Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Problem: Home Backup

I don't want to lose my important data or my software. Files get deleted accidentally. Files get corrupted by various means. Sometimes I edit a document and then realize too late that I liked the previous version better and I didn't use software that saves versions. Sometimes a hard drive gets damaged. Backups can save a lot of grief. A lot of people don't back up their home computers and laptops, and when they do it is rarely done in any comprehensive way. It isn't surprising when you realize how difficult it is to do. You have to know a fair amount about computers to get it right, and you will probably throw a lot of money at it if you have a number

of computers and no corporate network available to you to centrallize the work the way business often do.

It isn't easy finding a robust, reliable, affordable solution to backing up multiple desktops and laptops without a network backup server. Tape drives are unpopular in this arena because they are hard for most people to deal with for home systems. Even if yo find a great drive and software for it, you have to set up some sort of multiple pile storage of recycling tapes and keep replacing them properly as you move the drive from computer to computer. And that's the best case for a home tape backup with current technology. I don't want to use my company's business network to backup my own computers for various reasons and I don't want to set up a server at home for this purpose either. I want a purely local backup solution under my own control, using an external hard drive I can simply move from computer to computer.

Here's the vision I came up with:

I want a general purpose solution for backing up multiple computers locally to the same portable backup media that I can carry around from computer to computer. My criteria are simple but (especially for a Windows solution) very demanding.

1. The solution has to work through external drives on USB ports. The only thing I have in common between all my computers is USB and I don't want to install more cards in the computers or buy separate backup devices for each computer unless I absolutely have to. This means it will be slow, but that' a reasonable tradeoff to me if it can run overnight.

2. The solution must be able to restore individual files. I need to be able to restore individual files that might get accidentally deleted or large files that are deleted in the event I run out of disk space.

3. The solution must work for disaster recovery of drives and partitions. I need to be able to restore entire computers or entire drives in the event that I get a nasty virus or rootkit and have to reformat the drive, or in the event that the hard drive has to be replaced. I have a lot of important software installed and I don't want to have to reinstall it all manually one program at a time and then hope I saved all those license codes and that the software can all be re-registered another time. I don't want to have to rebuild a laptop and install an operating system and then reinstall the backup software just in order to restore the disk. So it must work entirely from external drives if neccessary.

4. I want to be able to re-use as much of the same solution as possible to backup multiple computers rather than use different devices and software on each computer.

5. It has to be reliable and easy enough to use that I don't have to study manuals to use it or remember arcane sequences of tasks. I'm a computer consultant but not a PC technician, and I don't have a of time and resources to put into tweaking. I don't want my backup solution to become a troubleshooting puzzle everytime I go to use it or restore from it. I want minimal updating of drivers, hacking of the registry or boot sectors, moving files around, etc. to get it to work.

6. I want it to work with Windows XP and Vista.

7. I don't want to spend more than about $200-$300 for a solution to back up several computers. Even a reasonably priced external hard drive multiplied by 4 systems already blows away that budget if I can't share the backup solution between systems.

I spent a lot of time and tried a number of different solutions of various kinds. The main thing I was surprised at was how many backup programs didn't do the job by my simple criteria, and how much work I had to do to find that out. After a long Thanksgiving Holiday weekend of experimenting I did find a solution that I'm very happy with so far and can recommend very highly to others with similar criteria.


My Solution: Maxtor USB Drive and Acronis True Image

Acronis TrueImage is exceptional backup software that works for my solution because it is extremely straightforward to use, creates external USB bootable media, worked with my USB external hard drives without additional drivers or configuration, and allows individual file backup and restore as well as entire drives and partitions. I tested it with a Sony external USB CD/DVD dual layer writable drive (about $150) and a Maxtor OneTouch4 500 Gb external hard drive (about $170). This solution takes about 3 hours to back up an 80 Gb laptop hard drive completely and can be moved from computer to computer using the same mobile drives. The thing that seals the deal is the cost of the software. Seagate and Acronis cut a deal to make some of this superb backup software available for free to anyone who owns a Maxtor or Seagate external hard drive.

Free Image Backup Software

Keep in mind that if you wanted to run the fully featured Acronis backup, you would be legally obligated to buy a license for each system. At $50 per license, this would make the solution less practical for me because it would add a couple of hundred dollars to an already fully utilized budget. If this were my only option, I would probably be tempted to stretch the budget and pay the price because of the value of the solution. In that case, Ghost (at about $70 per copy) becomes a closer competitor to TrueImage as a good home disaster recovery solution. However I found another option that saves the license cost for the backup software.

The features of Acronis are well worth the price I think, but I wouldn't need them on all of my systems. Fortunately I discovered that there are free versions available with just the limited features I need for most of my systems. These are versions of Acronis rebranded by Maxtor (Maxtor MaxBlast ) and Seagate (Seagate DiskWizard ). The catch is that you need to have a Seagate or Maxtor external hard drive to use these free versions of the softtware. I use Maxtor external hard drives, so this was no problem for me. If you want to try out this solution yourself and you haven't purchased your external hard drive yet, keep this in mind when you go to buy it. If you can take advantage of the free rebranded versions, you can save $50 per computer. I like the features of Acronis but I only really one them on one of my computers, so I chose to purchase one full version of Acronis TrueImage and then use the free version on my other computers as a compromise.

The Solution

The components of the solution

[Maxtor 500 GB OneTouch4 USB External Hard Drive] moved between several computers, each with

free [Maxtor MaxBlast 5] image backup software installed. [Writable CD/DVD drive] used to create a bootable

disk for recovery purposes, adn to boot from for systems with no internal CD drive. USB cables to connect each drive to the computers. A writeable CD.

Key Skills and Procedures

1. You have to download and install the backup software. Get the free offer from the Seagate web site using the above links, don't use the version of software that comes with the drive. The solution here depends on the Acronis TrueImage version of the software, which is a special offer from the web site and is completely different from the software that comes with Seagate and Maxtor drives. If the free offer goes away, you may end up having to license Acronis on each home system to use this solution ($50 per computer).

2. You have to be able to use the backup software to create a bootable CD. This is easy but you have to remember to do it before it is really needed.

3. You have to be able to configure your computer so it can boot from the CD drive. It may already be able to do this, depending on your computer. Try it out by putting a bootable disk in the drive and rebooting. If it doesn't work, you may have to hit a special key such as F10, F5, or F8 during boot to edit the BIOS and tell the computer it can boot from the CD drive. For a system without an internal CD drive, where you have to rely on a USB external CD drive, you can usually configure the BIOS to also boot from USB paths. I had no trouble doing this with my tablet PC which only has USB external drives, but the difficulty depends somewhat on the computer.

4. You have to be able to create the backup image using the backup software. This is very easy.

5. You have to be able to test the solution at least far enough to boot from the bootable CD and verify the integrity of your backup image. It would be nice, but usually impractical to test actually restoring a disk drive.

6. If you are using this solution, you probably won't want to install the backup software that comes with your external hard drive, so you should also learn to avoid installing it and disable any autolaunch that might try to install it when you connect the drive to a new computer. You probably will want to copy the backup software you are using to the external hard drive so it can be moved from computer to computer and installed on each one.


Things I Tried That Didn't Work For This Solution

Most of the backup software I tried simply didn't do a good job, or sometimes any job at all, at restoring entire drives and partitions intact. The software that comes with Windows XP and the software that comes with external drives is usually for file backups, not disaster recovery.

The Retrospect Express software that came with one of my Maxtor OneTouch hard drives is very convenient for routine incremental backups from one system but it is not a disaster recovery solution and is not intended to be used from multiple systems. To use it to restore a drive I would have to rebuild the operating system from scratch, reinstall Retrospect Express, and then try to restore the backups. This is not what I want to be doing, and more importantly, many critical steps in the process can't be conveniently tested.

The Nero Backitup2 that came with the Nero suite with my Sony DVD writer seems to be good for making CDs and DVDs but I found it problematic as a backup solution, much less a disaster recovery solution. The BackItUp software did single backups fine, and on paper it seems to have the needed features, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to get incrementals and differential backups to work properly. Also the software seems to have an odd disposition for finding conflicts with other things on my computer and coming up with "Server Busy" dialogs. I also found the job scheduling hard to use. I wasn't confident enough with the basic features to even try to test it for real disaster recovery. It could just be limitations of the "lite" version that came with the drive, but I didn't want to invest more in the product just to find out.

I have a copy of Uniblue's WinBackup as part of their performance and management suite. I found this to be very good backup software, reasonably easy to use, moderately featured, but not really a disaster recovery solution of the sort I needed because it required Windows to already be running and WinBackup installed in order to restore things.

The closest second place I found for my backup solution was Ghost . Ghost is designed specifically for disaster recovery and cloning entire drives and partitions and is a classic and traditionally superb way of doing that. Ghost works by setting up your computer to boot from DOS and run a backup program. This is great for disaster recovery because it means you don't need an operating system like Windows to be working to use it, and nothing in Windows can affect the backup or restore. It just creates a snapshot of your disk, regardless of what operating system is on it.

When I asked several IT consulting colleagues their opinions for personal disaster recovery solutions, they pretty much unanimously suggested Ghost. I didn't end up with Ghost for several reasons. Most of my reasons are strategic, I don't like the direction the product is going. It seems to me that it is progressively losing what made it such a good solution for so long, its operating system independence. Another thing I personally don't like about it is that it still feels like a product designed primarily for computer technicians cloning drives between systems, not regular people who just want to protect their computer hard drive.

First, Ghost was purchased by Symantec. I have terrible experience with Symantec technical support, but that's not enough to put me off a good solution. If it works, hopefully I shouldn't need much technical support. More importantly, Symantec has a bad reputation for purchasing great products and driving them into the ground by adding poorly integrated features. It looked to me like they were doing this with Ghost from what I was seeing in the support forums. This didn't prevent me from trying Ghost as a solution either, but it did limit how much I was willing to invest in making a Ghost solution work if it involved having to keep upgrading and tweaking it.

Ok, so the stage was set for a (very biased) test of Ghost. I installed Ghost 2003, which seemed to me from my research to be the best compromise of simplicity, good engineering, and features, of the Ghost versions that would work with XP. It might not work directly from Vista, but at least I'd have a basic recovery solution if it worked. This is an old Ghost version, which makes the test even more unfair. Ghost 2003 boots from DOS so it doesn't really care about your operating system, except for convenience in setting up the backup operation. However the DOS boot does need to have the right drivers to be able to see your external drives. That's where the real version dependence comes in. Later Ghost versions (e.g. 10, 11, 12, etc.) have drivers more specifically intended for external USB drives. So they would really be a more fair test. However I had never used Ghost for personal backup, so I just wanted to see what it could do for basic functions.

Right off the bat, it didn't see my external USB hard drive when from DOS, not entirely unexpectedly. None of the variations of drivers supplied with it would work. Ghost seems to be more particular about the kinds of USB devices it can use than other backup programs. That's perhaps a reasonable tradeoff for their disk cloning technology but it also means an ongoing dependence on having the latest drivers and keeping boot disks updated. That's one of the things I had hoped to minimize.

I checked the forums for solutions and found several, but they were more work than I wanted to do and most of them pulled me out of my comfort zone for things I wanted to rely on for a backup solution. I think I could probably have created a boot disk with updated drivers that would let Ghost backup to my external USB hard drive, or of course I could have upgraded my version of Ghost, but it would have been more expense and another day of work to build and test that I didn't want to spend if I didn't have to.

I was able to get Ghost to work with my external DVD writer, with a minor change to the settings to tell Ghost to boot with USB 1.1 drivers. So over about a 24 hour period I was able to cut an 11 DVD backup set using Ghost 2003. I was very disappointed that after all that, because I couldn't see the contents of the set using Ghost Explorer for some reason. Then the image verify looked like it would take nearly as long as the backup and require me to tie up the computer for a full day and keep feeding it disks every hour or so. So I'm not really confident in the backup because the verify process is impractical and I can't see even a list of the contents. Finally, the interface Ghost uses on the bootable CD is a little hard to figure out. I haven't ruled out Ghost as a solution, but neither have I been able to verify it yet.

In an online forum, someone was having the same problem I was with getting Ghost to see external USB drives, and they suggested Acronis. Since there was a full featured 15 day trial and also a limited feature free version available, I was able to test that. The Acronis software works from Windows XP and Vista. It backed up fine from Windows, which should not be a big deal of course. It took just under 3 hours to completely back up an 80 Gb tablet PC C drive.

The acid test was whether it could create bootable media that would let me restore a disk without having Windows available, and be able to see my USB external hard drive from that boot. It worked with my USB hard drive, and the interface on the bootable CD was very straightforward. I could use the bootable CD to verify the image backup. Verification took about 2 hours. The one quirk I found was that I couldn't verify the backup image from Windows, I had to boot to the CD to do it, or the operation died from "insufficient resources" a few minutes into the verification.


Acronis True Image turned out to be the only backup software I've tried so far that works for disaster recovery from USB devices without hacking or tweaking, and it has a very rich and easy to use feature set as well and is even available in a limited free version. I like the convenience and simplicity of USB devices and am willing to sacrifice the extra time it takes to backup a machine with them to make things easy for myself. So the solution that works best for me right now is TrueImage (or the free rebranded versions: Maxtor Maxtor MaxBlast and Seagate Seagate DiskWizard ) with my Maxtor USB external hard drives. Current versions of Ghost (Ghost 12 retails for about $70/copy) might be a viable alternative but I have no experience with those at this time.