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Managing and Optimizing VMware vSphere Deployments: Operating the Environment

Before delving into maintaining and monitoring a virtual infrastructure, this chapter talks about some other operational items that you might not have considered in the design.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter focuses on maintaining and monitoring an active environment. At this point, you might or might not have designed an optimal environment. The environment also might not have been implemented to your standards. After all, sometimes you can’t entirely fix what is currently broken and must deal with it for a period of time.

In the field, we see the excitement in customers’ eyes at the power that VMware brings to their infrastructures. Cost savings through hardware, high availability, and ease of management are the main things they are eager to take advantage of. However, this excitement sometimes leads to a lack of focus on some of the new things that must be considered with a virtual infrastructure. A lack of maintenance and insufficient or no monitoring are two huge issues that must be considered. Before delving into maintaining and monitoring a virtual infrastructure, this chapter talks about some other operational items that you might not have considered in the design.


A virtual infrastructure can pose different challenges for backups in terms of a technical understanding of the environment. This is the main reason we see that backups are not being adequately performed. Every organization has its own set of requirements for backups, but consider the following as important items for a backup strategy:

  • An appropriate recovery point objective (RPO) or the ability to roll back to a period of time from today
  • An appropriate retention policy, or the number of copies of previous periods of times retained
  • An appropriate recovery time objective (RTO) or the ability to restore the appropriate backups in a set time
  • An appropriate location of both onsite and offsite backups to enable recovery of data in the event of a complete disaster, while still allowing for a quick restore onsite where needed
  • The ability to properly verify the validity of your backup infrastructure through regular testing and verification

Furthermore, outside of a technical understanding of the virtual infrastructure, virtualization poses no other significant challenges to maintaining a backup strategy. In fact, it will actually enable easier and quicker restores if properly designed.

When considering your backup strategy, you need to consider your RTO and RPO. You also need to consider your retention policy and proper offsite storage of backups. Properly storing offsite copies of backups is not just about keeping copies offsite that allow a quick restore to a recent restore point. It is also about considering what to also keep onsite so that simple restores are just that. Beyond that, you need to make sure you have all the small details that make up your infrastructure. This includes credentials, phone numbers for individuals and vendors, documentation, and redundancy in each of these contacts and documentation locations.

When considering backups, you need to determine the proper mix of file-level backups or virtual machine–level backups. Some organizations continue to do backups from within the guest that can provide a bare-metal restore. This is still a good option, and it might be your only option because of the software you presently use for backups; however, it will not be as quick to restore as a backup product that uses the VMware vStorage APIs to provide a complete virtual machine restore.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the verification and monitoring of your backups. Taking backups is not the solution to the task of creating a backup strategy. The solution is the ability to restore the missing or corrupted data to a point in time and within a certain time as dictated by your businesses requirements. Therefore, it is always important to regularly test restoration practices and abilities as well as monitor for issues with backup jobs. Your backup product should be able to verify the data was backed up and not corrupted; however, you should also schedule regular tests to verify this.

And, finally, let’s talk about snapshots. Snapshots are not backups, but in some environments they are used in that fashion. Snapshots are useful when performing updates on a virtual machine as a means of quick rollback; however, they should not be used long term. We’ve witnessed two main things that occur as a result of snapshots being left behind.

For starters, they result in data needing to be written multiple times. If you have three snapshots, any new data is written to all three. As you can see in Figure 3.1, blocks of data that need to be written are written to each snapshot file, resulting in a performance hit as well as increased space utilization. Multiply this by several virtual machines and possibly even worse by multiple nested snapshots, and it is no wonder that we see datastores fill up because of old snapshots. This can bring virtual machines to their knees and makes rectifying the situation complex. When consolidating snapshots, you need to have space available to write the data to the original virtual machine disk. In this case, you would not have that available, requiring the migration of virtual machines to other datastores.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 Snapshot Disk Chain

A second problem we have seen many times is often caused by full datastores. Snapshot corruption can occur as a result, leading to the disappearance of any data since the time of the snapshot creation. For example, assume a single snapshot was taken six months ago, right after you installed Windows for your new Exchange server. If that snapshot is corrupted, you will likely be able to repoint to the original VMware Disk (VMDK) file; however, you’ll be left with a bare Windows virtual machine. Full datastores are not the only time snapshots can be corrupted. This can also occur as a result of problems during snapshot consolidation or manipulating the original virtual machine disk file from the command line while snapshots are present.

It is important to note that a snapshot itself contains only the changes that occur after the snapshot was taken. If the original virtual machine disk is corrupted, you will lose all of your data. Snapshots are dependent on the virtual machine disk.

VMware’s Knowledge Base (KB) article 1025279 discusses in detail the best practices when using snapshots. In general, we recommend using snapshots only as needed and for short periods of time. We recommend configuring alarms within vCenter to notify of snapshot creation and regularly checking for snapshots in your environment. There are many PowerShell scripts available that will accomplish this; however, a great tool to have that includes snapshot reporting is PowerGUI (see Appendix A, “Additional Resources,” for reference).

Within vCenter, no default alarms exist to alarm for snapshots. You can, however, create a virtual machine alarm with the following trigger to alarm for snapshots, as shown in Figure 3.2. This will help you with snapshots that have been left behind for some time and have grown to 1GB or larger; however, it will not help until the total amount of snapshot data written for a virtual machine totals 1GB. This chapter discusses alarms later, but you can also check out VMware Knowledge Base article 1018029 for a detailed video demonstration of creating an alarm like this one (see Appendix A for a link).

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 Configuring Snapshot Alarms

Data Recovery

Like many products that use the VMware vStorage APIs, VMware’s Data Recovery provides the ability to overcome backup windows. That is not to say you might not want to consider backup windows because you also must consider the traffic that will occur on the network during backups; however, backup windows are of less concern for a few reasons. For starters, Data Recovery provides block-based deduplication and only copies the incremental changes. This occurs from a snapshot copy of the virtual machine that enables virtual machines to continue running while Data Recovery performs the backup from that snapshot copy.

Data Recovery is not going to be the end-all solution to your backup strategy, though. Its intention is to provide disk-based backup storage for your local storage and there is not a native method built in to transfer these backups to tape or other media. Therefore, VMware Data Recovery is best thought of as a complementing product to an existing backup infrastructure. With that said, let’s talk about some of the capabilities the product has.

The process to get backups up and running is straightforward:

  • Install Data Recovery.
  • Define a shared repository location.
  • Define a backup job.

Installing Data Recovery

The first thing you need to verify is whether the product will meet your needs. Some of the more common things to consider when implementing Data Recovery are as follows:

  • As previously mentioned, Data Recovery is intended to provide a quick method for onsite restores and does not provide offsite capabilities.
  • Furthermore, you need to be sure all of your hosts are running ESX or ESXi 4.0 or later.
  • Make note that each appliance supports 100 virtual machines with eight simultaneous backups. There is also a maximum of ten appliances per vCenter installation.
  • The deduplication store requires a minimum of 10GB of free disk space. When using CIFS, the maximum supported size is 500GB. When using RDM or VMDK deduplication stores, the maximum supported size is 1TB.
  • There is a maximum of two deduplication stores per backup appliance.
  • Data Recovery will not protect machines with fault tolerance (FT) enabled or virtual machines disks that are marked as Independent.

For a complete list of supported configurations, refer to the VMware Data Recovery Administration Guide.

There are two steps to get the appliance installed. First, install the vSphere Client plug-in. Second, import the OVF, which will guide you through where you want to place the appliance. Once completed, you might want to consider adding an additional hard disk, which can be used to store backups.

Defining a Shared Repository

As discussed, each appliance will be limited to two shared repositories and depending on the type of repository, you will be limited to either 500GB (CIFS) or 1TB (virtual hard disk or RDM). You have the following options when choosing to define a shared repository:

  • Create an additional virtual hard drive (1TB or less).
  • Create a CIFS repository (500GB or less).
  • Use a RDM (1TB or less).

If you choose to create and attach an additional virtual hard disk, you need to consider where you are placing it. As mentioned previously, the intention of Data Recovery is to deliver the capability of a quick onsite restore. The use of virtual hard drives provides for the best possible performance. If you use a virtual hard disk, though, you will be storing the backups within the environment they are protecting, so you must consider this carefully. You could store the virtual hard disk on the plentiful local storage that may be present on one of the hosts. You could also store the virtual hard disk on any IP-based or Fibre Channel datastore.

Our recommendation in this case is to use the local storage of one of the hosts if it is available. When given the choice between the two, consider the likelihood of your shared storage failing versus the local storage of a server failing. Additionally, consider the repercussion of each of those failing. If your shared storage were to fail with the backups on them, you would have to use your other backup infrastructure to restore them, which can be quite time consuming. If the local server with your backups on them were to fail, then if a complete disaster occurs you are still going to have the production copies running on shared storage. If you do have a complete site failure, then you are going to need to deploy your disaster recovery strategy. This is discussed further shortly.

Another option is to use a Raw Device Mapping (RDM). If you are using the same storage as your virtual infrastructure, you are taking the same risks. The only way to mitigate such risks is to use storage dedicated for the purposes of backups. Just like the option of using virtual disks, think about where you are going to restore that data to if a disaster occurs. If your storage device is gone, you are going to have to initiate your disaster recovery strategy.

Another option is to use a CIFS share. Remember that CIFS shares are limited to 500GB, so each appliance can only support 1TB of CIFS repositories with its two-repository limit. Although the product lets you configure a CIFS share greater than 500GB, it warns you not to do so. We recommend that you listen to the warning because testing of the product has proven that creating a large CIFS repository can cause Data Recovery to fail to finish its integrity checking, which in turn causes backups to not run.

Another consideration for CIFS is that the share you are sharing out, and for that matter the disk that is being used, should not be used for any other function. Remember that Data Recovery provides for block-based data deduplication. If other data exists on the back-end disk, this can also cause a failure in integrity checking and, in turn, a failure of backup jobs running.

Defining a Backup Job

Now that the appliance is set up and you have set up one or two repositories, it is time to create the backup jobs. Backup jobs entail choosing the following:

  • Which virtual machines will be backed up
  • The backup destination
  • The backup window
  • The retention policy
Choosing Which Virtual Machines to Back Up

The virtual machines you choose to back up can be defined by an individual virtual machine level or from vCenter, datacenter, cluster, folder, or resource pool levels as well. Note that when you choose a virtual machine based on the entity it is in, if it is moved it will no longer be backed up by that job.

Choosing a Backup Destination

Your choice of a destination might or might not matter based on the size of your infrastructure or your backup strategy. For sizing purposes, consider that you could exceed the capacity of the deduplication store if you put too many virtual machines on the same destination. For purposes of restoring data, consider the placement of the backups and where it is in your infrastructure.

Defining a Backup Window

Backup windows dictate when the jobs are allowed to run; however, they do not have a direct correlation to the exact time they will execute. By default, jobs are set from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. Consider staggering the jobs so that multiple jobs do not run simultaneously if you are concerned with network throughput.

Defining a Retention Policy

When choosing a retention policy, you have the option of few, more, many, or custom. Custom allows specifying the retention of as many recent and older backups as required. The other options have their defaults set, as shown in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1 VMware Data Recovery Retention Policies

Retention Policy

Recent Backups























Changing any one of the settings for these policies will result in the use of a custom policy. When choosing your retention policy, ensure you have the capability to restore data from as far back as you need, but within the confines of the storage you have to use for backups.

At this point, your backups are up and running. You can either initiate a backup now or wait until the backup window has been entered for backups to begin. Once you’ve seen your first successful backup, you still have a few other items to consider.

Restoring Data (Full, File, Disks) Verification

When restoring data, you have two key things to consider. When choosing to restore data, you first need to choose your source. A virtual machine can be part of multiple backup jobs, so in addition to having a different set of restore points, you might also have a set of restore points that are also located on a different backup repository. Second, you need to consider where you want to restore the data.

For the purposes of testing the capability to restore, you can perform a restore rehearsal by doing the following from within the Data Recovery interface by right-clicking a virtual machine and then clicking the Restore Rehearsal from Last Backup option. To fully test a restore or to perform an actual restore, you have much more to consider because this option chooses the most recent restore and restores the virtual machine without networking attached. The following sections discuss those considerations further.

Choosing Backup Source

When restoring, you have the option to restore at any level in the tree, so you can restore entire clusters, datacenters, folders, resource pools, or everything under a vCenter server. When looking at the restore of an individual virtual machine, you can restore the entire virtual machine or just specific virtual disks. You may also restore individual virtual machines from the virtual machine backup, which is discussed shortly.

Choosing Restore Destination

When restoring, you have several options during the restore, including choosing where to restore the data. When considering restoring an entire virtual machine, you have the following options to consider:

  • Restore the VM to a specific datastore.
  • Restore the virtual disk(s) to a specific datastore(s).
  • Restore the virtual disk(s) and attach to another virtual machine.
  • Choose the Virtual Disk Node.
  • Restore the VM configuration (yes/no).
  • Reconnect the NIC (yes/no).

When restoring, the default setting is to restore the virtual disk in place, so be careful to consider this if it is your intended result. If possible, in all situations you should restore to another location to retain the set of files that is currently in place if further restore efforts are needed on those files.

File Level Restores

In addition to restoring complete virtual machines or specific disks, you may also restore individual files. File Level Restore (FLR) allows for individual file restoration with an in-guest installed software component. The FLR client is available for both Windows and Linux guests and must be copied off the Data Recovery media locally where it will run. By default, Data Recovery only allows the restoration for files from a virtual machine for which the client is being run; however, if you run the client in Advanced mode, you can restore files from any of the virtual machines being backed up. Note that although you are able to mount Linux or Windows virtual machines regardless of the operating system you are running, you might not be able to read the volumes themselves.

Once mounted, you have the ability to copy files and restore them to locations manually or look through them to find the version you are looking for. The mounted copies are read-only versions of the files, and any changes made will not be saved, so make sure to copy the files to a desired location before making any changes.

One last note on the use of FLR when using Data Recovery: It is not recommended and Data Recovery should be configured so that File Level Restores are not possible. This is done by configuring the VMware Data Recovery .ini file and setting EnableFileRestore to 0.

Site Disaster

As mentioned previously, the intended use of this product is for quick restores and is not intended to be your disaster recovery plan. If you were to lose a vCenter server and needed to recover another machine, you would have to stand up a new vCenter server and install the plug-in to use Data Recovery to restore the virtual machine. Additionally, if you lose the appliance itself, you must install a new one and import the repository. Be aware that this can take a long time if a full integrity check is required.

Monitoring Backup Jobs

Data Recovery allows the configuration of an email notification that can be sent as often as once a day at a specified time. There isn’t much to configure with email notification, as shown in Figure 3.3. The important thing is to make sure the appropriate individuals are being notified and that mail is being relayed from the outgoing mail server specified. Remember the server that needs to be authorized is not the vCenter server but rather the Data Recovery appliance itself.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 Configuring Data Recovery Email Notifications

Managing the Data Recovery Repository

The maintenance tasks that run will check the integrity of the data in the repositories and reclaim space in the deduplication stores. By default, Data Recovery is set to be able to run maintenance at any time. This might not be a problem for your environment; however, when integrity check operations are occurring, backups cannot. Therefore, you should change the maintenance window so that it is set to run during a specified period of time. This ensures backups will always have the time to run each day.

When the deduplication store is using less than 80% of the repository, the retention policy is checked weekly to remove any restore points that are outside the specifications. This means that you might have many more restore points than expected as a result. Once 80% of the repository is utilized, the retention policy is checked daily. In the case of the repository filling up, the retention policy is run immediately if it has not been executed in the last 12 hours.

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