Backup Apps: Retrospect disappoints, BRU Server as expected, PresStore revelation of the day

Backing up is like New Year's resolution: you are determined to do what you've set out to do, but half way the year you realise old habits die hard, the carefully developed backup plan took too much time, or was to complicated to perform, and the whole backup strategy starts collecting dust --until it's too late. In many cases, people don't backup because it's too difficult, too tedious to set up, takes too much time, and demands attention. In order to convince the average user to backup on a daily basis, the backup software should make backing up a no-brainer that runs in the background, silently, unnoticed --until the day comes you need to restore one or more files.Macs used to have little choice when it comes to backing up. The only professional backup tool that was available once was Retrospect. Retrospect worked fine on versions of Mac OS prior to version X. However, when Mac OS X was released, the program seemed outdated, and when EMC acquired it, there was no further development on the application until relatively recently. And then, a couple of months ago, EMC released the first new version that works on Power Macs.

Therefore the first backup solution that I tested was Retrospect’s Server edition. I had high hopes…

The second backup solution that I tested is BRU Server. BRU is a Tolis Group product. The Tolis Group is one of those rare companies where the people who run the show seem to like solve their customers’ problems and while they’re in it for the money of course, they seem to put user satisfaction first. I tested BRU Server a couple of years ago, and was very enthusiastic about it. The new version is more GUI-driven and I’ll discuss it in a moment.

A new backup solution—new to me, at least—is PresStore by ArchiWare. ArchiWare is a German company. PressStore is an enterprise-level backup server, much the on the same level as BRU Server. It has a web browser based interface and that struck me as not very user-friendly. You’ll read what I ultimately think of PressStore further down this story.
I finally asked Bakbone for their NetVault system to be reviewed. They declined because their backup solution is enterprise level and their customers are almost all large organisations. No NetVault in this review, therefore. A pity, though, because NetVault is currently the fourth professional backup solution for both small and large organisations that run on Mac OS X.

Contrary to years ago, Mac users now certainly can choose between first class backup solutions. Let’s now see how the three that I could test stack up to each other.

Let me start by saying all three backup and restore your files with accuracy. You can rest assured that if you use BRU Server, Retrospect or PressStore, you’ll be able to backup your data fine and if disaster occurs, you’ll be able to restore your data.

The difference between the three lies in factors such as simplicity and ease of use, performance and comfort with which you can backup and restore.

Starting with Retrospect 8.1, when installing this software, three components are installed on your system: a Preference panel that controls the Retrospect daemon, a Retrospect Server component and a client application. The client must be installed on all computers. The Server and daemon components get installed on the server machine only.
Rough around the edgesGetting Retrospect to work is easy enough: start the daemon and the server and start setting up the backup schedules. On the client machine, installing the client application also installs a client daemon that will be running all the time. The Retrospect application is where you’ll perform all backup scheduling, starting, stopping, etc.

EMC has made Retrospect to look modern, with a toolbar, a sidebar, and a main window where you can see which tasks are being executed and which have finished. The one window holds all the controls and some nice gimmicks like buttons that do a “Genie” effect after clicking, round up the interface. The interface looks nice and easy enough, but you do need to glance the manual in order to know exactly what you’re doing—in the literal sense. For example, clicking the Toolbar button that reads “Pause/Resume Proactive” doesn’t appear to do anything when you’re just backing up.

In the “What’s New” document, however, you read what Proactive stands for: “Proactive Backup is Retrospect’s dynamic backup management system that automatically reprioritizes sources based on their
need for a backup. Proactive Backup scripts are typically used to backup laptops that come and go from the network.”

The “What’s New” document at the time of this writing acts as a manual, and so you’re stuck with this description. Personally, I couldn’t keep myself from wondering why this terminology is used. Why not just call it “dynamic backup” system or something similar. Something that better describes what it does. In fact, my first grudge with the new Retrospect is that despite its greatₒking interface, it still is hard to find out what some interface features do exactly.
Another example: the startup screen shows you three panels with recent activities, schedules activities and “no backup in 7 days”. Each of these panels has a button called “Edit Report”. Guess what the button does? It edits the search criteria that rule the content you see in each panel. Clever to show smart sets of activities as a starter screen, but why call them reports?

Now, I know this can be construed as nitpicking on my part, but if backing up is a pain, it’s partly because backup solution vendors seem to be engineers first most and interface experts last. One for the road: why does Retrospect still refer to backup sets as Media Sets?

On a somewhat deeper level of confusion: why does a server product list my built-in DVD burner as a backup device?

My first tests with Retrospect 8.1 all ran smooth. The application did what it was supposed to do, although it took half a day backing up 60 GB to an external FireWire 400 drive. Afterwards, a couple of folders—some with an obscure purpose—were created on that drive, one of which held the data.

I meant my second test to check for performance improvement—whether you can do something to get that backup finished earlier. Rather by accident I forgot to connect the FireWire drive. When I clicked the Backup button, Retrospect didn’t seem to mind, though. It happily showed the turning cog wheel on the backup activity and didn’t complain at all—not even after several minutes of inability to physically move files to the backup medium that wasn’t there.
BRU Server shields users from technicalities, up to a levelI’m not sure what happened: is this a bug that I accidentally discovered? Or does the program lack built-in controls to see whether the backup medium is actually connected? Whatever the reason, it puts Retrospect in a whole different perspective.

My conclusion at least is that the new Retrospect hasn’t improved in those areas that it desperately needed improvement in the first place. I hate saying it, but I can’t conclude otherwise. The encounter with this old friend proved to be very disappointing.

The second backup application that I tested is BRU Server. Again, this solution has three components. This time, they’re called the server, the console and the agent. None of these components are running in the background, unless you add them to your startup folder (or Login Items). As before, BRU has an extensive set of command line tools as well—for the power user and not for the faint of heart.

The server and agent need to be running when backing up. The console doesn’t. Setting up a backup is easy: just add a Job, select the files to backup, set up your backup hardware and click the Backup button in the new Console GUI interface.

BRU Server is mainly intended to backup to tapes, but you can easily get the application to use disk drives only. The application is then fooled into thinking it’s backing up to a stage disk with an offload to a tape on a later date. Not that it matters, because you’re efficiently protected from all those technicalities. Although I must admit that once you start using tapes, BRU Server shows its teeth and you’d better dive into the manual.
Contrary to Retrospect, BRU doesn’t use the concept of one tape drive. It uses a concept the Tolis Group calls a “destination”. A destination can consist of one or several tape drives. With BRU Server integrating with a hardware offering called “bruAPP”—and thus essentially creating a complete backup solution—Tolis Group is one of the very few backup vendors that can scale its solution from small workgroups to large enterprises. When such scaling is to be useful, you simply can’t fall back on devices anymore. You have to use some kind of “middleware” or “virtualisation” technique to create an abstraction level between the hardware—that can be located anywhere—and the backup engine itself.

That is also the reason why I found it extremely odd that EMC has left references to direct (machine) attached devices in the devices list of Retrospect 8.1.

BRU Server therefore also doesn’t use disk staging the way others have implemented it. There is no need to keep track of the backup file BRU creates when it’s done backing up. It’s meant as an intermediate step before you backup to tape, and that’s why there is a complete mechanism behind it that serves to improve backup scheduling until the staged data is aged out or an UpStage process moves the data off of your stage disk onto tape volumes.

This also makes BRU Server—when used to its fullest capabilities—somewhat more complex than the next backup solution I’m discussing, PresStore. However, BRU Server still is one of the securest, most fail safe and robust backup solutions around. The GUI interface makes it more comfortable to use, but in a lager workgroup environment you’ll need to know what you’re doing.
Client/Server backup systemOf course BRU Server—just as the other two—has full scheduling capabilities, logging, data verification, etc. And restoring is easy as cake.

The third backup solution I tested was new to me. PresStore is a backup server solution that is scalable from small workgroups to large enterprises, just like BRU Server. The biggest difference is that it only installs two components: the server and a client.

Both components are without client interface; you access the functionality from within the web browser (Safari is supported!). My first impression when I started PressStore was that there were an awful lot of buttons and icons, but after I went through the manual—a complete manual such as BRU’s—it quickly dawned onto me: there was nothing to be afraid of.

In fact, PresStore has three backup technologies wrapped into one: there’s a traditional backup “module”, a “module” that serves mobile workstations (Backup2Go) and an archival “module”. Because everything happens in the same web browser based interface which is (I know: details, but still…) extremely well designed with good looking icons and descriptions that actually make sense, you can go through the setting up phase very quickly.
In fact, setting up PressStore took even less than setting up BRU Server or Retrospect. Running the backup also was the fastest of the three. PresStore took less than an hour to complete the backup, but to be honest, I cheated: I turned off the verification process. BRU—to my knowledge—doesn’t allow you to do that, for a very good reason, and neither does Retrospect. PresStore does. That’s both good and bad. It’s bad if the administrator doesn’t know what he is doing. It’s good if you are running PresStore in a very small workgroup and a speedy—but perhaps not accurate—backup is (very occasionally!) of more use than nothing at all.

PresStore also works with destinations, which it calls “pools”. Pools can be disks, optical media and jukeboxes, and of course tape drives and tape libraries. The manual explains in a clear language that tapes need to be labelled and then given the same name in the program. It seems that ArchiWare targets experienced as well as inexperienced administrators, and that’s in my opinion, a very good thing.

More to the point is that I was literally stunned by the simplicity with which I was capable of having PresStore produce the first full backup. With BRU the setting up was simple too, but as I remembered BRU’s approach a bit from the last review, I can’t really tell if it’s simple to set up, period. I can tell PresStore is. You sure don’t need to be a system admin to get a working backup strategy with this solution!
The only awkward thing with PresStore are the tiny buttonsBetter yet, the terminology used by PresStore is self-explanatory and the only frustration you’ll get is from looking for the “New…”, “Edit…”, and other buttons (they are the very bottom of the browser window…). Everything you need to set up opens a dialogue window which guides you through the parameters that are required to make this work. Do you want to create an “Archive Plan”? The Archive section in the sidebar lists the dialogues you need to go through in order and the dialogues themselves have self-explanatory items you need to select or fill in.

Clients need to be installed on the respective computers, but no license is required and adding the client to the PressStore client list is easier than with any other solution I’ve tested so far. Adding device pools is another example of how well thought out PressStore’s interface really is. When you’re finally ready to step up from backing up to fixed disk drives to let’s say a jukebox, PresStore can auto-discover SCSI connected jukeboxes for you.

Backup2Go is yet another example of how easy PresStore is to use. Backup2Go is what Retrospect calls “Proactive”. It works with templates that hold the maximum allowed time between backups, and more. Workstations that plug into the network are automatically detected and prioritised according to these templates—and backed up as needed.

Of course, once you start using PresStore to its fullest, large scale capacity, it becomes just as complex as BRU Server, but as far as I could see, it’s just as dependable. It only takes a different approach and when you’re using it in smaller environments, it’s a bit easier to use than BRU—some people would probably say: considerably easier.
Conclusions and recommendationsAt the end of this long review, I need to tell you what I would recommend. In small environments of up to five stations I would opt for PresStore and not for BRU Server. Tolis Group has other products for such small environments that are less complex and better suited. However, PresStore by its sheer flexibility and ease-of-use has my vote in the server category of backup solutions.

In larger environments of more than five stations, I would say PresStore and BRU Server are excellent choices. I wouldn’t know which one to favour above the other. If I didn’t have an IT chap to run the show, my choice would go to PresStore again. If I could rely on my backup admin to know what he is doing, it could go either way.

In very large environments, I know BRU Server is as robust a system as they come. I don’t know PresStore well enough yet to give useful advice in this case.

In no environment would I trust the current release of Retrospect, no matter how saddened I am by this conclusion. I think EMC has to fix a lot of problems, and perhaps reinvent Retrospect on the Mac OS X platform altogether. If not that, they should at least get the bugs out and make Retrospect more robust.


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