A Data and Media Backup Box

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted November 30, 2004

It's not possible to over emphasize the importance of regularly backing up data, especially for SMBs that don't have their own information technology personnel. Lost data equals lost business — or in extreme cases, the loss of the entire business.

If you own or manage a small firm, you need a simple, reliable and — most important — automatic way of making sure that all your data is backed up regularly. If it's not done automatically, you have to rely on people to do it — and too often, they just don't.

To The Rescue
The Western Digital Media Center, a reasonably priced hardware and software solution from Western Digital Corp., offers a compact, easy-to-set-up and easy-to-use external (USB and/or Firewire) hard drive that includes a few handy extras, including a built-in 8-in-1 flash memory card reader and a USB hub.

The Media Center makes especially good sense for companies that work with digital cameras, because of its memory card reader functions — you can automatically back up the contents of a memory card with a few mouse clicks. It also works well for SOHO (Small Office, Home Office) operations where the same computer is used both for business and for personal applications, including digital photography.

The one-port USB hub function means you can also plug in digital cameras or USB flash memory cards and automatically back up their contents.

The heart of the Media Center is its very big hard drive — available in 160-, 200- and 250GB capacities. We reviewed the 250GB unit. Each Media Center comes bundled with Retrospect Express Version 6.5, dual-option backup software from Dantz Development Corp. It lets you back up in two wyas — on demand or automatically according to a schedule — with just the press of a button.

Prices for the Western Digital Media Center range from $220 to $300, depending on capacity.

Using an external hard drive for backups has pros and cons. Backup and recovery are both much faster than with tape, of course, and it's also faster than CD or other optical media. The unit can also do double duty as over-flow storage. External drives are easier to install than internal drives because you don't have to open a PC case and bolt them into place in a rack. You just plug them in to a USB or Firewire port on any PC or Macintosh. (This one works with Macs as well.)

For the ultimate in security, you want to store your backups off-site, so that your data is preserved in the case of fire or other physical disaster. While you can store backup tapes at a different location, you can't very well store the Media Center permanently off site. The unit is portable, and you could conceivably unplug it and take it home at the end of each day — however you're still vulnerable to human error — i.e., you could forget to take it home.

Speedy Specifications
The USB2 or Firewire interface sacrifices little in terms of data transfer speeds compared to internal ATA drives. The Firewire interface can reach a maximum transfer rate of 400 megabits per second (Mbps), which is roughly 3GB per minute. USB2 has a maximum transfer rate of 480 Mbps or about 3.6GB per minute. The fastest Serial ATA drives boast transfer rates of 9GB per minute, but many internal drive interfaces are slower than USB2. It's also important to note that these top speeds are all theoretical — individual results will vary.

Other drive performance specs for the Media Center products match up with current mid-range hard drive products. Rotational speed is 7,200 RPM. (The faster the disk spins, all other things being equal, the faster the drive can transfer data.) The size of the memory buffer for holding data until the PC is ready for it is 8MB.


Western Digital Media Center
Small Business Backup: the Western Digital Media Center combines big hard drive capacity, Retrospect software and a media card reader in one small package.

For most small businesses, it's probably not critical to have the fastest hard drive available, especially if it's going to be used exclusively or primarily for backup. You're going to start the backup at a time when you're not using the attached PC, and just let it run. This one is not as fast as the fastest internal drives, but it's faster than some and plenty fast enough for the intended application.

Sufferin' Software
The Retrospect software is not the most intuitive I've ever used. This is in part because it offers a great deal of flexibility in the way you back up, but I'm guessing it is also partly because the software was designed with fairly experienced computer users in mind.

For example, virtually every other backup program I've tried lets you first select the folders and files you're going to back up, then you tell the program to back them up. With Retrospect, you first establish a "backup set" of a particular type — there are several — then you tell the program where you want the backup stored.

Only when you tell it to go ahead and back up for the first time does the program present you with a dialog that allows you to select which "source" folders to include. Even then, Retrospect wants to work with "volumes," which can be folders or parts of folders that you first have to define. To select individual files for backup, you need to use the program's Windows Explorer-like browser features.

Retrospect uses what it calls an "archival" method of backup. The benefit is that it ensures backed up files that you subsequently modify are not deleted or written over by the new modified version when you next back up. Retrospect creates a new copy — thus preserving all of the earlier versions of the file.

I'm not sure I've ever encountered a situation where it was essential for me to go back to an earlier version of a file. However, if a modification or series of modifications to a file involved deleting significant chunks of content and replacing them with new content, it would obviously be useful to be able to go back. Many types of small businesses could be in this position.

At first glance, setting up a schedule looks to be more complex than it is in other small business backup solutions. Retrospect requires you to create a script — a simple program to control the automated backup. The script determines source volumes, the destination backup set, which files (from the source volumes) to include in the action, options — such as whether to compress files while backing up — and the schedule itself.

Mr. Wizard
The EasyScript wizard makes it very simple if you're starting from scratch. It's rather too simple, though. You can't use it to set up a schedule to do actions on a backup set you've already created and executed once as an Immediate or On-demand action. And it only lets you schedule backups for every weekday or once a week.

However, by selecting the Manage Scripts option from the main menu panel and choosing New, you get full control all aspects of script writing — and it's almost as easy as using the EasyScript wizard.

Retrospect lets you do much more than most small businesses that purchase this kind of solution will likely want to do. You can set up backups to multiple media — different hard drives or rewritable media — in the same action, for example. Or set up different backups for each day of the week — useful for retail businesses.

The first time you press one of the buttons on the front of the unit — one for Automatic, one for On Demand backups — it launches a Retrospect wizard for setting up the action. The next time you press the On Demand button, it will automatically repeat the backup action you set up initially. The Automatic button stays lit after you go through the initial wizard to let you know your backups will occur as scheduled.

A Visit With Tech Support
Our installation of the WD Media Center was not 100 percent clean. Although the install program appeared to go through all its steps properly, after I clicked OK to shut down (once the installation was supposedly complete), the program reported an error. This seemed to contradict the evidence. I clicked OK on the error message and the system shut itself down and restarted without incident.

On re-boot, however, the Found New Hardware wizard appeared — this was not supposed to happen according to the documentation. I let it go through its automatic process. It appeared to install drivers during this process. After it finished, My Computer recognized the Western Digital drive. Retrospect launched and subsequently worked perfectly.

I called WD's highly reputed technical service department to ask about these departures from the process as described in the documentation. After some consultation, the agent concluded that despite appearances, everything had installed correctly. All subsequent evidence suggested she was correct.

Even with the somewhat unintuitive software and the minor installation glitch, the WD Media Center is a good bet for any small businesses looking for a simple, automatic backup solution. If you also need a built-in memory card reader, they're a no-brainer.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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