OptiVault reduces the need for magnetic tape backup

By Joel Snyder
Network World, January 30, 2006

Original Article on Network World Web Site

Primera Technology's OptiVault aims to help IT managers solve the problems of long-term e-mail and critical file backups by replacing traditional tapes with DVD media.

We tested the OptiVault by backing up our Windows-based Microsoft Exchange server and found that the OptiVault performs exactly as advertised. Because the OptiVault is primarily a backup server, it may not meet all regulatory requirements for e-mail archiving. Rather, the system would be a good starting point for small and midsize businesses or enterprise workgroups that need to create and manage backups of a moderate amount of data.

The OptiVault is a clever package of four components, designed to simplify managing archival backups. At the center is a DVD burner, surrounded by Primera's robotics and a color inkjet direct-to-disc printer. These three pieces are controlled by the EMC/Dantz Retrospect backup application. All four components are included in the $3,800 base package.

We attached the OptiVault to our Windows 2000 server running Microsoft Exchange. Our model was a tabletop version, but Primera makes an optional rack-mount adapter for $100 that lets you put it into a standard 19-inch rack. This was the first device in years to come through the lab without an Ethernet port, but the system's USB 2.0 connection had sufficient performance to speed backups, and it simplified installation. Primera bundles all the drivers and software on a single CD-ROM.

Our installation initially failed in one of those cryptic Windows "everything is fine but nothing works" kind of ways. We rebooted, forced Windows to update drivers, and magically it all started working. In addition to the Retrospect backup software, the installation CD includes software to control the robotics and manage the printer.

We loaded 25 DVD-ROM discs into the OptiVault and used Retrospect to set up our back-up strategy. Existing users of the venerable Retrospect won't find anything different when backing up with this device compared with tape libraries or other media. New Retrospect users will find that it behaves much like Windows-based back-up systems. We defined the volumes we wanted backed up, set a schedule and that was about it. The robotics in the OptiVault shuffled discs, the internal printer created attractive labels and in about 98 minutes we had four nicely printed DVDs that backed up the 16GB stored on our main file server. Future backups during the one-month test were faster and didn't require additional media, because Retrospect backs up only changed files. The speed we saw in our tests, about 10GB per hour, includes Retrospect's optional but highly recommended "compare" to check back-up readability.

The Primera/Retrospect bundle includes an Exchange-specific license that lets the system back up at the mailbox level. This means you don't have to back up your entire Exchange mailbox file as a single, monolithic chunk. Instead, you can back up and restore individual mailboxes with the Exchange message store. We created a second media set to hold our Exchange users; again, Restrospect and the OptiVault performed beautifully.

Robots at work

To verify that the discs were properly created, we tried several restores of both normal files and an Exchange mailbox. Backups were uneventful, but the restores were fun to watch, as the OptiVault shuffled discs between its two bins, looking for the right one to put into the DVD drive. Primera makes the OptiVault look eerily cool by lighting the inside with two super-bright arrays of blue LEDs. The system glows constantly, like some high-tech cross between a Picasso painting and a Rube Goldberg contraption.

The system behaved perfectly in our restore test, restoring files to our file server and Exchange mailbox without any errors or problems. Although it took a while to shuffle DVDs back and forth, the OptiVault worked much faster to restore data than a tape drive does.

Once all 25 DVDs in the OptiVault are full, operations are not as simple as dropping another pile of 25 discs in, though they could be. Left to its own devices, Retrospect would keep adding on to the back-up sets we defined, which means you would need to keep dozens, or even hundreds, of DVDs to be sure you could restore a particular file.

But with a small amount of scripting, we could tell Retrospect to start a new backup set each week. The new set caused Retrospect to start over with a full save, adding incrementals daily until the end of the week. Once we fine-tuned our scripts, keeping the omniscient blue-glowing OptiVault happy was a matter of feeding it DVDs as it used them up. It took us about three hours to go from nothing to an automated back-up strategy that needed little maintenance other than new DVDs once a month. (Primera strongly recommends you use its media for archival-quality backups, which it sells for about $1.25 each.)

The device uses normal single-sided DVDs that hold about 4.7GB of data (it can hold more if your data is compressible). The data you can comfortably back up in an OptiVault is limited to between 50GB and 100GB. If you have more than that, the speed, density and storage issues of DVDs would make tape a better solution. However, because the OptiVault integrates cleanly with Retrospect, you could use DVDs for some files and tapes for others, even if you had a larger data store.

Even though Primera advertises the OptiVault as an archiving tool for e-mail compliance, it may not be the right answer for everyone. Because OptiVault works with Retrospect, it can make backups from message stores as they exist at the moment of backup, but it isn't guaranteed to catch every single message (for example, those created and deleted between backups). The software's design as a back-up tool also doesn't help when it comes to searching large time spans for messages. You would have to restore each mailbox from each backup set over time, because the backups form a snapshot of the message store, not a continuous archive of messages.

Still, we found the one-two punch of OptiVault and Retrospect to be a solid answer to the problem of creating and managing backups of moderate amounts of data. Priced competitively with magnetic tape products, the OptiVault offers the advantage of DVD Write Once/Read Mostly media in a highly automated package - and it glows blue.