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I Changed The World Because I Didn’t Have Enough Influence Not To

January 23, 2014

What is it you wanted again?

I need to know if you guys can modify the Windows NT backup so it can point to a network location rather than a tape drive?

Rodney, you obviously don’t know anything about backups. The reason you back up is so that you can secure a copy offsite. How could we do that if we were just backing up to another location on the same server or the network?

I was a course developer for Microsoft writing training materials for Microsoft Exchange. The patronizing Program Managers were the Windows NT backup PMs. I was writing a training course that was focused on problems we had seen with Exchange backups. As everyone knows, the purpose of backing things up is so that if something goes wrong you can restore from backup.

The problem was that Exchange had a bug that made it look like the backup was successful when it wasn’t. The customers didn’t realize their backups were corrupt until they tried to restore them. That obviously is not the time you want to figure out your backup is worthless. It caused a lot of grief for multiple customers, and in the process we realized our support engineers didn’t understand our backup and restore process well enough. So, I wrote a training course.

This was all happening in 1999. Networks were pretty well established, but IT hadn’t yet embraced the idea of online storage. Everything was physical media. Backups went to physical tape. We also still used floppy disks.

My problem was that in order for the course to be effective, students needed to be able to perform multiple backups and restorations during the 2 day course. But our training rooms were not equipped with tape backup units. Microsoft had dozens of training rooms and we made our courseware available to partners who had hundreds of training rooms and thousands of computers. It was completely impractical to upgrade all of those rooms and computers with tape backup units for a single class. I considered writing the labs in such a way that only the instructor’s computer would need a tape drive, but with potentially up to 30 students per classroom, it would be a pretty weak experience. I could have also created a video of me doing the backup, but the whole point of the training was to give engineers hands on experience. So, I ended up trying to convince the Windows NT backup guys to modify their utility to let me point to a network location.

They didn’t just say no, they said . . .more than that.

So, I went looking for a solution. There was a team of programmers attached to support. They were called Critical Problem Resolution, or the CPR group and that was often their function. They were the group who got the old out of date products and at times they needed to go in and make software changes for customers. The Windows NT development group were the guys making new cars, the CPR group was a backyard mechanic who would try to keep your worn-out 1972 Pinto running. I went to see Chris, one of the Exchange CPR developers.

Chris, I need a favor.

Sure. What’s up?

I need a way to backup an Exchange database to a location on the local disk and then restore it.

I’ve got a utility that I kind of threw together to do some testing. It doesn’t have a User Interface. Basically you run it from a command prompt. Its functionality is very limited, but it can backup and restore.

It was exactly what I needed. But, Chris wasn’t lying about the UI. You typed a single line to backup

c:\backup.exe /d-c:\backupdirectory

And to restore the database you typed

c:\restore.exe /d-c:\backupdirectory

Fortunately the courses I wrote were for internal audiences and trusted partners. I didn’t have to worry about trying to create a course that would be sold for thousands of dollars to customers around the world. If I were, there is no way I could have gotten away with including such a kludgy tool.

I took Chris’s tool and finished writing my course. Before we release a course to our engineers we first teach it in a our own lab with random volunteers. One of the volunteers I recruited was Larry, the Lead Program Manager over Windows NT. Larry was the guy responsible for all of Windows NT, including backups. I’m not even sure how I convinced him to give me two days of his time. I think it might have been because my course was supposed to help solve some of the issues that NT support was getting beat up about as well.

The course went pretty well until we got to the first lab.

Rodney? What’s this kludgy DOS utility backup? Why aren’t you using Windows NT backup?

Well, I talked to your backup guys and asked them to modify NT Backup to be able to point to a network location. They told me that wasn’t a feature they were interested in pursuing.

That seemed to mollify Larry, but he took very careful notes during the course. The course Microsoft Course 1618: Managing Your ESE Database shipped with Chris’s DOS utility and it got good reviews. The development team had corrected the bug in the software and the training course helped our support engineers to understand the backup process well enough to handle the customer calls.

I never did hear back from Larry. But, I noticed that the next version of Windows NT Backup included the ability to backup to a local disk or a network location. Had I convinced the backup guys to build a version for me that had online backup capabilities, there’s a possibility it would have taken much longer for the shipping version to be updated. Sometimes you end up changing the world because you don’t have the influence not to.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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One Comment
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