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Series: Backed Up Today?
Whether it's hourly or daily to DAT tape or disks, only you can protect your data!
Article 1 of 12 in series
Recent popular discussions on the TidBITS Talk list have orbited around the issue of backing up data - what's the best media to use, how often should one back up, what software works well, if backup devices should be built into computers, and how iMac users will back up their dataShow full article
Recent popular discussions on the TidBITS Talk list have orbited around the issue of backing up data - what's the best media to use, how often should one back up, what software works well, if backup devices should be built into computers, and how iMac users will back up their data. These are all important questions, and the answers affect literally every computer user today, irrespective of platform.
In the first part of this article, I'll examine backup strategies and some topics to consider when formulating a backup plan. The next part of this article will discuss specific products you can use to back up your data.
Importance of Backing Up -- Most computer users don't back up their data. It's easy for people - especially novices - to believe that computers are infallible. You press a key, and they just work. (Or, for those in large organizations, if something goes wrong, you call the help desk and someone else fixes the problem.)
But those of us who have been around the block a few times know that's far from the truth. Files are deleted inadvertently, PowerBooks are dropped, hard disks fail, drinks are spilled, and of course, offices are burgled and houses burn down. Digital data stored on a disk is anything but secure, and pretending otherwise invites disaster. As an ad for Retrospect, the most popular Macintosh backup program, once said: "There are two types of people. Those who have lost data and those who will." That's truth in advertising.
Backup Strategies -- If we agree that everyone should back up their data, the next question is what they should back up. There are essentially two backup strategies, with a continuum of possibilities in between. One strategy says that when your hard disk fails, you want to be up and running as quickly as possible using a complete backup that's as recent as possible. Call this the Complete Backup strategy. The other strategy assumes only your data files are important, since you can always reload applications from master disks or download freeware and shareware applications. Call this the Minimal Backup strategy.
The two strategies require roughly the same amount of time. If you subscribe to the Complete Backup strategy, you spend more time dealing with your backup system on a regular basis, although automating the process makes it easier. You must feed disks or tapes to your backup device and verify that everything is working. That takes a fair amount of time up front, but recovering from a dead hard disk takes only a little more time than that required to read back your files.
In contrast, adherents of the Minimal Backup strategy spend less time up front - just the occasional copying of a file to floppy, perhaps - but may require days or even weeks to restore a system to full working order. The Minimal Backup strategy puts the burden on you to backup the appropriate files. Will you remember to back up every important file you modify or create? If not, you may be forced to rehash days of work. Also, you must specifically back up preferences and other out-of-the-way files: Remember that you've spent time configuring your applications (think keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word); setting up utilities and extensions; and creating scripts for programs like QuicKeys, OneClick, and KeyQuencer. What's more, finding and downloading new copies of freeware and shareware takes time and can prove difficult in the case of incremental updates to commercial programs or system software. Even locating serial numbers can take a surprising amount of time.
I'm strongly in favor of the Complete Backup strategy. I back up our internal machines to DAT tape using Retrospect every night (or in the case of PowerBooks and my infrequently used PC, whenever they turn on). I also use a pair of 2 GB hard disks in a RAID setup on my main machine, such that if one dies, the other will contain an exact duplicate of the data and instantly take over (in theory - it's hard to test). I use the RAID setup because I hate losing the important email that arrives between the time my Mac backs up and the time some sort of data loss occurs.
Why do I do this? Call me paranoid, but I can't guarantee I'll have time to spare when something goes wrong: Murphy's Law being what it is, it seems more likely that I'll need to start working as quickly as possible. You must decide how important your work is to you; that decision affects the type of hardware and software you choose, plus your overall backup strategy.
My primary weakness is that I don't have a solid offsite backup strategy. Geoff Duncan and I periodically trade DAT tapes, but if my house burned down, I'd be weeks or months out of date.
Backup Considerations -- You must keep a number of issues in mind when forming a coherent backup strategy.
Historical vs. working backups: Some people rely on working backups - recent exact duplicates of their hard disks (on another disk or Jaz cartridge, say). If this is what you do or are considering, think carefully. What happens if an important file is irretrievably corrupted and you don't notice immediately? With a working backup, the backup probably contains the corrupted file. If you use a historical backup - one that doesn't erase previous versions of files - you can go back to the most recent version of the file that's not corrupted. Of course, historical backups require more backup media, which increases costs.
Double-duty storage devices: Many people like backing up their hard disks to Jaz cartridges, for example, because they can use the Jaz drive for other things as well. I did this years ago with a 44 MB SyQuest drive. Although this strategy works, I don't recommend it for two reasons. First, there's always the temptation to use the backup cartridges for normal storage if you need some space quickly. At that point, the backup cartridge is no longer just a backup, but also contains unique data. Second, using the Jaz drive in other ways probably indicates you have other cartridges containing unique data. How do you intend to back up that data, or is it essentially worthless to you? I went through all this with my SyQuest, and I found that a dedicated DAT drive for backups doesn't raise these thorny problems.
Media capacity: When thinking about backup devices, think about the amount of data the device or its storage media can hold. I use a DAT drive that can hold about 2.6 GB on a single 90 meter tape. However, I have about 10 GB of online storage between all of my machines. The data is not all in use, and many files are redundant (Retrospect doesn't back up multiple copies), but a single tape won't quite hold everything, which forces me to use multiple tape sets. The smaller the media capacity, the more media you'll need, which drives up costs. Of course, the smaller the media capacity, the harder it will be to set up an unattended backup system. In an ideal world, you could do a full backup to a single tape or cartridge, then do incremental backups to another tape or disk for several months before needing to add additional members to that backup set.
Backup device cost: Most people worry about the cost of a backup device, whether it's a SyJet, a DAT drive, or whatever. In my mind, and in part because I use my Macintoshes for business purposes, that cost isn't particularly relevant, since it's a one-time cost and the longer you put it off, the more likely you are to lose data worth far more than the backup device. Costs can range from about $150 for a Zip drive to $750 for a fast and capacious DAT drive. Don't skimp on the device or buy something weird because it's cheap - you don't want the device to be a weak link.
Backup device and media format longevity: When thinking about backup devices, think conformity. You don't want to have years of backups and archives in a format that can't be easily accessed if your drive dies. For instance, it's reportedly becoming difficult to obtain replacement or repaired mechanisms for SyQuest 270 MB drives from manufacturers, and there are numerous older media formats that have already gone the way of the dodo.
Backup media cost: A 90 meter DAT tape holds about 2.6 GB and costs between $5 and $10. In contrast, a 2 GB Jaz disk costs about $150. If Johnny backs up 10 GB to DAT and Sally backs up 10 GB to Jaz, who will pay more money, even taking the cost of the backup device into account? (The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.) Seriously: security costs money. Make sure to take both backup device and media cost into account.
Media reliability: Not all backup media is created equal, and corrupted backups are worse than no backups at all. From what I can tell, most backup media used today should last at least 4 years, with expectations of 10 to 30 years being fairly reasonable. CD-ROMs may last longer, though estimates of CD-R life spans are similar to the 10-year life span of magnetic tapes. Of more concern is how you treat your media - in short, it should be stored in a cool, dry, clean place, used in clean drives, and handled with care (don't toss that cartridge into your bag!). The better you treat your media, the less likely you are to have trouble.
Backup verification: How do you know if one of your backup tapes has gone bad, or even if your backup contains the correct data? Verification. You must check the contents of your backup every now and then to make sure it's working properly. I occasionally pull a few files from my backup sets just to check their integrity. Retrospect users should enable its verification pass, especially when backing up to tape. Backups take much longer but the safety is well worth it.
Backup redundancy: One of the best ways of reducing your exposure to media failure is to have multiple sets of backup media. That way, even if one set fails, you can still fall back on another set. Even if the alternate set is out of date, having older files is better than having no files. For instance, I currently rotate my weekly backups through three sets of backup tapes, two of which I reuse. When the third one reaches a certain number of tapes, I archive it and start a new set.
Automation: For most people, the main obstacle to backing up is that it's a boring task they must do regularly. That's why most backup programs offer a variety of scripting and automation features that take most of the drudgery out of backing up. I strongly recommend using these automation features - you'll feel guilty if you lose a lot of work because you procrastinated about doing backups.
Storage location: What happens if your office is vandalized or a disaster befalls your home? Earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, and break-ins all happen. How seriously you consider offsite backup locations depends on the importance of your data. If you work in an office, taking a backup home each week is easy, and you can just as easily leave a home backup in your desk at work. If you work at home, consider giving backups to a friend you see regularly. For local backup media, consider a small, fireproof safe. However, make sure it's designed to protect magnetic media in case of a fire - temperatures hot enough to destroy a backup tape might not be sufficient to ignite paper, which is what "fireproof" generally means. TidBITS sponsor APS Technologies has several media vaults that protect magnetic media from temperatures up to 1,550 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 60 minutes at prices ranging from $150 to $620.
Archiving: Although most people believe backups protect files they're working on, a good backup strategy can also protect old files you need to keep, but don't need on your hard disk (like graphics, scans, or video). Ideally, a backup system should address the need to archive important, unchanging files. Some people use Retrospect to back up to tape on a daily basis but archive data on CD-R on a quarterly or yearly basis.
From Strategies to Solutions -- For most people, massive data loss is something that only happens to someone else. But if you've ever been forced to attempt the resurrection of a lost report or Quicken data file, you probably don't want to get burned again. In the second part of this article, I'll explore many of the backup hardware and software options available.
Article 2 of 12 in series
In TidBITS-432 last week, I talked about the importance of backing up and offered some food for thought when considering different methods of safeguarding your important (and not-so-important) dataShow full article
In TidBITS-432 last week, I talked about the importance of backing up and offered some food for thought when considering different methods of safeguarding your important (and not-so-important) data. This week, I'll look at backup devices and software.
Backup Devices -- Any storage device can act as a backup device, but that doesn't mean that you should rely on just any storage device. Here are the main possibilities for everyday Mac users; I won't discuss expensive high-end stuff like 8 mm tape, digital linear tape (DLT), or autoloaders. Dantz Development has a Web page of similar information, including a cost-comparison table.
Floppy disk: Get real. Macs come with multi-gigabyte hard disks, making floppy backups extremely unrealistic. If you're a Minimal Backup zealot, you can back up a few files to floppy, but you'll spend a long time recovering the rest of your disk when you have problems. Plus, floppies are notoriously unreliable - some may work for years, others may fail while you carry them across the room.
Second hard disk: Hard disks are primarily useful as working backups that contain exact duplicates of original data. It's hard to do historical backups to hard disk, and it's expensive to create multiple backup sets. Two hard disks are unlikely to fail simultaneously, but both could be damaged by a serious power surge and are vulnerable to theft or disaster. I can't recommend a second hard disk as a sole backup device.
Zip drive: Zip drives are inexpensive, with prices under $150, and cartridges prices around $10. But, Zip cartridges hold only 100 MB, which means you might need 20 or more to back up a 2 GB drive. In addition, Zip media and drive reliability aren't necessarily great. I see Zip disks as modern-day floppies, and don't trust them with truly important data.
Magneto-optical: Magneto-optical drives come in sizes from 128 MB to 2.6 GB; prices on the current generation of 640 MB and 2.6 GB drives are about $400 and $1,700. Cartridges are fairly inexpensive at about $35 for 640 MB and $70 for 2.6 GB. Reliability reports are good, which places magneto-optical drives above other removable cartridge drives in my mind, although the smaller capacity of the less expensive drives might prove frustrating. They also aren't as popular as other types of removable media drives, which limits their utility if you want to use the cartridges for file transfer as well.
Large removable media drives: Removable cartridge drives such as the Jaz and SyJet are based on the same rigid disk media used in hard disks and can store 1 GB or more per cartridge. These popular backup devices cost from $250 to $600, depending on capacity, but cartridges are expensive, running between $75 and $150. Although the media has the capacity to work well for backup, the cost is higher than I like, and there was a significant disagreement on TidBITS Talk with regard to reliability.
Travan tape drive: I'm not particularly familiar with tape drives based on Travan technology - there are several products with different specs, and modern drives can read some older QIC (quarter-inch cartridge) tape formats. The general word is that they're quite inexpensive ($300 to $600 for a drive, with tapes running about $35 to $40) and capacious, although relatively slow, which isn't a serious problem for unattended backup. Tapes hold either 4 GB or 10 GB uncompressed, and you can generally assume at least 3:2 compression ratios, depending on your data.
DAT tape drive: DAT drives are among the more expensive options, with drive costs ranging from $600 to $1,000. There are a few different DAT (also known as DDS) flavors that provide additional storage capacity, speed, and hardware-based data compression. Tapes are cheap, running between $5 and $15 each, and capacities range from 2.6 GB to 12 GB. Tape reliability is good but not great, but the low prices encourage multiple backup sets and lessen exposure to bad media. Many DAT drives come bundled with Retrospect, whereas most other storage devices don't include backup software. I've used an APS HyperDAT for nightly backups for five years now, and I've come to prefer and recommend a tape solution.
CD-R: With the cost of CD recorders and recordable CD media dropping, CD-R has become a viable backup option. Drives cost between $350 and $600, depending on speed, and recordable CDs are as low as $2 to $3 each for 650 MB. Some people use a dual-media strategy - DAT tape for daily backups and CD-R for periodic archives. Keep in mind that you need backup software for the CD-R drive - standard CD burning software like Toast wastes space for each backup session. In contrast, true backup software like Retrospect or Retrospect Express can avoid that waste by using a technique called packet-recording. However, Retrospect may not support all older CD-R drives - check Dantz's Backup Mechanism Compatibility List or a similar list for other programs.
Backup Software -- Backups don't just happen on their own, although some people feel they should. After you've purchased and set up a backup device, you must have software to handle the details of copying your files. Since at its heart, all a backup program does is copy files, there are a variety of different programs that you could conceivably use for backup. They fall into three different categories: true backup programs, file copying utilities, and file synchronization utilities.
I don't consider a program to be a true backup program unless backup is its primary function. It should be able to perform full and incremental (only changed files) backups to a wide variety of media. You should be able to schedule backups, create multiple historical backup sets, and run backups unattended. High-end backup programs can back up over networks and work with different platforms. True backup programs may not a use Finder-readable format for backups, which enables them to compress and encrypt backups as well.
File copying and file synchronization utilities are fairly similar but differ in focus. Utilities like SpeedDoubler, the now-defunct CopyDoubler, and others focus primarily on enhancing the process of copying files in the Finder. These utilities may offer features for copying only changed files and scheduling copies, but they lack the features and the depth of a true backup program. One interesting entry in this category is DeskTape from Optima Technologies, which enables you to mount a DAT tape on the desktop like any other disk, albeit a tremendously slow one.
File synchronization utilities like Qdea's Synchronize Pro are designed to synchronize files between hard disks, often a desktop Mac and a PowerBook, but they usually claim backup capabilities as well. They can copy only changed files and can sometimes be automated. Unfortunately, they too lack the depth of true backup programs, generally being unable to use multiple backup sets, keep historical backups, or compress data.
Both types of utilities work well for creating simple working backups, but to my mind, relying on working backups to a single device is asking for trouble. To make such a strategy safe, you should back up regularly to multiple disks, include all appropriate files, and rotate backup sets manually such that you have some level of historical backup. It's not impossible to do this by hand, but it requires thought and regular effort.
Several mainstream true backup programs are available, though many others, such as Redux and FastBack, have disappeared over time.
Retrospect: Dantz Development is one of the oldest Mac developers, which is impressive considering that the company has only ever had a few products, all devoted to backup. Their flagship program, the powerful Retrospect 4.0, offers automation, compression, support for most backup devices, speedy network backup via Retrospect Clients (even over TCP/IP), support for Windows 95 and NT clients (PC Week even recommended using Retrospect on a Mac to back up Windows machines), flexibility for multiple backup sets on different automated schedules, a backup server that watches for the appearance of PowerBooks, and archiving features. Although Retrospect provides an EasyScript feature that walks you through creating backup scripts to automate backups, I've found that you're better off thinking carefully and crafting a custom backup strategy. I won't pretend that's easy - Retrospect's flexibility can make its interface rather abstract - but it has worked better for me than the generic strategy and schedule provided by EasyScript. I've used Retrospect for years, and once you understand its mindset, it's a great tool. It's also bundled with many tape drives, making it the easiest option for many people. If you must buy it, Retrospect 4.0 costs about $150 and a 5-user pack of Retrospect Clients is about $100.
Retrospect Express: Retrospect Express is a new product from Dantz that's aimed at individual users, rather than people backing up multiple Macs over a network. Retrospect Express includes most of Retrospect's feature set, but with the notable exception of tape drive support - Retrospect Express assumes you'll use removable media drives, including CD-R. If you must buy a backup program and you plan to back up to removable media, the $49.95 Retrospect Express represents an excellent value. It lacks a paper manual, but Dantz did an excellent job on the PDF version on the CD-ROM. Interestingly, the Retrospect Express CD-ROM contains English, French, and German versions of the software and the manual.
DiskFit Direct/DiskFit Pro: These programs were Dantz's personal backup entries before Retrospect Express. They're very simple, lack flexibility, and don't support volumes with more than 32,000 files. They are compatible with Mac OS 8.1 otherwise, with the exception of the DiskFit Reminder utility. Although you can still find them, Dantz has said that they will be retired in July - after ten years. If you use either, they'll probably work for some time yet, but I can't recommend buying them.
NovaMac: NovaStor's NovaMac claims a large feature set, including support for a variety of networks, unattended backup, support for numerous tape drives, and password protection. Comments I received indicated that early versions may have been difficult to figure out, possibly because NovaMac comes from NovaStor, a PC company for whom NovaMac is their sole Mac product. One reader said that although he didn't consider NovaMac quite up to Retrospect, he felt it was a good program, especially for people in cross-platform environments who - for whatever reason - didn't want to use Retrospect. NovaMac may be bundled with some tape drives. Otherwise, it appears to cost $49.50, although it's difficult to separate it from the PC versions on either NovaStor's site or in other online stores.
CharisMac Backup Mastery: CharisMac's Backup Mastery claims to support CD-R, most SCSI tape drives, and removable media. It offers backup of selected files, unattended backup, scheduled backup, and more. It costs $129.95 and has a competitive upgrade offer of $39.95. For those interested in backing up to tape drives, Backup Mastery is one of only three choices, along with Retrospect and NovaMac.
DataSaver -- Software Architects' $79.95 DataSaver 1.1 is a simple backup program for use with removable media. It provides filters for selecting specific types of files; supports multiple disk backups when using removable media; and estimates the required number of disks, total backup time, and the time before the next disk swap will be necessary.
Personal Backup: Highware's $49 Personal Backup is also a basic backup utility for use with removable media. It can perform incremental backups, operate in the background and backup on a schedule. Interestingly, Personal Backup is implemented as a control panel, and includes file synchronization and keystroke recording features. A two-week demo, in English or French, is available from the Highware Web site (275K download).
A few backup programs for other platforms, such as Windows NT, can back up Mac clients, including Cheyenne ARCserve, Seagate BackupExec, and IBM's ADSTAR Distributed Storage Manager. I mention these primarily in case anyone needs to convince a Windows NT-specific network administrator to back up a Mac on the network.
More Backup Thoughts -- The third part of this series will talk briefly about shareware backup programs, plus look at a new Internet backup service for the Mac and services you can turn to in case of disaster.
Article 3 of 12 in series
In the previous installments of this series on backup, I looked at issues surrounding backup as well as at backup hardware and software that you might want to useShow full article
In the previous installments of this series on backup, I looked at issues surrounding backup as well as at backup hardware and software that you might want to use. We're nearing the end of this topic, but a few important points remain to be made. Also, be sure to read this issue's review of BackJack, the first Macintosh Internet backup service.
Backup Shareware -- You may have noticed that last week I discussed only commercial software. I'm normally a huge supporter of freeware and shareware software, but in this case, I have to come down on the side of sticking with commercial software. Here's why.
First, if you go to the effort of backing up your data, you should be assured that you'll be able to access your data in case of problems with the backup, the software, or even your backup device. You need someone to call in case technical support is the key to recovering files essential to your project. Although many shareware authors offer great support via email, it's unusual for them to provide telephone support, which could prove necessary.
Second, the entire point of backups is that they be accessible at some random point in the future. That means you need to know that your backup program will be updated to work under future versions of the Mac OS. Even if the backup program stores files in normal Finder-readable format (so recovery shouldn't be a problem), being forced to switch backup programs just as you're upgrading to a new version of the operating system can be nerve-wracking - that's one of the times you're most likely to need good backups.
Third and finally, all the freeware and shareware programs I've seen fall into either the file copying or file synchronization categories outlined in the second part of this article, with all the related advantages and disadvantages mentioned there.
That said, if you wish to rely on a freeware or shareware solution, I recommend sticking with a program that's updated frequently and that stores files in normal Finder-readable format. Also, think carefully about your backup strategy so you have multiple backup sets and some level of historical backup. Here are the main programs I've seen that claim to back up files, listed alphabetically with version number, download size, price, and a URL to additional information and download links.
Drag 'N Back 2.7 (242K, $50)
MacUpdate 4.0b7 (625K, $20)
NetBackup 1.0 (273K, $20)
Onyx 1.0b2 (63K, $10)
SimpleBackup 1.6 (24K, free)
SmartSaver 3.2 (149K, $25)
SwitchBack 2.6 (272K, $30)
Synk 2.4.2 (621K, $10)
Off-site Storage Companies -- If you're concerned about your off-site backup strategy, you might look into a service that stores physical backups off-site. These companies often handle pickup and delivery, providing schedules and materials to simplify an off-site backup strategy. They're undoubtedly not cheap, but in business situations where data is all-important, they may be worth the cost. You can find several of them in Yahoo's Disaster Recovery category.
Catastrophic Data Loss -- If you find yourself in a catastrophic data loss situation, consider checking out the data recovery services offered by DriveSavers, a company that has developed proprietary software and techniques to recover data even from truly mangled disks that have been in fires, under tires, or at the bottom of the Amazon river. DriveSavers recently noted that they're now confident of being able to recover Macintosh Extended Format (MEF, or HFS Plus) disks. There are other recovery companies - I recommend making sure they're experts with Macintosh drive formats before working with them.
Whatever You Do -- I realize I've come down hard on the side of spending a decent amount of money to put together a coherent backup strategy based on a dedicated backup device, multiple tapes or cartridges, and commercial backup software. That's because I consider the work I do on my Macs to be important, and I feel that spending money up front is more efficient than wasting time and money when the inevitable data loss happens. I like the peace of mind that comes from knowing I've put together a solid backup system.
If you feel that your files aren't particularly important or that you can afford to spend a few days restoring your Mac to working order, feel free to go with a less expensive and comprehensive backup strategy. Just keep in mind the advice in this series, and whatever you do, remember this: No one ever regrets backing up, only not backing up.
Article 4 of 12 in series
With the growth of the Internet over the last few years, there's been added interest in backing up data over the Internet. It's been on my mind for a long time - as far back as 1992, I wrote an April Fools article in TidBITS-114 about a fictional company doing something along these lines. Fast forward to 1998, and several companies have products that enable computer users to back up files over an Internet connectionShow full article
With the growth of the Internet over the last few years, there's been added interest in backing up data over the Internet. It's been on my mind for a long time - as far back as 1992, I wrote an April Fools article in TidBITS-114 about a fictional company doing something along these lines.
Fast forward to 1998, and several companies have products that enable computer users to back up files over an Internet connection. They don't back up everything, only selected files, and files are encrypted for security reasons. Restoration happens over the Internet, or, if the amount of data is too large, via a CD-R sent to you overnight. Internet-based backup is perfect for a few important files, especially if you aren't comfortable with your offsite backup situation. On the downside, many people on TidBITS Talk said they were uncomfortable relying solely on encryption for security, and to my mind, an Internet backup strategy falls into the Minimal Backup camp, making it most useful as an off-site adjunct to a more comprehensive backup strategy.
One-Eyed Jacks -- The only Internet backup service currently available for Macintosh users is the just-released BackJack from Synectics, although I've heard rumblings about several other services that might appear soon. I've been playing with BackJack for a while now, and it has proved easy to set up and reliable so far.
BackJack's interface provides simple backup and recovery capabilities, which contributes to its ease-of-use, but the first version of the software lacks flexibility. It's clearly a first effort, albeit a functional one, and leaves room for future enhancement. For instance, to back up files, you select the folder that contains them, but there's no way to exclude specific files in that folder, and if you create a folder of aliases, BackJack doesn't resolve them and back up their originals. The company said it plans to address these issues soon in revisions to the free software.
BackJack does sport many basic backup features. You can create multiple sets of folders to back up, and each set can contain multiple folders. Each backup set can have a different automatic backup schedule, and BackJack has successfully kicked in every night and backed up my changed files. BackJack logs everything it does, plus it sends you an email report after each session. You can set how large the log grows, and other options enable you to determine how many revisions of a document are kept online and how long backed up files are kept online after being deleted locally. This functionality is tremendously important, since it enables you to revert to earlier versions of files and to recover if you delete a file without realizing.
The actual backup process is a bit slow, in part because of the transmission over the Internet (I have a 56K frame relay connection; those people with dialup Internet connections will obviously see somewhat slower transmission performance, plus they'll have to let BackJack dial out automatically). Speed isn't much of an issue though, since backups will usually take place unattended in the middle of the night. Another performance hit comes from the fact that BackJack compresses files using a built-in version of Aladdin's StuffIt technology and then encrypts them using a 128-bit key that you generate during setup. No one has broken the 128-bit encryption scheme BackJack uses, so security is high. However, be careful to store the extra copy of your encryption key off-site on a floppy; in case of a disaster that wipes out your computer, you won't be able to retrieve and decrypt your files without a copy of that key. The BackJack folks are investigating ways of avoiding that situation without compromising the security of the system.
Restoring a file from your backup over the Internet is easy - the Recover window provides a hierarchical view of your stored files, including any earlier revisions. The same interface enables you to enter dates for specific files to be deleted if you want to remove them from your backup. Although BackJack enables you to mark and unmark all the files, it lacks any way to retrieve just the latest versions of files or to find and mark specific ones through a search mechanism. If you back up a relatively small number of files that won't prove problematic, but it might with hundreds of files. The company has plans to offer a service that sends you all files on CD-R if necessary to avoid downloading all your data in the event of a complete recovery.
BackJack's documentation is available online and can be downloaded in HTML format. It's quite well done, although relatively basic, if mainly because the BackJack application doesn't have much depth. The documentation is good about answering the "Why" questions that always arise.
Ante Up -- Pricing is a little complicated, since BackJack charges based on the amount of data you back up, the time of day you send it, and how much storage space you use on the BackJack servers. There's a $17.50 one-time setup fee, a $3.50 monthly administration fee, plus data transfer and storage fees. BackJack's transfer fees are 14 cents per megabyte from 11 PM to 9 AM and 35 cents per megabyte from 9 AM to 11 PM. (Times are always your local time.) In addition, BackJack charges less than half a cent ($.0035) per megabyte per day for storage. Recovering data is always free, and you can use BackJack on multiple computers with same account for no additional charge.
You'll usually want to schedule BackJack to back up in the middle of the night, and you should be careful with what you choose to back up, avoiding applications and system files and, for instance, Web browser cache files if you plan to back up your Preferences folder.
In a sample situation where a user backs up 75 MB initially and then about 1 MB per day afterwards, the first month (including the setup fee) would cost about $45 and each subsequent month about $17. That pricing is in line with two popular PC Internet backup services: Atrieva charges $14.95 per month for up to two computers, and Connected Online Backup charges $19.95 per month per computer for up to 10 machines. Neither charges transfer or storage fees. They're probably betting that most people don't have the bandwidth to back up large quantities of data, plus they're counting on the fact most people won't back up Windows system files or applications because it's so difficult to restore them to a working state without doing a clean install.
In response to my comments about pricing, the BackJack folks noted that they felt uncomfortable using a flat rate pricing model that would in essence charge low-end users more to subsidize the high-end users who use far more of the system's capacity. That's a laudable goal, and I hope the pricing model doesn't dissuade people who are uncomfortable not knowing precisely how much they'd be paying.
These concerns aside, I'm quite impressed with BackJack as a first effort, and it's well worth a look for anyone interested in Internet backup, particularly those people planning on buying standalone iMacs immediately when they're released.
Article 5 of 12 in series
TidBITS readers have both offered useful additional information and raised a number of interesting questions concerning the issues that swirl around backup strategies, as discussed in the previous three parts of this series. My Backup Strategy -- A number of people asked me to explain the specifics behind my backup strategy, hoping that they could apply my rationale to their situationShow full article
TidBITS readers have both offered useful additional information and raised a number of interesting questions concerning the issues that swirl around backup strategies, as discussed in the previous three parts of this series.
My Backup Strategy -- A number of people asked me to explain the specifics behind my backup strategy, hoping that they could apply my rationale to their situation. So, here are the details. I back up to DAT tape using Retrospect 4.0 and an old APS HyperDAT drive hooked to a Centris 660AV that currently does nothing else other than run Apple's LaserWriter Bridge software. Before the 660AV, I used an SE/30 that had a much slower SCSI bus, and also ran numerous other applications. I've found that Retrospect coexists nicely with most types of applications, but not mail servers, which can lose data when Retrospect monopolizes the CPU during backup.
We have two types of machines - machines that are available on the network most days and which are backed up every night by a Retrospect script, and machines that appear on the network on a sporadic basis like PowerBooks and the PC, which back up whenever they appear via a Retrospect Backup Server script. Automated nightly backups make for minimal intrusion and work, since they free me from having to monitor the process, or even notice it. At the same time, nightly backups provide a high level of protection should we lose anything ranging from a single file to an entire hard disk.
To spread out exposure to problems, I back up to three sets of tapes, named Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus (hey, I have a degree in Classics, I'm allowed). The current tape in each set lives in the drive for a week, and every Monday morning I eject the current set and replace it with the next one, moving up in the alphabet. I used to use default names like "Nightly Backup A," but that became confusing when I had multiple tapes in the set, resulting in tape names like "Nightly Backup A 2" and it became even worse when I archived a set with a New backup in Retrospect, thus ending up with "Nightly Backup A  2." I think better with real names, so I switched to the names of the Greek gods.
Retrospect's EasyScript feature wanted to set me up with a rotation schedule that swapped tapes on Fridays. However, I'm most likely to be "at work" on Mondays, since that's when we publish TidBITS. So I changed the schedule to swap tapes on Mondays. Make sure rotation schedules work for you or you may find yourself not backing up because you didn't have the right tape inserted. So, every Monday morning when I start working, the first thing I do is swap the backup tape set. I'm working on a system of storing the previous set off-site and rotating the off-site backups as well.
The trickiest part of my backup strategy involved dealing with tapes filling up. Retrospect can script Full backups (which erase the contents of that set and start over) or New backups (which keep the contents of that set and start over), but I couldn't figure out a schedule for those that made sense. Plus, I hate wasting space, so I couldn't imagine starting a New backup if I had several gigabytes left on the current tape, just because the New backup script had kicked in. So, I came up with a strategy that requires a little more manual intervention but better fits my style of working.
The Hades set contains three tapes. When it fills up and Retrospect asks for a fourth tape, I cancel that request and manually do a Full backup to reset the contents of that backup set. The Poseidon tape set uses a similar strategy, but it contains four tapes and is reset when Retrospect asks for a fifth tape. Otherwise, Hades and Poseidon would probably run out of space at roughly the same time, which could force me to go back two weeks to the Zeus set to recover a file that had been deleted just before the reset action took place. Finally, the Zeus set is allowed to contain five tapes, but when Retrospect asks for the sixth tape, I cancel the request and manually perform a New backup to completely new tapes, archiving the previous five tapes in the Zeus set and giving it five more. The filled-up Zeus archival tapes live off-site as well.
If a Full backup of Hades or Poseidon would erase a few days of backups, I give them one more tape and wait to perform the Full backup until they come up in the rotation again. At that point, I get the extra tape back again - it's just temporary space.
This system works well for me, since I end up with nightly backups of all files, three different sets of tapes in case one (or even two) fails, a set of tapes that can be stored off-site, and archival sets of tapes that can be stored off-site. And, the beauty of resetting two of the three sets when they fill up is that I don't have to buy nearly as many DAT tapes as I would otherwise. Of course, I do have to swap in new tapes for the Hades and Poseidon sets every year or so, but that's a minor liability.
DAT Longevity -- Several people asked about the number of times one should use a DAT tape, since a variety of advice seems to float around in the ether. I forwarded the question to Craig Isaacs of Dantz Development and Paul McGraw of APS for their input. Craig said that Dantz recommends sticking with the manufacturers' recommendations, but on a more realistic note, commented that the decision runs along with the entire backup strategy decision - you must decide how much you wish to spend for differing levels of protection. For instance, some large companies never reuse media, preferring to do complete backups daily and taking the previous day's backup off-site forever. These organizations feel that millions of dollars of data is well worth a few thousand dollars of backup media. Obviously individuals would rarely use such a strategy but still shouldn't assume a DAT tape will work forever in constant use.
Paul McGraw's comments were more concrete. He felt that 30 to 50 sessions is a totally reasonable expectation, and he has used DAT tapes personally for hundreds of sessions without failure. Paul qualified his comments, saying that it's probably a good idea to retire a tape after it's been used for 90 days, no matter what. In addition, media vendors say that new tapes leave more residue on the tape drive's heads, so you should run a cleaning tape after using a new tape for the first time. Finally, Paul suggested that if you see frequent media failures, you should look into switching media suppliers, and if that doesn't help, switch mechanisms or even media types.
My advice, particularly for those trying to keep costs down, is to limit your exposure to the possibility of any given tape (or any other form of removable media) going bad. Do this by maintaining multiple backup sets that rotate on a relatively frequent basis. For instance, if you have three backup sets that rotate every day, even if one fails, the previous set is never more than a day old. In addition, I think retiring tapes periodically is a great way to create archival backups - although you might not trust a tape after hundreds of sessions of use, if you retire it in working order, it's likely to be accessible for years, should you need to recover a file from it.
DAT Tape Usage -- An interesting fact arose from one of the responses I received from a previous article. A reader wrote to say that he'd been encouraged to buy a 9 GB hard disk in addition to a 12 GB Sony DAT drive. The reason given was that his 10 Mbps Ethernet network probably wasn't fast enough for Retrospect to use the tapes fully, and by backing up first to the 9 GB hard disk and then backing that up to the DAT tape, there wouldn't be any wasted space on the DAT tapes. It seems that if Retrospect can't get a stream of data coming in fast enough to write to the tape, the DAT drive itself writes what are called "pad blocks" until more data is available. Otherwise, the backup would take far longer, because the DAT drive would have to stop, rewind, and locate the last write point after each time Retrospect's buffer empties out.
Although true, this design decision on the part of DAT drive engineers (a trade-off for speed versus tape capacity) probably doesn't affect you unless you back up to or from an incredibly slow computer, or using LocalTalk. In addition, DAT tapes are cheap and reusable, so if some space is wasted invisibly in this fashion, it's unlikely to be worth the cost and effort of putting a hard disk in the middle of the system.
DAT Drive Pricing -- The perennial complaint arose in relation to DAT drives: why are PC DAT drives cheaper than Mac DAT drives? According to Paul McGraw at APS, they're not - at least when you make a fair and accurate comparison. When you compare a PC DAT drive in an external enclosure, without software, to one of equal performance on the Mac (the same mechanism models mostly work on both platforms), the price is virtually the same. Macs generally don't support internal DAT drives, so there is a nearly $100 difference between an internal DAT for PCs and an external DAT for the Mac. The second factor in the cost is that of software bundled with the drive. Low-end software in the PC world is likely to be cheaper than the high-end Retrospect, which is the most common program in the Mac world for backing up to DAT. When high-end PC backup programs are bundled, costs are comparable. Finally, there are undoubtedly some economies of scale involved in selling more units into the market.
In short, the answer relates to difficult or impossible internal installation, and a substantial difference in the cost of what is considered "acceptable" backup software. When you compare apples to apples (in this case, high-performance SCSI DAT drives bundled with high-end software), the prices are generally quite comparable.
Many people confuse tape drives in general with DAT drives. There are numerous different tape technologies, some of which provide extremely low cost (and low performance) PC tape drives. Relatively few QIC (quarter-inch cartridge) tape drives are available for the Macintosh, and those that are use SCSI instead of the cheaper IDE or floppy interfaces used by the PC versions. In those cases, the PC tape drives are both more numerous and quite a bit cheaper.
8mm Tape -- Several readers wrote to chide me for claiming that 8mm tape drives were only expensive, high-end solutions. Although that does seem to be true of most 8mm drives, the Exabyte 8700LT stores up to 10 GB (compressed) on a single tape and costs about $650 (8mm drives don't seem to be as easy to find as DAT drives - I was directed to Computer Discount Warehouse). Reliability and speed are reportedly good, and media cost is as low as $6 per tape. It's worth a look.
Redux Redux -- One of the more popular backup programs of yesteryear, Redux, is about to make a comeback. A new company called Redux Software has been created specifically to develop and support Redux. The company is working on Redux 2.6, which is an update to the current 2.5.1, and after that they will start version 3.0. We'll be sure to note when Redux 2.6 ships.
Retrospect Express Availability and Features -- Craig Isaacs of Dantz Development has confirmed that Retrospect Express is available only through Dantz until 01-Jul-98. That's coming up soon, but some people have been confused by mail order vendors claiming the program hadn't shipped yet. It has shipped, just not to distributors yet. In addition, I've had a number of discussions with people who believe Retrospect Express is missing particular features, such as the capability to back up multiple volumes to a second hard disk. Although it does lack some of Retrospect's high-end features (like tape drive support, security, Backup Server capabilities, network backup capabilities, and most notably custom Selectors for flexible file selection criteria), in each case so far the requested features have been present and documented in the manual.
Auto Backups -- Several people suggested using the trunk of your car as an off-site backup location that's easier to get to than a safe-deposit box. Although it's certainly easy, I would be extremely leery of storing magnetic media in a car. It depends on where you live, but here in Seattle, the inside of cars can get quite cold and damp in the winter, and extremely hot in the summer sun. It's possible that CD-Rs might not be as susceptible to environmental damage as tapes or removable cartridges, but frankly, I don't think it's worth the chance. Stick with storing off-site backups in a climate-controlled location like an office or, ideally, a safe-deposit box.
QuickBack -- I missed a freeware backup program in the last installment in this series. Jacques Cornell <firstname.lastname@example.org> recommends the freeware QuickBack 1.9.3 by PopChar author Gunther Blaschek. It appears to be a true backup program, though it has a rather annoyingly modal interface and hasn't been updated in over two years.
Backup Book -- Marc Shipman-Mueller <email@example.com> wrote to recommend The Complete Guide to Mac Backup Management, a $34.95 book by Tom Dell and Dorian J. Cougias.
Lock that Door! Finally, Alastair Rankine <firstname.lastname@example.org> comments that it's worth thinking about the physical security of your backup media and hardware. Although it's probably not a major concern for individuals, businesses should treat backups as valuable data and keep them in appropriately inaccessible places. In addition, at least Retrospect enables you to set security levels on your backups. You can choose Password Only (no encryption), SimpleCrypt (fast encryption), or DES (strong, slow encryption). Retrospect has other security options as well, such as password protecting access to the program and encrypting data while it transfers from a Retrospect Client to the backup server. If security is paramount for you, make sure your backup software and overall strategy support your security needs.
Article 6 of 12 in series
With the recent release of Dantz Development's Internet-savvy Retrospect Express 4.1, which joins Retrospect 4.1 and the BackJack Internet backup service from Synectics Business Solutions, I think it's safe to say that Internet backup has become a field - a step up from a trend, more stable than a fad, and nowhere near as big as an industryShow full article
With the recent release of Dantz Development's Internet-savvy Retrospect Express 4.1, which joins Retrospect 4.1 and the BackJack Internet backup service from Synectics Business Solutions, I think it's safe to say that Internet backup has become a field - a step up from a trend, more stable than a fad, and nowhere near as big as an industry. I've been using these programs for a while now and have come up with some suggestions for how you can integrate Internet backup into your backup strategy. What will work best for you relates to how much storage space you have (or are willing to pay for) and how fast your Internet connection is.
Advantages of Internet Backup -- First off, let's briefly look at the advantages of backing up to a server on the Internet.
No need for additional hardware (although, unless Internet backup constitutes your entire backup strategy, you still need appropriate hardware for local backups).
Guaranteed off-site backup, which protects your files in case of fire, burglary, or natural disaster.
Integrated backup strategy for businesses with off-site employees.
Access to your encrypted backups wherever you can access the Internet (this might be useful to heavy travelers).
The main reasons suggested on TidBITS Talk for why people have decided against Internet backup are concerns about the reliability and longevity of an Internet backup service, the safety of sensitive information, and the length of time necessary to back up a large hard disk even over a DSL or ISDN connection.
Several Megabytes Available -- Most Internet service providers offer a few megabytes of disk space with your Internet account. Often people use this space for publishing Web pages. As long as this storage space is accessible via FTP, you can use Retrospect 4.1 or Retrospect Express 4.1 to back up a small number of important files to your Internet account. In this case, backing up only a few files via the Internet cannot form your entire backup strategy; you must perform backups to removable media as well or risk losing everything other than a few of your most important files. In addition, some ISPs don't back up their FTP servers, so they prefer that you don't rely on them for secure data storage.
Retrospect and Retrospect Express try to be too helpful in this situation. By default, both add new versions of files to your backup set, which is great with removable media, but which can quickly fill up a small FTP disk space allocation. My solution is to have Retrospect Express perform a Full Backup every other night. In Retrospect parlance, a Full Backup resets the storage set, replacing the previous contents. So, by doing a Full Backup every other night, I ensure that my backup set cannot grow significantly larger as I modify files. The drawback is that I may have only the most recent version of each file backed up. You can check the amount of space used by viewing the StorageSet summary in either program.
50 to 100 MB Available -- Let's assume that you have more disk space available. It's possible your business provides it, your ISP doesn't care how much you use within reason, or you're paying a backup service like BackJack or one of the Dantz Certified Internet Backup Sites (currently including Committed to Memory, Recover-iT, and Portland Communications, which is located in Europe). The fee-based Internet backup sites all currently charge by the amount of disk space you use; although the details vary, the rates are generally comparable. You can estimate between $15 and $25 per month to store 100 MB.
For most people, that much space will be roomy enough to store backups of all of your documents, preferences, macros, email, and other files that you can't easily reinstall. There's less need to back up large system files or applications, since you should have master disks. You could rely on Internet backup entirely in this situation, which makes sense for iMac users or people who don't create large files. In short, this level of Internet backup is perfect for most home users, who should look at either BackJack or Retrospect Express 4.1 (the full-fledged Retrospect is overkill).
The choice between Retrospect Express and BackJack is one of trade-offs. Retrospect Express is inexpensive and much more flexible and powerful than BackJack, but BackJack is free and easier to use because of its lack of selection flexibility. In Retrospect Express, you'll want to perform a Normal Backup most nights, but once every week or two, you should perform a Full Backup to reset the storage set to use less space. BackJack handles this situation more elegantly, since you can set how many versions of a file to keep and how many days to keep a file after you've deleted it. These BackJack features, in combination with built-in StuffIt compression (which is probably tighter than Retrospect Express's compression), help reduce the amount of data you're storing.
If you ever want to back up to removable media as well, Retrospect Express is a better choice, since BackJack can only back up via the Internet. But if you're hyper-concerned about the security of your data, BackJack's 128-bit encryption is significantly stronger than Retrospect Express's SimpleCrypt encryption.
You need at least a fast modem connection to the Internet since transferring this much data takes time, and you definitely want to run backups at night.
Unlimited Space Available -- Corporate users or people at large universities may have access to FTP servers with essentially unlimited amounts of space. In this case, you probably also have at least a 10 Mbps Ethernet connection to the FTP server, if not a 100 Mbps connection. The combination of massive space and fast network connection (anything less than a 1.54 Mbps T1 connection probably wouldn't work) means you could back up everything to the FTP server via Retrospect or Retrospect Express. In essence, the Internet backup set would act just like a tape backup set, and it would make a great off-site backup for a student (dissertations and similarly important projects should be backed up in numerous different places). You probably wouldn't want to pay to use BackJack or one of the Internet backup services because of the high cost.
In an organization large enough to have this kind of FTP space available, there might already be a centralized backup procedure in place that could include Internet backup. For instance, it might make sense to back up an entire department to a large FTP server using Retrospect, because Retrospect is smart about storing only a single copy of identical files on multiple machines. Thus, adding more computers to the backup (Retrospect can also back up Windows machines) might not significantly increase the size of the storage set if everyone uses similar applications.
Even if your files are being backed up already, it might not happen every night due to the sheer volume of data that needs to be backed up. In that case - especially if you don't trust the person or group doing the backups - you might consider your own Internet backup as a secondary backup, perhaps handling only files you can't easily reinstall on your own. An added advantage of your own backup is that it may be easier to recover a file from it than from a centralized backup.
Give It a Try -- I think Internet backup is here to stay. It might be a way for some home and iMac users to avoid buying an additional backup device and dealing with physical media, or it might prove to be excellent secondary backup of important files; either way, Macintosh users can now add it to their backup strategies. For a more detailed discussion of backing up in general, check out my article series on backups.
Article 7 of 12 in series
Huge hard disks are a boon in today's world of MP3s and QuickTime movies, but they've made reliable backup strategies harder to develop. Back when I bought my first 2.6 GB DAT drive, I'd just added my first 1 GB hard disk to my main Mac, and no other Mac on my network had over 700 MB onlineShow full article
Huge hard disks are a boon in today's world of MP3s and QuickTime movies, but they've made reliable backup strategies harder to develop. Back when I bought my first 2.6 GB DAT drive, I'd just added my first 1 GB hard disk to my main Mac, and no other Mac on my network had over 700 MB online. With Retrospect's intelligent snapshot approach to backup and incremental backups, a couple of tapes would last for months. Now it takes me 8 DAT tapes just to do the first backup, and I can go only about a month before I need to recycle a 13-tape backup set. Worse, because of the swapping necessary to write and verify 8 tapes, it takes four or five days to finish that initial backup, during which time the work I do remains largely unprotected.
So when the folks at Ecrix (pronounced "ecree") offered to send me a review unit of their new VXA-1 tape drive, I jumped at the chance, although I warned them that a serious review of a backup device would take a long time, since the true test of a backup device is how it performs under real world conditions. I've now been using a VXA-1 tape drive for about eight months, and I think I understand it well.
Big and Fast -- Ecrix makes much of their tape technology and how it supposedly makes the special tapes written by the VXA-1 more reliable and durable than other approaches. Although I've had no data loss problems, I can't comment on the super durability, since I wasn't about to dip my test tapes in boiling coffee or freezing water. What sets the VXA-1 apart in my eyes is that its tapes hold a lot of data, and it can read and write at blinding speeds.
Ecrix claims that their V17 tapes hold up to 66 GB of data, though that's with hardware compression. They also claim a 6 MB per second (360 MB per minute) write speed, and that number also takes hardware compression into account. It's generally more useful to discuss backup devices in terms of native speeds and capacities, which would be 33 GB of data and 3 MB per second (180 MB per minute), not because you won't do somewhat better with compression, but because you'll be happier if the drive exceeds your expectations rather than falling short.
For instance, when I paired the SCSI version of the VXA-1 with an Adaptec 29160 SCSI card in my 450 MHz Power Mac G4, Retrospect reported write speeds around 250 MB per minute. That's well above the 180 MB per minute that you'd see without compression, but far below the 360 MB per minute Ecrix claims. Throughout this article, I'll use the native speed and capacity, and when comparing the VXA-1 with other tape drives, you should make sure to do the same for an accurate comparison.
Based purely on specs, the VXA-1 may sound like a solid backup device - big, fast, and reliable. That's essentially my conclusion, but I want to focus first on the negatives, since although the VXA-1 is very good, it's not perfect, and what I've learned may be of use to anyone considering these extremely attractive backup devices.
Speed Caveats -- You may be salivating at the idea of backing up 250 MB per minute, but you won't see speeds like that in most situations.
You must connect the VXA-1 to a fast Mac. I first used it on an old Power Mac 7100, but even backups of the local hard disk proceeded at only about 30 MB per minute. Plus, I had to order a special cable to connect the 68-pin high-density connectors on the VXA-1 to the 25-pin SCSI port on the 7100. Even a less expensive Adaptec 2930 SCSI card in my Power Mac G4 turned in about 200 MB per minute. So if you like to dedicate an older Mac to backup tasks, you might want to reconsider that with a VXA-1. (Ecrix has recently released a FireWire version of the drive that reportedly sports similar performance to the SCSI version in conjunction with a fast SCSI card.)
The VXA-1 itself is seldom the performance bottleneck. If you're backing up other machines across a network, performance suffers significantly based on the network speed and the speed of the Mac being backed up. The faster Macs on our network, my PowerBook G3 and Tonya's iBook, reach respective speeds of about 55 MB per minute (transferring over 10 Mbps wired Ethernet) and 40 MB per minute (over our 11 Mbps AirPort wireless network). Our Performa 6400 manages only about 30 MB per minute over Ethernet, and the aged SE/30 hovers around 5 MB per minute. So, although you can't blame the VXA-1 for slow network backup performance, it's a fact of life you can fix only by increasing the speed of your network or the Macs being backed up. And realistically, it's mostly an issue on initial backups, since incremental backups copy much less data per session.
Capacity Caveats -- There are also some caveats when considering that 33 GB capacity. First off, Ecrix actually sells tapes in three different capacities. The $30 V6 cartridge has a 12 GB native capacity. The $45 V10 cartridge checks in at 20 GB native, and the $80 V17 cartridges that I've been using have the longest tape length, so they provide 33 GB native. The 20 GB V10 is the most economical per gigabyte, by a bit, but I'd happily pay a little more for the V17's extra capacity.
As I noted before, almost all tape drives claim a 2:1 ratio for their hardware compression. The claim is relatively accurate for standard types of documents, but many of the largest files we work with today (MP3s, QuickTime movies, and JPEG graphics) are already internally compressed. No lossless compression routine such as those used in backup devices or programs like Aladdin's StuffIt Deluxe can achieve a 2:1 compression ratio on such files, and in the worst case, the files may even grow slightly.
But there's yet another problem that can suck capacity from your backup tapes. For optimal use of space with any tape drive, you never want the drive to wait for data from the computer. Most tape drives write "pad blocks" while waiting since it's faster for a drive to write pad blocks rather than stop, rewind, reposition, spin back up to speed, and start writing again. The VXA-1 is different: it does stop the tape motion while waiting for data, but it must still write a "splice point" between the old and new data, and the accumulation of many splice points reduces capacity. So if you're using a slow Mac or backing up over a network, you're likely wasting some space.
I ran into a combination of these two issues in spades. Since most of my backups run over 10 Mbps Ethernet, they're not very speedy, and until I moved the VXA-1 from the Power Mac 7100 to my Power Mac G4, nothing was backing up at much over 25 MB per minute. Worse, about 9 GB of the files on our Performa 6400 file server are MP3s. Needless to say, I was unwittingly wasting considerable tape space and was miffed when my tapes only held about 29 GB. It wasn't until Ecrix's tech support explained things that I realized how badly I'd been using the VXA-1.
I've come up with two solutions. First, I'm going to stop backing up my MP3s to tape and instead burn them to CD-R, which will provide some level of backup and let me play MP3s in a Philips CD-MP3 player a friend gave us for Christmas. Second, you can use an Ecrix program called VXATool to change some of the configuration settings within the VXA-1. One of these options sets the drive to favor capacity over speed (supposedly making a V17 tape hold its full 33 GB versus only 20 GB when speed is favored), and I've just switched to that mode. It reduced the speed of an initial backup of my Power Mac G4's hard disk from 250 MB per minute down to 135 MB per minute, but the throughput of subsequent incremental backups and for all my network volumes was unaffected. I haven't been using it long enough to determine how much more data I'll really get on each tape. Unfortunately, VXATool is a primitive command-line program; the command to favor capacity is "1 capacity y".
Other Considerations -- I was initially quite negative about moving the VXA-1 from the 7100 in the server room to the G4 at my desk because I like having Retrospect's backup server scripts running constantly and I don't like listening to unnecessary fans. Retrospect turned out not to be a problem, since it politely launches itself every night at 11 PM (thanks to the Retro.Startup extension), backs up everything on the network, and doesn't complain when I quit it in the morning after a glance to verify the backups completed successfully. More important, the VXA-1's fan, although relatively loud, turns on only when necessary, so it's mostly silent.
The physical design of the VXA-1 is quite large, though reasonably attractive, and it can sit on either its bottom or on its side. Four front panel lights flash in a variety of ways and colors to communicate numerous bits of feedback. Unfortunately, the key to what those lights mean exists only in Ecrix's PDF-based documentation (even though they include a printed Getting Started card).
I've had to interpret the feedback lights twice. The first time it informed me that I needed to clean the drive with the special $35 cleaning tape. The second was more serious - the first unit I received, an early production model, stopped working and announced its troubles via the feedback lights. I tried to troubleshoot it with the aid of Ecrix's tech support, and when updating its firmware didn't solve the problem, they promptly replaced it with a current model that's worked well since, with one exception.
At that point, I was still using the Power Mac 7100, and something caused it to crash while writing to tape. Sophisticated Circuits' Rebound restarted the Mac, but the VXA-1 remained confused (other crashes haven't bothered it at all) and claimed it was continuing to write to the tape. I couldn't stop it or even eject the tape. Ecrix explained that in such a situation, the VXA-1 tries to write the directory of what has been stored on the tape, and it can remember that it wants to do so even if you power it off and back on again. Something prevented it from completing that write, so Ecrix's tech support rep told me the secret trick for ejecting a tape in such a situation: hold down the front-mounted eject button for 10 to 15 seconds and the VXA-1 will cough it up. Needless to say, you'll want to erase that tape and start a new backup on it, since its data is not likely to be in a good state.
Buying Advice -- Despite these warts, I'm actually more comfortable recommending the VXA-1 now that I've lived with it for the last eight months. Ecrix's tech support has not only been able to help resolve my problems, they've explained why they've occurred. To me, knowledge of how and why my systems work is important because I'm relying on this drive to act predictably in unpredictable situations.
The cost per gigabyte of the VXA-1's tapes is extremely good, but the drive itself isn't as cheap for use on home networks or small offices. Prices range from about $1,000 up to $1,500, depending on whether you want an internal or external drive, FireWire or SCSI, and with or without Retrospect Desktop or Retrospect Server. However, even as Ecrix provides various stripped-down options, they don't skimp - even the most minimal package includes a $35 cleaning tape and an $80 V17 tape. Plus, you can get any package to test for free for 30 days.
For home and small office use, OnStream's 25 GB and 15 GB (native capacities) Echo tape drives, which come in USB, FireWire, and SCSI versions, would seem to compete favorably with the VXA-1. Drive costs are significantly lower than the VXA-1 drives, particularly for the slow 15 GB USB drives, but the tape capacities are also lower, the performance is slower, and the cost per gigabyte for the 15 GB tapes is higher than the VXA-1's 33 GB tapes. I can't speak to the OnStream drives' overall reliability or usability.
Plus, if you're anticipating future growth, Ecrix offers the VXA AutoPak, a 15 tape loader combined with either one or two VXA-1 drives. It's pricey, but not for what you get, and lets you start small and move up without changing media types.
One slight concern about both the Ecrix and OnStream drives is that neither is yet an industry standard with multiple suppliers for media and mechanisms. That's a concern if you think that either company might go under, orphaning users who would need new media or replacement mechanisms to recover backed-up data. Since neither technology has reached the status of industry standard, they're equally vulnerable, and anyone who is truly concerned should either look elsewhere or make contingency plans.
In the end, I'm not only happy with the VXA-1 drive, I'm extremely pleased with how it has compared to my old, slow DAT drive and its teetering stacks of tapes. If your backup strategy is suffering from too-old hardware, take advantage of the 30-day free trial of the VXA-1 and see if it solves your problems as handily as it solved mine.
Article 8 of 12 in series
Never let it be said that I'm not open to new ideas. After my recent review of Ecrix's VXA-1 tape drive, a number of people asked why you couldn't just use hard disks for backup. I quickly responded with all the reasons that hard disks are a fairly poor option as a sole backup solutionShow full article
Never let it be said that I'm not open to new ideas. After my recent review of Ecrix's VXA-1 tape drive, a number of people asked why you couldn't just use hard disks for backup.
I quickly responded with all the reasons that hard disks are a fairly poor option as a sole backup solution. To wit:
Cost: Hard disks are much more expensive than tapes.
Redundancy: A single backup isn't sufficient for a good backup strategy.
Archiving: It's easy to make an identical copy of a hard disk, but doing so loses the benefits of archived data.
Single Use: It's tempting to use a backup hard disk for storing original data occasionally, putting backed up data at risk.
Convenience: It's much harder to connect and disconnect hard disks than to insert and remove tapes.
Transportability: It's harder to take hard disks to another site for protection against burglars, fire, or even earthquakes (not that we ever have those in Seattle).
But as the discussion progressed, I became convinced that hard disks can be used in a coherent backup strategy, thanks to the rise of cheap, large, FireWire hard disks. The dealmac Web site recently found an 80 GB FireWire hard disk at MadLogix for $335. At that price you could buy three hard disks for about $1,000, which is a good bit less than the roughly $1,500 you'd pay for a VXA-1 tape drive, its bundled 33 GB tape, plus 11 20 GB tapes (for a three backup set solution of comparable capacity). Even if I personally wouldn't be comfortable buying from the vendor with the absolute cheapest price, inexpensive FireWire hard disks are also available from TidBITS sponsors APS Tech and Small Dog Electronics, along with ElectricDeal.com, a new company run by some old friends with a long history in the storage business.
An even more convenient approach might be to use removable FireWire hard disks in a bay. For instance, Granite Digital sells kit parts for trays into which you can install inexpensive IDE hard disks; you can then slot these trays into frames that fit into 5.25" half-height drive bays in an external enclosure. (Click the Hot-Swap Bays link in Granite Digital's Web catalog). On the downside, the price of such a solution would probably be slightly more expensive than buying three stand-alone hard disks, and if the power supply in your external enclosure failed, all the hard disks would be inaccessible.
Answering the Criticisms -- Anyway, in this sample situation, for $500 less, you end up with much faster backup media with no need to swap among four tapes. And once you eliminate the price differential between hard disks and tape systems, many of the other criticisms of hard disk backup systems fall away. Working through the list above:
Redundancy: When hard disks are as cheap as they are now, you can afford to purchase several to support a multiple backup set strategy. That's necessary for a good backup strategy, since it's all too easy for calamity to befall a single backup.
Archiving: Although a distinct psychological barrier remains when thinking about hard disks as write-once media, you should treat them as such for archiving purposes. Alternatively, occasional CD-R backups could also meet your archiving needs. You could even combine the two by using the hard disks for daily incremental backups, then using Retrospect's transfer function to move the archive to a stack of CD-Rs (you'd need about 120 CD-Rs for this, which would cost about $60 and take quite some time to burn). It remains important to use a real backup program like Retrospect or Retrospect Express that backs up multiple versions of files, rather than a souped-up copy utility that duplicates your original hard disk. Identical copy backups don't protect against corruption creeping into files, such as the databases used by many email programs. (This really happens, as was discussed at length in TidBITS Talk recently.)
Single Use: Nothing prevents you from using one of your backup hard disks for occasional storage of original data, but it's a terrible idea to put your backups at risk like that. I recommend labelling the cases of the backup hard disks clearly to remind you of their purpose.
Convenience: FireWire hard disks are simple to connect to and disconnect from your Mac, which eliminates one of the barriers to using older SCSI hard disks for backups in the past. It's important to minimize hassle in a backup strategy, since the more hassle there is, the less likely you are to back up regularly.
Transportability: Having multiple backup sets enables you to rotate one backup hard disk offsite at all times, something that wasn't financially feasible before. Hard disks are larger than tapes, but that's mostly a problem if you use a small safe-deposit box for offsite storage.
Hard disks still don't compete against tape solutions if you have to back up a great deal of data (hundreds of gigabytes) to multiple backup sets (the more sets, the more tape makes sense). You'll have to run the cost per gigabyte comparisons for your situation yourself, but the difference between a $335 hard disk and $180 worth of tapes will eventually eliminate the up-front cost of the tape drive.
There are also two limitations in the current version of Retrospect that could come into play. First, to back up to a hard disk, Retrospect requires you to use a Macintosh File backup set, which means your backup can't span multiple hard disks. Second and more problematic is a limitation with how Retrospect stores its catalog files for Macintosh File backup sets. Retrospect stores the catalog data (the table of contents of the backup) in the file's resource fork, and Mac OS 9 and the HFS+ disk format don't support resource forks over 16 MB. The catalog size is related to the number of files backed up (not the amount of data), and creates a limit of between 75,000 and 95,000 files. As a workaround, you could create another Macintosh File backup set on the same hard disk when the first one fills up, and continue doing so until the hard disk itself fills up, after which you must decide what to archive permanently and what to use again. Dantz will undoubtedly address these concerns in a future version of Retrospect.
Realistically, though, installations with massive backup needs already have serious backup strategies and hardware already in place. (And if they don't, they're fools.) The comparison between tapes and cheap FireWire hard disks as backup media works best in situations with small to moderate amounts of data to back up. If you fall into that category and aren't happy with your backup strategy currently, take a look at the option of multiple FireWire hard disks.
Article 9 of 12 in series
Last week we ran out of room to write much about Dantz Development's release of Retrospect 5.0, the lack of which, for many people serious about their backups (see our "Backed Up Today?" series of articles on the topic), was the main obstacle preventing upgrades to Mac OS X. First off, I want to explain briefly why we had to wait so long for Retrospect 5.0, and why making it compatible with Mac OS X was much harder than it would appearShow full article
Last week we ran out of room to write much about Dantz Development's release of Retrospect 5.0, the lack of which, for many people serious about their backups (see our "Backed Up Today?" series of articles on the topic), was the main obstacle preventing upgrades to Mac OS X.
First off, I want to explain briefly why we had to wait so long for Retrospect 5.0, and why making it compatible with Mac OS X was much harder than it would appear. In Mac OS X, Apple essentially bolted the classic Mac OS on top of a Unix operating system. Although Apple did a generally good job of making this connection invisible to users, the differences between the way the Mac OS and Unix handle files are glaring to an application like Retrospect that needs to be able to restore files exactly as it backed them up. Mac OS files have different attributes and permissions than Unix files, and Mac OS files can even have resource forks, which Unix files lack. Plus, in the Mac OS, the only type of links are aliases, whereas Unix offers several different types of links. Even case-sensitivity is different between the two.
The practical upshot of these differences was that Cocoa (and Unix) applications couldn't generally see the Mac OS attributes and resource forks, and Classic applications couldn't handle the Unix attributes, permissions, and links. The happy medium had to be a specially written Carbon application that had been coded to handle both Unix and Macintosh file information. To address this, Dantz initially released a free Retrospect Client for Mac OS X Preview that worked with a plug-in to Retrospect 4.3 under Mac OS 9 to back up Mac OS X-based machines; it was basically a hack that worked, but wasn't ideal.
Operating system support was necessary as well, and it wasn't until Mac OS X 10.1.2, released in late December of 2001, that Apple fixed all the bugs that had previously made it impossible to restore a working Mac OS X installation from a backup. Dantz immediately released a free Retrospect 5.0 Preview that ran under Mac OS X and could back up and restore properly. Dantz then spent the last few months doing final testing and packaging, leading up to last week's release of Retrospect 5.0, which can do essentially everything Retrospect users are accustomed to doing, but with Mac OS X as well as Mac OS 9 (plus Windows, though I haven't had time to test Windows-compatibility yet). Aside from this fundamental compatibility with a mixed operating system environment, there are a few welcome changes under the hood that make Retrospect all the more useful. These changes fall into two major categories: internal changes to Retrospect's backup capabilities and changes necessary for Mac OS X.
New Under the Hood -- The most interesting of Retrospect's internal changes is the elimination of a design that severely limited the utility of backing up to external hard disks with what Retrospect calls File Backup Sets. In earlier versions of Retrospect, the catalog that stores the names of the backed-up files lives in the resource fork of a File Backup Set; unfortunately, resource forks cannot grow larger than 16 MB. That effectively limited the number of files that could be stored in a File Backup Set to between 60,000 to 75,000, regardless of the size of those files. In Retrospect 5.0, when the 16 MB limit is reached, Retrospect creates a separate .cat file to hold the catalog. These two files must be stored in the same folder and may not be renamed.
With the costs of hot-swappable FireWire hard disks as low as they are, this relatively small change simplifies the use of hard disks as dedicated backup media. Retrospect's EasyScript feature, which helps you build a backup script, now gives you this option as well. For instance, you could buy three 80 GB hard disks for less than $700 total, create a File Backup Set on each one, and rotate between them for a backup system that compares extremely favorably to tape drive systems. A set of 160 GB drives at $400 each would be even more cost-effective. Don't forget about archiving for posterity (I just had reason to recover 400 MB of software from archived backups from 1995 through 1998), but it wouldn't be difficult to remove the drive mechanism from a case, swap in a new mechanism, and store the old one for safe-keeping. More elegant than buying three separate drives would be getting one of Granite Digital's FireVue Hot-Swap Drive Systems, with which you essentially buy only one $230 case plus $30 trays for drive mechanisms that you swap in and out of the case. I haven't tried one, but they sound useful.
For people working with very large files, as can happen when editing audio or video, Retrospect 5.0 can now back up files larger than 2 GB. Most people probably didn't run into that limitation before, but lots of people will be pleased to know that Retrospect 5.0 now supports all currently shipping Apple optical drives (see Dantz's Web site for a complete compatibility list). Since Apple uses drives from various manufacturers, the level of support varies slightly - with some drives, Dantz was forced to work around drive firmware errors by requiring that you use CD-R media rather than CD-RW media (the other option was to not support the drive at all). Finally, the Advanced Driver Kit is no longer required for high-capacity tape drives.
Mac OS X Changes -- Obviously, the huge change in Retrospect 5.0 is the capability both to run under Mac OS X (10.1.2 and later) and to back up Mac OS X files from Macs running Retrospect Client under Mac OS X 10.1.2 and later. This detail is important - if you back up a Mac that has both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X installed while it's booted into Mac OS 9, Retrospect can't access Mac OS X file permissions; and although it will back up the files, restores of those files won't give you a working Mac OS X system. Likewise, although you can back up files from mounted servers without using Retrospect Client, privileges won't be saved for later restoration.
In short, if you want to back up Mac OS X files such that they can be restored properly, make sure Mac OS X is the active operating system when backing up, and if you're backing up a Mac OS X machine over the network, use Retrospect Client rather than merely mounting the server.
Retrospect Clients have been updated for Mac OS X (Retrospect 5.0 Clients under Mac OS 9 are identical to Retrospect 4.3 Clients other than the version number), and they work only over TCP/IP, not AppleTalk. One tip: if an interrupted backup causes a Mac OS X Retrospect Client to think it's in use when it's not, Command-click the Off button to stop it, then click the On button to start it again. The same trick (toggling Retrospect Client off, then on) works in Mac OS 9 as well, though a normal click on the Off button will suffice.
Dantz also updated Retrospect's interface to support Aqua, updated the default selectors that back up specific sets of files, and changed the location of various files (preferences and logs now live in Library/Preferences/Retrospect and catalog files now default to being stored in the current user's Documents folder). The Retro.Startup extension that launched Retrospect automatically for unattended backup is now called RetroRun under Mac OS X, and it's installed in Library/StartupItems. RetroRun can automatically launch Retrospect even when no user is logged in to a Mac OS X machine. A memory leak has been reported in RetroRun; I'd expect to see an update soon (unfortunately, removing RetroRun from the StartupItems folder won't help for long, since Retrospect recreates it on launch).
Retrospect 5.0 provides a "Live Restore" feature for restoring a entire Mac OS X machine. If it isn't already in a bootable state, you must first install a base Mac OS X system, upgrading as necessary to bring it up to the same version as you're restoring, then install Retrospect, and then perform the restore. I haven't yet had an opportunity to test a Live Restore, though it's an important one. Restoring can prove a little tricky with regard to Mac OS X file permissions; I recommend reading Dantz's Knowledgebase article on the topic and testing some restores in a non-critical situation.
I think it's an open question as to whether you should run Retrospect in Mac OS 9 or Mac OS X if you have the choice. Dantz says one benefit of running in Mac OS X is that Mac OS X's improved memory management makes it possible for Retrospect to back up volumes containing hundreds of thousands of files (previously, Retrospect could run out of memory scanning those files). Plus, Dantz says Retrospect runs faster as a background application in Mac OS X thanks to Mac OS X's approach to multitasking. I won't quibble with those claims, but for non-extreme situations, Retrospect running by itself on an older PowerPC-based Mac under Mac OS 9 may be a more economical and efficient approach, particularly if you have a slow 10 Mbps network that will eliminate any performance gained by using a fast Mac.
Business Model Changes -- There's no question that Dantz has been among the Mac companies that have suffered as a result of Apple's forced march to Mac OS X. The uncertainty surrounding Mac OS X slowed Mac sales to large organizations that take backup seriously and forced Dantz to expend a great deal of back-and-forth effort with Apple just to make Retrospect work properly with Mac OS X. These problems have resulted in Dantz starting to charge for telephone support and making pricing changes in the different versions of Retrospect.
There are now four different versions of Retrospect with different capabilities, aimed at different markets:
Retrospect Express has a subset of Retrospect's full functionality, and it no longer works on Macs running AppleShare IP (or Mac OS X Server). It's aimed at individual users backing up to CD-R or external hard disks. It lists for $80, is available directly from Dantz for $50, and upgrades from previous versions cost $20. It has also appeared in bundles of other utilities in the past; that may happen again.
Retrospect Desktop also can't run on servers, but it supports tape drives (and tape libraries of up to eight tapes) and all of Retrospect's other features. You can buy Retrospect Clients separately for network backup, but they can be added only if they're in the same Class C subnet, such as 192.168.1.xxx. Retrospect Desktop is sufficient for most small offices. It lists for $250, costs $150 direct from Dantz, and upgrades are $100. I suspect you'll find Retrospect Desktop bundled with most new tape drive purchases.
Retrospect Workgroup can back up one AppleShare IP or Mac OS X Server machine if it's installed on that Mac, comes with licenses for 20 Retrospect Client workstations (which you can add by DNS name, IP address, or Subnet Broadcast), and supports tape libraries with more than 8 tapes. Larger offices or installations needing to back up very large amounts of data should use Retrospect Workgroup. It costs $500 and upgrades are $200.
The new Retrospect Server is identical to Retrospect Workgroup Edition, but can back up multiple servers and includes licenses for 100 Retrospect Client workstations, making it appropriate for large organizations. It costs $800, and $350 upgrades from previous versions of Retrospect Desktop and Workgroup are available for a limited time.
The primary advantage of ordering directly from Dantz is that you can download the software and have it immediately, but the downside is that you'll pay a bit more. Look to resellers like TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics for significantly cheaper prices on Retrospect Workgroup and Retrospect Server; other retailers also seemed to have prices slightly lower than Dantz's on Retrospect Express and Retrospect Desktop as well. No resellers had Retrospect in stock yet, though that should change within a week or two.
French, German, and Japanese localized versions are scheduled for release in the second quarter of 2002. International users can buy an English version today and then upgrade to the corresponding localized product for free when it becomes available.
Initial Impressions -- I've been putting Retrospect, primarily the Server version, through its paces, and although testing backups can be a tedious process given the amounts of data that need to be moved across my 10 Mbps wired Ethernet and (even slower) AirPort networks, I've come to a few conclusions.
First, and most importantly, Retrospect 5.0 works almost exactly the same as Retrospect 4.3 did. There was no learning curve; all of the visible features work as they did in the past. Under Mac OS X, Retrospect asks for administrator passwords at appropriate times, and although its interface looks a little different to support Aqua, I haven't noticed any significant differences.
On initial launch, Retrospect offered to import settings from previous versions; it appeared to do that flawlessly, although I might try a fresh start if I were troubleshooting a problem with Retrospect, since that would seem to be a place where subtle corruption could creep in.
As it turns out, I have been doing a lot of troubleshooting in an effort to help Dantz isolate an internal consistency check error that I and several other people have experienced. I've also seen several situations where my Mac crashed while Retrospect was backing up, although I can't specifically attribute those crashes to Retrospect. Plus, TidBITS Managing Editor Jeff Carlson experienced a problem where Retrospect would back up one of his partitions correctly, but wouldn't compare it. Luckily, as has been the case with Retrospect over the years, these bugs haven't caused any data loss in backups.
This sounds somewhat dire, and although I certainly wish I hadn't experienced any problems, years of using Retrospect have taught me that it's often an electronic canary in the digital mines. For those unfamiliar with the analogy, miners used to bring a canary down into the mine shaft as an early warning system - if noxious gases caused the canary to keel over, the miners knew to get out. Because of its need to operate at the highest possible speeds with unusual storage devices, all without losing a single bit of data, it's not unusual to see Retrospect throw an error when everything else appears to work fine. A friend once told me of a story about a large company that upgraded a Cisco router to new firmware containing a bug which lost one packet in a million. The bug went unnoticed until Retrospect started reporting errors, because although one packet in a million doesn't sound like much, it adds up to a real problem when you're backing up gigabytes of data.
In the end, for many cautious users (myself included), the release of Retrospect 5.0 makes it possible to upgrade primary workstations to Mac OS X. Although a few other backup programs have appeared in recent months, including FWB's BackUp ToolKit (the same as Tri-Edre's Tri-Backup), Qdea's Synchronize Pro X, Randall Voth's Synk, CMS Peripherals' Automatic Backup System, and PSoft's iMsafe, these utilities are appropriate primarily for individual users backing up to media that can be mounted on the desktop (no tape drives). For those who need to back up multiple Macs to any media, including high-capacity tape drives, Retrospect 5.0 is the only option on the Mac that also provides archiving and preserves resource forks, HFS+ metadata, Unix permissions and group ownership, and hard-linked files.
Article 10 of 12 in series
Years ago, when APS Technologies was the dominant hard drive vendor in the Macintosh world, I had a chat with Paul McGraw, one of the co-founders of the company, about why APS was starting to sell Macintosh clonesShow full article
Years ago, when APS Technologies was the dominant hard drive vendor in the Macintosh world, I had a chat with Paul McGraw, one of the co-founders of the company, about why APS was starting to sell Macintosh clones. He said that since Apple was shipping such large hard drives at the time, he thought the hard drive aftermarket was going to become significantly less profitable. He was probably correct, particularly given the size of drives in today's Macs. Those of us who don't do video (which happily eats all the disk space you can throw at it) are unlikely ever to fill them.
But does that mean there's no reason for an external hard drive? Far from it. For quite some time after I bought my first Power Mac without SCSI, I lived without one. Not having a large external drive made me uncomfortable, though, and I was surprised how relieved I felt after buying one for secondary backups (primary backups at the time were going to VXA-1 tape), testing backup software, providing a boot disk for troubleshooting, and so on.
Should you rush right out and buy an external hard drive? It mostly comes down to whether or not you're the type of person who solves problems, either for yourself or for other people. Plenty of people just use their Macs, and if something goes wrong, they get help from elsewhere. Those people probably won't use an external drive sufficiently to justify the cost. But for people like me, who are always helping friends and relatives when we're not whacking our own systems into shape, an external hard drive is a necessity. Actually, that's a good question for a poll: do you currently have an external utility hard drive? Vote on our home page!
Over the last few months, I've been working with what feels like the mother of all external drives - Maxtor's 250 GB Personal Storage 5000. It isn't just a big FireWire and USB hard drive, though - it offers OneTouch Backup, which is a physical button on the front of the case that, when pushed, launches the bundled Retrospect Express and backs up your internal hard drive. I reviewed the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 for Macworld recently; go read that review for details.
Although I gave the drive a positive writeup in Macworld, I criticized the product for its default configuration, which actually duplicates the contents of your Mac's internal hard drive to a folder on the Maxtor drive. That prevents it from being bootable; Mac OS X's System folder and other important support folders must apparently be at the top level of the disk for it to boot. Maxtor also made a mistake in how they configured the Duplicate action in Retrospect such that files you rename, move, or delete on your internal hard drive appear multiple times in the duplicate. So, what I'd like to do here is tell you how to reconfigure the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 to make it into the ultimate utility drive. Don't worry if you don't have one of these drives; this approach works equally as well with any large FireWire hard drive and Retrospect Express. These instructions are specific to Mac OS X, but much of the general advice remains relevant for Mac OS 9 users who don't already have a utility drive.
A Clean Start -- Unlike many external FireWire drives, the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 does not come pre-formatted, forcing you to initialize it in Apple's Disk Utility. That's not a bad thing, though, since I've seen problems on pre-formatted FireWire drives from different manufacturers. Specifically, I could make a duplicate to the drive using Retrospect Express, but I couldn't convince that duplicate to boot into Mac OS X. Reformatting and making another duplicate eliminated the problem.
As a result, I recommend you initialize any external FireWire drive first thing, before you start using it. If you want to be really sure that the drive is clean, click the Options button in Disk Utility's Erase tab and select "Zero all data" as well.
There's one other decision you may need to make at this point. Will you ever want to open your FireWire drive, extract the drive mechanism, and install it in your Mac with its contents intact? I haven't found solid information on this topic, but some people have had trouble using a mechanism connected to the IDE/ATA bus if it was initialized in the FireWire drive enclosure. To be safe, first initialize the drive inside your Mac, and then put it back in the FireWire case; obviously, this isn't a possibility for PowerBook or iBook owners, unless you have a friend with a Power Mac that can be used to initialize the drive. I did not do this with the Personal Storage 5000, but I did make the extra effort with the bare drives I bought for use with Granite Digital's FireVue FireWire drive bay, which I'm now using for backups and which I'll write more about soon.
Should you partition at this point? Although I used to partition religiously, I'm no longer a huge fan of them, and the system I describe below works well for backing up multiple Macs without partitioning. Unless you have a specific reason for partitioning, I wouldn't bother.
Make It Bootable, Make It Useful -- Any good utility drive must be bootable, because you may need to use it when your Mac's internal hard drive isn't able to start the Mac. Plus, if you ever want to reformat your hard disk and restore from backup, a drive that can boot the Mac simplifies the process significantly. (Otherwise you must reformat using your Mac OS installation CD-ROM, reinstall the Mac OS, and then restore over the newly installed copy of the operating system.)
There are two ways of making your FireWire utility disk bootable, and which you choose depends on the size of the disk and your situation. If you're the only person who is likely to use the disk, even if on another person's machine, the easiest way to make it bootable might be to use Retrospect Express to make a duplicate of your internal hard disk to the external disk. You wouldn't want to do that if other people might be using the external drive, or if the duplicate would take up too much of the useful space on that disk.
The other alternative is to install clean copies of Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X on the external disk. You definitely want both, since some troubleshooting tools still run only in Mac OS 9. Plus, you never know what sort of Mac you'll want to use with your utility drive, so having Mac OS 9 available for older Macs that have never seen Mac OS X is a good idea. I opted to install clean versions of both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X on the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000.
Although Apple provides some basic utilities with both versions of the Mac OS (Drive Setup and Disk First Aid in Mac OS 9, and Disk Utility in Mac OS X), you should also install any other troubleshooting utilities you may have, such as Alsoft's DiskWarrior or Symantec's Norton Utilities (the Norton SystemWorks bundle is a good way to acquire Norton Utilities and Retrospect Express all at once). Also be sure to install Retrospect Express or whatever other backup software you may use. Remember that this disk will also hold your backups, so you want to be able to boot from it, reinitialize your internal hard disk, and restore from backup with a minimum of fuss.
Default Retrospect Express Configuration -- Let's now look closely at how the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 configures Retrospect Express by default, and how you can reconfigure it to meet your needs better.
The magic of the Personal Storage 5000's OneTouch button is that when you press the button, software that's installed on your Mac automatically launches Retrospect Express and executes a Retrospect Express script called "Maxtor OneTouch."
A bit of background: Retrospect Express scripts are nothing like AppleScript scripts - they're merely an automated way of telling Retrospect Express exactly what to back up and where to store the results. They come in three basic types: Backup scripts, Duplicate scripts, and Archive scripts. Backup scripts create backup sets, which store multiple versions of changed files and which only Retrospect Express can read. Duplicate scripts duplicate the selected files or disk to the destination as files in the Finder, but changed files are overwritten with the current version on subsequent runs. Archive scripts remove the files from your hard disk once copied elsewhere - avoid them unless you're sure of what you're doing.
The default Maxtor OneTouch script is a Duplicate script, so the "backup" you get from using it is actually a duplicate of your hard disk on the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000. That's not terrible, but with a duplicate, you lose access to previous versions of files, so if a file becomes corrupt, you could easily end up with only the corrupt version on your backup. True backups store multiple versions of changed files so you can revert to an earlier version that doesn't have the corruption.
The problems arise in the way Maxtor chose to configure the Duplicate script. First, they chose to store the duplicate in a folder at the top level of the Personal Storage 5000. That decision makes it a bit easier to back up multiple Macs to the same drive (since each would be in its own folder), but also makes it so the duplicate cannot boot a Mac in Mac OS X. Mac OS 9 isn't as picky about the location of its System Folder. Although I haven't confirmed this, I also worry about permissions confusions during restores, if you've backed up multiple Macs to standard files on the same disk. Still, this is a design decision, and it's not inherently wrong.
What is wrong is the way Maxtor sets the Replace Corresponding Files option in the Maxtor OneTouch Duplicate script. If you make a backup, and then move, rename, or delete a file from your internal hard disk, then perform another backup, you may find the results confusing. Thanks to the Replace Corresponding Files option, Retrospect Express won't see the original files on the duplicate as corresponding, so it won't replace them. In short, you will end up with the original file and another in the new location, with the new name, or in the Trash. It's a potential nightmare when the time comes to restore, since you must sort through and figure out which of the files is the correct version.
If you decide to stick with a Duplicate script, you can fix this misbehavior: Launch Retrospect Express, select the Automate tab, and click the Scripts button. Then, double-click the Maxtor OneTouch script to edit it, click the Destinations button, and choose Replace Entire Disk from the pop-up menu. Close and save and you won't have to worry about multiple versions of the same files littering your backup.
Better Retrospect Express Configuration -- However, I don't recommend you follow the above instructions, because even though a Duplicate script may seem the most obvious way to back up for a novice user, it's simply not the best way to back up, period. Good backups store multiple versions of changed files, and for good backups, you want to use a Backup script. With just a pinch of cleverness, you can still use the OneTouch button on the Personal Storage 5000 to initiate the backups.
(For those of you who are following along, but don't have a Personal Storage 5000, never fear, since you can easily initiate a backup in Retrospect Express by creating a "run document" that, when opened, does exactly the same thing as pressing the OneTouch button. Just choose the script from Retrospect Express's Run menu and save it to a file from the Manual Execution dialog.)
The trick is the name of the script. First, we rename the existing script to get it out of the way. Select the Maxtor OneTouch script in the Scripts window and from the Scripts menu, choose Rename and call it something like "old Maxtor OneTouch." Now we replace it. Click the New button in the Scripts window, and choose Backup when Retrospect Express prompts you for a type of script. Next, Retrospect Express asks you to name the script. Call it "Maxtor OneTouch" (without the quotes, of course). The name is important - if you get it wrong, the OneTouch button won't do anything. When you're done, Retrospect opens the Backup: Maxtor OneTouch window where you configure your script.
Click the Sources button, and in the Volume Selection dialog, select your internal hard disk and click OK. Assuming you only want to back up one disk (Retrospect Express would be happy to do more if you have multiple partitions), click OK to close the Maxtor OneTouch: Sources dialog and return to the Backup: Maxtor OneTouch window.
Click the Destinations button next, and in the Backup Set Selection dialog, click the New button to bring up the Backup Set Creation dialog. From the Backup set type pop-up menu, choose File, set a password if you feel it's necessary, and give your backup set a name in the Name field (I usually append "Backup" to the name of the hard disk I'm backing up). Click the New button, and in the Save dialog that appears, save the backup set on the Personal Storage 5000, perhaps at the top level or in the main user's Documents folder - it doesn't matter. Back in Backup Set Selection dialog again, select your newly created backup set, click OK, and click OK once more in the Maxtor OneTouch: Destinations window.
Back in the Backup: Maxtor OneTouch window, click the Selecting button to open the Maxtor OneTouch: Selecting dialog. Choose All Files Except Cache Files from the pop-up menu (there's no reason to back up Web browser cache files), and click OK to return to the Backup: Maxtor OneTouch window.
You could, if you wanted, fiddle with the options, but you want verification and data compression turned on, so the defaults are fine. And, particularly for folks who don't have a Personal Storage 5000, you could also set a regular schedule on which Retrospect Express would automatically back up your Mac. But if you're going to rely on the OneTouch button, there's less need to do that. Close the Backup: Maxtor OneTouch window, and when prompted, save your changes. Quit Retrospect Express
That's it, and from now on, when you press the OneTouch button, Retrospect Express launches and executes your Maxtor OneTouch script, backing up your Mac to the Personal Storage 5000. The first time will take a while, of course, but subsequent backups will be much faster, since they don't have to copy as much data.
Multiple Macs -- What if you want to use the 250 GB Personal Storage 5000 to back up multiple Macs in an office? All you must do is connect the Personal Storage 5000 to each Mac in turn, and then run through the process outlined above for creating a Maxtor OneTouch script for each machine. It's easiest to create a separate backup set for each computer, rather than directing all the backups into a single backup set. Then, all you must do to initiate a backup is to plug the drive into the Mac and into an electrical outlet, wait for it to mount on the Desktop, and then press the OneTouch button.
Still, there are two issues to consider. First, plugging and unplugging cables, both FireWire and power, can be a royal pain if you have to root around behind desks and look for unused sockets. It might be worth buying some extra FireWire cables and Maxtor power adapters so the cables are easily accessible. Second, the license for the bundled copy of Retrospect Express is technically only for a single computer, so it's up to you to decide if you're comfortable interpreting the license such that it's acceptable to use that copy of Retrospect Express with multiple Macs as long as you use it only with the Maxtor Personal Storage 5000 drive.
Recap -- Lest all this seem overwhelming, let's recap what we've done here. We reinitialized the disk, which is a good idea with any new external drive. Then we made it bootable, either by duplicating the internal hard disk to it, or by installing clean versions of both Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X. We also installed all troubleshooting and backup utilities so they'd be available when needed. Then we configured Retrospect Express to make good backups rather than the less-useful duplicates.
Run through these steps with your external FireWire drive, whether or not it's from Maxtor, and you'll be all set the next time trouble comes knocking on your Mac's door.
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Article 11 of 12 in series
Tomorrow Dantz Development will release Retrospect 5.1 for Macintosh, the latest version of the company's popular and powerful backup software, which we've relied upon for years to help us recover from lost or corrupted files and damaged hard disksShow full article
Tomorrow Dantz Development will release Retrospect 5.1 for Macintosh, the latest version of the company's popular and powerful backup software, which we've relied upon for years to help us recover from lost or corrupted files and damaged hard disks. Retrospect 5.1 improves upon the previous version in a number of ways.
New Features -- Most important is that Retrospect 5.1 now ships with a disaster recovery CD-ROM that can boot a Mac OS X machine, thus eliminating one of the big gotchas that has plagued Retrospect users who back up to removable media. The problem is that Retrospect must be running in Mac OS X to restore permissions properly, but the only way to boot into Mac OS X on a machine whose hard disk had been reformatted was to use an external hard disk. The Retrospect 5.1 recovery CD doesn't drop you into the Finder, but instead runs Retrospect so you can initiate a restore and get back to work without having to reinstall Mac OS X from scratch, then restore the rest of your files with Retrospect.
Unfortunately, the Retrospect recovery CD won't solve everyone's problems. Apple doesn't provide any way for bootable CDs to access a network, making the recovery CD useless for restoring from a Retrospect backup server over your network. It's still worth keeping an external utility hard disk around. (See "Configuring a Utility Hard Disk" in TidBITS-672.) Dantz's license with Apple also doesn't let them include Disk Utility, so you'll have to use the Mac OS X Install CD to reformat or repair a problematic hard disk.
Note that Retrospect's disaster recovery CD boots into Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, and if you use a slot-loading iMac that hasn't had its firmware updated, you could experience the video problems Geoff Duncan explained in "Update Firmware Before Installing Jaguar!" in TidBITS-653. This isn't an entirely theoretical problem - Alsoft's DiskWarrior 3.0 also comes with a bootable Mac OS X CD, and I've seen reports of the problem occurring when someone used that CD to boot an iMac that hadn't been updated. So make sure to update your firmware if you have a slot-loading iMac!
Also new in Retrospect 5.1 is a Retrospect Client application that works in Red Hat Linux to let you back up Red Hat Linux machines to your Macintosh- or Windows-based Retrospect backup server. Other flavors of Linux aren't currently supported, but Dantz is working on adding them for future releases.
People who have struggled with Retrospect's lack of support for specific models of optical drives will particularly appreciate Retrospect 5.1's new optical drive auto-configurator. When Retrospect finds a writable optical drive that it doesn't recognize as a supported model, it interrogates the drive by sending command after command and analyzing the responses. At the end of the process, Retrospect will have built up the necessary set of commands to use the drive for backup, assuming of course that the drive passed all the tests sufficiently well (Retrospect will still refuse to back up to drives that don't pass the necessary tests). In some cases, the configurator may allow use of drives that had previously failed Dantz's in-house testing for the preferred packet-writing method; Retrospect 5.1 can now test for and use a track-at-once writing method, which manufacturers reportedly get correct more often, but which doesn't use space quite as efficiently.
Lastly, although we don't have full details, Retrospect 5.1 reportedly builds in numerous bug fixes and customer requests. One feature I'd like to see still isn't present - the capability for a backup set to span multiple hard disks, just like it can span multiple disks for forms of removable media. Now that I'm using Granite Digital's FireVue hot swappable FireWire drive bays with multiple hard disks, it would be great to be able to treat these hard disks as true removable media in Retrospect, because otherwise my backup sets are limited to the size of the disk.
Pricing and Support -- The most notable pricing change for Retrospect 5.1 is that Dantz has stopped selling the low-end $80 Retrospect Express, which lacked a few of the more powerful features available in other versions of the program, such as the capability to customize selectors and work with Retrospect Client software to back up networked computers. The bottom of the product line will now be occupied by the $130 Retrospect Desktop, which comes with licenses to back up two networked computers with the Retrospect Client. Dantz found that enough homes had multiple computers that most people were paying $50 more for network backup capabilities. Upgrades from either Retrospect Express or Retrospect Desktop 5.0 cost $60.
Retrospect Express isn't exactly going away though, and companies that bundle the product with hardware (such as Maxtor including it with their hard drives) or software (like Symantec bundling it with the just-released Norton SystemWorks 3.0) will continue to do so. The bundled version remains at 5.0 for now; it takes longer to slip a revision into bundling situations.
The more-expensive $500 Retrospect Workgroup and $800 Retrospect Server retain their prices and configurations, with Retrospect Workgroup including 20 licenses for Retrospect Client and Retrospect Server including 100 licenses. Retrospect Server is also necessary for backing up multiple Macs running Mac OS X Server. Upgrades from Retrospect Workgroup 5.0 cost $100, and upgrades from Retrospect Server 5.0 cost $160.
All of these prices are the prices Dantz charges for direct sales; resellers such as TidBITS sponsor Small Dog Electronics offer discounts on new copies and upgrades that range from 30 to 40 percent off the list price. Value-added resellers (consultants who help clients install, configure, and maintain Retrospect) can also sell Retrospect at a discount.
Finally, Dantz has developed a new and significantly cheaper annual support and maintenance plan. For some time now, Dantz has had to charge for tech support calls ($40 per incident for Retrospect Express, $70 for all other versions) because it costs them $30 to have a tech support engineer merely pick up the phone (support via the Web forum remains free). Now people who buy Retrospect Server and Retrospect Workgroup may want to opt for the annual support and maintenance plan. Along with unlimited telephone support, it includes both this upgrade and the next one for free, which makes the $280 cost of the plan for Retrospect Server an easy decision (since upgrading to Retrospect Server 5.1 costs $160, and the next major upgrade will cost at least as much, probably within a year). The plan for Retrospect Workgroup is almost as good, at $200, but it's not particularly worthwhile for Retrospect Desktop, for which the plan costs $180. Dantz expects relatively few consumers to opt for the support and maintenance plan for Retrospect Desktop since it may not pay for itself on the upgrade fees, as it will for the other versions of Retrospect.
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Article 12 of 12 in series
I'm a huge promoter of solid backup practices (have you backed up recently?) and for many years I relied on a combination of Dantz Development's Retrospect and a DAT tape driveShow full article
I'm a huge promoter of solid backup practices (have you backed up recently?) and for many years I relied on a combination of Dantz Development's Retrospect and a DAT tape drive. Eventually the 2.6 GB DAT tapes simply weren't sufficiently capacious to handle the amount of data from the machines on my network, so I switched to a VXA-1 tape drive from Ecrix (now owned by Exabyte; see "Ecrix's VXA-1 Tape Drive: Big Fast Backups" in TidBITS-569 and "Ecrix, Exabyte Merge" in TidBITS-594). It worked well for a year or so, but its tapes held only 33 GB uncompressed, and the amount of data I had soon grew to the point where I needed to buy more tapes to maintain a reasonable three-set backup strategy. At the time, each 33 GB tape cost about $65 when bought in a 5-pack - a good bit of money to spend on tapes. That's when the problem began. An older version of Retrospect on the Performa 6400 I was using as a backup server crashed occasionally during backup, at which point the VXA-1 drive would go into some sort of a loop that required manual intervention. That was annoying, but the final kicker was that several times after I broke the VXA-1 out of the loop, the inserted tape was unusable. Needless to say, at $65 per tape, this was not a situation I could tolerate for long.
Enter the Hard Drive -- When I did some price comparisons on different forms of backup media, I saw that hard drives were solidly in the lead for price per gigabyte. It's a bit tricky to make those calculations, though, since a FireWire drive costs about $100 more than the equivalent bare IDE drive thanks to the necessary FireWire bridge board, case, and power supply. A number of manufacturers make kits into which you can pop your own drive, and I considered them briefly, but it seemed that I'd have to choose between two unpalatable options: swapping bare drives into and out of a case every time I switched backup sets, or buying three separate kits and fussing with FireWire and power cables for each swap. (For more thoughts on this topic, see "What About Backing Up to FireWire Hard Disks?" in TidBITS-574.)
So when I became disenchanted with the VXA-1 and wanted to switch to a hard drive backup solution, I turned to Granite Digital, a company long known for high-quality SCSI cables and other storage-related accessories. They make an unusual product called the FireVue Hot Swap Drive System, which is a FireWire drive bay with the necessary power supply, fan, and Oxford 911-based FireWire bridge board. What it doesn't contain is a hard drive; you add that by purchasing a standard 3.5 inch IDE drive, installing it into a special tray, and then inserting the tray into the FireVue's bay. A kit containing the FireVue bay and one tray costs $200 ($180 on sale at the moment) and additional trays are $30.
You can buy the FireVue Hot Swap Drive System complete with a drive from Granite Digital, but realistically, you'll find cheaper prices on drive mechanisms elsewhere. I generally check hard drive prices on PriceWatch, and I also look for special sales on Dealnews; between the two, I generally spend about $100 per drive - in my experience so far, first a pair of 80 GB drives and then a 120 GB drive.
The FireVue was the perfect solution for my situation, since $250 or so would get me started with the drive bay and three trays, and I could keep increasing the size of the hard drives I put in the trays as needed. My first three drives were a 60 GB drive I had around the office and the pair of 80 GB drives. When the 60 GB drive filled up, I removed it from its tray, and replaced it with a 120 GB drive. My goal is to rotate drives out of the system on a sporadic basis as they fill up, storing them for posterity. I'm under no illusions that hard drives are the best archival media for backups, but since I tend not to throw anything relevant out (my Macs keep coming with ever-larger hard drives too), I'm not worried about needing complete archives or losing anything should one of the archive disks prove unusable at some point in the distant future.
(For those of you paying attention and wondering how I managed this on a Performa 6400 - I didn't. All this happened simultaneously with buying a new dual 1 GHz Power Mac G4 as my main desktop Mac so I could let my 450 MHz Power Mac G4 running Mac OS X take over server duties from the aging Mac OS 9-based Performa 6400. The Performa didn't have FireWire and might have been too slow for the software-based compression I wanted to have Retrospect start doing. I also upgraded my network, replacing 10 Mbps Ethernet hubs with cheap 10/100 Mbps switches so backups of Macs with 100 Mbps Ethernet could run at full speed when backing up to the new server. It's amazing how a single decision - moving from the SCSI-based VXA-1 tape drive to the FireWire-based FireVue - can require so many dependencies that must be satisfied first.)
Better Backups, Faster Restores -- Tape backup systems are generally fairly sprightly when it comes to writing data to tape, but I've always found them annoying when restoring data (and remember, it's restoring the data that you care about). Nonetheless, increasing the speed of my network and backing up to a fast hard disk meant that backups ran a lot faster than in the past, which was extremely welcome. If the act of backing up was better, restoring was even more so, since Retrospect didn't have to ask the tape to seek for minutes to find the file I wanted, and I never had to swap tapes to access all the versions of the file backed up over time.
The other significant improvement when using hard drives for backup is that I can tell, by looking at the disk in the Finder, how much free space is left on it. That's impossible with tapes, so knowing when you might need to add a new tape or recycle the media is pure guesswork, whereas with the hard drives I can now tell roughly when the drive will be filling up.
Unfortunately, even the just-released Retrospect 5.1 can't span a backup set across multiple hard disks, as it can when you're using any sort of removable media like CDs, DVDs, or cartridge drives. For me, right now, that's not a problem, since my backup drives are large enough to store all the data on my network plus a few months of changes, and it seems that the size of the drives I can use for backup will outpace my ability to increase stored data. Remember too that Retrospect can compress data (30 to 45 percent on my data, which is largely email), and it backs up only one copy of files that are identical on different machines, thus eliminating a lot of redundant data copying.
Those of you who work with huge data sets - large image files, huge databases, or video that simply must be backed up - will need to stick with removable backup media like tapes for now, although I expect a future version of Retrospect to be able to span backup sets across multiple hard disks. And as I noted before, tape is still better for serious archiving.
Niggles and Annoyances -- As much as the FireVue Hot Swap Drive System is ideal in conception, its implementation isn't perfect. Installing a drive into a tight-fitting tray is tricky, and you must be careful not to damage a cable that runs alongside the edge of the tray. Although Granite Digital engineered a latching handle onto the front of the tray that aids insertion and removal, the insertion mechanism doesn't have a solid feel to it, and sometimes the drive isn't fully inserted when the handle latches down. More annoying is the fact that to remove a tray you must unlock it using a little round key. I'm not bothered by performing another action before removing the tray, but the keys are small, cheap, easily lost, require some fiddling to use, and I'd like to see a larger knob that could replace the key permanently if you weren't concerned about security.
A SMARTer FireVue -- After a few months of using the FireVue system that I'd bought quite happily, Granite Digital asked if I'd like to review their new version, the FireVue SMART Hot Swap Drive System, which adds an LCD panel that provides constant feedback on hard drives that support SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology). Along with the SMART support, the new unit addresses some of my irritations with the original FireVue, making it somewhat easier to install a drive and improving the feel of the insertion. The key is still required, but at least it seems to be the same key, so I don't have to keep track of two separate keys. These improvements come at a higher cost ($280 for the kit with one tray, $50 for additional SMART LCD trays, and $30 for additional standard trays), raising the question of whether or not it was worth the extra money. The FireVue SMART Hot Swap Drive System trays aren't exactly the same as the plain FireVue Hot Swap Drive System trays, so you can't mix and match.
I'd not heard of SMART before, but it's an interesting technology designed by a number of major hard drive manufacturers to increase the reliability of hard drives. SMART-compliant drives incorporate a suite of diagnostic routines that monitor the internal operations of the drive and report the results back, either to special software running on the computer, or to an integrated interface such as the one Granite Digital built into their SMART LCD trays.
I quite like the SMART LCD display, since it constantly shows information like peak and average data rates, the latter of which was often quite low, due to data coming in over the comparatively slow network. Two buttons, Menu and Select, enable you to walk through the rest of the built-in interface, where you can view information about the FireVue's FireWire bridge board, the drive itself, the FireWire ports, and even the host (where it told me that one was connected, but two were allowed, piquing my curiosity).
The seriously geeky information and controls are in the Diagnostics/Utils menu. You must unplug the drive's FireWire cable from the computer to access these items since they could conflict with activities taking place on the Mac at the same time. You can view all the SMART attributes, such as various types of error rates, reallocated sectors, and internal temperature. You can even see error logs, though I suspect only support engineers are likely to understand them. If you're concerned about the health of your drive, you can perform a series of short and long tests: SMART self-tests, read tests, and verify tests. There are even options for erasing the disk, which I found a little scary, since the interface is sufficiently simplistic that mistakes could be made (tip: just keep pressing Menu if you're worried).
I can't say that having SMART support has done more than entertained me on a few occasions, since I haven't experienced any problems with the drive in that tray. But before I received the SMART version of the FireVue, I had trouble with another drive, and I would have appreciated SMART diagnostics then. As it was, Retrospect's anal-retentive verification started showing odd errors that I eventually tracked to bad blocks on the drive. A simple reformat didn't help, but reformatting with the option to "Zero all data" enabled in Disk Utility mapped out all the bad blocks. Even though it's working fine now, I'll probably be rotating that drive out of the backup mix next.
A SMART Backup Strategy -- I must admit, I'm pretty happy with my backup strategy at the moment. It's fast, it's flexible, it's relatively cheap, and I can easily store one of trays at my parents' house for off-site security, rotating it every few weeks. I won't pretend that it's ideal for every situation, since people with very little data may be better served by backing up to CD or DVD, and those with a lot of data or archival needs would probably be better off with a tape-based backup solution. But for anyone with at least several Macs and no more data than can fit on a single hard disk, I definitely recommend the FireVue Hot Swap Drive Systems and a set of inexpensive drives.
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