All Good Data Needs A Great Safety Net

For mission-critical data, nothing beats the new rev of this Best of Breed backup app

by Seth T. Ross

Talk about mission critical. Few computer operations fit that description better than the consistent backup of key user and system files. Need we repeat the litany of hardware, human, and heavenly failures that can wipe out your data, from cracker attack to power failures? If your computer data is important, you have a backup system in place.

A backup system requires both hardware and software. The preferred hardware for backing up the large file systems that are common at NEXTSTEP sites is either a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) drive or an 8mm Exabyte mechanism, both of which can rapidly back up gigabytes of data. The preferred software to manage the backup process in the NEXTSTEP environment is SafetyNet from Systemix Software.

We first reviewed a prerelease version of SafetyNet in the Fall 1992 issue. We gave it four cubes in beta and, upon review, we gave the shipping product a Best of Breed award in May 1993. After extensive backup sessions working with SafetyNet 2.1, we are happy to report that not only has the application lived up to our original expectations, it's exceeded them.

Catalogs, profiles, and archives

SafetyNet provides a simple point-and-click interface to the process of storing files on tape media. It keeps an on-line database, or "catalog," of the files you've written to tape, allowing you to browse tapes as easily as hard drives. The catalog stores the names of backup files as well as vital information about their status and location. In SafetyNet lingo, the combination of off-line tape storage and an on-line catalog is called an "archive."

SafetyNet gives you complete control over the scope of backups. You can select any combination of files and directories for archiving. An Inspector allows you to choose files according to ownership (if you want to back up, say, Tom and Jane's files, but not Dick's), and by date (if you want only files modified since January 1, 1994, or your last backup).

Commonly used backup selections can be saved as backup profiles that can be either launched from the Workspace Manager or scheduled for automatic execution at predefined times (such as every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 a.m.).

The product comes in two flavors: SafetyNet Professional and Safety- Net Personal. The professional version can back up any mounted UNIX file system, including those that are NFS mounted over a network, making it the choice for network administrators. The personal version can only back up locally mounted disks but costs considerably less.

Setting up your net

You start by creating an archive to keep track of the files you've backed up and the tapes on which they're backed up. The application prompts you to choose a name for the archive and a volume label for the tape. Once your archive is set up, you create a profile that determines which files and directories get backed up into it. SafetyNet presents you with a browser that lets you select and deselect the appropriate files and directories. By default, it lists all mounted file systems.

Once you select files and date, time, user, and group options in the Inspector panel, you're ready to roll. Choose the Backup command from the Tools menu, pop in your tape, and SafetyNet handles the rest.

Restoring files is even easier. SafetyNet provides an Archive Browser that lists all the files and directories you've backed up. Select the files you wish to restore and use the Inspector panel to indicate to what location you want the files restored. SafetyNet prompts you to insert the proper tape and, seconds later, your files are back.

We tested SafetyNet with an ArchiveST 2000 DAT drive from Maynard Electronics. We backed up over 3GB of data onto three DAT tapes (each one can hold nearly 1.2GB). It took 45 minutes to back up our stock 330MB hard drives. The most impressive thing about SafetyNet is how quickly it restores data. The app took less than one minute to retrieve an arbitrarily selected 256KB file.

Why not use dump?

Wizened system administrators know that the UNIX utilities dump and restore function much the same as SafetyNet and are included free with NEXTSTEP's UNIX. They also know that these utilities are basically brain-dead and have cryptic command-line interfaces. While dump can do incremental backups, it only works with entire file systems and has no provision for partial backups of, for example, just home directories. While restore can restore a single file from a backup tape, it must read every file on the tape that precedes the one you need, a time-consuming process.

SafetyNet is much easier to use. In the time it takes to absorb the backup section of the NeXT system-administration manual, SafetyNet can take care of your local disks. But the biggest advantage of SafetyNet over the UNIX utilities is its speed and easy access to archived files, which are important factors when you're up against the panic that results from losing critical data.

Nearly flawless

SaftetyNet isn't perfect. While it's easy to use, we'd like to see a Full Backup button that allows first-time users to skip the steps of creating an archive and a profile. The menu structure could stand some reorganization: All of the key commands are nested under the Tools menu. The ability to browse through multiple archives would be a welcome enhancement.

Given that any product is subject to improvement, we recommend SafetyNet without reservation, particularly for network administrators who are responsible for large volumes of data. The cost of the app is pennies on the dollar compared to the prospect of losing critical corporate or personal data.

Seth T. Ross is the publisher of San Francisco-based Albion Books and a NeXTWORLD contributing editor.

SafetyNet 2.1

4 & 1/2 Cubes

This new release of the Best of Breed backup application is flexible, reliable, and easy to use. It allows you to rapidly find and restore archived files and directories. Recommended without reservation, particularly for network administrators.

$399 professional version; $149 personal version

Systemix Software, P.O. Box 2457, Columbia, MD 21045.

410/290-8813, 800/509-0039, 410/290-8934 fax;