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Encrypted Screen Sharing in Snow Leopard

In Snow Leopard, screen sharing in iChat can now be encrypted if both parties sharing a screen have MobileMe accounts and have enabled encryption (iChat > Preferences > Accounts > Security).

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Remote Backup

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I'm beginning to like living in a metropolitan area - there's so much more happening here in terms of computers. At a local computer fair put on by the University of Washington a few weeks ago, I came across a small local company with a product that could become extremely popular with anyone who doesn't like losing data. All hands in favor? :-)

This company, BackData, was formed when a couple of guys from some of the local computer companies were sitting around eating Thai food (or so they say - apparently Thai food is a big thing in the computer community here in Seattle). They were talking about losing data and how seldom people really backed up their entire hard disks, even when they understood the potential consequences. Lots of people don't back up at all, and a significant number only backup up important files, thinking that it will be easy enough to rebuild a hard drive from original master disks.

People who work on the important file backup method are depending on two things to make the rebuild easy. First, they hope that they can find and successfully restore programs from all those floppy disks, some of which may have gone bad in the years since they were last used. Second and more importantly, they rely on their backups surviving the unlikely event of a fire or theft. Another problem is that people seldom realize how much time they spend customizing their systems, and it can take a number of hours to get a system back to the way it should be. This is often even the case when reformatting and restoring from a complete backup.

So the BackData guys realized that the best possible option is for all the data on your hard disk to be backed up automatically at night to another physical place. Short of hiring elves, the only way to do this is via modem, but with some of the current high-speed modems and sophisticated pieces of software out there, they figured that it would be possible with a bunch of Macs and a lot of storage devices.

The system as they have it currently set up runs on headless LCs and saves all the data to 2.6 GB DAT drives. Each of the LCs has a fast modem attached (they have several different types so you can call specific numbers depending on what modem you have). In terms of software, you just need AppleTalk Remote Access and Retrospect 1.3, which can back up any volume mounted on its desktop.

I haven't tried this yet, but the theory is that at some point in the middle of the night one of their backup Macs calls your Mac (which had better be on). A simple macro ensures that all your volumes are mounted read-only on their systems, and then Retrospect goes to work, backing up only the files that have changed according to specific selectors that you set up previously. This allows you to avoid backing up your System file all the time, even though it will almost always be marked as modified whether or not you've added any fonts or sounds. Once the backup is done, another macro copies the catalog file to your hard disk (so you can see what was backed up), dismounts your volumes, and disconnects the modems to finish the process.

It doesn't really matter how long this takes since it's at night, or at least it wouldn't matter if you weren't being charged for all this. The BackData people have to make some money too. The full kit, which includes AppleTalk Remote Access, Retrospect 1.3, and a fast modem (I think they're using the cheap new ones from Supra now, but that's subject to change) will run about $800, although you can obviously buy the parts separately. Then there's a connect time charge of $10/hour, which is fairly comparable to many online services. Depending on the amount of data that you modify each day and the speed of your modem, you could get away with spending fifty cents to a couple of dollars per call. It wouldn't be economical at 2400 bps, but if you could keep it down to a six minute call each day, that's only a dollar per day, or $365 per year, which isn't all that expensive in comparison to buying your own hardware and software for backup. In addition, the various pieces of the setup are all useful for other things as well, so it's an extremely worthwhile combination.

Retrieval is a slightly stickier issue. Essentially, the process works in reverse, with one important exception. You call them and make sure your DAT tape is in the drive of a Mac at a certain phone number. After your Mac calls the storage Mac, you then run Retrospect over the remote connection, since it won't be able to see the DAT drive otherwise. BackData doesn't expect everyone to want to do this, and if you have to restore the entire hard disk the phone charges may run pretty high. So for a standard consulting fee of $50/hour, BackData will send someone over to your office or home and will perform the restore there, helping to reformat the hard disk and do whatever else needs to be done to get you up and running.

I expressed some doubt about the reliability of cobbling together these off-the-shelf programs, and the BackData folks admitted that they're in the process of writing several dedicated programs that will automate the process much more cleanly, one for DOS and one for the Mac. Their programs didn't sound as though they'd be as flexible as Retrospect, but would work much more cleanly over the phone lines, especially with restoring data. Interesting concept this, and one which could eventually go national with an 800 number. It's basically a form of insurance, but one which could save a lot of important data in the event of disaster.

BackData -- info@backdata.com

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