Hassle-Free Backups

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Chances are you don't think much about your PC's hard drive, but what would you do without the precious data it holds? Your financial records, your appointment calendar, and maybe that multimegabyte, ticket-out-of-middle-management side project you've been working on for years--all stored as billions of magnetic, microscopic points on metal platters spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute. If anything goes wrong with this finely tuned electromechanical system, all your data can be gone in 60 nanoseconds. And despite decades of research and testing by thousands of talented engineers, things still go wrong.

So have you backed up your data today? If you don't regularly back up your computer, don't feel too bad--you have lots of company. And if you are one of the forward-thinking few who back up regularly, you deserve a medal. If you aren't, you must like living dangerously.

Bigger Equals Riskier

Okay, you have a million things to do, and a hard drive hasn't failed on you in years. New hard disk drives are indeed more reliable than their counterparts of a decade ago, when PC users spent much of their maintenance time working on or replacing failed hard drives. Your data was as important then as it is now, but there's much more of it today--and probably many more applications as well.

Corporate IT departments may back up user data onto their networks automatically (usually overnight), but individuals in corporate departments may be responsible for backing up much or all of their own work. If your work PC crashes, don't expect any miracles from the IT folks.

If you're a power user, or if losing your business PC for even a few hours would cause big problems, the backup equation becomes more vital. You need to make reliable backups regularly, and you need an extra hard drive for quick swapping if the worst-case scenario occurs.

Today PC users have more backup alternatives than in the past, and new hardware and software make automating backups easier than ever. Whether you choose the reliability of Travan tape, the versatility of recordable optical media, or the convenience of online backups, there's an effective backup strategy that will meet your needs without taking up too much of your time.

We tested tape drives (the traditional backup peripherals), CD-RW drives, DVD-RAM drives, and Internet-based backup. We also looked at removable-media drives, network-attached drives, drive-mirroring controllers, drive-imaging software, and automatic backup utilities.

The goal was to determine how suitable the various media are for automatic backups and how quickly they do the job--not to review specific products. Tape backups remain the best choice for simplicity and value, but many people will prefer the versatility of CD-RW drives, as long as they can tolerate their relatively meager capacities. Finally, if slow data transfer speeds don't bother you, low-cost online storage may be your best choice.

Backup vs. Backup

Backup means different things to different users. In its traditional sense, a "backup" is a copy of everything on your PC's hard drive, including the operating system, your applications, and your data. If your hard drive fails, you should be able to install a new drive easily, restore all your files, and quickly be up and running as if nothing happened.

A backup involves more than data, however. Another key consideration is when the data was backed up. The more time between your last backup and a drive failure, the more data you lose. A classic backup procedure (the type most corporate computer installations rely on) uses ten backup tapes and calls for a full backup every Monday, alternating between the two master (full backup) tapes. In addition, from Tuesday through Friday, the IT department performs an incremental backup to protect changes from the day before. Though you can probably automate this system (depending on your backup hardware and software), we recommend it only for the most conscientious PC users or people who can't afford even a little data loss, such as accountants or clerks tracking sales orders.

For most people, a more reasonable alternative to daily tape-based backups is once-a-week full backups. Even more conveniently, you can focus on backing up data but not the operating system and applications, which you can reinstall if necessary (although doing so can be a hassle). Backing up only documents and data files usually requires far less storage than a full backup, except when making heavy use of audio or video applications.

Testing the Alternatives

For tape drives, we tested the external parallel port Hewlett-Packard Co.

Colorado 20GB (US$341) and the internal EIDE Seagate TapeStor 20GB ($259). Our CD-RW drive entries were the internal EIDE HP CD-Writer Plus 9310i ($249) and the external SCSI Plextor Corp. PlexWriter 12/4/32 ($499). In the DVD-RAM realm, we examined the external SCSI QPS Que drive ($645) and the internal SCSI Toshiba Corp. SD-W1111 drive ($344). Finally, for online backup, we tried SkyDesk's @Backup service ($99 per year for 100MB of storage space) and SafeGuard Interactive's service ($10 per month, with a limit of 1GB of transfers per day).

Our test computer was a 350-MHz Pentium II-based Quantex with 64MB of RAM and an 8GB hard drive. System software included Windows 98SE, Microsoft Office 2000, Adobe Photoshop 5.5, and Acrobat 4. The PC also contained two data folders: one 100MB and one 430MB. Only the tape drives could produce full, unattended backups of the entire 1.65GB of data on the test system's hard drive. We timed how long each of the eight solutions took to copy the 100MB and 430MB data folders to their media.

All six drives delivered respectable (and similar) backup times. The first iteration of the online backup was very slow, but for good reason (more about that later). The numbers tell only part of the backup story, however. You should also factor in the ease of use of each type of device and the cost of the media they require. Here's how the various backup media stack up.

Tried and True: Tape Drives

Sometimes, the tried-and-true technology remains the best choice. For many users, tape drives--which have been around since the early days of computers--win out for both versatility and value. And they've evolved with other PC technologies. Drives that use the industry-standard Travan tape format dominate the desktop market because they're reliable, familiar, and relatively inexpensive. The 20GB devices we tested complement today's high-capacity hard drives.

The HP Colorado and Seagate TapeStor drives represent the current state of the art among drives of this capacity. And their price range ($250 to $350) makes them a good value for an essential peripheral--even considering that a 20GB tape costs about $40. Most users won't want to pay $400 for a classic backup set of ten tapes, but it's a good idea to have at least three or four tapes on hand to accommodate two full-backup sets plus incremental backups.

A 20GB tape actually has a 10GB capacity, but because data from your hard drive gets compressed during the backup process (at an average compression ratio of 2:1), they effectively hold 20GB of data.

Travan drives tend to be easy to install, especially parallel port models.

Installing an internal EIDE model is trickier, but most people can complete the job in about an hour. In our tests, the EIDE TapeStor drive was about 20 percent faster than the parallel port Colorado drive.

The software bundled with tape drives lets you restore individual files or groups of files and schedule automated unattended backups. (You still have to change tapes manually, of course.) All the consumer-level drives we've seen include backup software, usually a variant of Veritas (formerly Seagate) Backup Exec, which has become a de facto standard.

Tape drive utilities usually include a disaster-recovery option to facilitate system restores after a hard-drive failure. In the not-too-distant past, a major limitation of tape drives was that restoring the data after a crash entailed reinstalling Windows and then the backup software before you could get the data back. Most current disaster-recovery utilities create one or more bootable floppy disks that access the tape drive directly. This allows you to get your PC working in no time flat.

Backup Burns: CD-RW Drives

If you're backing up less than 620MB to 650MB of data--the capacity of a typical CD-ROM--then CD-RW drives are an excellent choice. It's possible to span larger backups over a number of discs, but swapping out media can be a time-consuming chore. Compression software allows a single disc's capacity to be expanded to more than a gigabyte; but the backup software may require media formatted for packet writing, which can limit capacity to less than a gigabyte.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of CD-RW drives is that they can do more than just back up files. They do a fine job of archival data storage and let you create custom music CDs. Moreover, they're available in various interfaces, including internal EIDE and SCSI, external SCSI, USB, and IEEE-1394 (FireWire).

SCSI drives offer the highest performance (12X CD-R and 8X CD-RW drives are becoming more prevalent), but they cost $50 to $100 more than EIDE drives. A SCSI add-in card may come with the drive, but it usually costs another $75 to $100.

Installing an internal EIDE CD-RW drive is about as easy as adding an internal tape drive. A SCSI drive is a little bit more complicated to install, but the job doesn't take the know-how of a rocket scientist. Today's Plug and Play add-in cards and drives avoid the SCSI ID numbers and bus termination issues that used to bedevil the format. Add-in SCSI cards (Adaptec is the industry standard) and drives (especially the Plextor PlexWriter we tested) come with clear explanations and installation instructions.

Media for CD-RW is inexpensive, widely available, and easy to share with other users. Typical costs are about $1 for a CD-R blank, and $3 to $5 for a CD-RW disc. You may use either type. CD-R disks are especially handy for long-term archival storage because you can write to them only once; CD-RW discs can be written to repeatedly, but using them for backup is considerably slower than writing to CD-R.

Some CD-RW drives come with special backup software. The PlexWriter, for example, includes CD-ResQ, a utility that creates a set of CD-R or CD-RW backup disks you can use to restore the drive image after a failure. If your PC can boot from a CD-ROM, that's all you need. If not, CD-ResQ creates a bootable floppy disk that accesses the CD-RW drive and then performs the restore.

We didn't see it on our test unit, but the HP CD-Writer Plus 9310i CD-RW drive comes with backup software; it also has Adaptec's Easy CD Creator, which comes bundled with most CD-RW drives, too. Easy CD Creator gives you an Explorer-like CD-R interface to generate a data disk by dragging and dropping files. (For our test with CD-RW media, we simply used Windows Explorer to drag and drop files between drives.)Most stand-alone backup software works with CD-RW drives, so if you decide to go with one of these drives as your backup solution, you can specify complete or incremental backups. Other programs, including Plextor's CD-ResQ, create a bootable set of quick-restore CD-R discs.

There is one drawback: If your backup job is a large one, you'll be sitting stuck to your computer with a pile of blank CDs, inserting a new one every few minutes. This potential for interminable disk swapping makes CD-RW drives best for data-only backups rather than full-system backups.

DVD-RAM: In the Wings?

At long last, writable DVD drives have become widely available, with interesting implications for backup applications. A low-level standards battle has been brewing for some time between two competing technologies, dubbed DVD-RAM and DVD+RW. The DVD+RW standard--proposed by Sony, HP, Philips, and others--competes with the DVD Forum's DVD-RAM standard for the random-access, rewritable DVD drive market. (DVD+RW differs from DVD-RW, which is the DVD Forum standard for sequential writes on rewritable DVD and is used primarily by video content producers as a scratch pad during production.) At press time, DVD+RW drives were not available; DVD-RAM drives are. Industry sources suggest that DVD-RAM may therefore win by default.

The external QPS Que and internal Toshiba SD-W1111 DVD-RAM drives are typical of the models on the market. Currently, all DVD-RAM drives have SCSI interfaces (IEEE-1394 units have recently become available), and they're relatively expensive: The Que sells for $645 and comes with a required SCSI add-in card; the Toshiba is $344 but requires another $75 to $100 for a SCSI adapter.

DVD-RAM media has unique aspects. The 5.2GB capacity of Type 1 DVD-RAM cartridges sounds impressive, but it's a dual-sided media. You record up to 2.6GB of data on one side, manually flip it over, and record another 2.6GB on the other side. Type 2 cartridges with a single 2.6GB recordable side are also available, but not all DVD-RAM drives can read them. Type 1 cartridges cost about $40; Type 2 cartridges about $25.

In our tests, DVD-RAM drives performed as quickly as CD-RW and tape backup.

Unfortunately, the 2.6GB of storage space on each side of a Type 1 DVD cartridge is too small to handle many unattended, full backups, especially if your PC has a large-capacity hard drive. At the same time, CD-RW drives are more cost-effective for manual, partial backups.

Like CD-RW disks, DVD-RAM cartridges must be formatted (via a special utility that comes with the drive) before being used. The two DVD-RAM drives we tested lacked backup software (QPS now provides Dantz's Retrospect with its drives); so, for our performance test, we had to manually drag and drop folders from Windows Explorer to the DVD-RAM. Utility software such as Adaptec Easy CD Creator and Veritas Backup Exec Desktop work with DVD-RAM drives, but at present you can't create bootable disaster-recovery sets with DVD-RAM media.

Installing a DVD-RAM drive is virtually identical to installing a SCSI CD-RW drive and requires no special software drivers.

DVD-RAM is a format in transition. Faster drives using new 4.7GB-per-side media should be on the market about the time you read this. The roomier media will come closer to matching typical hard drive capacities, but they will not be compatible with older (current) drives. DVD-RAM drives may be tempting, but we recommend waiting until the standards and the technology settle down.

Internet Backup Arrives

The last backup alternative we tested involves no special hardware or special media because it relies on the Internet. Automatic online backup has been available for several years, but its popularity has risen only recently, as more Web surfers get high-speed broadband access to the Internet via cable modems or DSL connections. (Backing up via 56-kbps modem is not practical.)In many ways, online backup is the least painful and most effective backup method.

You sign up for the service, choose what you want to back up, and download and install a utility that runs continuously in the background; then--at a time you specify--your system compresses, encrypts, and transmits your data to a secure computing center somewhere. You can access your data from any PC that has an Internet connection.

Online backup conforms to one little-mentioned rule of backing up: You should always store backup media away from your computer. You can maintain backup tapes, CD-Rs, or DVD-RAM cartridges all up to date and ready to restore, but if they're sitting near your PC and a fire, flood, or other natural disaster strikes, they'll probably get damaged, too--and then you're plain out of luck.

Online backup is relatively inexpensive up front. SkyDesk's @Backup has five options, ranging from $99 a year for 100MB of storage to $300 annually for 500MB of storage. SafeGuard Interactive charges $10 a month, with the proviso that you can move no more than 1GB of data per day in either direction (whether backing up or restoring).

Both services let you restore either your entire backup or individual files.

@Backup also volunteers to sell you a CD-ROM of your data for $40, plus $6 for shipping.

So what's the downside? Speed. Don't even think about using an online backup service unless you have a broadband Internet connection or you want to back up a relatively small amount of data. The services aren't designed for full-disk backups.

We used the PC World Test Center's T1 line (roughly equivalent to a fast DSL connection) to work with the services, but backing up our 100MB data folder still took half an hour with SafeGuard Interactive, and 24 minutes with @Backup. Backing up the 430MB folder took even longer per megabyte: nearly 3.5 hours with SafeGuard Interactive service, and 2.5 hours with @Backup. That's ten and five times slower, respectively, than the other backup methods we tested. On top of that, online backup times will vary substantially depending on Internet traffic and other factors. The initial backup is the most time-consuming, however, and with subsequent backups, the services transfer only the file changes that have occurred since the previous backup.

Despite their limitations, we strongly endorse online backup services as one component of a sound backup strategy. They can't replace local backup onto tape or other removable media, but they're an excellent way to store important files where you know you can get to them, no matter what unpleasant disaster befalls.

The Backup Quandary

Okay, so you agree that you need to get serious about backing up. But which method should you choose? Tape drives remain the best and easiest method for performing regular full backups, though CD-RW is a viable alternative for making handy application data backups. For secure backup of critical information, online backup services shine.

Whatever backup strategy you choose, its success ultimately depends on your ability and willingness to keep to a schedule, change the media, and put the backups in a safe place. The key is to make these steps an everyday routine, like checking your e-mail. In this calamity-prone world, a little bit of thoughtful backup effort can make all the difference.

PC World Contributing Editor Stan Miastkowski says he backed up this article...and we believe him.

Do I Really Need to Back Up?

So you don't back up? If you use your PC only for entertainment, Web surfing, e-mail, and chores such as letter writing and checkbook balancing, you can probably survive a catastrophic hard disk failure with no backup to recover with. (You'll scrape by if you at least keep printouts of important documents.)The best preparation is to keep your original Windows and application CD-ROMs in one safe location, ready to reinstall. It's also handy to keep a list of your Internet service provider access numbers and settings, as well as a copy of your e-mail address book, on paper or on a floppy or other removable disk.

Still, setting everything up again will be more of a chore than backing up to begin with. If you do any serious work with your PC, a formal backup strategy is essential.

Getting Data From Dead Drives

When the data on a hard drive is essential and no backup or hard copy exists it's time to call in the experts--companies that specialize in recovering data off damaged hard drives. It'll cost you, and there's no guarantee that your data can be fully reconstructed, but sometimes it's the only option.

Ontrack Data Recovery (a division of Ontrack Data International, which also makes such low-cost utility software as Easy Recovery and PowerDesk 4) and DriveSavers are leading drive-recovery companies. If your hard drive is still spinning, technicians from these companies can work on it over an online connection, but if the poor thing is as dead as a Norwegian Blue parrot (or sounds like marbles in a blender set to puree), you'll have to ship it to the company.

Greg Olson, Ontrack's director of worldwide data recovery, says costs vary widely, but $400 to $1200 is an average range for recovering up to 2GB of data.

Costs may rise considerably if the drive is so badly damaged that the company has to disassemble it in a clean room, or if you need ultrafast turn-around.

Olson says that variable degrees of drive damage make it difficult to put a precise figure on how much data Ontrack can recover. In most cases, however, the company can retrieve almost all the data on a drive infected by a virus, and 50 percent to 90 percent on a drive damaged by a head crash (where a read/write head touches a drive platter and physically harms the platter surface). Ontrack also recovers data from drives exposed to fires or submerged in water.

Whether you should use a service such as Ontrack depends on the value of your lost data. If you really need it, you have little choice; on the other hand, you may find that the disaster-recovery features in Norton SystemWorks and other utility suites are the only tools you need to recover your data.

Alternative Backup Solutions

We formally tested only the "big four" backup solutions, but a number of other hardware and software backup alternatives are also readily available.

Removable-Media Drives High-capacity removable-media drives such as Iomega's Jaz ($350; www.iomega.com) and Castlewood Systems' Orb ($219-$280; www.castlewood.com) offer a handy way to back up data files or entire smaller-capacity hard drives. Jaz cartridges hold 2GB of data and cost about $100 each, while Orb cartridges have a 2.2GB capacity and cost about $40 each.

Both have backup software.

Drive-Imaging Software Drive-imaging software such as PowerQuest's Drive Image 3 ($70; www.powerquest.com) and Symantec's Norton Ghost ($65; www.symantec.com) create an exact software image of a drive, bit for bit. (You can't use them for individual file or folder backups.) You can store an image on another hard drive, on a removable-media drive, or on a CD-RW or DVD-RAM drive, but not on a tape drive. Because these utilities can compress data, you can store up to 4GB of data on a 2GB removable-media drive.

Alas, they don't do WIndows. You must boot to DOS from floppy disks that the programs format to create exact drive images. And the programs don't run automatically.

Backup Software Though backup software accompanies most tape drives (and some other types of hardware), alternatives exist if your backup peripheral doesn't include software or if you want to use a different backup program. The industry standard is Veritas's Backup Exec Desktop edition ($65; www.veritas.com), which ships with most tape drives. Backup Exec also works with removable-media, CD-RW, and DVD-RAM drives, and it can even back up to a network or other hard drive. Dantz Retrospect Express ($48; www.dantz.com) works with all flavors of hardware and has several unique features, including the ability to copy only changed files when you do full backups. This makes it particularly fast. For people who seek low-cost alternative backup software, BEI UltraBac (www.ultrabac.com)--a company that specializes in high-end backup software for servers and networks --offers the interestingly named UB Safe--Not Sorry, a full-featured backup utility for stand-alone PCs. And the price is right: It's free for download from the company's Web site.

Continuous-Backup Utilities PowerQuest's DataKeeper ($50; www.powerquest.com) monitors files or folders that you specify and automatically backs them up to the destination of your choice whenever there is a change. You can back up to a hard drive, network drive, CD-RW, or removable-media drive, but not to a tape drive or CD-R.

Drive Mirroring Corporate servers often use Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) technology to keep data secure by storing it on multiple drives.

AMI's HyperDisk ($119; www.ami.com) add-in RAID PCI card lets you connect two additional pairs of IDE drives. Everything you write to one drive is copied automatically and instantly to the second drive--hence the name mirroring. If the first drive fails, the second takes over automatically. Ei Corporation's Data Disaster Recovery System ($150; www.eiware. com) is a drive-mirroring product with some unusual twists. It works from your EIDE controller instead of its own add-in card, and it comes with two removable drive bays to hold your existing drive and a second drive for mirroring. (Your PC must have two accessible 5.25-inch drive bays.) Software handles the mirroring, and you can carry off or lock your backup when you're away, thanks to the removable bay.

While drive mirroring effectively creates always-up-to-date backups in real time, it's not foolproof. Bugs in one drive will be mirrored in the other, and a catastrophic computer failure that destroys one drive could destroy the mirror also. (No, it's not likely--but Murphy's Law is not to be trifled with.)Backup ChecklistBetween full system backups, many files undergo changes.

To make sure you back up your most important files regularly, include the following (listed in decreasing order of importance). To find out where they're located, you may need to poke around using Windows Explorer.

*Data files created by applications--for example, .doc, .xls, and .ppt files created by Microsoft Office.

*E-mail files such as Outlook and Outlook Express messages stored in .dbx files.

*Address book files ending in .wab.

*Browser favorites--files ending in .url in Internet Explorer, and Netscape's bookmark.htm.

*The entire \Windows directory.

*The entire \Program Files directory.

*The Windows Registry, which lists all your system's software and settings.

(Because of the way Windows stores the Registry, it's not available as a file, but many backup programs offer specific options for backing it up. You can always use the Registry's Export command to make a copy of the Registry. From the Start menu, select Run, and then type regedit. Choose Registry*Export Registry File, and confirm that the All button is selected. Select a location to save the file, then click Save.)Where to BuyTape drives*HP Colorado 20GB $341, Hewlett-Packard, 888/999-4747, www.hp.com/storage*Seagate TapeStor 20GB $259, Seagate, 800/626-6637, www.seagate.com/productsCD-RW drives*HP CD-Writer Plus 9310i $249, Hewlett-Packard, 888/999-4747, www.hp.com/storage*Plextor PlexWriter 12/4/32 $499, Plextor, 800/886-3935, www.plextor.com/englishDVD-RAM drives*QPS Que $645, QPS, 800/559-4777, www.qps-inc.com*Toshiba SD-W1111 $344, Toshiba, 800/631-3811, www.toshiba.comOnline backup services*@Backup $99 per year for 100MB of storage space, Sky Desk, 800/538-2000, www.backup.com*SafeGuard Interactive$10 per month, with up to 1MB of transfer per day, 412/415-5200, www.sgii.com.

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