCAC. The timetable for this change isn’t clear yet but given that vCD is Linux based, it might be more logical (or simpler) to integrate some of its functions into vCSA rather than into vCenter for Windows.

Look at many of VMware’s other products and a good number are linux appliance based. Of course there are exceptions, with perhaps some of the biggest currently being vCAC and Horizon View, but they’re both acquired products.

Increasingly we’re also seeing a move away from a Windows vSphere Client to a Web Client. Some functionality in vCenter 5.5 is only accessible via the Web Client. Of course the Windows Client might be kept on as a means to administer the free version of ESXi – time will tell.

None of these things are concrete proof of intent but they, and other things, make my spider senses tingle. It might not happen with vSphere.next as there could be some challenges to overcome still. There would have to be complete support and integration with VMware’s other products as one example. As another example, some customers might want vCSA to support MSSQL before they’d consider it ready for production.

In short though, I think that vCenter’s days on Windows are numbered. What that number is though, I couldn’t say.

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XP: The Final Countdown

People have been saying that “this is the year of VDI” for a number of years now. Could it be true this year? Windows XP will be 13 years old when Microsoft finally pull the plug on its support in 2014. That’s a decent innings for domestic pet dog let alone an operating system. Why has it lasted this long and will anybody miss it?

For me, the answer to that last question is “no”, but without a doubt there are users out there for whom it won’t be the case. Some of them will be home users, holding on to that creaking PC or laptop that they’ve had for years and that has always worked (except for BSODs, viruses, lost files and the lack of telepathic functionality that some of the less technically savvy wish was available). Others still may work in small businesses or enterprises that don’t have a very heavy reliance on IT. The remainder will be some of the bigger corporates, still using XP maybe because it’s too difficult to upgrade, too expensive or because XP just works. Or, perhaps more worryingly, there has been a woeful lack of strategic planning somewhere.

Unlike its successor, the much lamented Windows Vista, XP is fairly stable and was fairly easy to pick up and use. In an enterprise environment it could be configured and maintained fairly easily. I can understand why companies wouldn’t want to upset the apple cart by upgrading. Even after Windows 7 had been out for some time, I still received brand new corporate laptops with XP builds on them. And, the brief trend in netbooks in 2009 – 2011 kept sales of XP going strong too.

So, is the world going to end when support officially ends in April 2014? Not really. Having worked with and for software and hardware vendors for many years, their stock response when you buy, upgrade or raise a support ticket for their products is to recommend that you use the latest versions of everything. This will already have been going on for some time now. Some vendors have dropped support for XP already and any that still do will be killing it off over the next year. Companies that use XP won’t grind to a halt come next April.

That said though, despite its familiarity, using XP now represents an increasing risk. When the updates have stopped and the support is cut off, who are you going to turn to when things go wrong? When the office laser printers have run off their final pages and have to be replaced, where will the drivers come from to support XP with your new model? If you’re using XP, the time to think about migrating is now (actually, a couple of years ago might have been better).

The cost of migrating will start to take a back seat to the increased risk of inaction as this year passes. The problem that some may face though is what to do about their legacy applications. Cost, complexity and stability may not be keeping some on XP; it may be their applications that do not work on newer operating systems. What then? Some enterprises face very tough choices this year.

Virtual desktop infrastructure may very well be a sensible solution in many cases if enterprises are willing to invest in it. Careful planning is required but, if it’s done well, there are significant benefits that can be realised. So yes, it may well be the year of VDI after all.

Of course, there’s much more to End User Computing (EUC) than just virtual desktops. So much is going on in this space that I could rattle on for hours and it’d be out of date by the time I’m done. Rather than lament the inevitable end of the countdown, I look forward to the changes that its driving.

If you want to read around what’s going on in the EUC space, two of my favourite sites to follow are:

The clock is ticking on XP (and Office 2003)…

[ujicountdown id=”Default Timer” expire=”2014/04/08 23:59″]

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TrainSignal Online – 1 Month On…

trainsignalIt’s been just over a month since TrainSignal switched to providing their courses only via an online model and binned the idea of shipping DVDs around the world.

Although they kept their plans under wraps fairly well (at least they did as far as I know), it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise to anyone that they changed their model. You only have to look back another month or so to one of the UK’s big high street names going to the wall to see further evidence that physical media is just not as popular anymore.

I had been planning to purchase one of TrainSignal’s courses just prior to them making the switch. Good job I waited eh? But after giving it a week or so to bed in, I subscribed and I now have access to the whole training catalog.

Logging in, the dashboard (below) gives you the ability to browse and take courses, take practice exams, see what’s new etc.

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You can see my progress having a look at David Davis and Jake Robinson’s “VMware vCloud Director Essentials” course. There’s also a link that will let you download the Silverlight based offline player.

The offline player, as it says on the tin, allows you to download courses to view when you don’t have an internet connection handy. It requires you to authenticate using your TrainSignal account and you’ll need to connect the player to the internet every few days or so for it to re-authenticate. Once in, you can browse the course catalog and select courses for download.

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The player’s fairly responsive and I’ve had no issues with it… save one. As stated on their website, TrainSignal do not yet offer an offline player for mobile devices (e.g. iPads etc). For me, that’s a bit of a detractor.

Overall, I like what TrainSignal have done. I can pick and choose whichever courses I want and hopefully the catalog will grow nicely. I do want an iPad app for it though!

Note: I didn’t clarify when I first wrote this that TrainSignal have offered their courses online for some time but not as a subscription model. Thanks to Ricky El-Qasem.

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The End of the VMTN Saga?

vmtn_storeIf you don’t know what VMTN is, you might be new to VMware virtualisation or the IT industry. Either way, I have an older post that covers it a bit. I posted it in November 2011 just as the campaign to get the VMTN subscription re-instated by VMware was kicking off.

Here we are though, nearly 18 months later, and it looks like it’s not going to happen. One of VMTN’s biggest proponents, Mike Laverick, posted on the VMware Communities thread related to VMTN today that it looks unlikely. In his words:

The prevailing view appears to be that other projects will be sufficient… Such as Project Nee…

Project NEE is VMware’s online learning resource that’s currently being put through its paces. If you read around what it does, you can see why VMware would consequently view the resurrection of VMTN as unnecessary. Whilst it’s a disappointment to people who run home lab setups, want to run legitimate workplace labs and prototypes etc., I don’t think that it’s necessarily the end of the world. The level of automation / orchestration possible in VMware’s suite of products means that re-installs don’t have to take an age to complete. In fact, I want to rip and rebuild my lab regularly because it’s exactly those sorts of tasks and skills that I want to hone. I don’t want my lab to sit and age like some legacy infrastructure. I appreciate though that others may not share my views or enthusiasm.

Either way, my advice is not to hold your breath in the hope of a change of heart. If it’s true that VMTN is going to stay dead, VMware have made this decision with their heads and not their hearts. My head says, keep calm and roll with it*.

* (@h0bbel, another one for your collection?)

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Google Reader RIP, Should I Care?

Yesterday, Google announced that as of July 1st 2013 they are retiring the Google Reader service. It was one of several stories that caused some bloating of my twitter timeline as scores of people that I follow picked up on it.

My initial reaction was not a good one. I started using Google Reader only a few years ago but it has become a trusted and valuable way for me to consume information and news from the industry that I work in. Its absence will have a considerable impact on my daily activities.

Having slept on it though, I’m certainly a lot more relaxed about it. Yes, it’s going to have an impact but have Google actually just provided me with a catalyst to change the way that I consume information? I mean, I could easily just swap to using another service. Feedly, for example, even have processes in place to allow you to migrate from Google Reader (something that may have contributed to their site being incredibly slow last night after the Google announcement broke). But does Googles decision point towards a trend of moving away from RSS? What then is the alternative way of reading updates from the various sites and feeds that I have been following?

I don’t have a clear answer to any of these questions just yet but I’m going to be thinking about alternatives now. In the short term, moving my collection of feeds to another service seems to be the logical thing to do. After all, that’s one of the benefits of cloud services – portability. It will only be the work of a few minutes and I can carry on reading my RSS feeds on any of my devices beyond the end of June.

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“Cloud” Backups

An increasing number of vendors are beginning to offer backup solutions where your data ends up being stored on some cloud storage platform or other (e.g. Amazon S3). As with any new technology, some people will lap it up, some will keep a curious eye on it and others will eschew it completely. Which are you? Are you likely to adopt it or not?

dlt-tapeI think the answer to that is not cut and dried. Think for a minute about why you’d want your backups to end up on a cloud storage platform. In years past, backups ended up on tape cartridges. Most sensible organizations would then store those tapes offsite and hopefully not need them again until the data expired. Of course, if you did need to perform a restore it meant getting the tape back etc. I’ve been in this industry long enough to have had to do that.

The point anyway is that backup data conventionally got stored offsite so that it was available if the worst happened. That is the concept behind cloud backups too. The only difference is that the medium has changed. So instead of your backups ending up on tape, they end up on someone else’s server effectively. You don’t know where exactly but you rely on the resilience of your chosen cloud storage provider to safeguard that data.

Is It a Good Idea?

In my view, it’s neat solution to something that used to take up a good deal of time for me or one of my colleagues a few years ago. The whole process is automated once setup. Of course it may not be the right solution for everyone for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Available Bandwidth – If your sitting on the end of a slow link to the internet then trying to push many GBs or even TBs of data to a cloud storage provider every day is going to be a non-starter.
  • Volume of Data – Related to the above, how much data do you backup, how often and how often does it change. The first backup will typically take the longest to complete but subsequent ones will be quicker. Partly though this will depend on the mechanisms the backup vendor are using to minimise the volume of data being transmitted. Different vendors are likely to have different approaches here.
  • Legal / Compliance / Security – If you’re storing your data on someone else’s infrastructure you naturally want it to be secure. I’m not saying that the cloud isn’t secure but is it the right place for exceedingly valuable or sensitive data? You wouldn’t keep the Crown Jewels in a Big Yellow storage facility.
  • You may even have a Disaster Recovery facility and backup directly to that.

As with everything in IT, the answer is that it depends. I suspect that the majority of takers for cloud backups will be SMBs and medium sized enterprises although I’m always happy to be proved wrong about such predictions. I doubt that cloud backups are going to be a rapidly passing fad but it remains to be seen whether they will see massive adoption. Still, cool technology all the same.

So, what’s my interest? Well, I’ve been working on a project recently to create and support the infrastructure elements of a software prototype. This modest infrastructure is sitting away in a data center that I’ve never been to and could not easily access. It’s quite a simple setup, it’s documented and we have all of the installation files and source code secured offsite. The infrastructure itself though represents many hours of effort and all of the application server configurations are not completely automated. If we were to lose the infrastructure or the data center…

Of course we’re running backups locally but the backup destination is just a VMDK on the same datastore as all of the VMs – not very resilient. On a semi-regular basis I have transferred the VMDK to a cloud storage provider but it’s been a manual process so I thought I’d take this opportunity to try out a couple of different backup solutions and see how they help out. Over the next few weeks I’ll post a couple of reviews.

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VMware – Changes At The Top

screenshot301Following on from VMware CTO Steve Herrod’s announcement that he is to leave his role, I joked on twitter that this was actually a response to the prospect of being accosted by Gregg Robertson and Darren Woollard at VMworld again about putting in an appearance at a London VMUG. I didn’t expect a response from him on account of the hundreds of other tweets he must have received, but the fact that I got one suggests to me that Dr Herrod is still fairly grounded despite having been instrumental in the establishment and growth of a very successful company whose developments have shaped IT and my career to date. Thank you.

Dr Herrod’s departure will raise questions about the future direction of VMware for sure. He joined the company in 2001 and moved into the role of CTO only a few months before Paul Maritz became CEO. Between them they oversaw a period of fantastic change that has continued past Paul Maritz’s step down last year.

I don’t think that Dr Herrod’s leaving is directly connected to last year’s change of CEO though. Look at the journey that VMware has made over the last 11 years, how they’ve grown from a one product company to an industry leader with a product portfolio to die for (in my opinion at least). However you measure success, VMware have achieved it and it’s not unreasonable for someone who has helped built up a great team around them to consider their work there done. That’s my take on it at least.

Yes, it’ll be interesting to see who steps into Dr Herrod’s shoes – they’re big – but I don’t think there’s much to worry about yet.

By the way Mr Gelsinger, I’m available any day next week (except Thursday – London VMUG) for an interview 😉

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Using “Cloud” as a verb

I saw part of a twitter exchange between Joe Baguley and Steve Chambers yesterday where the former mentioned that he had seen that the word “Cloud” was being used increasingly as a verb. For example, someone might say that they want to “cloud an application”.

Using nouns as verbs is sometimes referred to as “verbing” but in other places it is also known as “functional shift”. Shakespeare used functional shift from time to time so surely it can’t be wrong?

Think of the phrase “cloud the issue“. You might even have used it before (I have). In such a context cloud is used as a verb. My issue with using cloud as a verb in an IT context however is that the word is synonymous with: blur, obfuscate, distort, perplex and puzzle. These are not words and concepts that I’d want associated with cloud computing when talking with business owners.