The Skinny on Backups and Data Recovery, Part 4

Backup Tools and Cool, Graphical Backup Tools.

Repeat after me. Backups can be fun. Backups can be fun. And look fabulous, too! Okay, I'm starting off a little weird this week, but that silly statement provides a perfect segue to an incident I keep running into, one that came up again in the last few days while I was visiting a customer. Someone was intently watching me set up my notebook on their network. My notebook has a nice "Powered by Linux" sticker on the top, so seeing Linux was no surprise to them. What did surprise them was my KDE desktop. (I am running the 2.0 pre-release version at the moment. Some quirks, but it's looking good, folks.)

As much as Linux has been in the news lately, the idea that running Linux could mean something other than command-line tools was really something. Acceptance of this fact was followed by a question regarding tools: are the "normal" tools available for Linux? (Translation: "can I run pretty graphical tools, like a word processor or a web browser?") I showed him Netscape and played a game of Kpoker. That was cool, but administering the system must still be in the dark ages (meaning non-graphical), right?

Since we are talking backups in this current series, I'm going to visit a few of the graphical tools available for doing backups. I'll cover the free, the sometimes free and the not quite as free yet still quite reasonable. All of these are graphical alternatives to the command-line, hard-core, in-the-trenches administrator tools.

An immediate candidate for fun (and free) is Kdat, part of the K Desktop Environment's bevy of graphical tools. Kdat can be started by clicking on the "Tape Backup Tool" under the "Utilities" menu. That's the little toolbox on your panel; you can also get there by clicking on the big K in the bottom left-hand corner. If you feel so inclined, you can also start it from an xterm simply by typing kdat (which is the way I did it).

When the kdat window comes up, you may have to click on Edit and choose Preferences to select the type of tape you are using. I have a 4GB DAT at device /dev/st0 and had to enter that information. The default was /dev/tape. The other thing I did was click on Eject tape on unmount, just because I think it is fun to have the system toss out the tape when I am done with it. Hey, I'm easily amused.

The next thing you do is mount the tape (under the File menu). Kdat will tell you it is reading the tape's "magic string", which is its way of identifying whether this is a previously prepared "kdat" tape. If it cannot identify the tape as one of its own, it will ask you to format the tape. Click OK to continue. You'll get one last warning that all data will be lost if you format the tape. Click on Yes (assuming, of course, that you want to use this tape for a backup). The next prompt asks you for a label. The default format is "Tape created on today's_date". I changed mine to Thursday backup, confirmed the tape size of 4GB (you can still override the defaults at this point) and clicked OK. After a few seconds, you should see the tape icon (over in the top left) change, and your label on its right.

To start a backup, you must first decide what you want to back up. Directly under the tape icon is a folder with / (slash) beside it. On its left is a check box. If you check this box, you are selecting everything under the root directory. You can also click on the plus sign, which will open up your directory tree. This allows you to choose individual files and directories. In my example, I clicked on the plus sign, moved to the home folder and clicked its check box. A backup icon is highlighted (just under Edit), which you can then click to start the backup. One more "are you sure?" type of confirmation, and you are on your way to quick and friendly backup.

If you don't already have KDE, visit their web site at http://www.kde.org/.

While kdat is probably not a bad choice for non-critical, casual backups, enterprise computing or large IS shops generally require something with a little more bite and reliability. kdat is still based on tar, which, while generally quite reliable, does not recover well from media errors. In fact, it pretty much crashes and burns. I don't mean to be overly frightening here; for the most part, you won't have any problems. Having a large pool of tape in rotation pretty much insures that you can find a good tape somewhere.

My first suggestion is BRU from Enhanced Software Technologies. In the world of commercial backup solutions, BRU (which stands for Backup and Restore Utility) is conceivably the all-time favorite for Linux users. You can get your copy by surfing over to http://www.bru.com/.

The installation for BRU is extremely simple. After answering a few questions about your tape drive, you are pretty much ready to roll. You can start BRU with the command xbru. You'll be presented with a wonderfully simple, uncluttered interface for your backup needs. Large, clean buttons allow single click access to full, level 1 and level 2 backups. You'll be asked for a tape label and away you go. The key to BRU seems to be simplicity. Even the scheduling options (daily, weekly, any day of the month) are easy to set up and use. Restoring a file or group of files is no more difficult.

While its graphical interface is simple and pleasant to work with, BRU will run from the command line as well. On that note, you can visit the web site and pick up contributed scripts for unattended or customized backup needs. You'll find those in the "Tech Tips" section of the site.

The only catch with BRU is this: for truly large-scale networks where multi-streaming backups and automated tape libraries are the order of the day, you may need something else. If you can wait a few days, BRU-PRO, a new product from the "BRU guys", will be released shortly. BRU-PRO is designed to address these large-scale demands, and while I have not yet seen the product, the quality of their current product suggests at least taking a look at BRU-PRO when it hits the shelves in the next couple of weeks.

This is a commercial product, but BRU also offers a non-commercial version that will do a nice job of backing up your system and give you peace of mind without the dollar pinch. There is a limitation, and it's a small one if you have only one system and are not running a business: you cannot use this BRU to back up networked drives.

For out-and-out looks, I have to give Arkeia from Knox Software the "coolness" award. Like BRU, you can run Arkeia from the command line, but the GUI is so much fun to use that even if you could use the command line and speed things up, why would you? A flashy speedometer records your backup speed in megabytes per minute, while the odometer keeps track of the total data already backed up. I haven't yet decided whether it's silly or not, but it sure is fun.

All kidding aside, Arkeia is a powerful tool with clients that run on a number of platforms. For example, you could run a network backup onto your Linux system's DLT that comprises an IBM RS/6000, an HPUX machine, a couple of NT servers, and some Win 9x boxes. Arkeia handles full, incremental and on-demand backups. You can even back up multiple systems (and architectures) simultaneously while maintaining permissions, symbolic links, etc.

The whole notion of pools management, tape management and so on takes some getting used to. Consequently, it's not as intuitive as running BRU, where you push the Full backup button and are then on your way. You don't just load Arkeia and start using it. Before you can run that first tape, you have to do a fair amount of setup, which on reflection is warranted. You see, Arkeia enforces good backup practices and strict tape rotation. You cannot just choose a specific tape from the list. Of course there are ways to override anything if you are stubborn enough, but it kind of defeats the purpose. Tapes must follow rotation.

Arkeia is a commercial package; however, like our friends at BRU, Arkeia also offers a freeware version. The difference is one of scale. The free version supports only one server, one tape drive, and two clients (either Linux or Windows 9x) in a non-commercial, personal environment. Surf on over to http://www.arkeia.com/ and check it out.

Products like Arkeia and BRU lend a great deal of credibility to the maturity of Linux. They also provide the graphical tools that (like it or not) are often seen as the determining factor of whether something is "modern" or not. "Modern" is then usually equated to "good". Aside from providing satisfying alternatives to those who still question Linux's value, these products provide quality backup and data recovery options for business--and business, my friends, is where Linux must thrive if it is to conquer the desktop.

I hope you've enjoyed this foray into the world of backups and data recovery. Next week, we try on a whole new series for size. To get you ready for it now, I invite you to remember the words of the immortal Steve Martin: "Let's get small!" Until next we meet here at the Corner, remember that when you're down, only a good backup will get you back up.

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