Review: Back-up alternatives for laptops
Picking the best product depends on how much control you want over the process.
Protecting data stored on corporate computers is standard operating procedure. But the proliferation of laptops has added a new wrinkle to this network task. Important data is being kept on laptops, and it needs to be backed up with some regularity. In our review of enterprise laptop back-up software packages, we found that four vendors are making progress in automating this arduous task for network professionals and end users alike.
We looked at Computer Associates' BrightStor Mobile Backup, NovaStor's NovaNet Web, Novell's iFolder and Storactive's LiveBackup. NovaStor also offers its product as an online service called NovaStor Online Backup, which we also used (See story, "Backup: In-house or outsource?" page 56). We tested a Hewlett-Packard CD-RW drive on our test laptop using software from Roxio (See story, "Taking your data for a CD-RW drive," page 56).
Taking your data for a CD-RW drive
Backup - in-house or outsource?
How we did it
In the end, if the ability to do a total system restore is essential, we recommend Storactive's LiveBackup. But if you only envision doing selected file restores and price is a big factor, go with Novell's iFolder.
By definition, a laptop user is assumed to be mobile because at any time the user can close the laptop up and take it somewhere else. Laptop back-up products function in much the same way that desktop back-up products do with a few added features such as the ability to save incremental file changes to a separate area on disk when disconnected from the network. These changes are transmitted to the server when the laptop is reconnected to the local network or over a remote connection.
A reasonable laptop back-up product covers single and/or multiple file restore and total system recovery tasks. While nearly all the major laptop manufacturers provide a recovery CD that will restore the machine to its factory condition, that process leaves users without their favorite applications or critical data installed. The best solution is to let the back-up product create a disaster-recovery CD that has the operating system and all necessary applications loaded, so restoring the laptop to its precrash condition is a simple, one-step operation. NovaNet Web and LiveBackup provide the ability to create a "bare-metal" bootable recovery CD that does just that. The LiveBackup process was smoother. LiveBackup builds one image that can then be written to a CD-ROM. NovaNet Web builds a directory tree on the server that is identical to the disk that the user is trying to restore and requires the user write those files to a CD-ROM.
At the file level, there are several ways to approach the back-up problem. First, periodic snapshots of files can be taken on the client and saved to the server. BrightStor Mobile Backup and NovaNet Web do this. Second, you can track when files are opened and closed, and save a copy each time. LiveBackup uses this method. A slight variation on the theme is to synchronize files between the client and server. IFolder uses this technique coupled with a Web-based access method to retrieve files should a client not be installed.
All the products use some technique to determine what has changed in a file since the last time it was backed up. Storing incremental changes helps reduce overall server storage requirements. All the products use a type of local cache to store changes when disconnected from the network. Once a connection is made, the results are transmitted to the server. They also use compression techniques to reduce the overall size of the files, and the result is acceptable back-up times, even over a dial-up connection from a hotel room. The products took approximately 10 minutes to back up about 1G byte of files.
Choosing the right back-up product for your enterprise network comes down to deciding how much control you want to maintain over the process.
Protecting user information with the least amount of administration appears to be the goal of every vendor in our roundup. Each product attempts to make as much of the process a "self-serve" proposition as possible. In the case of BrightStor Mobile Backup and NovaNet Web, the client schedules or initiates all back-up and restore operations.
BrightStor Mobile Backup, LiveBackup and NovaNet Web let the user expressly exclude certain files from the back-up process. Most companies won't see a need to keep copies of a user's MP3 audio files. They also don't back up discardable data.
Neither LiveBackup nor NovaNet Web will let users back up and restore operations from the administration console. The user has to go to the client to initiate either process. We'd prefer to have the option of forcing client machines to perform backups, even though this could cause problems for a road warrior on a modem. BrightStor Mobile Backup's console provides a way to initiate a restore from the server. It lets the user select specific files and schedule them to be restored.
LiveBackup includes a System Image Wizard to guide you through the process of creating a bootable CD for a "bare metal" recovery. To use this feature, you must enable the entire system for backup. Creating images to recover Windows XP systems is not supported in LiveBackup Version 2.5, but it will be supported in a future release. Selecting the entire system back-up option could result in huge disk storage amounts, depending on how many laptops were covered. LiveBackup minimizes this problem by saving common files such as Windows system files in a shared database. This reduces the amount of time spent performing backups because any given system file will be copied to the backup server only once.
LiveBackup provides four reports that give details on client activity, data profile, space consumption and charge-back information. BrightStor Mobile Backup has similar reports but requires Microsoft Word or a Word viewer to view it without printing.
Ease of use
When judging a product with respect to ease of use, it's important to look at the topic from the user's and the administrator's perspective. On the user side, the ideal situation would be an effortless automatic system with no action required except when you need to recover a file that has been corrupted or inadvertently deleted. From the administrator's side, automation is a good thing. From backing up the data to tape to automatically tuning the database, the more these functions happen in the background, the better.
IFolder was the easiest product to use from both points of view. The synchronization program keeps the files in the iFolder directory constantly replicated between system and server. The administrator has control over how often the updates take place, so an end user need not worry. The only hitch is that iFolder is a synchronization product, so older versions of files are not maintained.
As a security measure, LiveBackup does not support file recovery from any other machine besides the one on which the files originated. While the individual user can't get at his files from a different location, an administrator can move files from one backup set to another. LiveBackup uses wizards to step the administrator through different tasks such as document migration. Using this wizard, any type of file can be moved from a source computer to one or more target computers. Other LiveBackup wizards include the System Image Wizard and the Remote Rollback Wizard, to remotely roll a computer back to a previously known good state.
The NovaNet Web client uses an interface similar to Windows Explorer, letting users choose the back-up set from which they wish to restore their files and letting them select individual files or entire directories to restore.
Storactive provides a number of features, such as its data-aging service, which makes keeping track of stored data much simpler.
LiveBackup and NovaNet Web provide a way to charge users for their storage. This would be especially appealing to service providers looking to add a back-up solution to their offerings or to companies that charge back to departments for services that MIS provides.
All the products tested provide documentation as electronic files. LiveBackup's documentation includes five separate files pertaining to LiveBackup. All the documentation for these products, with the exception of NovaNet Web, use the bookmarks feature of Adobe Acrobat to provide a clear table of contents.
Storactive was the only company that provided a "Quick Install" guide to get you up and running in short order.
LiveBackup and BrightStor Mobile Backup made it especially easy to install the client software. LiveBackup provides a Web-based distribution point so users can browse to your server from any Web browser and follow the instructions. BrightStor Mobile Backup lets you install from a CD or use e-mail to distribute the client installation files.
All these programs have special needs on the server side of which you should be aware. IFolder and LiveBackup will take over the primary Web server on your machine if you let them. They can be configured to use alternate ports but, by default, use Port 80, which is the primary HTTP port. It may surprise some to learn that the server portion of Novell's iFolder will install on Windows NT/2000 and on NetWare servers. On Windows you must have a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-capable server installed such as Microsoft Active Directory or Novell's e-Directory for NT. LiveBackup requires the use of MS-SQL server, which adds to the cost of LiveBackup.
With the three true enterprise back-up products, BrightStor Mobile Backup, LiveBackup and NovaNet Web are relatively close in features and functionality, the bottom line could come down to price. If you foresee the need to do bare-metal restores, LiveBackup's total system restore is the easiest to use, which could reduce its total cost of ownership. At $89 per user, NovaStor has priced its Web Backup product very aggressively. But Novell's iFolder is the least expensive of the bunch. While it might not offer all the functionality of its competitors, if you're just looking for a way to keep a back-up copy of your important files and to access that backup remotely and easily, it may be the best bet.
Ferrill is a freelance writer in Lancaster, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com.