Opinion: Mac Enterprise backup options are looking up
While backup and recovery options for Apple’s enterprise systems haven’t always been a strong point of the Mac platform, a new crop of applications and technologies is pulling Mac OS X closer to — and in some instances, beyond — Windows and Linux.
Before looking ahead to what’s coming, it’s important first to look back. And that means a quick refresher course on Retrospect, a mainstay of the Apple community since Mac OS 7 was hosting e-mail, files and FileMaker databases. The venerable app had solid features and drivers for a fairly large subset of tape libraries. Unfortunately, it peaked in the late 1990s around Version 4.3, long before the introduction of Mac OS X in 2001. Since then, it’s been in a steady decline.
Competition? Not so much on the Mac platform. Although a few consumer-level backup options existed, the best alternative for backing up a Mac was to simply drag files to a server, an external SCSI hard drive or a Windows server. Windows had options like Veritas Backup Exec and ArcServe — and a Windows version of Retrospect. The Unix and Linux camps also had a variety of quality products from which to choose, including some eventually ported to Macintosh.
More than a year after Mac OS X arrived, Retrospect 5 belatedly followed, offering compatibility with Apple’s revamped OS but few new features and, more importantly, reliability issues that would plague it in the years to come. Retrospect 6 was released at Macworld in January 2004, and for a short time, the Macintosh enterprise community had high hopes for backup software. Later that year, Retrospect’s parent company, Dantz, was acquired by EMC, a leader in enterprise storage systems, for just under $50 million.
EMC has never had a particularly good reputation on the Macintosh platform. Its Clariion unified storage systems never had a native Mac client, and the company has only recently started putting some energy behind the Macintosh version of its industry-leading virtualization client, VMware. What could have been a step in the right direction for backup solutions on the Mac side turned into what some would call a failure on the part of EMC.
Since 2004, Retrospect 6 for Mac has received just one minor point upgrade, and that was largely to make its backup software compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. On the PC side, Retrospect 7 emerged in October 2005 and was followed by Version 7.5 last year. With the possible exception of the demise of QuarkXPress, has there been a longer fall from glory among once-popular Macintosh apps? Not by my recollection.
The fate of Retrospect is important: It gives enterprises another backup software option. It’s also very important to Mac-centric companies that may have more than 10 years of backups sitting on their shelves in a Retrospect format. What happens, for instance, when someone needs to pull up a marketing campaign from a few years back that’s archived on Retrospect backup tapes — and the company has long since migrated away from Retrospect? And how does that company meet Sarbanes-Oxley requirements now.
The Register.com a few months ago detailed a series EMC moves, layoffs and team changes that undermined Retrospect, and EMC has done little to dispel concerns about the software’s future. When asked to clarify the company’s plans, EMC spokeswoman Jennifer Dreyer left the door open to future development and said the company plans to release a version of Retrospect that supports Apple’s upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard release this fall.
“Entering 2007, one of the large external factors influencing EMC Insignia’s development priorities is Apple’s planned Leopard release…. EMC is committed and focused on developing a backup product compatible with this important OS release,” she said. “EMC does not disclose product road maps. However, I can assure you that the EMC Insignia team continues to watch the overall marketplace very closely — including Apple Macintosh’s market-share resurgence in 2006, Apple’s recent deployment of Intel-based Mac products, as well as the growing use of virtualization-based products in the marketplace.
“…EMC will release another version of Retrospect that will support…Leopard. It is EMC’s policy to not preannounce any new major product releases until they are available in the channel for distribution. Our Retrospect product road map disclosure falls under this announcement policy,” Dreyer said.
While it’s good that there will be a version of Retrospect that runs on Leopard, EMC seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to development and innovation of Macintosh products. And it sounds like the company is advocating VMware Windows virtual machine backups for Macs in the near future. While that prospect might take Mac systems administrators off-guard, it’s certainly a strategy to consider — though not an optimal one. The ability of Windows and Linux/Unix applications to accurately back up HFS formatted partitions, including resource fork and metadata, should certainly be suspect. Additionally, adding a virtual machine layer to an already complicated and delicate process is bound to cause issues.
A slew of competitors from the Unix/Linux camp are hoping to exploit the frustration of Retrospect users. Those attracting the most attention are Tolis Group’s BRU for the small and midsize business market, and Atempo Time Navigator and BakBone’s NetVault for medium to large businesses.
While Retrospect still technically works and is slated for a Leopard update, its current data cataloging system is antiquated — especially for large volumes the application wasn’t designed to handle. If catalog files get corrupted, it can take weeks to rectify a backup with the system offline. Like most applications designed in the 1990s, Retrospect also doesn’t multitask well, eating up an immense number of processor cycles during backups and rendering most other processes useless — something considered unacceptable in today’s 24/7 environment. Retrospect’s SCSI drivers are also notoriously finicky, making ATTO LVD SCSI cards (not Apple’s) the only surefire solution, and EMC has been late to the game with fiber backup compatibility. To top it all off, its interface is clunky and outdated.
Despite those issues, Retrospect is scriptable, has a lot of legacy usage information available on EMC Dantz forums and is still the current market leader for backups on the Macintosh.
BRU from Tolis Group was ported from the Unix/Linux camp a few years ago and has years of experience in the backup space. BRU is basically a command-line application with an added GUI front end for disk and tape backups. When BRU first arrived for the Macintosh platform, its GUI front end was extremely basic and product updates came out too frequently for enterprise software. Lately, however, BRU has matured into an economical, stable, powerful and — most importantly — reliable solution for small to midsize businesses.
NetVault from BakBone, another Linux enterprise backup vendor, had been making a command-line- and X11-based backup solution for Macs for several years. In late 2005, the interface became Macintosh-native. The result: The application is now the most polished for large enterprises on the Mac platform.
Paul McGlaughlin, systems administrator in charge of backups for Los Angeles-based Drissi Multimedia, is a NetVault user. “I’ve heard rumors that EMC might finally be giving Retrospect some love, but for lots of us, it’s too late. We are running on NetVault now,” he said.
“NetVault is much deeper than Retrospect, as each individual computer is listed as a separate job, making less monolithic scripts and more granularity in writing backups,” McGlaughlin said. “The full backup of our servers [containing 20TB of data] is running about 20% faster than Retrospect on a per-drive basis — Retro could only do one drive — and [we] have two drives pumping away.
“The restoration process is also more robust in NetVault,” he added. “We can do full and incremental restores to any point still remaining on tape. Additionally, it supports multi-locations, multi-drives, D2D2T [disk-to-disk-to-tape], and other hybrid backup structures, including support for VTL [virtual tape libraries]. We are very happy with our options now that Retrospect isn’t the de facto Macintosh enterprise backup.”
Atempo Time Navigator (not to be confused with Apple’s upcoming Leopard-based Time Machine, which I’ll get to later) is another enterprise backup solution for Mac. While it still employs a command-line- and X11-based interface, its reliability and configurability for SANs — and most significantly, Apple’s XSAN — make it a viable choice for enterprises that employ this type of system. Major complaints about Atempo include its “Rube Goldberg” interface and the need for multiple applications to accomplish primary tasks.
Major complaints about Atempo include its “Rube Goldberg” interface and the need for multiple applications to accomplish primary tasks.
For more detailed information about various backup options, check out Michael Dhaliwal’s white paper, Apple Enterprise Backup Solutions.
If you are currently using Retrospect, it may be time to make a switch. If you choose to stay on, either keep your expectations low or open a line of communication with the decision-makers at EMC. If you switch, make sure you have a contingency plan for all of your old data. You either need to keep a machine with Retrospect on it forever or migrate all of your Retrospect backups to a new solution — not an enviable task.
For new deployments, if you are a small or medium-size business and your data and backup needs are relatively modest, BRU is your best bet. It’s simple to administer, easy on resources, reliable, economical and actively improved on a regular basis. The Tolis Group has a solid reputation and is working to make a better product.
For larger Mac-based businesses, NetVault is a welcome choice. Although more expensive than most offerings, it is the backup application that enterprise Macintosh administrators have been waiting for and largely matches its PC and Linux competitors.
If your business is largely XSAN-reliant and you are comfortable with command-line backup and restoration, you might also want to look at Atempo’s Time Navigator.
On the Mac platform, backup administrators are often forced to be early adopters of new technologies. In this case, there are a lot of exciting technologies and options around the corner:
— Going Tapeless. Disks are steadily replacing tape as the backup medium of choice. Yes, tape has a longer shelf life, is more portable and is still cheaper byte for byte than hard drives as media. There are also road maps from both the SAIT (Super Advanced Intelligent Tape) and LTO (Linear Tape-Open) camps promising huge capacities and blazing backup speed. The problem is that the advantages in speed, size and prices of hard drives are keeping up, if not surpassing, these gains. In addition, with the help of SANs, administrators can keep years of archives online, available across the network for a price that competes with the offline storage of tapes. Off-site and trans-site archiving are increasingly being conducted over the Internet rather than by services like Iron Mountain’s.
Disk-to-disk backups are made quickly and efficiently to other disks. The searching and restoration of data is also quick and easy with disk-to-disk rather than the linear method required by tape. The disk backup is then replicated to tape for long-term archiving and portability, for which tape still has an advantage.
— Backup Service Providers. As Internet speed increases at a rate much higher than storage space, the prospect of a backup service provider market looms. Already, a few providers are emerging — and not surprisingly, some are targeting the Mac platform. BackJack, a strictly Mac service, for instance, offers plans for small businesses that compete with the cost of traditional off-site backups. Additionally, Mozy, a start-up that lists General Electric among its backup clients, has just introduced a Mac client for network backups.
Security is often a concern with backup service providers, so a good reputation, encrypted storage and strong service-level agreements are imperative. However, a substantial percentage of the high-profile security breaches over the past few years have arisen from lost or stolen backup tapes during off-site delivery, so your data may be safer if it’s not touched by extra hands.
— Backup Appliances. File-system-agnostic backup appliances are ripe for the market. A Google Mini box that searches all of your shares and indexes all of the files could just as easily be outfitted with a few terabyte drives and use a simple Web interface to back up and archive data. While Mac administrators know that important metadata and resource forks can be lost when Mac shares are backed up via NFS or SMB protocols, this could still be a compelling option for smaller businesses.
— Time Machine. Apple’s built-in Time Machine, due out in Leopard later this year, opens a lot of possibilities. The ability to do backups using Apple’s core software will be tempting to small businesses. Obviously, the size, granularity and efficiency of these automated backups are aspects businesses must consider — and many of these details won’t be resolved until Leopard is released.
A simple scenario for a small company would be to set up all of the Macintosh client machines to use Time Machine to back up to a server share. That server share could then be backed up to tape. Voila — disk-to-disk-to-tape!
— ZFS. Leopard Server may not ship with the ability to boot from Sun’s ZFS open-source, 128-bit file system in September, but it will likely have support for the revolutionary disk file system. The list of compelling features that ZFS offers is too long to get into, but you can bet that the Macintosh enterprise world will be watching as this new capability is added to the fold.
To sum it up, Macintosh administrators have had few enterprise backup options in the past. The community’s pleas for alternatives has finally been heard by a new group of vendors that come from the Linux and Unix camps. These new options, along with emerging technologies, are going to make it much easier to be a Macintosh administrator when it comes to server backups.
Seth Weintraub is a global IT management consultant specializing in the technology needs of creative organizations, including The Paris Times, Omnicom and WPP Group. He has set up and managed cross-platform networks on four continents and is an expert in Active Directory/Open Directory PC and Macintosh integration.