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Building a Backup System on the Mac

Volume Number: 22 (2006)
Issue Number: 4
Column Tag: Tools of the Trade

Building a Backup System on the Mac

by Neil Ticktin, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief

Unless you like tempting fate, or are a masochist, backups are a necessary part of any computer setup. Whether you have just one machine, or are in an Enterprise environment, you have to think about backups. There are a variety of reasons why you do backups. Sure, you may want to provide against the obvious hardware failure, but backups also give you protection against hackers, viruses, newly installed software, missing computers, and the ever-present user error.

There are a number of solutions for the home network or individuals that are out there, and there are high-end solutions for large networks and Enterprise environments. This article, however, talks about a multi-vendor approach that we took on a real world network.

There have been articles out there about what to do with your older machines, but we thought that we would take the approach of using a combination of existing hardware, upgrades and modern technology to create a solid backup solution for a small to medium size business.

Software, Media and The Test Scenario

We wanted to test our newly built system with a scenario that may be typical of many small to medium size businesses. In this scenario, we had one "main" location with about 15 machines, one satellite office with another 5 machines, and one telecommuter.

Many people today like backing up to a disk drive. It's fast. It's very reliable, and, disks are relatively cheap these days. I agree. In fact, we make sure that we have a clone of main web server's hard drive available at all times, so that it can be back up and running in no time. But one thing that hard drives don't do for you is give you "snapshots" in time which are the ultimate protection against viruses, hacking, newly installed software and user error.

If you want snapshots, as we do, then you need two things: software that does that for you, and a medium that supports it well. Some of the backup software out there does not support snapshots as completely as I would like, or is the wrong "size" of software, so we chose Retrospect 6.1 as our base. Furthermore, while we do have hard drives as part of our strategy, tape is our medium of choice simply because it's easy to have multiple sets of data (so that some are off-site and some are on-site). It's also very inexpensive for large volumes of data.

The main location has the largest data sets: databases, web sites, file servers, email, and the dedicated backup server. With remote locations backing up to the main location, we wanted to have dedicated hard drives in the backup server that would be available 24/7 and be the staging area for backup to tape, our primary backup media.

Putting Together the Pieces

This was a fun project as we could look at a variety of wonderful products to put together a great solution for the test scenario. In the articles to follow, written by MacTech's staff, you'll see a number of different technologies. Some are specific to backups, but many of these you can use in a variety of ways to upgrade your machines. And sometimes, upgrading is the most cost effective way to go, especially when you are talking about a platform as reliable as a PowerMac G4.

The PowerMac G4

In the past several years, Apple has made some simply terrific machines. Sure, the new iMacs and MacBooks are obviously wonderful products, but there are others that are solid performers. One such machine is the PowerMac G4, which many of us have laying around in quantities. These machines have solid power supplies, are expandable, and are quite reliable, but they are not the speediest.

We have found that in addition to our higher-end Xserves, and Mac OS X Server, there are a number of things that we can do with PowerMac G4s running plain old Mac OS X (Panther or Tiger).

In creating a backup system, we knew that we wanted to have several hard drives, multiple Ethernet interfaces, high performance I/O, and more. It was easy to choose the expandable PowerMac G4 for this duty as we didn't need the processing power of G5, and we had several of these PowerMac G4s around.

One of the beautiful things about the PowerMac G4 is that you can have 5 drives in it. Even the exceptional PowerMac G5 doesn't have that capability out of the box. Don't get me wrong, you do have options on a PowerMac G5 to go beyond the two drive positions, but you need to look to third party options such as those from WiebeTech and others for drive module expansions. These are specifically designed to give enough cooling even though Apple didn't design these machines to do this. So, make sure that you are relying on a reputable vendor before putting more than two drives in your PowerMac G5.

What Needed To Be Added


The first choice you have to make on the backup system, possibly even before the hardware you are going to run on, is the software. In our case, we wanted something easy-to-use, and even familiar, but that could handle a decent size network. On the Mac, the obvious choice was Retrospect by EMC Insignia.

Retrospect is a great product for the right size market. If you are have thousands of clients, should you use it to back up each of them to a server? Nope. You'll want to look at one of the more "Enterprise" level backup systems, or use a Windows or Linux box as a backup server.

One of the limitations of Retrospect is that it can only perform one backup at a time. For a smaller environment (e.g., the SMB space), this works fine. But if you have high end needs, that's beyond the scope of this article, and you should look at other applications like Netvault by BakBone, bru by Tolis Group, or Time Navigator by Atempo. These types of products have the ability to do multiple backups simultaneously to disk (obviously, all products can only backup to one tape at one time). Take note: while these are great solutions, they are industrial, and some of them can cost a great deal of money, and are likely going to take more effort to set up and manage compared to Retrospect.

To be fair, Retrospect is not designed to backup live files. With that in mind, whether it's our Now Up-to-Date server, our FileMaker Server, or the Xserve, we make sure that the live databases are set up to save off copies of the databases periodically to their local drive, and then when Retrospect comes through, it backs up those snapshots.

If you do want to backup live files, you really need to look at a different type of software (see above) for a more Enterprise level approach.

SQL Backups: Navicat

As you'll see in the article on Navicat, there are a variety of ways to backup MySQL databases, whether at the command line, using open source options, or a commercial product. In the accompanying article, we give you not only the command line information, but took at a look at the commercial application Navicat, which has some really nice backup and restore functions that you can schedule.

Sonnet SATA/IDE Interfaces

We want to use some existing drives, and experiment with both larger ATA/IDE drives (e.g., larger than 128GB) as well as the newer SATA drives. There are a variety of ways to do this, and we chose the Sonnet products to do this. That allowed us to add both RAID and SATA drives to our PowerMac G4. And, when Retrospect is backing up these drives to the tape drive, they scream.

Sonnet Gigabit Ethernet

Since much of the LAN at the main location is gigabit, we wanted to add gigabit Ethernet to the PowerMac G4. And, we didn't want the PowerMac to share that interface for uploads that were being done from the satellite office nor the telecommuter. By adding the Sonnet gigabit Ethernet card, we were able to dedicate that interface to the LAN, and the built-in Ethernet to the Internet backups that were happening. Since everything happens at the same time at night, this optimized the use of the machine.

SDLT 600

We needed a tape drive for this setup. Today, the two formats that have the most support are DLT and LTO. Both are wonderful, and you can read more on these in the SDLT review that we have. In the end, we chose the SDLT 600 which holds 300-600GB per ~$100 tape, and in real life usage regularly gets at least 450GB per tape.

ATTO SCSI-3 Interface

The PowerMac G4 does not have an external SCSI interface. You add that with a PCI card. With that in mind, there's only one company that comes to mind: ATTO. ATTO's SCSI-3 interface cards are excellent. And, if you choose the FibreChannel approach, they have options for you there as well.


You can't backup without media, so we chose the Maxell solutions for both SDLT II tapes as well as cleaning tapes to maintain the Quantum SDLT drive.

Daystar Acceleration

At first, we weren't going to accelerate the PowerMac G4, and to be fair, it did run ok without any acceleration. But we wanted to see what the difference was, so we added in a 1.8GHz accelerator from Daystar, and wow, what a difference. Well worth the $330 for this interface card. Everything runs so much faster and better than without the accelerator.


By using a variety of solutions, and basing it on a PowerMac G4, we were able to focus as much of the resources as possible on the backup media/drive. To us, this allowed us to get the test scenario onto a backup system that was reliable, modern, and would need as few tapes as possible to hold the data being backed up yet. And, this wasn't your typical "test bench" scenario. While we did design it for a diverse test, we grouped these sets of machines together for a real world test that we did over multiple months and worked out all the kinks. It's as real world as it gets!

Of all the things that you can do on the Mac, I think you'll find that backups are one of the most "diverse" set of choices. There are so many different ways to go. You just have to think it through and prioritize. Once you have a set of ordered priorities, you'll find that decisions start falling into place easily.

Hopefully, this article will help you think through your own examples. But again, even if you don't have backups on your mind, check out the accompanying product solutions, as they will apply to much more than just backups.

As always, let us know what you think!

Neil Ticktin is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of MacTech Magazine. Neil has been in the Mac industry since 1985. When Neil writes a review, he likes to put solutions into a real-life scenario and then write about that experience from the user point of view. That said, Neil has a reputation around the office for pushing software to its limits and crashing software/finding bugs.


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