Hardware

Peripherals - Backup systems

The importance of a good backup unit

The most important investment you can ever make when purchasing a computer is a good backup unit.

You definitely need one. No matter how confident you think your computer might be or secure it is. There is nothing worse than having only one copy of your most valuable file on your computer's hard disk, and discover the next day a computer virus comes along and manages to destroy the file or makes a mess of your file directory to the point where your file may not be recoverable using a utility like MicroMat's TechTool Pro or Alsoft's Disk Warrior. Or your hard disk may reach an age where you will encounter unrepairable disk errors. Or perhaps someone has accidentally deleted the files?

This is where your backup unit comes in handy. All you have to do is grab the missing file, or perform a full reinitialisation of the computer's hard disk (or replace it) and transfer a clean backup copy of all your files and applications from the backup unit to the computer's hard disk. When it is done, you are up and running in next to no time.

That's the power of a good backup unit.

What kind of backup unit should I be looking for?

Your backup unit and the disk(s) for storing all your valuable digital data should be cheap and reliable. In ancient times, your computer would have come with some form of a built-in backup unit such as a floppy drive or an Iomega Zip drive. Nowadays, you would buy an external hard drive. And, in the future, for totally shock-proof, high-speed, reliability and with absolutely no moving parts, the new wireless external flash memory drives utilising the latest X4 technology (the chips are currently being sold by SanDisk and known as the X4 flash card).

The capacity of your backup unit should be no less than your current computer's hard disk.

USB micro drives/thumb drives/flash drives

Known as the flash drives, USB micro drive (or memory key, memory sticks, Flash Pen Drive etc), these tiny devices are so small they will literally fit onto your keyring and straight into your USB port. These devices are being seen by experts as a serious replacement for the floppy and Zip disks (and with enough memory, even the CD-RW and internal hard disk of laptops) and will last a whole lot longer because there are no moving parts and no critical parts within the items to get easily scratched or damaged by dust. The devices work by storing information directly onto a compact semiconductor material able to retain the information even when the power is switched off.

Prices and capacity of these tiny backup devices vary. However, as of November 2007, memory prices have undergone a massive drop. For A$5, you can buy a 2GB USB drive. Currently retail prices for a 10GB USB thumb drive is roughly A$50.

Data stored on these disks can last more than 10 years, giving you the piece of mind of knowing your data is well-protected for a long time (especially inside titanium or super tough magnesium alloys and protected from radiation and electrostatic charges).

Now if only laptops can be built as strong and lasts as long as this? In fact, Apple Inc. is now taking a hint from flash memory manufacturers by introducing the new MacBook Air in early 2008 containing flash memory chips to replace the hard disk for a longer-lasting product (a much needed addition to Apple's product arsenal).

UPDATE
April 2003

Variations on the memory key are coming out as we speak. There is a combined MP3 and USB memory key combo player known as Targa TMU-306 for A$179 as of 2003. It comes with 128MB of memory for storing a reasonable amount of MP3 music and still have room to store some of your important data files when you need it. A clever idea which should prove popular with consumers.

UPDATE
September 2004

Research firm Web-Feet predicts a strong demand for USB flash drives between 2005 and 2007. Based on past sales performance, it is expected that approximately 67 to 120 million USB drives will be shipped worldwide in 2005 and even more in 2006 with a total worldwide market value reaching US$4.5 billion (AUD$6.3 billion) in 2006 and US$5.5 billion (AUD$7.7 billion) in 2007.

The main reason for the popularity of the drives is its shear size and durability — you get a lot of storage for such a tiny portable size and there are no moving parts.

UPDATE
6 May 2006

Only two problems exist with USB drives. It is easy to corrupt the data because of the poor connection to USB ports even if you think Windows XP or MacOSX/9 says it is okay to remove the USB drive, or you think you have attached the drive long enough into a USB port but nothing happens because of a delay. Part of the problem is the poor quality USB ports in some computers (e.g. Apple titanium computers) which don't make a clean connection to the drive. Better safety features are needed to protect the data from potential corruption or loss. Fortunately more and more USB thumb drives are being equipped with checking features to ensure a clean connection has been made to the USB port of your computer before making the data available to the user.

The second problem is how easy it is to lose a USB drive. We recommend you attach a necklace or cord and carry it around your neck. Never carry it in your pocket no matter how safe you think it is. Otherwise sitting down or pulling out something else from the pocket can easily lose the drive. Also, use a high quality encryption tool to protect the data on a USB drive. Or purchase a USB drive with built in fingerprint scanner (e.g. SanDisk Cruzer Profile 512MB USB flash Drive for A$150 as of May 2006).

UPDATE
1 June 2010

You can buy 4GB USB flash drives for under AUD$20.

The future for these flash memory chips is bright. As prices come down for high density and capacity flash memory chips, more computer manufacturers will implement them to produce the world's thinest and most robust laptops ever built for the mass market.

The CD/DVD Burner

CD/DVD burners remain a reasonably popular choice in terms of the cheapest backup units you can buy today.

A standard CD can store between 650 and 700MB of digital information. In terms of uncompressed audio, that's about 70 minutes of music. In the compressed file format, you can store at least 6 hours of music. For digital video buffs, you can store a 65-minute television program onto a 650MB CD using MPEG-1 file compression technology. Better resolution and compression quality is possible using the latest MPEG-4.

Although getting on the limited capacity end of things for our "clip-art", "sample files" and "training videos" bloated hard disks, CDs are still the most popular disks for their extremely low-cost.

But better still are the standard DVDs. They make for an excellent storage media. A typical DVD can store anywhere from 4,700 megabytes or 4.7 gigabytes in the current geek jargon in the uncompressed format or up to 9,700MB or 9.7GB in the compressed format. But with hard disk capacities approaching 60GB or more, even DVDs are not the most effcient and convenient way of backing up everything as it might take dozens of DVDs to do the job. But for just your own personal files and not too many movies, a DVD should be adequate.

When purchasing a DVD/CD burner, make sure the unit can burn on both DVDs and CDs (not those units that claim they are a CD/DVD burner but can only burn CDs and read DVDs) known as combo drives. And it must come with some kind of BURN-Proof technology and the latest Mount Rainier Industry Standard support for reliable and reusable backups.

The BURN-Proof technology (the term BURN stands for Buffer Under RuN) was first developed by Sanyo to help protect the burning process from interruptions. What happens is that any time your computer should interrupt the burning process, the CD/DVD burner will stop writing and wait. As soon as the computer is able to pay attention to the needs of the CD/DVD burner, the technology will allow the burner to retrace the data already written on the CD/DVD, match it to the data you are about to copy on the CD/DVD from the computer, and then find the end of the previous recording and carry on where it left off.

Mount Rainier Industry Standard support is the technology designed to make your life of recording files on a CD-RW a whole lot easier. Instead of having to copy the entire contents of your CD-RW onto your hard disk drive, wipe clean the CD-RW of its old data, make changes to the files on your hard disk, and then reburn the information onto the CD-RW media, the idea behind this new technology is that you'll never have to worry about all of this. You can effectively use your CD-RW like a huge floppy disk where files are, changed, moved about, deleted or added onto the CD-RW media in the usual way. This clever piece of packet writing software technology will turn your average CD-RW and DVD-RW media into a highly effective backup disk.

Another useful feature you may wish to consider in some DVD/CD burners is the ability to determine the correct speed a DVD/CD can accept data written to it. Hence all those cheaper CD-R and CD-RW media which is incapable of having data written to it at high speeds will benefit from an intelligent drive capable of adjusting to the right speed to suit the CD media. Or it should give you the option to choose a write speed.

Finally, when buying a CD/DVD burner (or any other backup device), choose a ruggedly designed product with the highest burning speed you can afford.

UPDATE
28 January 2006

According to the Sydney Morning Herald's Icon supplement, a journalist by the name of John Blay claims the glue for sticking the paper labels onto CDs and DVDs could contain a chemical capable of reacting with the surface of the disks making them more transparent and eventually unreadable after a few years. He suspects this may be the case after losing his precious collection of images, music and writing on 50 disks with paper labels on them, but not the ones without the labels. His experience doesn't appear to be an isolated case with an Internet searching uncovering other people experiencing a similar situation. Further investigations are still being carried out. Until the results are known, perhaps the only solution to labelling disks is to consider the above technology of actually burning tiny dots on the disks to create an image. We do not suspect a tiny amount of charcoal left behind on the surface will cause deterioration of the disks through this method. The other advantage is that you will save money on buying paper labels and special CD stompers to stick them on correctly.

However, all this has yet to be proven conclusively.

UPDATE
3 May 2007

The new high definition DVD (HD-DVD) and the competing technology called Blu-ray optical laser discs have arrived. Using a higher frequency "blue" laser beam, it is now possible to store more information onto a laser disc of the same size as a standard CD/DVD disk. The new discs can exceed 15GB capacity on a single side or 30GB with dual-layer. Both formats will reach a capacity of 100GB or more by 2008. As of May 2007, Blu-ray disks will be able to store slightly more information than HD-DVD disks, but will be expensive. HD-DVD disks and players are becoming cheaper and could become the preferred choice for consumers.

To solve the dilemma of which digital video disc format to go for, people who only want to watch movies might like to consider downloading movies off a high-speed broadband internet for a small fee and watch it on a hard disk drive (HDD) video player. This approach would make Blu-ray and HD-DVD players unnecessary for consumers.

However some laptops will be sporting one of these laser disc technologies because of their massive storage capabilities. If it burns HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs, you might like to reconsider this as an alternative storage system over the standard CD/DVD burners, unless flash drives take over hard disks and external drives as the best storage solution.

UPDATE
19 December 2007

Blu-ray discs appear to be winning with consumers. Why? The discs can store more information and the makers of the discs have successfully signed up enough giants from the movie industry to store their movies on these disks. The discs may be more expensive than HD-DVD discs, but it is likely the greater marketing power of the Blue-ray disc makers and their availability will see consumers stick to the more expensive discs. This is what happened during the VHS/Beta tape debate in the early 1980s. Despite Beta tapes being cheaper and smaller, the makers of VHS tapes could market the tapes to movie producers and make them available in greater quantities than beta tapes. And because VHS tapes have longer recording storage than Beta, consumers chose VHS tapes over Beta tapes.

DVD formats

In the early days, choosing the right DVD burner would usually require choosing the right DVD-format (i.e. DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM, DVD+R and RW). But as time passed, consumers couldn't decide on a choice for a DVD format just as they could with the old Beta versus VHS debate in the early 1980s where Beta VCR manufacturers eventually swapped over to VHS after consumers put the final nail in the coffin for Beta by voting with their wallets because there was more VHS recorders than the Beta varieties.

Although the format DVD-R/RW is the most popular with over 84 per cent of the DVD market share compared to 16 per cent for the DVD+R/RW/RAM, manufacturers have decided the latest DVD burners will come catered for all DVD formats. A very wise move indeed thanks to the effort of people like Sony to make burners work on all DVD formats.

Looking for a product to recover data from improperly burned CDs and DVDs? No problems at all. There are now a number of shareware and commercial products available to perform this important task. One product worthy of a mention is CD/DVD Diagnostic. We recommend trying the evaluation edition first to see if you can actually read the data. If so, you may want to get your own full-working copy of this interesting product.

Preferred connectivity for CD and DVD burners

You may also be wondering whether to go for a Firewire, USB or SCSI-based CD/DVD burner. Firewire and USB technology are a recent invention compared to SCSI. You will have to be careful when choosing a Firewire or USB CD burner. These new communication technologies are slower than SCSI and you may need to update your operating system and/or drivers and write software (e.g. Adaptec Toast) to make the CD/DVD burners work. And even then, your new Firewire or USB-based CD/DVD burner may experience some problems (e.g. not being able to burn at a high enough speed because of reduced data rates travelling through a USB port to your CD/DVD burner because it is version 1.1, and not being able to burn the standard Apple disk images on CD/DVD or using a non-standard format like ISO, joliet or whatever with the help of Adaptec Toast software while using MacOS9.0.4 to 9.1).

SCSI-based CD/DVD burners may use older communication technology, but SCSI supports the fastest CD/DVD burners available today with great reliability. And you don't need to buy the latest operating system, or to have special drivers or write software in order to make the burners work using the SCSI technology. If you have a choice, go for a SCSI-based CD burner, followed by a Firewire CD burner and lastly a USB CD burner. (1)

More on choosing quality CD burners

But how would you be able to choose a quality CD/DVD burner? You need to listen to the experts in this field (start reading computer magazines etc) and to look at the specifications on all available DVD/CD burners such as the BLER rate etc.

The critical thing to remember when looking for a quality "burn" from a CD/DVD burner is the strength and frequency of the laser signal needed to give a clear and accurate signal on the surface of the CD/DVD disk and the quality of the CD/DVD disks you are using in receiving the laser light and making a clear change in reflectivity on the disks' surface.

With this in mind, we strongly recommend going for either a Yamaha, APS (which use Yamaha components), Sony (a bit pricey), Plextor (also a bit pricey), or the latest range of LaCie CD burners with a writing speed that is considered reliable for burning (2x to 8x speed should be pretty reliable on most CD-R disks). When burning on a CD-R or CD-RW, go for a quality Kodak disk (e.g. Kodak CD-R Gold Ultima) for the best, most consistent and reliable results.

When choosing a CD-R/CD-RW disk for burning information onto it, go for the silver variety (the highest reflectivity, such as Kodak silver) if you can, followed by the gold variety (e.g. Kodak CD-R Gold Ultima). Try to avoid the dark coloured CD disks (e.g. blue, bluish-green etc) because the data burned on these disks may not get easily picked up on a standard CD player. And if you want to ensure your disk is readable on the most number of CD players, stick to the CD-R variety instead of the CD-RW disks.

Also remember to clean the CD/DVD burner every 6 months or so using a quality CD-ROM drive cleaner. You will get the most reliable burns on CD-R/CD-RW and DVD disks by doing so.

An often overlooked area of the CD-R/CD-RW market is a good CD "stick on" label tool. As some people may find by experience, it is far easier to print on ready-made CD label sheets that allow you to peel the labels off and then stick them on the CD-R disks accurately using a special label-aligning tool. The most effective tool available for this kind of work is BJE Enterprises's PressIT for $34.95. Just place the sticky CD labels upside down through the spindel and rest it on the product's plastic base, insert the CD-R on top of a smaller spindel and push down on the entire spring-loaded spindel until the CD-R makes contact with the label. Then let go. The job is done!

Good DVD/CD burning software

A reasonable piece of software is Roxio's new Easy CD & DVD Creator 6. Roxio has bought out Adaptec's quality CD burning software, so you can expect a lot of features and good looks added to this product. It comes with Label Creator for your disks, backup software onto multiple disks for large projects, and a personal disk copier. Usually priced at US$99.95, but if you look around online for special deals, you should be able to get a copy (in a box) for US$29.91.

If you are looking for a tool to backup all your data, try Norton Ghost. This utility will duplicate your files, folder, partition or entire hard drive and create a drive image (similar to Apple's own disk images created with Disk Copy 6.3.3) containing an exact copy of your original data. It will copy your registry and system files, all your personal files, applications and the works in its exact state. These images can be transferred to another hard drive or a new partition on your current hard drive and an exact replica of your files and their locations are copied to the new media. That's what it means by ghosting. No need for reinstalling Windows XP and all your applications. You will be able to reboot from the copied version of Windows XP or launch all your applications on the new hard drive since the registry file and all system files has been copied in its exact state and to the correct locations. Backup of an entire 14GB hard drive to another partition or an external hard drive takes 20 minutes with Norton Ghost 9. And you don't have to store the entire image each time you want to backup your files. Norton Ghost 9 can do incremental and scheduled backups to save time.

For backup direct to CD-RW and DVD-RW on a PC, the built-in Windows Backup Utility on Windows XP does not do a good job if the rewritable disks has information on it. You are better off downloading InCD from ftp://ftp.nero.com/software/InCD, and use the tool to reformat the disks. Once formatted, you'll be able to apply Windows Backup Utility to do the job.

On the Macintosh front, Apple has released Time Machine on OSX Leopard. This is suitable for basic backups of your data. But it will not backup your OSX and applications and restore them as you need it. To do this job properly try Carbon Copy Cloner.

UPDATE
January 2004

A spate of new and elaborate coding is being inserted into the latest backup software programs to prevent making an exact copy of a disk despite the importance of users needing to backup all their data. Could this be the business world overreacting to the piracy issue? Or maybe the business community have been shocked to see a statistic reported in The Cost of Counterfeiting study commissioned by the Business Software Association of Australia where up to half the respondents surveyed said they would accept free goods that they knew to be pirated. If this is true, we recommend users look to the open-source movement for alternative backup systems. In the meantime, commercial software manufacturers should do something more positive to promote the benefits of selling commercial software such as a willingness to replace scratched or broken CDs for free to consumers when they buy the software from them.

The magnetic storage units

In 2003, data was able to be stored on single "rewritable" magnetic disks such as the Iomega 2GB Jaz disk. Unfortunately the 2GB (i.e. 2,000MB) magnetic disks were not cheap (roughly AUD$250 each at the time) and were prone to damage from tiny specks of dust during normal use because the disks are not properly sealed.

For better magnetic disk storage units, we recommend a high capacity portable external hard drive unit where the disk is completely sealed in a metal box with excellent shock absorbing capabilities and a simple FireWire or USB 2.0 connection from the unit to your computer. A unit worth considering as of 2008 was the Maxtor OneTouch II external hard drive. Storage capacity range from 200GB to 300GB. Comes with software for automatic backup of all local drives on your computer and network, password-protected DriveLock security system (for PC) to prevent unauthorised access to your information, run diagnostics and adjust performance, and effective recovery of data should anything go wrong. Suitable for Macintosh (OS9 and OSX) and PC (Windows 98SE to XP Pro). Price: AUD$200 (as of July 2008).

Or for pocket portability, Maxtor has come out with a smaller portable external hard drive instead of the whopping 200GB plus units. The Maxtor OneTouch III Mini Edition comes in 60GB for A$199 or 100GB for A$299 as of 27 May 2006. Files stored on this unit are secured using Maxtor's DriveLock system and encryption technology. You can fit one of these mini drives inside your pocket (more useful in our opinion for personal users).

As of 1 June 2010, you are better off getting something like Western Digital's My Passport Essential SE 1000GB (or 1 terabyte, 1TB) portable pocket-sized external drives. Prices for the 1TB drives have recently come down to AUD$245 inc GST. Or you can pick up an older 750GB version for AUD$128 from places such as Harvey Norman. These drives are probably the smallest and biggest bang (i.e. capacity) for your buck.

The magnetic disk versus optical disks

However, we recommend getting an X4 flash drive backup unit when they become available in late 2010 when they come out purely for the reliability, rugged compact design, and amount of "bang for your buck". In fact, SanDisk — the manufacturers of the new X4 flash chips — are claiming a 240GB SSD (solid state drive) will be released by mid-2009 at hopefully a reasonable price. By the end of 2010, they should begin to compete with existing magnetic disk variety of devices. Otherwise DVDs (or Blue-ray disks if you have the writable drive to do it) remain the most cost-effective storage solution money can buy today.

HDD Video Recorders

A variation on the portable external hard disk drive for backing up your files is the ability to record digital video directly from a digital LCD/Plasma television set, known as Hard Disk Drive (HDD) Video Recorders.

Unless flash memory chips are manufactured cheap enough with high capacities and compact enough to store as much as a hard disk, these video recorders are expected to replace all Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) and Digital Video Disk (DVD) Recorders (so long as manufacturers allow consumers to transfer digital video recordings directly from the hard disk to PCs and Macs or else stick with DVD recorders).

Advantages

  • An HDD Video Recorder is smaller than a traditional VCR and slightly smaller than a portable DVD recorder (unless manufacturers decide to house a HDD Video Recorder in a box to look like a traditional VCR to give people the impression there is no difference between a VCR and the newer technology).
  • Longer recording times. A hard disk stores far more information than a 4 or 5 hour VHS tape (or 10 hours on Long Play (LP) mode). A hard disk can continuously record video for at least 30 hours high definition (HD 1080i) or 70 hours of standard definition (SD) video recording on a 250GB hard disk. There are options in some HDD Video Recorders to compress the video file to a smaller size so as to permit longer recording times on the hard disk.
  • Better image quality. An HDD video recorder records free-to-air television programs from digital ATSC and/or analogue PAL/NTSC signals virtually in its original quality and you can replay the recorded programs as many times as you like without loss of image quality.
  • You can do more with HDD video recorders. For example, not only can you watch and record television programs, but you can also look at photos, listen to digital music, and edit the recordings on a PC/Mac for research or personal use. In the future, these recorders may also give you access to the Internet.
  • You can pause on a frame in a live television broadcast while you do something else. And when you come back, can continue watching the program. Special buffering technology allows you to record the program in a special area of the hard disk while still receiving the live signal. This feature is known as timeshift.

Disadvantages

  • If a VCR breaks, you can always buy another without losing the recording (i.e. it is stored on a tape). HDD Video Recorders usually don't allow you to carry the hard disk inside and replace it with another. So if the hard disk breaks, you will lose the video programs. NOTE: Hard disks are meant to last a minimum of 5 years of fairly solid use. If the disks are of good quality and well-looked after, it can last 10 to 20 years. If you need to backup the digital information, however, get a HDD video recorder with a built-in DVD recorder. Alternatively, make sure the unit has connections to transfer the recordings to a computer where it can be burned onto a DVD disk.
  • Being a new technology (certainly not an excuse for putting a high price on it), HDD video recorders can be expensive (even though they have a hard disk worth AUD$200 for 160GB, perhaps a DVD recorder for AUD$80 and a circuit board controlling them and accept true HD 1080i signals inside a box for AUD$50). They are currently more expensive than VCRs.
  • Transferring digital video recordings to a PC from a HDD video recorder can be in a file format that is propietary to the manufacturer (i.e. designed to prevent you from playing on a PC or another video recorder).
  • The DVD player mode could be restricted to a particular region (a country code for playing DVDs).

What to look for

  • If your HD LCD/Plasma television has no digital tuner, look for a HDD video recorder that has dual HD ATSC tuners. This will permit one channel to be recorded while another channel to be watched using the timeshift feature. If the television already has a digital tuner, you may be able to get away with a single digital tuner inside the HDD Video Recorder. Otherwise a simple HDD Video recorder with no other features is all you need (it should be small enough to hold in your hand) if you are happy to watch something while it is being recorded.
  • Look for a HDD video recorder that genuinely records in full HD 1080i. Some models may mimic HD 1080i by recording in SD and blowing it up to HD 1080i. But image quality will not be as good.
  • Minimum 160GB hard disk is needed for true HD 1080i recording. We recommend 250GB or more for 30 hours or more of useful HD 1080i recordings. Or, if you are happy with SD recording, an 80GB hard disk will provide 30 hours, or 70 hours of SD recording on 160GB. However, if you want quality recording, make sure you can record in true HD 1080i to get the quality you want.
  • There will be a host of overwhelming options on different recording models such as setting the compression ratio for videos to get more recording time out of the hard drive. This is how manufacturers maximise the bang for their buck by building cheaply with whatever they can get away with and selling to consumers at the highest price. For some consumers, this might be okay. But what you are looking for is a big enough hard drive (160GB or more) with true HD 1080i recording capabilities. Everything else is wasted space.
  • Make sure you can transfer recorded video files on the HD Video Recorder in a format that can be read be standard video players (e.g. Apple's QuickTime Player or Microsoft's Media Player). Transferring is usually achieved via a USB port (minimum 2.0 for fast transfer rates).
  • Look for a cable connection socket on the HDD Video Recorder called HDMI. This will allow a single plug (i.e. cable) to transfer video and audio information to an HD LCD/Plasma television (for neatness and simplicity). If not, check the television's own connection ports to see what's available. Sometimes you may have to compromise by choosing DVI (where the video and sound signals are separated into independent cables) as the preferred connection.
  • Make sure if you get a DVD recorder included with your HDD video recorder that it can play DVDs in your country. Buying the HDD video recorders overseas could create problems playing DVDs bought in your country.

Types of hard disk video recorders

  1. Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) generally are small boxes with built-in digital tuner with a hard disk drive. Some units can record in high definition, but do check. Generally no DVD recorder is included. Foxtel IQ is a classic example.
  2. HDD/DVD recorders do include the DVD recorder as well as the hard disk. Some units come with a cheaper single analogue standard definition tuner. The better ones come with two high definition digital tuners.
  3. Media Centre PCs combines the DVD recorder, hard disk and digital tuners plus a computer for displaying and playing all sorts of digital information such as music files, photos and internet access. This is the most expensive option, but it is likely all digital video recorders will merge into this type of system.

In summary, as of 2007, most HDD video recorders are of the SD recorder variety. They tend to come with multiple options such as multiple connections to different HD television sets, file compression, and the ability to receive digital ATSC and/or analogue PAL/NTSC signals. Having these options allows the manufacturer to sell more units to consumers who think they are getting the latest and most number of features. The true HD recorders are a new technology and does not need a wide range of options. To get one, you may have to wait for the HD LCD/Plasma television manufacturers to make it a standard feature by having it in-built, or you must pay no less than AUD$800 for an external high definition HDD video recorder with adequate hard disk space to do the job properly. For something that is truly portable as a computer backup unit as well as record in true HD 1080i as a video recorder, you may have to wait until 2009 before you can benefit from it.

Clearly, for shear volume of digital information to be stored and accessed quickly, nothing beats the hard disk drive. It is really up to the manufacturers to provide users with the right options to allow users to handle the latest technologies such as high definition 1080i video recording at the right price if they can control themselves on the profit.

Backup units for the Pro

We have been discussing the basic backup units suitable for the average consumer and most small businesses.

Now there are some really serious backup units available which will make an enormous difference to your life especially if you are in the business of producing large and complex digital videos in compressed form, creative digital photographic-like still images on Adobe Photoshop, or doing a professional mixing of 64-track audio information for creating that commercial quality music CD.

And they will also handle the backup requirements of your entire family or the employees in your business.

Today, the best backup unit available in the marketplace is a technology called RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. This simply means more than one hard disk is combined to form a large storage solution. The advantage of this system is that not only can you add almost any number of high-speed hard disks you can find in an array for massive storage capacities, but with the right RAID software, you can increase the speed of reading and writing to the hard disks and in backing up crucial information on multiple disks, making it ideal for speedy and safe processing of a massive amount of digital information.

There are more than a dozen RAID configurations depending on the speed and security you want. Each configuration is given a number. RAID 0 is said to be the fastest (and naturally the most expensive). It uses a special technique known as striping whereby high amounts of digital data can be transferred between the computer and the RAID storage unit by distributing the read and writes between two or more hard disks. Such a technique applied by RAID 0 is said to help professionals shave off 10 or 20 seconds in saving a large Photoshop file to the backup unit. A time saving feature like this could make the difference between surviving and not surviving in the highly competitive digital market.

The only disadvantage in this system is that if one of the hard disks fail, you could lose your data.

However, if speed is not a high priority for you and want greater data security, the cheaper RAID configurations will be more than adequate.

What's the cheapest option?

The software RAID option is the least expensive. If you go for the hardware RAID option, you have to purchase the expensive PCI cards to plug into your computer so as to perform the necessary calculations for distributing your data among the hard disks in your RAID configuration system. This may be faster, but it will be more expensive to implement.

The software RAID option is actually free on MacOSX. You may find it in OS X's Disk Utility. It lets you create a RAID 0 or RAID 1 configuration using either ATA or SCSI (FireWire is not supported) hard disks. Hence the only cost to you is to purchase the hard disks themselves (useful in you have purchased a Mac Pro).

If you prefer the hardware RAID option, you will find a significant speed boost in your work for a relatively modest investment if you go for the one that accepts ATA hard disks. If, however, money is no object and want the fastest speed possible, go for the SCSI hard disks.

How are the hard disks arranged?

The hard disks are usually arranged in a RAID system with one hard disk on top of the other inside trays. In some computers, these trays are already built-in and all you have to do is open up the computer and plug the hard disks straight into them.

Now should one of these hard disks ever fail during normal operation, the RAID system will let you know while continuing to operate normally. Then it becomes a simple matter of pulling out the old hard disk and replacing it with a new one without affecting all the other hard disks.

Want to preserve your data in the event of a hard disk crash? Remember to use the more secure RAID 1 system instead of RAID 0.

The network servers

Finally there are two other storage units used by the professionals called Network Attached Storage (NAS) units and file servers. Both may be classified under the general term network servers. Where the server is connected to the internet and people can store information to these servers from anyone location in the world, we call these iClouds. And people who provide the service to store data over the internet are called iCloud Service Providers.

The purpose of a server is to centralise important digital information throughout an organisation onto the server's storage disks so that the data can be easily and quickly backed up and protected.

The server is similar to a RAID system in that multiple hard disks may be employed to store data. But the significant difference in the two storage units is the speed. The server is not designed to be as fast as a RAID system because it is limited by the speed of the network. Servers are designed more for security and backup rather than speedy processing of digital information. Think of servers as just another hard disk drive on your computer. Except this time, the hard disk is located outside the computer. In fact, the server could be anywhere in the world.

A file server is essentially a multiple hard disk storage unit with its own dedicated computer running its own operating system software, anti-virus software, backup software, firewall and data security protection as required for managing the data on the hard disks. A NAS is usually a simpler and easier to set-up multiple hard disk storage unit for the network which can be remotely managed on another computer anywhere in the network.

As of 2006, NAS servers can cost anywhere between A$1,478 for the Snap Appliance Snap Server 1100 and A$11,553 for the Snap Appliance Quantum Guardian 4400. What you are paying for is the storage capacity (Snap Server 1100 has a capacity of 40GB, or 480GB for the Quantum Guardian 4400) and extra features to make life easier for a network administrator.

For example the Snap Server 1100 is nothing more than a NAS unit containing a basic 40GB hard disk for you to plug into an Ethernet network. It is as easy as plugging in the power cord in the unit and the Ethernet cable from the network directly into the NAS server's Ethernet port and it will automatically configure to the speed of the network (either 10 or 100Mbps). Then you would launch your Internet browser, log in as the administrator in the browser window, and configure the server by entering the IP address or the server name (e.g. SNAP[serial number]). And that's it. The server will appear on the network.

However, the Quantum Guardian 4400 is a little more technically impressive with four hot-swappable ATA/100 120GB hard disk drives, a built in automated client system data backup, an anti-virus checker, and a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) with 128-bit encryption security.

In fact, there aren't that many NAS servers offering SSL as a standard feature except the file servers themselves running their own similar software on the network computer. But the Quantum Guardian 4400 is much simpler to set up. The only drawback is the price—there are file servers and alternative NAS servers available at a much lower price.

File servers also have a similar price.

But now that more and more people are offering iCloud services, the cost to store data can be virtually non-existent for around 2 to 10GB of space. Greater storage capacities are possible for a nominal price.

Should I use iCloud services to store all my data?

If you are in the business of helping clients and need to deliver or receive large "non-sensitive" electronic files, iCloud services can make your life and those of your clients a whole lot easier, However, if the data is "sensitive" and you cannot encrypt the data, what's the point of iCloud services? If you are using a third-party iCloud service (i.e. owned by strangers), what makes you think your files are protected, secure and free from the prying eyes of people running the iCloud service? Unless the service offers military-grade encryption of all data including the transit of data between the iCloud server and your (or the client's) computer, you are effectively giving away your commercial-in-confidence data to strangers. And if you chose to store your personal files too (including family photos, bank statements etc), you might as well hand over your credit card details and everything else to these strangers. And how do you know for sure whether the people running the iCloud services are not the ones involved in organised crime such as identity fraud?

If you are going to need to store something online, create your own iCloud service on your own computer or a spare machine that can be kept securely at home or another location. Try, for example, Tonido, an OS X software tool to turn your computer into an iCloud service. Also, put encryption on all the data you intend to store on the machine in case people online find an unauthorised way to access the data using "black market' tools. And use an effective password/username authentication system. For clients to receive or upload files to you, they should also receive their own authentication system using different usernames/passwords for each client.

However, if you are not expecting to send or receive files from or to anyone online, why store all of your data online? So you can save $100 on purchasing your own storage device? If you knew how your data is being used when stored on these online servers, you might think twice about this. Just because iCloud services allow you to store anything (and for free for up to 10GB of data) doesn't mean you should. Seriously, you should purchase your own portable and secure storage device and keep it at home or in some location that is secure. And remember, don't turn your storage device into a free-for-all iCloud service where anyone can rummage through your data.

The general backup plan

Small businesses and many consumers are notorious in not backing up their digital data on a regular basis. Nothing in the digital world causes more heartache and pain than losing years of hard work creating your own digital data created from your applications because your hard disk has come to the end of its life or someone has accidentally deleted an important file.

From the consumers right up to multinational companies, everyone needs a good backup plan. If you use a computer, here is our recommended backup plan:

  1. Always purchase a computer with a built-in or attachable backup unit of some sort. Nowadays, computers with recordable DVD disk burners are considered excellent for this purpose.
  2. Try to go for a backup system that can store all your data on your hard disk onto a single backup disk. Where possible, the backup software utility supplied with your backup unit should allow for some sort of file compression capabilities to help store that extra bit of data onto a single disk.
  3. When storing important digital data, try to make two backup copies. Leave one copy in one location and the other in a different location. In the event of a fire or other mishap, your chances of retrieving your lost data is considerably better because you will have the opportunity to retrieve at least one backup disk from a separate location.
  4. Backup as regularly as you feel is necessary or will not create considerable hardship later on should you require to rebuild the latest data since the last backup was done.
  5. For most small businesses relying on IT as an important backbone to its operations, a daily backup of the digital data stored on a central network storage unit (called a server) may be highly recommended. But sometimes a weekly backup may be better for businesses that don't rely significantly on computers to achieve their aims.
  6. Finally test the backup disk and unit every now and then just to make sure the disk and unit are working fine. This will involve getting out a quality disk utility such as Disk Warrior 2.1.1 or TechTool Pro 2.5.6 or higher for checking the integrity of the backup disk and the files stored on them. Most backup units will also have their own software tool to perform a hardware test of the backup unit as well (e.g. Adaptec Toast 3.7.1 or higher). So use it as well.
  7. As soon as you detect any problem in your backup system which you can't fix with your utilities, be prepared to replace the faulty item immediately and then perform a fresh new backup.

A more specific backup plan using a DAT drive

The tape backup system may consist of a Digital Audio Tape (DAT) drive capable of taking 4mm tapes. The software for performing the backup procedure might be something like the Retrospect remote backup software. The DAT drive supports the DDS-2 compression standard, allowing it to fit some 6-8Gb of data onto a 120m length 4mm tape.

Every Macintosh or PC in the office requiring backup has a copy of the Retrospect Remote control panel installed on it. Retrospect on the server has a script which tells it which hard drives around the office to backup, onto which tapes, and at which predetermined times.

Which files to backup? The theory behind backing up data is to only backup people's working files. System files and application files take up too much space on a tape. It is better to backup the data people are working on. If the hard drive of a computer should fail, the system files and applications can always be copied from another computer or installation CD.

The tape drive is a SCSI ("scuzzy") device connected to a server in the server room.

When the time comes for backing up data on client's computers, Retrospect is automatically launched on the server. Backups of any drives connected directly to that server will occur immediately. It then backs up drives connected to other Macintoshes and PCs around the office by communicating through the Retrospect Remote control panel using the office ethernet and appletalk networks.

Sometimes the data to be backed up may not fit onto a single tape. So the administrator will be asked by Retrospect to change the tape for another one. Eventually Retrospect will finish the back up work.

How often should the back up be done? This depends on the importance of te information to the clients. Speak to clients about their needs. But usually backup is done each week. For other clients, the backup may be best done every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

After the tapes have backed up all the relevant data, they should be stored offsite at night for increased safety.

Use a different set of tapes for each back up you do. Consider recycling the tapes after about 2 to 3 months of backup or whenever the clients feel confident they won't need the data. The only exception to this is if the clients want the data to be archived, in which case the tapes should be permanently stored in a safe, well-protected and cool place.

The completion of several backup tapes over time will require some maintenance work. The most important of which is to regularly clean the heads of the tape drive. For DAT tape drives, the manufacturer recommends cleaning the heads around every 40 hours.