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The Perils of Backing Up

by Jerry Stern

ŠJerry Stern 1998-2004, All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in ASPects, February 1998. (2004 update at bottom...)

Lately, I've been dealing with the restoration of a corporate database for a customer with a small network. The file server was stolen, containing the tape drive, as well as the most recent backup tape. As part of recreating the corporate database, we confirmed my darkest suspicions--the replacement tape drive couldn't read their compressed backup tapes.

All of the tape drive manufacturers are rating the capacity of their tape drives by their compressed capacity. They claim that an 800Mb cartridge will hold 1.6 Gigabytes, thus justifying the 1600 in the product name. Actually, 2-to-1 compression is quite possible on many types of files, but some files don't compress at all, and on a typical collection of files on a typical hard drive, 1.7-to-1 is realistic as average compression. That's 1360 Mb on a 800Mb tape. This minor exaggeration is not a major problem, however.

Problems arise when a compressed backup tape must actually be read and used to restore a file system on a destroyed machine, or when a tape drive is burnt out and replaced, or just plain upgraded. It turns out that there is no industry standard for tape compression, and not much of a standard within the same manufacturer.

Think about this: Why did you buy that tape drive? Worst case, to have a complete restoration of your destroyed hard drive. Well, if your PC is stolen or destroyed, including your tape drive, the natural inclination is to buy a new tape drive of the newest high-capacity type, of any current flavor that can read your old tape size.

That's not as easy as it sounds. Years might pass between when you bought your tape drive and the dark day when you must use the tapes to rebuild your file system, and possibly source code and customer database. In that time, the tape drive makers have done two things. First, they've created wonderful new drives, faster and with larger capacities. Second, they've started to farm out the creation of their backup software to another company, or stopped farming it out altogether, or changed to another contractor that promised better compression ratios.

The result is that although your new drive and the old drive are from the same manufacturer, there is a much better than even chance that the new drive will be unable to read a compressed tape from the old drive.

If your new tape drive is supplied by a clone maker, of course you will get whatever they're selling this week, which will be the cheapest drive available of that size. If the new drive is from a different manufacturer than the old drive, the chances of reading the old tapes will be far worse than even.

I'll boil all these problems down to usable precautions:

1) Never compress your off-site backup tapes.

What's that? All your tapes are in a box sitting on top of the PC? Well, that's another subject altogether.

2) Never password-protect your tape backups.

New tape software may not use the same encryption methods as your old tape software, so your backup tapes will become paperweights. Instead, lock the tapes up for security.

3) Never compress tape backups of DATA.

Your backups of programs can be compressed, because if your computer is destroyed or stolen, hardware differences in your replacement machine will force a software reinstallation anyway.

By the way, if at all possible, keep all your data on a different drive letter than your software. If d:\ contains only data, you can back it up four times as often as your c:\ drive, which contains only programs that are not major disasters to replace, and that don't change as much or as often as data.

4) Your backups of critical files should ALWAYS be created on a drive that you would replace if your machine were destroyed, and not on an old-style drive (tape, disk, or removable hard drive cartridge) that you would replace with the newest or greatest gadget, given the opportunity.

Make the assumption that if you need a backup, it will be because all your hardware has been melted into a puddle by a lightning strike and the subsequent fire, and only current hardware will be available to read your off-site backups.

Critical files include data files. And not much else. The conventional wisdom of backing up config.sys, system.ini, system.dat, and so on, is handy if you have to restore a system that has had a minor disaster land on it, like the disk heads performing root canal work on a hard drive platter. In that scenario, only one piece of hardware has died, and you will need those configuration files. But if what operated on the hard drive was a hurricane-driven telephone pole, you will be replacing all your hardware, and old configuration files will be of nearly no use at all.

5) If and when the worst happens, you may find that despite all your best laid plans, and the commandments above, your new drive, from the same manufacturer, can't run your old backup software or read your old tapes, your best bet may be to find someone with the same drive as you used to have before the disaster, and trade him a nice, new, high-capacity, but utterly useless drive, for his old, slow, low-capacity, but wonderfully compatible drive. You both win.

In other words, RESIST THE TEMPTATION to upgrade your tape drive while you are busily restoring a disaster-smashed system. Better yet, make a buddy agreement now: You and your buddy buy identical tape drives now, and promise each other that in the case of disaster, the buddy with the surviving computer will remove his tape drive and lend it to the less fortunate buddy during the restoration process.

6) When upgrading a tape drive on an existing system, or buying your first tape drive, get a unit large enough that you can run a total system backup on one tape, uncompressed.

That local customer of mine is back up and running. They lost some files, but only a handful of recent files with paper copies handy. What saved them was a borrowed portable tape drive, of about the same age as the original tape drive, which could read the old compressed tapes. There were some gaps in the tapes that were not stolen along with the computer, and those gaps were filled in by another tape, stored off-site. They're still in business.

Will you fare as well?


2004 Update:

It's all still true, except that tape drives are dead and gone for all but high-end network uses. They're still of basically poor design, poor standardization, and poor reliability, and mostly can't restore operating systems. If you must use a tape drive for automation of nightly backups, also backup regularly to CD-ROMs or DVDs.

Updated rules:

1) Copy your business data to disks using the 'Data Disk' features of your CD or DVD mastering software, and confirm that you can read it on some other computer.

Do not use "packet-writing" software. That's the neat but non-standard product that allows you to treat a CD or DVD as a great big diskette drive, and save to it as if it were a hard drive. Well, a CD is not a hard drive, and the resulting disk requires a driver to read, and the driver varies depending on the software that created it. That's useless for long-term archives, and dangerous for short-term disaster recovery.

2) Copy the operating system to recordable CDs or DVDs using "drive image" software, and TEST the recovery features of the software with a blank drive. Store copies of the software, including Windows 98 boot diskettes, with the off-site CDs or DVDs. Newer boot disks won't work; Windows 98 was the last version of Windows to support a DOS prompt, and that's what you need to restore a hard drive from an image file.

Remember that an operating system backup is short-term. It's generally most useful on the computer that created it, and not worth keeping for archives. Keep old drive image sets only as insurance against losing or damaging the most recent set.

Don't rely on a "restore partition." That's an image of your hard drive that's recorded on your hard drive. In an emergency, that kind of image can restore a system with virus damage or other software-only problems, but it won't save anything if the hard drive dies or the computer is stolen, and your business data is difficult to backup with an image program--it's like using an 18-wheel tractor-trailer to deliver a post card.


Jerry Stern is the editor of ASPects, the author of Graphcat and FileTiger, runs Science Translations, and is online at www.pc410.com.


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