Instituting workstation backups on a regular basis

To get everyone up to speed, I'll briefly recount last month's column: multiple dead and dying hard disks. The hardware carnage cost me about a week's worth of time and a bunch of lost data that I'll never recover. Working to recover the system made me swear to myself that I would institute a strategy for regular backups. And my old HP JetStore 4GB DAT drive just isn't going to cut the mustard, because it's too small and way too slow.

The time for a little research had obviously come. When I last bought a backup solution—the 4GB tape drive—it held more data than any one disk I owned. In the intervening years, disk capacities rose and prices dropped, so now even low-powered entry-level systems have 6GB, 8GB, or even 12GB hard disks. Backup solutions must have followed suit, right?

I started my research where I often do: I picked up the phone and called some friends. All these friends are computer professionals in many different industries. I figured they'd have an eye on the latest backup solutions. In reality, most of these friends are in the same situation I'm in: They don't do regular backups of their personal machines. Oh sure, they have autoloading tape drives that they use to do daily backups on network servers, but they don't back up client machines on a regular basis. Most often, they store crucial data on the servers at their business and back up data files to Jaz and Zip disks for client systems. But no one does a complete system backup for workstations, and none of these friends have a backup strategy in place for their home systems. I was back to square one.

I decided to step back and take a look at my small office/home office (SOHO) network to determine my needs. Although I have a dozen machines on this network, I need to back up only three machines on a regular basis: my primary server and the two desktop machines that I use every day. The problem is that these three machines contain a total of more than 60GB of storage space, and backup solutions for 60GB of workstation capacity aren't readily available unless you spend big money.

A quick look at the market for high-capacity SCSI-attached backup devices yielded the following information. A 10/20GB (uncompressed/compressed) Travan drive costs about $400, and an external unit costs slightly more. This device isn't the fastest of backup devices, and the media are somewhat expensive. Next up the food chain is the 12/24GB DDS-3 DAT drive. This drive is a more reasonable solution because of its capacity and speed, but the cost (which ranges from $700 to $1000) is higher. The 12/24GB DDS-3 DAT still requires switching tapes to do a backup, and the price starts to look awfully large. Remember, I need to back up the disks on my home network, so spending $1000 or more for a backup device requires approval from the finance committee (i.e., my wife).

Moving up to larger capacities would solve my backup problem, but the next capacity level—the 20/40GB DLT tape drive and the 25/50GB 8mm tape drive—doubles the cost of the solution again ($1600 to $2200—an amount the finance committee wouldn't approve). I won't even mention the 1050GB (1TB) DLT tape autoloader that sells for about $11,000—a solution that I (but not my budget) could live with.

Briefly, I considered the easily available optical solutions: the CD-Recordable (CD-R) disc and DVD-RAM. Although relatively inexpensive, CD-R discs just don't have the capacity I need. Backing up to 600MB CD-R discs would be like backing up to 5.25" disks 10 years ago; it was annoying then, and it would be annoying now. DVD-RAM certainly seemed a more likely option, with 5.2GB-per-disk capacity. But the implementation now offers only 2.6GB per side, so the solution requires you to turn over the disk to get full capacity. Also, Windows NT support for DVD is incomplete at this time, with no support for the technology's multimedia aspects. When NT support is available, I'll jump on the DVD-RAM bandwagon to get a readily available backup solution.

The outlook for finding a cost-effective way to back up my 60GB of disk space wasn't good. The time had come for me to take another look at what I needed to back up. The recently restored workstation, whose death and destruction motivated this search for a backup solution, just doesn't have that much stuff on it that I can't recover. I can easily back up the boot drive to my existing tape solution, and because that hard disk drive is rarely modified, it needs only an occasional backup (which I could deal with). The 4GB disk where NT resides will fit on one 4GB tape, and I can automate a daily backup of that disk that requires no more interaction than changing the tape each day. As long as I keep my working set of files on the disk, the tape drive will back up the files along with the rest of the disk. Although I have applications that occupy quite a bit of disk space, I can reinstall them from scratch if absolutely necessary. Yet, I don't look forward to having to reinstall these applications: Microsoft Office 2000 Developer Edition takes more than 250MB, Visual Studio (VS) 6.0 Enterprise Edition uses 1GB, and the rest of the software takes about 1GB. But the tape drive will back up the crucial pieces, and I hope I won't have a recurrence of last month's debacle.

The second workstation, which I use every day, almost always runs a bunch of software that I'm considering for review or product betas that I don't want on my primary desktop. Although losing a pair of 9GB Seagate Cheetah disks would be a major pain, nothing on that system is absolutely essential. I can save any working files from that machine to a network share. This solution, which leaves the system without a backup, isn't optimal but will do for now.

At this point, I still needed to deal with the most crucial backup problem: my primary server. With a 4GB boot disk, a 4GB system disk, and a 16GB array (with more than 11GB in use), backing up this server to my 4GB tape drive wasn't going to work. Even though much of the data on the server is static, this server is also my primary mail server and processes about 50,000 messages a week.

This system already has two SCSI controllers, so I took a sideways approach to keep the server running. I went back to my online source for hard disks and bought two more 9GB Seagate Elite disks for $200 each. These disks are refurbished full-height disks, perfect for their intended use. I installed these disks on an open channel of the caching multichannel SCSI controller that attached to the four-disk 16GB array. I then configured the two new disks as one RAID 0 partition and mirrored the existing array to this new disk pair. This isn't a perfect solution, because the single point of failure becomes the SCSI controller, but at least a disk failure won't put my server out of business.

I still don't have a total backup solution in place. What I have is a couple of solutions that will let me keep my systems running with minimal downtime in the event of another hard disk death. Now I have some breathing room to consider which solution will work best for me, and some time to evaluate the available backup software options.

I'm pretty sure I hear a ball-bearing screech coming from one system. I hope the noise is coming from a fan.