Data Centers

Talking Shop: Strategies for backing up user data

Find out what solutions TechRepublic members recommend for backing up data stored on a server.

Every network administrator I've ever known has recurring nightmares about backups. It goes with the territory. And as a network grows, the complexity grows as well. One TechRepublic member shared his frustrations with me as he struggled to cope with a growing Windows NT/2000 network; I was so intrigued by the problem that I turned it into a Microsoft Challenge. His fellow TechRepublic members came through with world-class advice.

This member’s problem is all too common: He's managed to convince his users to store their data on the server where it can be backed up, but finding a proper backup solution for those gigabytes of user data has turned into a struggle. At a maximum of 8 GB (compressed) per tape, his old DDS-2 backup drive doesn't have the capacity or the speed to do regular backups.

Several TechRepublic members pointed out that the definitive answer to this challenge depends on a detailed analysis of the amount of data to be backed up, as well as projected growth over the next few years. Fair enough, but that didn't stop some experienced network administrators from making some very intelligent assumptions and recommendations.

For starters, everyone agreed that it's time to replace the aging DDS-2 drive with something more modern. Compumedic recommended the conservative approach: "Obviously at some point, the powers that be at his organization saw the wisdom of using a DAT drive. They have outgrown it. Time to move to DDS-4, or DDS-3 if they want to do this exercise again soon. This would also be a prudent time to archive all those files that everyone 'absolutely must have' but never accesses. Without knowing the size and number of servers and users involved, it is impossible to guess whether tape autoloaders would be of benefit or required." Good advice. If you're confused about capacities and specs of the various DDS standards, try Hewlett-Packard's FAQ page.

Ecrix and OnStream both earned a smattering of recommendations as low-cost, high-capacity alternatives, but the majority of responses suggested ditching DDS in favor of digital linear tape (DLT) technology. The best testimonial came from jkozura: "As our organization has grown, we have upgraded from 4-GB DAT to 8-GB DAT, and now to 40/80-GB DLT. There is no comparison between DAT and DLT. DLT is faster, the tapes are much more rugged, and they last a long time. My Novell server runs its DLT five or six hours a night M-F, backing up our data, and it hasn't given me a moment's problem in over a year of use. Can anyone using DAT say that? I doubt it. If you can afford the price, upgrade to DLT."

TechRepublic member gkleffner suggested a time-tested DLT-based backup strategy: "DLT drives are reliable, proven in the field, and provide much better speed/performance. A 10-tape library is available for under $10,000 today. This could provide a hassle-free, two-week backup cycle, and a single tape can store a maximum of 70/80 GB." I found an excellent explanation of DLT drives with illustrations at the PC Technology Guide.

Of course, a tape drive is useless without good software, a point emphasized by TechRepublic member Synergy/dlo: "Invest in good backup software, and don't fool with the totally inadequate (sorry, Mr. Bill!) NTBackup. CA's ARCserveIT and VERITAS’ (formerly Seagate) Backup Exec are both good products. They offer very important features like scheduled backups and tape rotation schemes that help small offices manage their tape libraries." Several members also suggested LiveVault, a fascinating (but not cheap), on-the-fly backup solution.

What about using Windows 2000's Removable Storage Management feature to reduce the data load on the server? Gkleffner turned an emphatic thumbs-down on that idea: "Removable Storage is bound to make this administrator's life hell. You can be certain that users will start requesting the very data that has been stored on the removable media." And soren.albeck agreed: "Removable Storage is not a way to lessen backup loads, unless you don't want backups of files on RS. When doing backups, therefore, remember to also copy files on removable storage (as Windows 2000 Backup offers). Don't forget that the [drives or tapes] used for Removable Storage must be able to hold all files in a Removable Storage Group, because all files are copied initially."

Thanks to all the TechRepublic members who responded to this week's Challenge. I've awarded 1000 TechPoints to each member whose response ended up in this week's column.

Here's Ed's new Challenge
While cruising through the TechRepublic forums, I found this question from a member who goes by the alias HeavyDuty: "I'm looking to switch from Command Antivirus to some other AV solution. I have Win9x, NT 4.0, NetWare 4.11, and will soon be adding Win2K Pro and Win2K Server. I want real examples of why not to use Product X, or why I should choose Product Z." Great question, and I've decided to promote it to this week's Microsoft Challenge! I'll add my specific concerns: It should be foolproof to update and ideally should have a way of detecting new viruses before they can do damage to networked PCs. If you think your antivirus software is the very best (or if you have a cautionary tale to share about an AV program you don't recommend), click here to tackle this week's Microsoft Challenge.

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