Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE 70

Back it up with tape. (backing up a hard disk)(includes related articles and list of software and hardware) (Buyers Guide)
by Paul C. Schuytema

You've heard it a hundred times before: Back up your hard disk. It may be as unglamorous as flossing your teeth, but backing up is an absolute necessity if the information stored on your hard disk is important to you. One day, some strange twist of fate will scramble your presentation data four hours before you need it, wipe out the Great American Novel an hour before you intended to print a copy for your agent, or destroy a year's financial data on April 14. Virtually everyone with a computer has a hard disk horror story to tell.

Fortunately, the options for backing up have broadened in recent years, and several of the backup strategies have payoffs beyond just maintaining a healthy level of data redundancy (as well as your sanity).

Floppies were once the only cost-effective method for backing up a personal computer's hard drive; the other choices were either non-standard or expensive beyond belief. Things have changed, and now quite a few options have emerged that are less expensive and bothersome than floppies.

Probably the most useful backup device is the tape drive unit. Tape backup units reside in a floppy bay of your computer (or on the desk beside it) and use digital data tapes to store large chunks of information in sequential order. Due to the unit's relative simplicity, the cost of a tape backup isn't much more than that of a floppy drive, and when you factor in the cost of the tapes, the cost per megabyte of storage comes out strongly in the consumer's favor (quarter-inch tape cartridges run anywhere from $30 to $80).

A tape unit is different from a floppy or a hard drive in many ways. It's not seen by your computer as a traditional drive unit. You can't change to the tape from the C prompt and load a file. And tape units are slow and sequential, having to fast-forward or rewind to find the appropriate file or group of files.

Tape units can, however, store the contents of your entire hard drive in a single pass, giving you the option of a nearly painless restoration of your data after a crash (several Tylenols might still be needed). Also, because of its ability to save large chunks of information, a tape drive is useful in several other data-intensive situations.

Cartridge tape drives come in two general flavors: drives that use 6000-series tapes and can store up to 1.35 gigabytes of data, and drives that use mini or standard cartridges (2000-series cartridges). The least expensive tape drive, and the type best suited for the single-station PC, is an internal quarter-inch drive unit that uses the 2000-series tapes. This unit fits into a spare 5 1/4-inch drive bay (though lomega makes one to fit into the smaller 3 1/2-inch bay) and is run either by your computer's own floppy controller unit or more efficiently by an independent controller card.

A tape drive isn't fast. The standard speed is 500 kilobits per second, but some controllers can boost this to one megabit per second. And thanks to good software, the backup procedures can be scheduled to run during times when you're not around.

A tape cartridge is different in many ways from a standard audiocassette. The most notable difference is in the movement of the tape itself. An audiocassette contains only audiotape, which is moved by individual drive motors that fit into the take-up hubs.

A quarter-inch data cartridge contains a drive system as well as the tape itself. A belt actually contacts the tape on both reels, allowing the drive unit to operate the tape with only one motor, which contacts the belt capstan. The cartridge itself takes care of maintaining tension and a constant speed as the tape moves from one reel to the other. The linear velocity of the tape is equal to the speed of the belt, no matter how much tape is on either hub. There's no need for a pinch roller or clutches for the take-up hubs. This makes it possible for the tape drive to be as simple (and inexpensive) as possible.

Quarter-inch tapes record with either 20 tracks (QIC-40) or 28 tracks (QIC-80) across the tape. The information about each tape's contents is stored at the beginning of the tape, and a program must search there first to find the location of a block of information. It will then fast-forward into the tape the indicated number of feet and see if the data is there. Since there is no explicit tracking information, a tape drive will often overshoot or undershoot and will have to adjust its position. Needless to say, a tape's speed is much slower than that of disk-based media.

Beyond the QIC tape format, tape drives are also available in 4-mm digital tapes (DATs). These drives are considerably more expensive than QIC-2000 drives, but a 4-mm tape can store as much as two gigabytes of data on a single cartridge. This larger capacity puts it beyond the practical need of most single-computer users, but it's a viable format for huge files, networks, and industrial applications.

Another type of drive is the helical-scan unit. A helical-scan drive uses either a 4- or an 8-mm tape for a capacity of up to five gigabytes per cartridge. The helical-scan system records information at an angle, utilizing a rotating head much like a VCR's; this allows more information to be accurately placed on a length of tape than a standard QIC format.

The Hardware

Let's take a look at a selection of the hardware products you can use for backup.

Jumbo 120 and Jumbo 250. One of the least expensive drives, Colorado Memory Systems' Jumbo 120 is a strong contender for the best value. A drive unit can be fairly simple, and the Jumbo 120 is a no-frills unit. Fortunately, you really don't need the frills, and the Jumbo drive (also available in a 250-megabyte size) does its job very well.

The Jumbo 120 is a QIC-40 drive, while the Jumbo 250 uses the QIC-80 format. The drive installs into a spare full-size drive bay and comes with a cable allowing you to piggback it onto your floppy controller card (be sure to ground the unit according to the instructions). The drive works well even if you already have two floppy drives (in addition to your hard drive) connected to the card. While the Jumbo will work well with nearly all floppy controllers, the manufacturer warns that there may be some compatibility problems, and an extensive compatibility chart is included. (The Jumbo 120 will work on XTs and ATs, while the Jumbo 250 requires an AT-compatible computer.)

The Jumbo comes with its own software package, but like most manufacturer-supplied software, it leaves something to be desired. However, the Jumbo drive works effortlessly with most third-party backup software.

Accutrak A250 and EzPort A250 EP. The Irwin Accutrak drive is similar to the Jumbo 250, except that Irwin drives use Irwin's own tapes and backup format (the serpentine format, with either 20 or 32 tracks on the tape). The internal drive installs easily and can work with either your floppy controller or a dedicated card (though there's a substantial speed increase with a dedicated controller). Since Irwin uses its own format scheme, you are limited to the manufacturer's supplied software. I was able to get Central Point Backup (see below) to write to the drive using Central Point Backup's own backup format (not QIC), and it worked fine.

Irwin also manufactures the EzPort drive. Basically the same tape unit, this drive is external and uses your computer's parallel port for data exchange (the drive provides an additional printer port as well). This limits you to using Irwin's software exclusively, but the trade-off it ease of installation and a system that is entirely portable (drive and all) from computer to computer. This drive would make a useful addition to a small office with several computers. It's an inexpensive means to support sneaker net on a mass scale.

Tape250 Insider. lomega has just released its Tape250 Insider tape drive, which fits into the smaller 3 1/2-inch drive bay in your computer. This is a great plus, since not much else can fit there. The drive is rated at 250 megabytes, and it has the unique capability of being able to read both QIC (40 and 80) and Irwin tape formats. The Insider can be connected to your floppy controller, but it works best with lomega's one-megabit-per-second card, which installs into a spare slot in your computer.

I noticed that the drive didn't seem as sturdy as the others I've mentioned, and it wobbled when I inserted a tape (even though the chassis was securely mounted), but the unit performed properly despite this minor design problem.

The lomega drive comes bundled with Central Point Backup for both DOS and Windows.

The Software

While tape drives generally come bundled with their own manufacturer-specific software, dedicated third-party backup applications can be a productive investment. While not all software works with all tape drives (it's a good idea to find out if your drive and the software you're interested in are compatible before you buy either; call customer service if you have any questions--that's what it's there for), most packages are flexible enough to allow a wide range of options.

Generally, backup software allows you to do four things:

* Back up your files on demand

* Back up your files at a specified time (whether you're there or not)

* Restore your files

* Compare files on your hard disk against files already backed up

When you're backing up files, you can choose to back up either the entire hard disk or only certain files or directories (generally those files and directories that change most often). These selections can be saved to a file so that each user can have his or her own set of preselected files, even from the same computer system.

The software will also allow you to compress your files to save space on the tape cartridge, disk, or other storage medium. Most programs also have tape-specific functions available, such as formatting and erasing a tape, as well as displaying a directory of what has been previously backed up on any tape cartridge.

Fastback Plus. Fastback Plus is a very fast, very intuitive backup package (note that, as of this writing, only the DOS version of Fastback Plus supports QIC tape drives). Selecting specific files and saving those selections to disk is simple.

Though the program backs up very quickly, the manufacturer warns that there may be problems when making high-speed backups from a fast 386 or 486 machine. Fifth Generation Systems recommends that you compare your backup data each time to make sure that it's safe.

One powerful feature of Fastback Plus is the ability to create macros to automate and customize your backup operations. Macros can be created by recording all of the steps needed to perform any particular operation. The macro files are ASCII files that can be edited with the included text editor. Fastback Plus includes a complete guide to its macro command language in the user's manual.

Another very useful feature of Fastback Plus is its ability to create a snapshot of your hard disk's files. A snapshot doesn't record the actual data, but only the directory and file structure of your disk. You can use the snapshot function to take a picture of your disk at an optimum state (with no help files, for example). Then, when you need to restore your data, you can use the snapshot to filter the restoration to your own preferences.

Central Point Backup. Combining an intuitive interface with all the options you'll ever need, customizable support for nearly all types of backup devices, and a very fast backup rate, Central Point Backup is a stand-alone version of the hard disk backup program found in Central Point Software's PC Tools utilities package.

When you first load Central Point Backup, it will ask if you want to configure your system. It will automatically find floppy drives, removable hard drives, and some tape drives. Other tape drive systems have to be manually configured, and Central Point Backup has a very good search function that will locate most drives. If you have to manually configure a drive, you must supply the address, IRQ, and DMA channel.

Selecting specific files to back up is easy with Central Point Backup. You have a visual display of your hard disk tree, and you can select or deselect files or entire directories or paths. If you save the file selection, the next time you load that setup, Central Point Backup will scan the hard drive for any additional file changes and append those to your list of files to back up.

Central Point Backup also allows you to print out the file structure of your hard disk and provides password protection and virus scanning.

The Norton Backup. The Norton Backup supports tape drives and performs nearly as well as Central Point Backup. However, it only supports tape drives connected through your floppy drive controller and doesn't recognize drives with their own controller cards.

The Norton Backup, like Central Point Backup, provides several user levels. At the advanced level, the user can select various data compression schemes, cancel overwrite warnings, and provide password protection. The Norton manual is the best I've seen, giving good advice and providing a separate pamphlet on recovering from hard disk failure, including a section on how to get up and running using Norton's Emergency Restore program.

Backing Up Right

Don't do full backups too often unless you're running a network whose configuration changes from day to day. When you do a full backup, break it into two parts: applications and data. This strategy not only saves time, but if you have to restore your hard disk, then you'll be optimizing it as well (be sure to restore the applications first). If you change, upgrade, or add applications, consider doing another full backup.

Analyze your own working environment to determine the best backup strategy (suggestions abound in the manuals, but it's more effective to tailor a backup program to your own needs). What programs do you use most often? Do you work with many files or a single file during the day? Try to organize your hot working projects into directories that you can back up as a unit.

If your computer runs constantly, set up a scheduled backup for the evening, when you're gone. Be sure to turn off your screen saver (it won't matter if you also turn off your monitor when you leave at night).

Test out a scheduled backup before you rely on it. The scheduling program is a memory-resident program that might interfere with other programs on your system.

For normal uses, a complete backup every month or so, with a daily backup of all your latest files, will be all the protection you'll ever need. This is the first line of defense against both disk crashes and viruses.

Hard Drives, Easy Choices

Hard disks are taken for granted on today's PC systems. It's difficult to imagine what life was like when there was just a box full of floppies for all of your software and data. But like all things taken for granted too long, a hard disk can and will fail (Murphy's Law stacks the deck against you). Most of the time, the failure doesn't mean the end of your hard disk's life--just the end of any important data you've neglected to back up.

Backing up offers the safeguard of redundancy to protect the time, money, and effort you've invested in your data. You can back up to floppy disks manually using the DOS Backup command, but with the size of today's hard drives, a quarter-inch tape system is a better alternative. The price is reasonable, the media are readily available and standardized, and the software is on the shelves.

If you have a really large hard disk, Tandberg Data (805-495-8384) and Sankyo Seiki have developed a 2 GB QIC technology. The least expensive Tandberg unit, the Panther 2000, costs $3,495. It can back up data at a rate of 300K per second, or 2.4 Mb per second.

Soon, Bernoulli drives and magneto-optical drives (and perhaps other formats yet to be imagined) may be the alternatives of choice, but for now, the price for these options is still too high to justify their use as backup systems for a personal computer's hard drive.

Only you know how valuable your data is. But if you need protection, a tape drive unit is the way to go.