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Busman's Holiday
The End is Near: Backup Now!
by Steve Wood
June 25, 1999



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After recently completing a 20-zip backup (with compression) of my G3's hard drive, I began to wonder if I shouldn't begin investigating other storage options for backups. Back in my Performa 575 days, I faced the same issue when backing up and finally went to a Zip Drive when the backup was approaching nearly a hundred floppy disks.

In these days of relatively inexpensive large hard drives, backing up data has become difficult due to the sheer size of the backups. For some time I had cheated with partial backups with the old, slow, but effective method of compressing key data with StuffIt and placing it on zip disks, sometimes segmenting a section across several disks. Applications were ignored, with only documents, key records, and the system folder preferences being saved.

As the amount stored on my hard drive grew, the backup process became more and more laborious. I found that I was putting off backups for dangerously long periods. I had gotten down to just backing up the MATH DITTOS 2 series, my checkbook and tax records, and my email database. While I craved a copy of Retrospect Express and a Jaz drive, my lovely wife somehow felt the leaking roof in the sunroom and the front porch that gave every indication of imminent cave-in were more important. The introduction of our school's Mac server into my classroom and the accompanying multi-user copy of Retrospect Remote pushed me into action. I immediately completed a backup of my home G3 to practice using the software. While driving to the local Sam's Wholesale Club for a Zip 10-pack, I found myself wishing they carried Jaz or DAT drives. I was looking for a single disk/media solution that could do scheduled backups without anyone present to change disks, click dialog boxs, etc. In other words, I wanted a fully automatic backup option. I needed an inexpensive storage solution.

Before going any further into this subject, let me stress the importance of backing up data. Whether your computer contains a list of hot chicks (dudes), your checkbook, tax records, letters to Granny, or just your high score in Nanosaur, you'll feel absolutely robbed if your drive fails without a backup. And, it will fail. That's why most hard drives come with average failure rates listed in their literature (MTBF=mean time before failure). The MTBF is listed in hours and varies in different disks and manufacturers from numbers like 200,000-800,000 hours before failure.

Before you blow me off thinking you can't be close to a failure as your hard drive or computer are new, let me relate a couple of my horror stories. I've lost two hard drives since I came over to Macintosh computing. The first was just 9 months after purchasing my Performa 575. Apple promptly sent a technician with a new drive. He actually taught me how easy swapping a drive is. He didn't, however, have any magic to make the lost data, including the beta of a new shareware book, come back. A phone call to a gracious reviewer in Michigan replaced the book, but all other data was gone forever. (DriveSavers was financially out of the question.)

The second drive I lost brings home the importance of the word "mean" in mean time before failure. It went south just 30 minutes after I'd scrubbed the drive I transferred data from and just a few hours out of the box! Somewhere, someone must have a drive that should last nearly forever to make up for my "one afternoon special." Maybe it's yours, but don't count on it unless all you treasure on your computer is that Nanosaur high score.

There are a couple of things to consider when planning a backup. One is how much storage space you'll need. The other is what software, if any, you'll use to accomplish the backup.

If you wish to do a complete backup of everything on your computer, you'll need storage equal to the amount of data on your drive. In other words, if you have a 8 gig drive that is half filled, you'll need floppies (insane laughter goes here), zips, or some other media available to hold 4 gig of data. Okay, now that you're gasping, let's talk a bit about compression. Compression is just a way of more efficiently writing files to a disk to conserve space. It usually is not used for regular stuff because it slows everything down. With data compression built in to some programs or hardware, a better average is two-thirds to three-fourths of your data. For the example above, a backup could run anywhere from 2 to 4 gigs.

There are options other than buying a storage device. If you can isolate your critical data to a rather low number of megabytes, you might consider backing up to one of the web storage services available. Even as I write that, I hear Dr. McCoy's voice in Star Trek describing "beaming" as scattering your atoms halfway across the galaxy and back. While an internet connection isn't quite that complex, backups to the net should probably only be considered as a stopgap solution until you can save the bucks for a decent storage device. Aladdin Systems offers up to 20 MB of free web storage for backups. ImacFloppy.Com offers a free 3 MB storage service. If you do a web search for "storage," you will find lots of places to which you can upload your backup. But, remember it will be painfully slow unless you have an incredibly quick connection. Even using all of the above, and maybe even two or three email addresses (accounts), you're probably not going to have the space for a full backup of a modern hard drive.

Uploading brings about another point about backups. Consider this situation. You've faithfully backed up your drive and sadly, your house or business burns down completely, taking your precious Mac and the backup media! It's best to keep an off-site copy of your backup. Depending on the device and media chosen, this can get very expensive very quickly. I have kept a backup of the MATH DITTOS 2 series, registration info, and a few financial records off-site for several years now. It's a pain, but it's also a wise move.

While you're deciding what software and hardware combinations to use for backups, your hard drive is getting older. (Do I sound like a life insurance salesman?) Before it dies on you, why not grab a floppy and at least back up your Quicken records? Tick, tick, tick...


For an experiment I started comparing various storage options from a ClubMac catalog (Volume 38B). I picked ClubMac because they seem to list more options than the other catalogs I receive. I started a page or two from the back of the catalog where various drives are listed. I looked at only SCSI options, but with many USB peripherals flowing onto the market now, I suspect that if you're using an iMac or a Blue & White G3, you'll be able to find a comparable item.

My calculations are based on an 8 gig drive that had about 4 gig filled. Backing it up with Retrospect with software compression on had taken about 19 zip disks, so I figured this comparison for 2 gigs of storage media. This doesn't include my Orange Micro folder because Retrospect's software compression can't handle it and it would add 8 zips to the backup. An old fashioned StuffIt backup compressed it to about four zips!

I first priced a 2GB Jaz drive at 349.95. Both the Iomega and ClubMac versions are the same price. I would only need one piece of media, so I added $124.95 for a 2 GB Jaz disk. The total, not including backup software, of course, was $474.90 without shipping or tax.

Still going from back to front of the catalog, the next option was the 250MB Zip Drive. It sold for $199.50 and would need 8 250 Zips at $16.95 apiece. The total again excluding tax, shipping, and backup software was $335.10.

The 100MB Zip was next. Either a USB or SCSI version was $99.95 and would need about 20 cartridges (Yes, I know they format down to about 94 MB.) ClubMac lists Zip Disks at $9.95 each in quantities of 10, but I get ten-packs at my local Sam's Wholesale Club for $79.95, so I priced them from the lower price. The total was a surprising $255.85! Priced with ClubMac disks, it still was the lowest so far at $294.95.

My dreams of an automated, no disk-changing backup seemed to be slipping away to the reality of economy.

Turning another page, I came to DAT or tape drives. They have the advantage of larger storage capacities per dollar and tape, but are rather slow. The smallest drive was the ClubMac 4-8GB SCSI MiniCartridge Drive at $349. One cartridge would hold all the data and then some at $29. The total was $378, but the extra capacity wasn't accounted for. And for me the tape drive had the advantage of putting everything on one piece of media! If you adjusted the other types of storage so far up to the DAT drive's minimum capacity, it comes out a clear winner. (Can you hear the soft, persuasive voice of rationalization that was running through my head at this point? :-) But my eyes kept straying to the 12-24GB drive at the top of the page that included a tape, a cleaning tape, and Retrospect 4.1...all for "just" $979.

Jumping over a few pages of deliciously humongous hard drives, I came to CDR recorders. I recently read a column by Andy Ihnatko that raved about the quality of current CD burners and their use for backups. Anyway, the economy recorder was $289, and there was an offer for a 10-pack of 650MB media for $4.99 after a $20 rebate. The CD recorder was close to the lead at a total of $293.99. The included media had a capacity of over 6 gig, so even if I ignored the rebate, the drive plus blank CD's came out to $313.99, putting it in a class with the DAT drive for large amounts of storage. The kicker, however, is that the CD's aren't rerecordable. But they have a permanence that is a plus (Record that Nanosaur high score for posterity?).

I bounced over the DVD page, as beginning prices on these recorders are still rather high. Like most new storage introductions, I suspect prices will plummet after they're on the market a year or so.

CD-RW or CD rewritable drives wound up the offerings. The base unit came in at $279. CD-RW media is still rather expensive, but like DVD stuff should begin to come down in price in time. Approximately six CD-RW disks would be required for my backup at $10.22 each, making the CD-RW total $340.32. CD mastering software was included with both the CDR and the CD-RW drives.

I found it interesting that no optical drives were offered.

Since I had nothing better to do with my time, ignoring the leaking roof and crumbling porch, I decided to check prices with Cyberian Outpost and APS. Both have consistently been vendors of choice due to good prices and service, but they didn't have anything to turn my head away from the ClubMac catalog. In fact, their DAT drives were considerably higher priced, but may have included some things not included with the ClubMac versions. APS does offer a CD-RW drive for $249.95, a $30 savings over the ClubMac price.

A web search with HotBot didn't reveal any bargains, nor did a search for "Dat Drive" from the Macintosh News Networks link to the BottomDollar search engine. A similar search at DealMac produced several possibilities for savings.


When you move to backup software, the choices are pretty limited in number and sources. Dantz Corporation dominates the Mac backup software industry with its Retrospect. Retrospect now comes in several versions: Retrospect for servers, Retrospect for single users, and the streamlined Retrospect Express as an economy choice for individual users. Disk Fit Direct, which was bundled with many Iomega Drives, is no longer offered, but may be valuable to you as an upgrade vehicle to one of the Retrospects if you already have a copy.

Symantec dropped out of the Mac backup software market when they dropped Norton Fastback from Norton Utilities 4.0. If you work with System 7.5.5 or earlier, Fastback (part of the Utilities through the 3.5 release) is still usable. CharisMac still sells their Backup Mastery program, but it appears not to have been updated for some time.

ADS Software offers their Personal Backup for $49. It will complete backups in the background or at scheduled times, but appears not to use data compression.

There are several shareware and freeware offerings in backup software. Roland Gustafsson's SimpleBackup 1.6 (23K) offers a freeware option for backups. It doesn't support compression, but for free... well, it requires a "thank you."

Enterprise Software's Drag'nBack (221K) and Drag'nBack Lite (212K) offer shareware options for backups with compression. Pricing for the full version is about the same as Retrospect Express, but Drag'nBack has the shareware advantage of "try before you buy."

Qdea's Synchronize! (699K) and Synchronize! Pro (1933K) offer backup capabilities along with their other features. Synchronize runs $29, while the Pro version is $100. Again, you have the option of trying these sharewares before deciding whether or not to purchase them.

Backup By StuffIt (32K) is a freeware AppleScript by Tomokazu Hanafusa that can archive folders or small drives. The two Applescripts included will work with StuffIt Lite or StuffIt Deluxe to create a .sit backup on whatever media you choose.

Sometimes your best move is to stand pat. That's what I did with storage and backups for now. I'll be changing a lot of zips each time I do a complete backup. As I gain experience with the DAT drive at school, I suspect I may consider that option in the future. It would make keeping a complete, off-site backup copy affordable. And, my bookbag doesn't have room for a 20-30 zip backup. It's already filled with all my usual Mac stuff and even a few papers to grade!

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Reposted to the new MATH DITTOS 2 site 6/25/2000
©1999 Steven L. Wood