Cloud Backup: Getting the Users’ Backs Up

On Wednesday last week, Microsoft announced that as of July 1, all data transfers into its Microsoft Azure cloud will be free (though you have to pay for transferring data out). On Thursday last week, SQL Azure in Western Europe went down. It was a relatively short outage, but since SQL Azure currently provides no easy way to take a standard backup of a database and store it locally, many people had no recourse but to wait patiently for their cloud-based app to resume. It seems that Microsoft are very keen encourage developers to move their data onto their cloud, but are developers ready to do it, given that such basic backup capabilities are lacking?

Recently on Simple-Talk, Mike Mooney described a perfect use case for the Microsoft Cloud. They had a simple web-based application with a SQL Server backend; they could move the application to Windows Azure, and the data into SQL Azure and in the process free themselves from much of the hassle surrounding management and scaling of the hardware, network and so on. It was a great fit and yet it nearly didn’t happen; lack of support for the BACKUP command almost proved a show-stopper. Of course, backups of Azure databases are always and have always been taken automatically, for disaster recovery purposes, but these are strictly on-cloud copies and as of now it is not possible to use them to them to restore a database to a particular point in time.

It seems that none of those clever Microsoft people managed to predict the need to perform basic backups of Azure databases so that copies could be stored locally, outside the Azure universe. At the very least, as Mike points out, performing a local backup before a new deployment is more or less mandatory.

Microsoft did at least note the sound of gnashing teeth and, as a stop-gap measure, offered SQL Azure Database Copy which basically allows you to create an online clone of your database, but this doesn’t allow for storing local archives of the data. To that end MS has provided SQL Azure Import/Export, to package up and export a database and its data, using BACPACs. These BACPACs do not guarantee transactional consistency; for example, if a child table is modified after the parent is copied, then the copied database will be in inconsistent state (meaning, to add to the fun, BACPACs need to be created from a database copy). In any event, widespread problems with BACPAC’s evil cousin, the DACPAC have been well-documented, and it seems likely that many will also give BACPAC the bum’s rush.

Finally, in a TechEd 2011 presentation tagged “SQL Azure Advanced Administration“, it was announced that “backup and restore” were coming in the next SQL Azure CTP. And yet this still doesn’t mean that we’ll get simple backups as DBAs know and love them. What it does mean, at least, is the ability to restore any given database to a point in time within a 2-week window.

For the time being, if you want a local copy of your data and don’t want to brave the BACPAC, one is left with SSIS or BCP, creative use of schema and data comparison tools, or use of SQL Azure Backup (currently in beta) in order to perform this simple but vital task.