Backups Are Bad News

Can't someone find a better way?

My new assistant started her first backup the other day. After I ran her through the backup options, I turned her loose to do a full backup of the main servers. When she began the process, I was out of the office because I asked her to perform the backup when I wasn't around. She fired up Windows NT Backup, which promptly locked up the whole system, including Task Manager. My assistant did the right thing and left NT Backup running. (Have you ever run Autochk on a 20GB system? The process can take days.)

We eventually got the system working again, although I still don't know why it froze up in the first place. But this episode made me think about an old pet peeve: backups and backup devices. In this day of 10GB hard disks that cost $200, why is data protection still so expensive and difficult?

The Old Days
My first backup device was a 40MB tape drive that I purchased from PCs Limited (which is now Dell Computer). The company sold me a 32MB hard disk for a mere $929—a steal at the time—but took 10 months to ship it to me. I plugged the tape drive into my hard disk's B connector, loaded the software, and started backing up regularly. I backed up every Friday and felt quite virtuous. But then I decided to try restoring some of my data before I needed it. I quickly found that the software could back up but not restore.

Next, I tried 10MB and 20MB Iomega Bernoulli boxes, which turned out to be reliable but not very large or cheap. I've been a longtime fan of Iomega's products, but they're still too expensive and small for server backup. Zip and Jaz drives are perfect for workstation backup, however.

My next backup purchase was a quarter-inch cartridge (QIC) tape—a big, solid-looking cartridge with a nice wide ribbon of tape. But this product's restores were also hit-and-miss.

Current Solution
My current backup drive is a 4mm tape drive. This tape drive is a bit more reliable than a QIC but has still given me a few scares. Windows NT Magazine Contributing Editor Sean Daily tells me that DLTs are far more reliable than 4mm tape drives. However, Sean also tells me that he requires his staff to make three—yes, three—backups before making drastic changes to a client's machine.

What the Future Holds?
I'm tired of worrying about my data. I look forward to the day when everyone has access to double-digit gigabit bandwidth and I can just buy PCs without any hard disks at all. I'll be able to use a turbo-Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connector to reach a local data bank. For 50 bucks a month, the bank will let me keep all the data I want, backing it up and ensuring it's always available.

Is that scenario too futuristic for you? If it is, then why not cheap, throwaway RAID? Drives are so cheap and are shrinking so much in physical size that a vendor could probably put three 5GB drives into a normal-size drive package. Add the circuitry to implement RAID 5, and 15GB shrink to 10GB but become very reliable (and fast, at least on the reads). Put an EIDE interface on the composite drive, and the drive might sell for $400. When one of the three internal drives failed, the system would let you know, perhaps with a blinking light or a periodic buzz. The remaining two drives would keep things going until you could buy another drive and GHOST the old drive's data to the new drive. Call the system Integrated RAID Electronics (IRE).

As I give this idea more thought, I realize it isn't bad. I wonder whether Steve Wozniak's got some free time?

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