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How synthetic full backup works and why you might need it

The invention of synthetic full backups is one of the most important advancements in backup technology in the last few decades, right up there witih disk-based backups, deduplication, continuous data protection (CDP), and the cloud.

Here’s how they came to be and an explanation of what benefits they might offer.

Traditional backup options

There are essentially two very broad categories of what the backup industry calls backup levels;

you are either backing up everything (full backup) or you are backing up only what has changed (incremental backup). There are different types of incremental backups, but that’s really not relevant to this particular discussion. A typical set up runs incremental backups every night and full backups every week – or even less often than that.

The reason for periodic full backups is what happens when you perform a restore. Traditional backup software will restore all data found on the full backup – even if some of the data on that tape has been replaced by newer versions that will be found on incremental backups. The restore process will then begin restoring new or updated files from the various incremental backups, in the order that they were created.

This process of performing multiple restores, some of which are restoring data that will be overwritten, is inefficient to say the least. If the restores are coming from tape, you must also add the time required to insert and load each tape, seek to the appropriate place on the tape, and eject the tape once it is no longer needed. This process can take over five minutes per tape.

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