This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2009-03-23 at 10:30 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:
Include images: Off

EMC Ships Modernized Retrospect 8

by Adam C. Engst

I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that EMC has finally shipped Retrospect 8 [1]. The previous version for the Mac, version 6.1, has been crumbling around the edges, and I've restricted myself to using it for only a few specific situations where it has continued to work fine. But for my primary backups, I've switched to a combination of Time Machine, CrashPlan, and Carbon Copy Cloner. Time Machine provides quick recovery of unexpectedly corrupted files, CrashPlan gives me offsite backups, and Carbon Copy Cloner makes identical duplicates. But these programs haven't given me the warm fuzzy feelings I used to have when Retrospect was in its prime.

I liked Retrospect because it worked hard to ensure that every byte of a backup was copied and verified, logging everything clearly so you could tell exactly what was going on. Many years ago, Craig Isaacs, then the vice president of sales and marketing for Dantz Development, told me a story about a large company that complained to Dantz because Retrospect had started reporting verification errors in backing up. When Dantz investigated, it turned out that the company had upgraded a Cisco router to new firmware, and that there was a bug in the new firmware that would silently drop one out of every million packets transferred through the router (when this story happened, a million packets was a rather larger number than it would be today). The problem went unnoticed until Retrospect started reporting the errors. Even a single bit lost during copying of a file could cause irretrievable corruption, and I always appreciated the fact that Retrospect wouldn't allow that to happen to my data.

When Dantz Development was bought by EMC, the Mac version of Retrospect languished, receiving only minimal development for some years. Cracks in Retrospect's architecture started to show during the evolution of Mac OS X, and crashes in the main Retrospect application and odd behavior in the Retrospect Clients used for network backups became commonplace. Luckily, about a year ago, EMC reformed the Macintosh development team, even luring some of the ex-Dantz people back, and Retrospect 8 has been in active development ever since. Now, at long last, EMC has released Retrospect 8, a complete rewrite that will hopefully return Retrospect to its former grandeur. Let's look at what's new in Retrospect 8, but do note that this is not a review, merely an overview of what EMC says is there with some comparison to what was previously available [2] in Retrospect 6.1.

Architecture and Interface -- Retrospect 8 introduces a new tripartite architecture: a Retrospect engine that handles all the actual backup work on a backup server Mac, a Retrospect console application that provides the user interface, and a Retrospect Client application installed on client computers. The goal is to enable a network administrator to use the Retrospect console application to control one or more Retrospect engines, wherever they may be located on an organization's network.

The Retrospect console application offers a completely new interface designed from the ground up and using native Mac OS X interface elements. This should make it easier for users unfamiliar with Retrospect to get started, a criticism often leveled at the previous versions.

Other interface improvements include custom reports that automatically update with current information and better email notification of successful events, failed events, and media requests. New assistants walk users through setting up immediate and scheduled operations, and a redesigned rules interface makes it easier to select specific files.

Performance -- One of the major problems faced by the previous versions of Retrospect was that only a single task could execute at once, meaning that an initial backup of a new Mac or a slow backup over the Internet would block regular backups of other machines. Plus, if you were in the middle of a backup, you couldn't restore a file without first stopping the backup.

Retrospect 8 eliminates those bottlenecks. It can now perform up to eight backup, copy, and restore operations simultaneously, depending on the amount of RAM available and your edition license (it's available only for Retrospect Single Server and Multi Server, not Retrospect Desktop - more on the editions shortly).

Retrospect 8 also supports multiple processors and multiple cores, and features improved throughput to storage devices, which should result in significantly faster performance on Intel-based Macs and modern backup media.

New Backup Capabilities -- When previous versions of Retrospect were designed, hard disks were relatively small, and tape was the preferred backup media for even small office networks. Now that hard disks provide by far the best cost per gigabyte, Retrospect 8 has significantly improved its support for backups to hard disk. A new Disk Media set lets you combine multiple volumes - including direct and network-attached disks, removable cartridge drives, and even flash media - into a single logical destination for backups.

In the other direction, you can also specify the amount of space on a disk that can be used by a Disk Media set, and Retrospect 8 can perform "disk grooming," which deletes older versions of files to make room for new ones. You set how many older versions to save. This is highly welcome, since in previous versions, the only way to keep using a disk after it filled up was to delete its contents and start over.

Also new in Retrospect 8 are staged backups, which let you stage backups first to fast hard drives and later copy them to other disks or tapes for archival or offsite backups. Whether with normal or staged backups, Retrospect copies only files that don't already exist on the destination.

Retrospect has always been able to verify files by re-reading files and performing a byte-for-byte verification pass. But that's slow and increases network traffic, so Retrospect 8 offers a new media verification option that calculates MD5 checksums [3] during backup and uses them to verify that the data written matches the checksum without having to re-read the source data.

Retrospect 8 now offers five different levels of security for your backed-up data, starting with a simple password with no encryption and moving through increasingly strong encryption: SimpleCrypt, DES, AES-128, and AES-256. The stronger the encryption, the slower your backups will be.

For larger installations relying on tape drives, Retrospect 8 can now read and track tape barcodes for members of Tape Media sets, has faster media slot scanning, and can schedule tape drive cleaning automatically. It also supports more storage devices than previous versions, and an add-on makes it possible to write to two tape drives simultaneously.

Finally, although Retrospect's basic approach of using a dumb client to send data to a smart server application hasn't changed, Retrospect 8 now offers Wake-on-LAN support for Mac clients (but not yet Windows clients), so the Retrospect engine can wake up sleeping Macs right before a backup is scheduled to start. Other improvements include support for multiple network interfaces, advanced preferences to adjust network timeout values, and automatic client login.

What's Missing -- As much as these features are welcome, it's clear that EMC has more coming, even in the very near term. Notable among Retrospect 8's known limitations is lack of PowerPC support for the Retrospect engine and console applications. EMC promises this for an April 2009 release, and it will be extremely welcome, since many companies and organizations prefer to use a somewhat older Mac as a backup server. Even I can't do more than test Retrospect 8 until it works with PowerPC-based Macs, since my backup server is a Power Mac G5.

For those upgrading from previous versions of Retrospect, there's essentially no connection between the two - Retrospect 8 does not import your previous configuration or read the contents of older backup sets. As such, you'll need to set everything up from scratch and keep your old installation of Retrospect available for restoration needs. Be sure to disable the older version's backup operations so there's no conflict for a particular Retrospect Client. Although the capability to read old backup sets is in the works, I find that it's often a good idea to set things up from scratch anyway, as a way of eliminating historical oddities.

Also missing is support for backing up to a file stored on an FTP server, which some people used as a way to move backups offsite. Although EMC is promising this for a future update, I'd rather see them put some effort into the kind of offsite backup that CrashPlan enables. Then again, CrashPlan can do what it does only by comparing versions of files and transferring just the bits that have changed, which radically reduces the amount of data transferred. Since Retrospect continues to copy entire files on each execution, it would need to transfer far more data.

Complete documentation isn't yet available for Retrospect 8, presumably because EMC didn't wish to hold up the release of a functional program while the manual was being completed.

Finally, Retrospect Clients running on Mac OS X 10.2.8 and Mac OS 9 are not currently supported, although EMC is looking into what would be necessary to support these older systems.

Editions and Upgrades -- Because Retrospect is used by organizations ranging from the single user with multiple Macs all the way up to massive companies, there are a number of different licensing options that also vary based on whether you're buying new [4] or upgrading older versions [5].

Let the Testing Begin -- Although I'm heartened by the fact that some of the original Dantz people are working on Retrospect 8, the complete rewrite means that I won't have the same level of comfort with Retrospect 8 as I had with previous versions until I've used it successfully for some time in real world scenarios. Our backup expert, Joe Kissell, will also be putting Retrospect 8 through its paces for coverage in "Take Control of Mac OS X Backups [6]," so we will be reporting on our experiences in the future.

But that caution aside, it's great to have Retrospect 8 back in the Mac market, and the added competition can only encourage programs like Time Machine, CrashPlan, and others to continue to differentiate themselves and improve further.