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Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Unbelievably Cheap Total Data Security
A penny a meg. That's all it costs to ensure you'll never lose a critical file again.

What brings your system to its figurative knees? It's bad software that usually gets mine. Sometimes it's with a big splashy crash, but more often it's something subtle, like a window that won't close properly or a subsystem that hangs. Then over time, like slowly falling dominoes, other parts of the system start acting up. The instability worsens until I finally give up and admit I'm hosed.

Sometimes, it's new hardware. Yes, Plug and Play is light-years ahead of the old-style installations. (If you've ever had to use tweezers to change a jumper on a motherboard in some inaccessible place, you know what I mean.) But it sure ain't perfect, and every so often, a new piece of hardware can make your once rock-solid system seem like a house of cards in a stiff breeze.

And sometimes (cough, shuffle, cough) it's user error. I admit it-I've made some spectacularly stupid moves from time to time. Once, I used LapLink's powerful Clone feature to synch directories on two systems at the end of a very long day, during which I'd added a ton of new work and extensively rearranged the directory structure on my main machine. I was dead tired, hurrying to finish and not paying close enough attention. I ended up replacing all the new work with the old stuff. It wasn't LapLink's fault. It tried to protect me, but I blithely breezed past the safeguards-a classic bonehead maneuver that wiped out a day's work.

Power spikes, viruses, hardware failure-many other things can eat your files. Every power user knows this, but it's such a dreary subject, and the traditional hardware solutions are so prosaic and dull, the usual response to the word "backup" is a slow glazing of the eyes. You hear: "Sooner or later, all of us will lose some, most or even all our data." You respond: Yawn.

Until recently, the yawns were justified because backups were awful, especially on large systems. It's as though the cure for data loss was almost worse than losing the data.

For example, I have a 2GB system at home and a 4GB system at work. I hated to try to back these up. My main backup method at home was a QIC tape drive, but at 250MB per cartridge, I'd need at least a half dozen tape-swaps for a full backup. Each tape costs $25 and takes about 30 minutes to fill, which means a full backup can cost hundreds of dollars and take the better part of a day. How unappealing can you get?

My work system? Forget it. You simply cannot back up a 4GB system with conventional tapes or removable drives-it'd be slow, cumbersome and ridiculously expensive. Until now, I've had to do a clumsy backup through the LAN to the communal high-capacity tape or optical drives, or use my laptop for critical file cloning. Network backups choke the LAN with a ton of traffic and just shift the hassle of tape juggling from the user to the LAN administrator. Using a laptop to back up critical files is fine, but you're still not backing up most of the files on the main system. Either way, it's ugly.

The bottom line is I didn't do full backups as often as I should have. And if you have a large hard drive, I bet you don't, either.

An eye-opener

Well, hang on. Emerging technology, coupled with free-falling prices, has ushered in a new era in data security.

Check out the falling prices on 2GB tape drives. The cartridges cost less than $20-not even a penny a megabyte-and the drives now cost less than $200. A few companies sell these drives, and the units and their software are nearly identical. Two examples are the Iomega Ditto 2GB and the Sony StorStation 2GB Ditto. With one of these babies, you can back up all but the largest desktop systems on a single, small tape cartridge.

The software is ultra-simple to use. It's smart (it automatically makes a full backup of the Registry), and it gives you lots of flexibility. Because I can back up my entire home system without having to swap tapes, I set mine up to do unattended incremental backups every night, and a full unattended backup and compare once a week. I now have total data security. It's utterly painless. I don't have to be there. I don't even have to think about it.

The drives are parallel port devices, so there's nothing to install or alter inside your computer. You just plug an included cable into the printer port, and you're done. (Both the Sony and the Iomega devices have a pass-through so you don't lose use of your port while the tape drive is attached.) This ease of connection means you can carry a drive from system to system. For example, I can bring my Ditto unit to the office to back up that system, and by breaking the 4GB drive into two more manageable 2GB partitions, I can fit each onto a single tape.

And, for the first time, I have a brain-dead simple way to back up my laptop's files. I just plug the Ditto drive into the laptop's printer port.

Incidentally, the backup software also works just fine through a LAN, so you can use a Ditto-type drive to back up an entire small workgroup or office if the extra network traffic isn't an issue and you don't want to move the drive from machine to machine.

Depending on the speed of your system, the size of your files and how compressible they are, you'll likely see backup speeds ranging from 7MB to 12MB per minute. While that's not enough to give you windburn, it is fast enough to complete a total system backup and compare during the evening, when speed isn't an issue. As long as it's done by the time you return to work, who cares how long it took?

As a crowning touch, these drives can read many older QIC-80 tapes, so investments in earlier tape backups aren't wasted.

You have other options besides 2GB tapes, of course. Iomega sells an enhanced Ditto drive with a compressed capacity of 3.2GB, but the drive costs about $100 more than the 2GB version, and the tapes are $35 each. Seagate's TapeStor 3200 ($250) can also put 3.2GB on a single tape. The tapes are significantly more expensive than the 2GB tapes, but they may be a good choice if you have a massive hard drive.

Parallel port-driven Zip-type drives are way cool, but they hold only about 100MB per disk. Besides, at $15 to $20 per disk, a 2GB to 4GB backup of this sort would be quite expensive. Jaz-type drives are equally cool and can hold up to 2GB per $125 cartridge-large enough for a full unattended backup-but large Jaz drives are SCSI-based and cost twice as much as the 2GB Ditto-style drives.

You can find plenty of good DAT drives, too, and the 1GB- to 3GB-capacity units cost about the same as Ditto and TapeStor units. But most are internal units operating off the floppy interface, so you lose the easy transportability of the Ditto-type devices. DAT drives also come in larger versions. Full-blown, SCSI-based DAT drive capacities can be awesome, with incredibly low per-megabyte costs. But the units can be quite expensive. A 14GB DAT drive goes for around $2,000, making these better suited to network backups of larger workgroups.

So, for routine, unattended backups of normal-sized PCs, the 2GB Ditto-style tape units seem a great choice, especially when you factor in their low cost, ease of setup and transportability.

If you haven't looked at tape lately, maybe it's time. With total data security going for less than a penny a megabyte, how can you afford not to?

Fred Langa is vice president and editorial director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at http://www.winmag.com/flanga/hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at the e-mail addresses here.

Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 15.

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