Azure Online Backup February 2015 Improvements

I like Microsoft’s Azure Online Backup. I used to host and sell online backup solutions, and the biggest factor in selling those services was the price per GB per month. That’s where Azure Online Backup excels because the price is excellent for the native service, and it’s better again if you use the raw storage with a supporting third-party backup solution. But Azure Online Backup is playing catchup. It is light on features and product support. However, Microsoft is listening and changes are being made.

The Importance of Microsoft Azure Feedback

The “new Microsoft” takes feedback very seriously. Microsoft measures and acts on feedback, where they deem appropriate. Thanks to Azure being a cloud and new development practices, change can happen in Azure very quickly. This makes Microsoft’s public cloud very customer friendly. But what is the right way to give that feedback? Honestly, the wrong way is to corner a Microsoft employee from a local subsidiary. Your comments probably won’t get to the right people. You need that feedback to be visible by the decision makers and to be measured — how otherwise will those decision makers know if your scenario is important enough to move up the stack rank of requests?
Microsoft makes it easy. Open your favorite search engine, and search for “Azure X feedback” where X is a feature name. For example, there is the Azure general feedback site, and forums for virtual machines, and backup. There you can search and vote for existing ideas, add comments, and post your own unique ideas.
My tip is to expand on the scenario. It’s one thing to say “make X possible.” That does nothing for the program managers that will decide on the fate of your feature request. Instead, offer a scenario to explain why X is necessary and how it will benefit lots of people. A scenario is how you get the attention of a Microsoft program manager.

Changes to Azure Online Backup

In my day job I have been promoting Azure Online Backup to Microsoft partners in Ireland since September, and I’ve answered quite a few questions about the capabilities of Microsoft’s cloud backup service. My answers to some of those questions has changed ‘no’ to ‘yes’ thanks to KB3033974.

Out of Band Initial Backup

Imagine that you work for a company that has a large repository of data that must be backed up online. You do the math, and you find that it will take one month to do the first copy. That’s a bit crazy. You might already have enough bandwidth for daily requirements (incremental backups), so putting in a new connection just for the first full backup is crazy. That’s why I was asked at every meeting or event if Microsoft had an out-of-band method for securely transferring the first backup to Azure. As of today, Microsoft does offer the ability to do the first backup to disk, send that via secure courier to Microsoft, and then continue with online incremental backups.

Configure the initial backup to be transported by disk. (Image Credit: Aidan Finn)
Configure the initial backup to be transported by disk. (Image Credit: Aidan Finn)

Number of Retained Recovery Points

Data retention is a big issue for some. Azure Online Backup increased to 120 supported recovery points (versions retained) last August. This was great news for most customers, as they could keep 120 x daily backups in the cloud.
But some said they wanted more. So Microsoft has increased the number of supported recovery points to 366.

Complex Retention Policies

A big vote getter on the feedback forums was the desire to set retention policies that retained data differently depending on how old it is.
With the latest update, customers can configure complex retention policies. Maybe they retain daily recovery points for short-term retention, and less frequent recovery points for long term retention. This offers the customer more granularity for restoring newer files and longer retention periods for older files with a maximum of 366 recovery points.

Enable a complex retention policy for backed up data. (Image Credit: Aidan Finn)
Enable a complex retention policy for backed up data. (Image Credit: Aidan Finn)

Backup all DPM workloads to Azure

Before now, customers that used System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) could only use Azure to backup Hyper-V virtual machines, SQL databases and files/folders. With DPM 2012 R2 UR5 and this update, they can now add SharePoint, Exchange, and Windows client backups to their Azure protection groups.

Improved Monitoring & Reporting in SCOM

A new management pack for DPM grants System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) with greater reporting and the ability to create richer reports and dashboards. This should save operators quite a bit of time, as they should normally manage infrastructure by exception from the SCOM console, and they now can access information on DPM without logging into DPM consoles — particularly valuable for large installs, such as CPS that can feature quite a number of DPM servers.

Final Thoughts

These changes sound great. I have downloaded the published update and applied it in my test lab. And I found that you can only access these news features if you are starting with a blank slate. That means you’re either installing Azure Online Backup for the first time, or you remove any existing job and delete existing backups from that server. The latter is quite unfortunate, thus defeating the purpose of keeping more restore points! Microsoft needs to fix this.