How To Back Up Your Virtual Machines for Free

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This is a guest post provided by Altaro. I’ve personally used their product before to back up my VMware environment and are pretty happy with the result. – Kent

There are several free VM backup solutions that provide reliable data protection for virtual machines. With proper selection, these will effectively meet the backup needs for a wide range of small organizations or those with limited budgets to pay for premium products.

Generally, the process of backing up a virtual machine is quite different from that of physical machines. Although traditional methods can work to some extent, they are likely to miss out some files in a virtual environment, hence making it harder to recover from a disaster.

Ideally, any backup solution must protect the data as well as the applications and configurations. However, due to the complexity of the virtual machines and how they operate, the backup methods are usually more complex and costly. Whether premium or free, the backup solution should at the minimum protect the data and ensure that it is possible to restore it in case there is damage to the production.

The good thing is that companies with limited budgets have some options that allow them to back up their virtual machines free of charge. Although the free options have some limitations, they offer effective solutions to meet a majority of the organization’s backup needs.

Most of these are offered by companies, who also have the paid options, thus ensuring that the organization can easily and seamlessly upgrade to versions with additional features when the requirements grow.

Consideration when looking for a free VM backup solution

The selection of a solution may differ depending on what the company intends to achieve or its objectives, risks, amount of data, limitations of the tool, and complexity of performing the backups. Some solutions require manual interventions, so it is important to pay attention to such details and determine if it is something that you can live with.

Some of the considerations when looking for a free backup solution for the virtual machines are:

  • The maximum number of VMs it supports. This ranges from just one to about 10, so the choice will depend on the specific environment and other options.
  • Ease of setup and use:  Most of the backup solutions require downloading and installing the software on a local or virtual machine. This should ideally be easy to do without requiring the need to engage third-party providers of hiring a technical person.
  • Provide reliable service: Ideally, the solution, even being free should provide the required level of data protection and ensure that the files or folders are available for restoration in case the production data is damaged or unavailable.
  • Different modes of restoring data and the time it takes. For example, a solution that allows complete and partial restores is ideal. Generally, a solution that provides instant file restores or VM recovery would work great.
  • Does it have data reduction techniques such as compression or deduplication?
  • Data security, such as encrypting the data when in transit as well as in storage.

Free VM backup methods

Backing up the virtual machine involves making a copy of the operating system, settings, applications, and the user’s data. You can do this manually or automatically using the backup agents or tools.

Generally, the manual option is the most basic free option for most people.

Manually copying or exporting the virtual machine

To perform the backup, you need to manually copy the folder containing the virtual machine to the destination media. However, it has some limitations such as the need to first suspend or turn off the virtual machine.

In the absence of a backup tool, it is possible to still create and keep a copy of the virtual machine through manual exporting. This creates a new machine having the same configuration and files as the original VM. The process involves creating and copying the virtual machine backup to a local machine or network storage.

Although this can work when there is no alternative, it has some limitations. For example, it is a manual process and there are risks of missing a copy of some files when someone forgets. However, an organization with someone with the right coding skills and time can write scripts to schedule the processes and let them run automatically.

In summary, the manual method requires shutting down the VM and copying the entire folder to the destination media. The method enables organizations to make copies of their VMs, but it requires turning off the machine which interrupts operations.

Backup using a third party VM backup solution

There is a wide range of free third-party backup solutions. Some commonly used products include:

  • 5nine Cloud Manager,
  • Veeam Backup Free Edition
  • Nakivo Backup & Replication Free edition
  • Altaro VM backup free
  • Unitrends Backup Free edition
  • Arkeia free VMware backup

The free backup solutions differ from one provider to the other, and it is up to the organization to determine what will work best for current and future needs. Despite the differences, most of the free VM backup solutions can provide basic data protection services and are suitable for small organizations or people with limited budgets. However, it is important to look for a solution that meets current needs, but also have options to easily upgrade to a paid version as your business requirements grow.

Pros and Limitations of free Virtual machine backup solutions

The offerings differ according to the provider and product. Some providers offer a free service only for a fixed period of time while others, such as Altaro give you a version with a free backup service that lasts forever.

The number of VMs and the amount of data may also differ.  For example, Arkeia free edition supports an unlimited number of virtual machines and allows backing up to tape or hard drive storage. However, it has a limit of 250GB.

While some products such as the Altaro VM Backup free version supports both the Hyper V and VMware virtual machines, the Unitrends Backup Free edition only works with VMware.

Just as an example, let us look at a few pros and limitations of the Altaro VM backup free version. This has low hardware requirements, an easy to use interface that does not require very high levels of technical skills to configure and run, and uses the same user interface as the paid versions. However, it has limitations such as only supporting up to 2 virtual machines per host and allowing restoring of backups going back to a maximum of 4 weeks.

Generally, most of the free solutions lack the file-level restores, the ability to restore the virtual machines to different hosts, encryption, off-site back support, and others. But these are features that small companies can live with as long as the solutions allow them to protect the data.

Conclusion

There is a wide choice of free solutions to back up virtual machines.  While the free versions lack some features in the standard products, they have the ability to enable small business and individuals to perform most of the basic backup activities that guarantee data safety.

With proper selection, individuals and small organizations can get a solution that gives them a free and yet reliable VM backup service.

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