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Sat, 13 Nov 2004

This is an archived blog post. I've switched to using WordPress as my blogging software and have not migrated all my old posts. I believe strongly in not letting an old link die, so this page continues to work. Please do visit mikemason.ca/blog to read newer posts.

Backup Roundup

Okay, I’ll admit it, “backup” isn’t a dirty word. It’s strange that for a computer guy, who knows how fragile computers can be, I’ve never really taken backups seriously.

Maybe I always kidded myself there’s nothing I couldn’t replace. Maybe I never really lost anything anyways, certainly not through something like a hardware failure (weird how “server” hardware like SCSI disks is always going wrong, yet a piece of junk IDE disk soldiers on for years). I have seen people have their stuff nicked, however. I can no longer ignore the fact that I have a few thousand digital pictures, dozens of gigs of music, and a bunch of miscellaneous junk that I would actually be gutted to lose.

Today, I’m fixing that. As I type, my PowerBook is backing up onto a shiny new 250GB Maxtor One-Touch drive. Although I haven’t got the “one touch” bit working – no sniggers from the Wintel crowd please – it is at least backing up. I considered a few options before going for the external drive, so here’s my “backup roundup” for fall ‘04:

Hard disk

Obvious choice this one, what with most computers having a decent, high-speed port for connecting peripherals. I like FireWire better than USB because it’s faster and uses less resources on the host machine. The hardware also tends to be more expensive, but it’s probably also higher quality.

A lot of drives will come with a cut-down backup program, and most operating systems provide at least basic backup services. There’s a bunch of open source backup software out there too.

Hard disks are cheap, at about $1.50 per gig (Canadian dollars), fast and flexible, since you can throw other stuff on the disk too. Unfortunately they’re not expandable – once you’ve bought a backup drive you’re stuck with it. Portability is somewhat limited, since throwing a hard disk around will definitely reduce its reliability.

Tape drives

Tape backup is favoured by people doing lots of backups and wanting to keep them around over time. Once you’ve made the initial outlay for a drive, adding another tape is cheap. Restoring from tape can also be pretty slow, since they don’t provide random access.

I didn’t really consider tape, because I have no real requirement for incremental backups. I have enough space on my external drive for about three full backups and I think that’s enough.

WebDAV, rsync

The Apple .Mac service comes with iDisk – a 250MB online disk drive which looks just like any other drive on my machine. There’s Windows software too, so I can use it whatever machine I’m on. This interfaces nicely with the .Mac Backup software, and I have it schedule daily backups of a few small files – bookmarks, preferences and so on.

Under the hood, iDisk is powered by WebDAV, a fairly recent extension to the HTTP protocol to allow computers to collaboratively author files over the internet. It’s basically a filesystem-over-http, and is the basis for Subversion’s web protocol. WebDAV setup is pretty easy – just enable the Apache module and point it at some disk space. Windows, Mac OS and Linux can all mount WebDAV filesystems.

If you have access to a Unix box somewhere on the net, rsync is another possibility. I gave a friend an old 40 gig hard disk, he stuck it in his machine, and now I have a bunch of off-site backup space (off-continent to be precise). With a bit of Unix savvy this is really easy to set up, including ssh encryption of the traffic.

Whilst this online stuff is pretty cute, and WebDAV definitely useful for filesharing, I don’t think it’s a serious contender for backup yet. To start with, it’s only ever going to be as fast as your net connection, and with most of the traffic being outbound is likely to take a while for the first backup. Incrementals might be okay, but disaster recovery is going to take some time. Do I really want to wait for 80 gigs of data to come down a broadband connection?

With any online service, even throwing data onto a friend’s machine, privacy is definitely a concern. I don’t really think Apple is going to snoop at my data, but if it’s not encrypted before it leaves my machine there’s always a danger.

Iomega REV

For a long time now, Iomega have been creating alternatives to hard disk or floppy storage. The ZIP drive was a classic, so I checked out their latest stuff too. Their Rev drives hold 35GB of data (uncompressed) and use hard disk technology to make them fast and allow random access. Basically it looks like the data bits of the drive are on the removable cartridge, with the sensitive read heads in the main drive.

I didn’t go for Rev because the drive is about the same price as a 200GB external hard disk, but only stores 35GB. Additional Rev cartridges are fairly cheap, but again I’d only really want them if I needed to store a bunch of different backups. As a small business user, or even as part of a development team, I’d definitely consider the Rev if I needed the unlimited expandability it offers.

Next steps

Now I’ve got two FireWire disks, I’m going to have to hook them up as a RAID array and see how fast they can go (Mac OS X lets me do this out of the box – schwing!). I’m also going to have to figure out how often to back up onto the disk, and where to hide it – there’s no use my backups getting pinched along with my computer kit.

I think online backup is interesting, but that until we all get a lot more bandwidth it’s going to have to wait. Using WebDAV for file sharing is definitely very cool though – go check it out (but only after you’ve burnt that DVD with all your photos…).

Posted 00:45, 13 Nov 2004.  

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