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Brushing up on your (backup) history

Backups are huge, right? As administrators, they should never be far from our minds. Backups are one of the cornerstones of disaster recovery and safeguarding our data. It only makes sense that we want to keep an eye on when backups happen and if they’re successful. Recently, I’ve been making a lot of use of a simple little query that shows me how my backups are doing:

  max(backup_start_date) last_backup

Yes, this is a VERY straightforward query, no hidden magic here. But with this one little SELECT statement, I have been able to quickly establish if my backups are getting run, what specific databases may have problems, and where I need to focus my troubleshooting. By breaking it down by database and type, I am also able determine whether or not my log backups are running (key to out of control log growth), if I’m properly maintaining my recovery chain, and what backups are going to be necessary to restore my database.

Unlocking the secrets

The key is the the backupset table in msdb. This table stores the history of all successful backup operations on the server(emphasis on successful). It’s not just native SQL backups, but those by third party tools as well, so we can have insight in to any backups (or lack of) that are happening. I first came across this table working with Brent Ozar’s(b|t) Blitz script. Brent introduces this query as part of his server take over to establish whether or not your backups are being taken, which is the primary reason I check it. Backing up our data is vital and not doing this would probably be an RGE. If nothing else, this table says “Hey dummy, I need you to look at something!”

If we dig in a little more, though, we can find other useful information. Take the backup_start_date and backup_finish_date fields. By using another simple query, we can then see how our backups perform over time:

  datediff(mi,backup_start_date,backup_finish_date) backup_duration,
  backup_size/(datediff(mi,backup_start_date,backup_finish_date)+1) bytes_per_minute

Backup duration is a handy metric for base-lining our systems. After all, if our backups start taking longer and longer, it could be an indication of resource contention. If we’re backing up to local disk, we could be choking our throughput. If we’re backing up to a network share, we could be seeing increased bandwidth usage. Also, our databases could just be getting bigger and might require more resources to support them. By including the backup_size field, we can see if longer backups are the result of simply backing up more data or if there might be something else to it.

If we use the backup_size field and its sibling, the compressed_backup_size field, we can gain some additional insights. Since backups will grow in relation to how much the database grows, this gives us a quick and dirty way to report on those growth patterns. Ideally, you’d want to be track the actual database size, but if you don’t have something to capture that historically, this will work in a pinch. Additionally, by combining it with the compressed backup size, you can get an idea of how much space you’re saving if you use the WITH COMPRESSION option in SQL 2008. A quick gotcha here: This will not show the benefits of compression using third party backup tools. Both fields will show the fully compressed backup size if you’re using something like Red Gate SQL Backup, Quest LiteSpeed, or Idera’s SQL Safe.

Cleaning up after yourself

Now not everything with this table is sunshine and rainbows. Maintaining this history is one of the more commonly overlooked areas of SQL Server administration. Ever wonder why your msdb database keeps growing and growing over time? Bingo, it’s because your backupset table keeps increasing with all the additional history stored inside it. What you want to do is schedule a regular run of sp_delete_backuphistory to keep your history to a relevant period. What that time frame is depends on your database size and needs, though I personally go with 90 days as my default.

Those who don’t learn from history…

Successful database administrators are the ones who make monitoring a part of their practice. With it, we can be proactive with our systems and solve problems before they occur. The great thing about the backupset table is that it’s a very easy way to start checking up on your instances, leveraging information that is already a part of the SQL Server core functionality. You don’t need any fancy tools or complex systems, just a few basic queries to get started understanding how your servers, databases, and systems perform on a day to day basis.


  1. Jeff Sherard says:

    Is it possible to automate it and write the info to web page so that anybody could look at the data at anytime?

  2. Mike Fal says:

    Certainly, or wrap an SSRS report around the data for presentation. The information presented here is just like any other SQL query and can be made available through a variety of presentation layers.

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