[ Go to January 1997 Table of Contents ]

Enterprise Windows
Enterprise Administrator
Singing the Backup Blues
In the age of gigabyte hard drives, storage management can be complicated. Follow these tips to minimize backup problems.

-- by Tom Henderson

Whenever I get stuck doing something really boring-like watching tape drives run through an archiving cycle-I think of one of my favorite songs, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," by jazz great Charles Mingus. My mind shifts to the tune partly to drown out the hum of the drives, and partly because it's all about change. Mingus' song reminds me how the PC has come of age, and how that maturation has complicated network backups.

Even a favorite song can't stop me from thinking about one of the biggest problems facing backup administrations: Workstation hard disks keep growing and growing, and that translates into an almost insatiable appetite for backup tape space. Just five years ago, I was on the leading edge of storage management. My department had an auto- changing DAT drive that could hold 48GB in a single magazine. I was the envy of mainframe operators. While they needed cafeteria-sized rooms to stockpile their nine-track 3780 format tapes, I could store the equivalent amount of data in a single horizontal file cabinet.

At that time, it would have been hard to imagine 10 notebook PCs having a collective storage capacity of 15GB, or my 100-user LAN having the potential to store nearly 190GB of information. But that's what I'm facing, and hardware vendors aren't easing storage management problems much.

Backing up my favorite notebook, for instance, requires just 742 floppy disks. I couldn't find a single notebook maker that offers a removable tape drive for standalone end-user backup (although third-party storage management companies like Iomega offer tape drives and Zip Drives). McAfee and several other storage management vendors are suggesting an alternative-backup through the Internet. In this scheme, vendors provide a server on the Net to which you back up your files. I say shame on anyone for using the already congested Internet as a highway for backups.

The news is only slightly better on the desktop. More PC makers should follow the lead of Compaq, which builds a writable optical drive/CD-ROM player into some of its PCs. This is especially critical for notebook users, who will find standalone backups difficult to perform. Perhaps the fault lies with users-they should demand backup drives with their systems.

Microsoft has taken some proactive steps in storage management. For example, Win95 includes a backup utility that is acceptable if you're using one of a handful of supported tape drives. However, several catches and "gotchas" can complicate automated backups of desktop and notebook PCs across a network.

I follow three golden rules to minimize backup problems. First, I make sure all PCs-including notebook computers-are linked to the network during an enterprise backup. Next, I remind all users to leave their PCs powered on during a backup. And finally, I make sure users apply memorable names to their files. I'll explain why later.

Everything is connected

Once you're sure that all essential PCs and notebooks are networked, storage management software residing on a downstream server can fetch and back up data from your clients. (For a complete look at NT Server backup software from Cheyenne Software, Legato and Seagate, see this month's Enterprise Windows feature.) During this period, the streaming backup data can clog the network plumbing, causing network performance to grind to a halt. In other words, schedule enterprise backups for the evenings or weekends.

After-hours backups represent both a procedural problem and a potential security risk. Leaving a Windows 3.x or 95 PC powered on during off-hours could tempt a passerby to hack it. These operating systems, after all, lack sufficient security. To compensate, use password-protected screen savers on Win3.x and 95. (Windows NT, by contrast, already offers good password protection and a secure file system that's difficult-but not impossible-to hack.) Administrators can minimize the risk by using both BIOS and screen saver-based passwords; the trick is to document passwords in case users forget them.

What's in a name?

Communication with users goes beyond telling them when to leave their PCs on for a scheduled backup. You should also suggest they use file and folder naming conventions that they can remember in the future. One of the great time wasters in networking is scanning through tens of thousands of files on tape to recover one with a filename that "sounds right." Unless users know their critical files by name, finding the appropriate data to restore can be an underappreciated art form during this age of long filenames (Win95 and NT) and 8.3 filenames (Windows 3.x and DOS)

And just when you thought enterprise backup couldn't get any more complicated, along comes collaborative software, distributed file systems and new graphical interfaces such as the one found in Microsoft's forthcoming personal information manager/e-mail inbox, called Outlook.

With collaborative software (such as Lotus SmartSuite and Microsoft Office 97), you can distribute a document among a workgroup. Each user in the workgroup can embed remarks, corrections and notations into the shared document. But powerful, collaborative software can yield ugly results when a user in the generation chain loses the document, or multiple editions of the document are saved to numerous hard drives. To avoid such headaches, I recommend storing collaborative documents to a central server.

Microsoft's new Distributed File System (DFS) adds another dimension to the backup paradigm. DFS (not to be confused with the Open Network Computing/Distributed Computing Environment's Distributed Filing System) allows you to present multiple heterogeneous file systems as a single set of folders to users. This is good and bad. While users will find files more quickly, many won't know where the files actually reside-which complicates network backup, restoration and management.

Microsoft Outlook's front end presents similar issues. Outlook is a personal information manager, e-mail inbox and more, bundled with Office 97. Its ability to substitute for Windows Explorer functions is uncanny. Outlook's "single interface" approach can dilute a user's ability to remember exactly where a file or a folder is actually stored, be it on a local disk drive, shared network drive, file server or even offline, among other possible locations.

Train, train, train

It's possible to implement successful storage management strategies only when management educates users about the value of their data and, consequently, data backups. Enforcing and imposing backup policies across the enterprise increases the possibility that users can survive a disk failure without damage to their own, or their workgroup's, data. There's only one way system professionals can know that backups are being performed: The system pro must personally oversee the backups.

I'm frustrated with tape backup and archiving practices. Hard disk reliability has increased dramatically, giving us a false sense of security. It would thrill me if you would send a message to your network administrator asking whether your PC is getting backed up.

Final notes

If your NetWare or NT server is online 24 hours a day, you have an archiving problem. Open exclusive files usually can't be backed up unless a third-party agent is purchased. Closing such a file usually means taking the application offline during backup. My company uses SBT (Software Business Technologies) Corp.'s accounting software and Oracle servers that suffer from this problem.

Not to worry. St. Bernard Software (http://www.stbernard.com) came to the rescue with NetWare server software that allows these open-exclusive files to be backed up individually, or as synchronized groups of files (to keep them in revision with each other). Although it's not cheap (starting at about $20 per seat), we've been using it in-house for 18 months with Cheyenne's ARCserve backup software. I strongly recommend St. Bernard's offering for nonstop operations.

Contributing Editor Tom Henderson is vice president of engineering for Indianapolis-based Unitel. Contact Tom in the "Enterprise Administrator" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here.

Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.


(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 261.)