Review: Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8

Thursday Jul 10th 2008 by Aaron Weiss

The name is the most complicated aspect of this powerful desktop backup and recovery software.

Let's be honest ‑ for many of us, backing up our PC, while very important, often falls somewhere behind eating our vegetables and working out three times a week. Oh sure, we read the stories of calamity that befalls other people who haven't done their backups ‑ like the architectural firm lost $2.5M worth of plans when a disgruntled employee deleted them. The small business incurred several thousands of dollars in costs to pay a data-recovery firm to retrieve what could have been restored in minutes with a proper backup.

Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 (Desktop Edition) may possess an unwieldy name, but it represents the veteran vendor's latest evolution in streamlining the backup process. Additionally, Backup Exec System Recovery 8 (BESR8) separates system and data from hardware, which lets you restore backups on different hardware or even migrating system images between physical and virtual machines.

Out of the Virtual Box

You can download BESR8 directly from the Symantec Web site (though you have to register first). The download includes two 400MB files—one is the software installer, the other an ISO image for a bootable recovery disk with BESR8 restore tools.

Installing BESR8 on any 32- or 64-bit Windows 2000/XP/Vista system is straightforward and defaults to a 60-day trial version unless or until you activate the software with a license key. A single desktop license runs about $81, and you must buy one license per desktop where BESR8 will be installed, though the per-desktop cost decreases with volume above 25 units.

It is clear from the start that Symantec has designed BESR8 to present a very user-friendly face on top of a potentially complex feature set. On install, a wizard prompts you to create an initial backup of your system and data, though you may opt out.

The interface is neatly divided into five categories ‑ Home, Status, Tasks, Tools and Advanced. Most of your time using BESR8 will be spent clicking on Tasks and Tools.

Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 (Desktop Edition)
We like the user-friendly Tasks page in Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 (Desktop Edition).
(Click for larger image)

Schedules and Triggers

BESR8 backups are known as recovery points and they represent the data needed to restore your PC to its state at that moment in time.

To begin a backup, you first define a job, which specifies what data will be included in the recovery point. The default and most common job is "My Computer" which covers your whole Windows install. You can optionally choose to backup data from other drives and partitions as part of this same job (or in another job of its own).

You can then assign jobs to an automatic time-based schedule: day of week and times, and you can run backups multiple times per day. You can also launch backup jobs by event triggers, such as when new or specific applications are installed, specified users log on or off, or a specific amount of data has been added to a drive.

Finally, jobs can also be launched in consultation with Symantec's ThreatCon global security threat metric. ThreatCon is like Symantec's version of Homeland Security threat level colors, but for PC malware. Using this feature, BESR8 will launch a backup job if deemed necessary by the ThreatCon level, as determined by Symantec.

Because backup jobs run in the background, you can continue working while BESR8 takes care of business. A small informational window pops up briefly when a backup event begins.

A simple calendar view in the Status menu lets you view future scheduled jobs and optionally click on any date to edit its schedule.

Backup Targets

Storage capacity is cheap, which removes one old excuse for avoiding backups. You can point BESR8 jobs to just about any storage destination – a network share, thumb drive, external USB disk and even a remote Internet location via FTP. Because Windows will sometimes assign different drive letters to attached storage devices like USB disks, BESR8 recognizes these drives by "branding" them with a data tag, allowing the software to assign specific jobs to specific external disks.

Saved backups (recovery points) can be managed after the fact using the Copy Recovery Point task, which lets you, as the name implies, copy a recovery point to another storage location or even to writable CD/DVD.

When you have created a full system recovery point, future backups within the "life" of that recovery point (as defined in the schedule) will contain incremental changes. This saves disk space, because each recovery point does not need to contain duplicate data, which can save you many gigabytes.

Data Recovery

A full system backup can be a lifesaver when you need to restore a whole system, but you're more likely to need to restore just one or more individual files. BESR8's Recover My Files and Recovery Point Browser both give you detailed access to recovery points.

With the Recover My Files task, you can search for files in a complete (or partial) system backup and open or restore them on the spot. The Recovery Point Browser task is more like Windows Explorer, letting you navigate the full file system of a recovery point in tree-view. Again, you can open or restore files from the backup instantly.

Outside of the BESR8 application, you can also mount recovery points directly into Windows Explorer. They are assigned a temporary drive letter, which you can access like any "real" data. Although you can write data to a mounted recovery point, this data is lost when the backup is un-mounted.

Full Recovery or Thank Heavens for the Rescue Disk

Then there are the times you need to fully restore your system. It only takes one crash, be it corrupt system files from a power outage or a virus, to immediately appreciate the value of a full-system backup. A recovery process that could eat up days becomes a job that takes just a few minutes.

Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 (Desktop Edition)
Recover a corrupt system with the BESR8 bootable recovery disk.
(Click for larger image)

In cases where your operating system is no longer usable, you will boot from the BESR8 recovery disk. The product includes a full recovery disk with drivers for typical storage devices. But you should test that the recovery disk can access your storage devices ‑ if not, you can create a custom recovery disk from within the installed BESR8 software with the drivers your system needs.

When you boot your PC with the BESR8 recovery disk, you're launched into a Vista-based guided environment. The disk automatically attempts to connect to your network, so that you can access any shares. You can also use the recovery disk to mount storage drivers in real-time, perform simple network analysis, run minor drive and partition table tools, or launch pcAnywhere so that remote machines can connect and troubleshoot your ailing PC.

Most often, though, you will use the recovery disk to restore a recovery point to a corrupted system ‑ a simple point and click affair, often followed by a sigh of relief and a beer.

Thanks to Symantec's Restore Anyware feature, you can actually restore a recovery point to a different hardware configuration.This can be a lifesaver when your system crash is due to a low-level hardware failure, like a blown motherboard, for which you're likely to re-build the system with new hardware. Or you might just enjoy the ease of migrating a heavily customized system to a new and improved PC.

Restore Anyware works by identifying hardware-specific drivers in your Windows install and replacing them, usually with generic substitutes. Of course, you will still want to install the "right" vendor-supplied drivers for your critical hardware once you have the restored system up and running.

From Physical to Virtual and Back

These days, virtual machines (VMs) are everywhere. It often makes a lot of sense to run systems inside a VM, whether for reasons of maximizing CPU usage or experimental usage. With BESR8 you can create a backup of a "real" hardware-based system and then convert that recovery point into a virtual image suitable for VMWare or Microsoft Virtual PC (or any other virtual machine platforms that read these formats).

The process couldn't be easier ‑ simply use the Convert to Virtual Disk tool in BESR8, and you are prompted to choose a recovery point and then a VM format. Virtual disks can optionally be split into 2GB files, and/or saved directly to a VMWare ESX server.

BESR8 uses the same Restore Anyware technology to substitute drivers from your hardware-based Windows install for a VM-based transplant.

Likewise, you can work it in reverse, too. Assuming you have a valid license to run BESR8 inside a virtual machine, you can create a recovery point of that VM. Using the bootable recovery disk, you can then restore that recovery point to hardware, going from virtual to physical. David Copperfield would approve.

No More Excuses

Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 8 might have an awkward name, but the software itself is both simple to use and powerful, an all-too-rare combination. For the modest license cost and a few minutes spent creating a backup schedule, you can save untold hours and dollars when bad fortune, or a disgruntled employee, strikes.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is:

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