Data Backup: Disk Versus Tape

By now you know full well that the only smart, sensible, intelligent thing to do is to back up your data onto disk. Tape is for the birds, outdated and hardly sexy. Yes, disk is definitely the way to go. Except, it’s not.

The gospel of disk has been preached for so long now that disk seems to be the inevitable choice for backup technology. But observers throughout the tech world say there still are plenty of reasons to backup with tape, CD or other such media. And there’s no reason these media can’t coexist peacefully with disk solutions.

“You need to ask what you are actually protecting against,” said Ann Westerheim, president of technology services company Ekaru.

Maybe a small business is backing up data ‘just-in-case,’ keeping files locked in a vault on the off chance they might be needed down the road, Westerheim explained. Or a business might mirror a whole system every night in order to restore data and applications virtually immediately in case of disaster.

Two Different Needs, Two Different Solutions
Suppose a company has aspirations of going public or being acquired by a public firm. That small business is already working to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley, which, among other things, requires that a public company save pretty much every e-mail, memo or invoice it’s ever touched. The companies may never look at these archived items again, but they still have to keep them.

In California, doctors have to save patient medical records almost indefinitely. “Two years ago my granddaughter was born. As an infant she goes to the doctor every couple of months. If she has the sniffles she will be in and out of there all the time,” said Gary McGuire, vice-president of product management and marketing at Computer Associates, a maker of backup software. His point? A single patient — never mind an entire medical practice — can generate a mountain of data over a lifetime, and it all has to be stored until the trumpets blow.

Tape is still the way to go for this kind of deep archiving. It’s cheap, easy to handle, and it can be stored safely in a vault off premises.

Backing up to hard disk, on the other hand, fulfills a different need. “The fundamental question is: What are your restore or recovery objectives?” said Steve Hammond, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Data Protection Solutions, a developer of disk-to-disk backup and restore technology. “If you’re trying to pick the right backup solution and your business couldn’t survive day or two without quick access to data you need to ask, how quickly can this solution get my critical data back up and running if I suffer a failure?”

With disk storage the answer is, pretty quick. Unlike tape, which typically stores data in a linear fashion, meaning you have to start at the beginning and run through it until you find what you’re looking for. Disk storage is more like a mirror, reflecting every aspect of your system at once.

“All a tape does is store data, whereas the best disk-based software can take a complete image of your OS, your settings and your applications,” Hammond said. With a disk solution, “I don’t have to search for media, I don’t have to search for applications. It is all right there.”

Factoring the Cost
Depending on the capacity and size tape you buy, you can spend anywhere from $20-to-$50, plus another $400 to $1000 per tape drive, Westerheim said. With disk backup, protection for a 40-gigabyte personal computer might run $175, plus the cost of a separate server if you have enough users to warrant it. The more complex your system is, the more it will cost to back it up. And then there’s the software.

Whether you opt for tape or disk or both, the solution’s true cost will lie in the software. It also determines other variables such as ease of use, operational complexity and degree of hands-on maintenance. Here again, you need to ask your self: What are you storing and why? How soon do you need to recover it? Sophisticated software will cost you more, but it will also deliver a higher, faster level of recovery functionality.



Tale of the Tape … and Disk

  Tape   Disk 
Low-end  Seagate 10GB/20GB (Uncompressed/compress)
Travan Tape Drive bundled with
Backup Exec Software. (Internal)
Approx. $225.

Certance TapeStor 20GB/40GB External Tape Drive.
Bundled with TapeWare XE Backup Software.
Approx. $425

Maxtor One-Touch
100GB USB Storage (External).
Appropriate for a single PC.
Approx. $150.
(includes backup software)

HP DDS-4 DAT drive (Internal)
Approx. $650. Plus, Dantz Retrospect Desktop
Backup Software, approx. $100.

20/40GB 4mm DAT Server (Internal), approx. $500
Dantz Retrospect

Buffalo Drive Station, approx. $300
Backup software bundled for a single PC.
For a server: Dantz Retrospect, $500
High-end Dell Powervault; 160GB. Workgroup/Department.
Approx. $1500. Veritas Software: $1300
Handles backup for a 10-system scenario.
RAID 1 configuration of 2 SATA 250GB drives.
Approx. $300. Veritas Software: $1300
Handles backup for a 10-system scenario.
Small Business Back-up Solutions: The items above are only a sampling of the many excellent products available.

Since software is the make-or-break issue in planning for a backup system, it’s worth looking at the range and capabilities of some leading backup-software packages. Veritas leads the market with a range of highly capable products, including its Veritas Backup Exec 10.0 for Small Business Server.

It’s easy to use, with an intuitive interface and rapid backup and recovery functionality. An intelligent system design makes it possible to meld together incremental backups for a speedy restoration of a full system image. You can set specific data retention policies and proactively block the backup of non-business-critical files. Continuous backup mode records ongoing changes to files. List price: $929.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find products like NTI BackupNow, which for about $70 offers a super-easy user interface that takes you step-by-step through the backup process. For basic backup needs, this will get the job done. Down side: This software won’t find and backup your e-mail on its own. You will need to tell it exactly where your e-mail program lives — assuming you know.

For $30 or so, a program called Handy Backup 3.9 delivers functionality but offers little clarity. The controls are fairly easy to manage, but the documentation is so scarce, you will have to teach yourself the process one step at a time. Once you have it down, though, backing up is pretty routine. You’ll also pay for added functionality: The Outlook, Registry and ICQ plug-ins cost $10, $15 and $10 respectively. Today’s software lesson: You get what you pay for.

Welcome, then, to the same old balancing act. The pundits may have promised that disk storage would solve all your problems, but nothing’s ever that simple — especially technology. Tape and disk both have their respective virtues, and depending on your needs it is entirely possible that you’ll ultimately find that some combination of both is your best bet.

Adam Stone writes extensively on business and technology issues. He makes his virtual residence at and his physical home in Annapolis, Md.

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