Backups Reconsidered

Backups, Reconsidered: Confessions of an enthusiastic convert

Talking Crow Productions Eats A Little Crow

Back in March of 2000 I gave a user group Backup Presentation on backup strategies. For the most part, I still recommend it. There is one aspect I would cheerfully like to recant.

I argued against doing full volume or partition backups for a number of reasons:

  • A full systems and applications backup can easily consume several megabytes
  • Your backup becomes obsolete in a week or two
  • Backups of this size consume enormous amounts of time
  • I do incremental backups at least weekly, so all my personal documents and files are safe anyway
  • If your system crashes, why would you restore it to the state it was in just before the crash?
  • If your OS is over a year old, consider a clean install instead

Here’s why I changed my mind.

I did a routine update on a boot utility. This is a utility to manipulate the master boot record, allowing two or more operating systems on the same machine, The updater ran fine. At the end of the session it asked if I wanted to copy and save my settings to the updated utility. Of course I did.

It copied about two files and stopped, with error: invalid file copy order.

I tried a couple more times, with the same result. This is a code bug, not anything I can fix on my own. So I hit the Back button, chose “no” to not save the settings, and the install completed successfully.

When I rebooted, the boot utility couldn’t find Windows 2000. I tried a hack on a file called BOOT.INI, but no luck. I tried “repairing” windows from the system installation disk. Finally, I tried a “full repair” which overwrites the registry. I knew I was doomed. It didn’t work either. I ended up doing a clean install of the OS and all my applications.

Fortunately I am an old hand at this. I even have a serial number log. I was back in business the next day.

Oh, and I dumped the boot utility. Windows 2000 has its own boot manager anyway.

Lessons Learned

There had never been anything wrong with my Windows installation anyway. Had I had a full system backup, I might have been able to restore the proper files. Had there been a hard drive crash, I would have lost any data that is not included in the incremental backups, too. I decided that “I done seen the light” and went with a full backup.

Where do you put all this stuff, and what am I using for the backup?

Storage: for now, I have a spare 12GB partition. I am just backing up the boot partition (“C drive”). It is half full. But, having the backup on the same drive as the source data is not a very bright idea, since there is still no protection against drive failure. And, I do not have room to back up my larger data, development and media drives.

PostScript: We never really got the Pyro product to work with our motherboard and adapter card. For the actual storage system we finally adopted (and have used ever since), see our article on the DataPort removable IDE cartridge system. It uses regular IDE hard drives.

I am looking at a Firewire box by Pyro that sells for $114.95 at PC Connection. Wait a minute, here’s the Pyro 1394 Drive Kit (includes a IEEE 1394 PCI card) for $149.95. I ordered it. All you do is drop in any IDE hard drive, CDR or other IDE or ATAPI drive device, and you have an external firewire drive that you can plug in anywhere — and tuck safely out of sight and mind. I wanted Firewire anyway. 3/5/2002: We had a problem with this unit on our desktop machine, but ADS resolved the problem. We feel the company is fair and responsive, and this product might be a good choice for people looking for auxiliary external backup, an external CD, or other IDE device.

Drives are cheap. Let’s find out how cheap: To drop into my Pyro, I went to MegaHaus and ordered a 100GB Western Digital, 7200 rpm Ultra ATA/100 for $275.00. I have always liked MegaHaus, by the way, and recommend you check them out for any drive or storage-related needs. Wasn’t it just 6 years ago when $1 a megabyte was still the rule for thumb for a decent hard drive price?

Backup software:

Some time ago I ordered Norton Ghost 2001 (Symantec) on the recommendation of a friend. Once I learned it runs under DOS, I never did anything with it. I have a fair comfort level with DOS and other command-line languages, but it takes me time to get up to speed, and I do need a manual to remember the commands.

I installed it today. You don’t actually need to know any DOS at all to get the boot disk running. There is a very professional DOS-level GUI, and mouse is supported. I was able to back up my C drive in about 45 minutes, while I napped. You can do image copies, or sector copy the whole partition as files. I chose files for now. Symantec is out with a Ghost 2002 upgrade which offers support for Windows XP. But, I believe that would be the same DOS-level support I get for W2000, since the NT operating systems lock many files that are in use, preventing their modification or copy.

Most Windows users are probably still using Windows 98 or 98SE. You can run Ghost under the 98 OS family under the Ghost Windows application, but Norton does warn you that some files are still locked, and these still can not be copied while the OS is using them. With the excellent DOS GUI, there is no reason to be afraid of booting from the Ghost boot disk and running the backup outside of Windows.

I’ve tried many backup software packages over the years, and I’ve discarded many favorites. I am very partial to file synchronizer programs. These can do a file-by-file compare of a directory and its subdirectories, copy the newer over the older, and get rid of the orphaned file garbage that otherwise accumulates. But here, the overhead of indexing and comparing two directories becomes enormous for entire partitions or volumes. These programs bog down in calculations before a single file can be moved.

Microsoft makes a good free MS Backup utility which still allows you to extract single files from an archive. In a minor upgrade, probably from W98 to W98SE, I found that the new Backup had no backwards support for archives made with the slightly older version, which were then of course useless. I dumped MS Backup.

Some people swear by Retrospect. It must be capable of doing full system backups (some backup programs aren’t). As stated earlier, any OS that protects its working files can only be copied from “outside”, namely, from DOS or another booted system. Under unix, Mac OS-X would have similar issues, so please do read the performance specs and claims carefully. Ghost seems to seamlessly do what I need. There is support for backups to CDR, or other media, or across our home LAN, if I need it.

To back up to removable media, Ghost supports backups that span multiple CDR, ZIP, DVD or other removable disks. Once you burn the first 650MB CD-ROM, Ghost prompts you to insert the second, and so on. For my 6GB+ home needs, this would be far slower and more high-maintenance than a straight one-shot copy to another drive. (For transport to another location, though, it might be ideal).

Having said all this, I am now a firm believer in full backups again. And, I can no longer plead lack of space or time as an excuse not to do them.

©Alex Forbes &, December 8, 2001

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