9.8 Our Picks

Although prices vary widely, buying any tape drive and tapes is a significant expense. Many people consider that expense unjustified, and so do not install a tape drive. If you find yourself thinking that way, we suggest you reconsider. Too often, we hear from readers who have lost their data. The cost of salvaging or re-creating that data may exceed the cost of a tape drive by orders of magnitude, assuming that it is possible to recover the data at all. Catastrophic data loss is a very common cause of small-business failures.

If you store your data on a network server that is properly backed up, you probably don't need a tape drive on your desktop PC. If you have a relatively small amount of data and are willing to rebuild your PC from scratch if the hard drive fails, you may be safe in backing up to a remote server or using a CD/DVD writer, removable hard drive, or similar product. But if you have a lot of valuable data on your system that is not otherwise backed up, you need a tape drive. Here are the tape drives we recommend:

Travan TR-5 tape drive

Seagate STT220000-series Travan TR-5. For backing up small servers and desktop PCs, Seagate STT220000-series tape drives are a superb choice when drive cost is more important than tape cost. We consider the Seagate Travan tape drives to be the most reliable inexpensive drives available.

Seagate produces multiple variants of this drive, including ATAPI and SCSI-2 versions, both of which are available as Hornet models (bare drives) or TapeStor models (bundled with BackupExec software). The more expensive Travan NS20 models support read-while-write and hardware compression, while the entry-level Travan 20 models do not. Otherwise, all use the same basic drive mechanism and have similar specifications. Barbara uses a SCSI Travan NS20 model on her main workstation, and typically gets 100 MB/min throughput with hardware compression enabled. Robert uses a Travan 20 ATAPI model without hardware compression on his primary test-bed system and gets 85 MB/min (http://www.seagate.com).

USB tape drive

Seagate STT6201U-R Portable 20. If you need a tape drive that you can carry from machine to machine?either for backing up or for transferring huge amounts of data?a USB drive may be the best solution. We confess that we had reliability concerns about using a tape drive with a USB interface, but after using it extensively we conclude that the Seagate Portable 20 is as reliable as SCSI and ATAPI Seagate Travan drives, which is to say extremely so. At a rated 85 MB/min compressed throughput (versus 120 MB/min for the ATAPI and SCSI models), the USB version is a bit slower, but just as reliable. We typically get 60 MB/min throughput with this drive when backing up real-world data. Seagate also makes a 4/8 GB TR-4 version of this drive, which we have not tested. If you need a portable tape drive, the Seagate Portable 20 is the one to buy.

Either of the preceding drives is an excellent choice if drive cost is more important than tape cost. You can buy one of these drives and half a dozen $35 tapes and use them to back up a desktop system or small server adequately. If you back up frequently, you'll need to replace some or all of the tapes every year or two, but that's relatively inexpensive insurance for your data.

But there are situations in which tape cost is much more important than drive cost, and we suggest you determine carefully whether that is true for you. If you need many tapes, the difference between $35 tapes and $10 tapes adds up fast, and suddenly an "expensive" DDS tape drive that uses $10 tapes starts to look like a real bargain. You're a good candidate for a DDS tape drive if you back up daily or more often, if you need to archive data for past weeks or months, or if you need to back up more data than will fit on one tape. Here are the DDS tape drives we recommend:

DDS3 tape drive

Seagate STD224000-series. We've used DDS drives from Hewlett-Packard, Seagate, and Sony, and we think the Seagate STD224000-series DDS3 drives offer the best combination of price, performance, reliability, and robustness. This drive stores 12/24 GB, supports read-while-write and hardware data compression, and has rated throughput of 132 MB/min compressed. In our testing, we typically get 110 MB/min or so, which is closer to the rated performance than many drives we've tested.

Seagate sells the drive itself, called the Scorpion 24, or the TapeStor DAT 24 bundle that includes the Scorpion 24 and backup software. At $500 or so, not including the cost of a SCSI-2 host adapter, the Scorpion 24 is not an inexpensive drive, but then you need only buy fewer than a dozen $8 DDS-3 tapes versus the same number of $35 Travan TR-5 tapes to recover the additional cost of the drive relative to a Travan NS20 unit. We use the Seagate TapeStor DAT 24 on our main server, where it does yeoman service. If you need a fast, high-capacity tape drive that uses inexpensive tapes for a high-end desktop PC or a small server, the Seagate STD224000 is the one to buy.

DDS4 tape drive

Seagate STD2401LW-R. If even DDS3 isn't large enough or fast enough, the next step up is DDS4. DDS4 drives store 20/40 GB on a $17 tape, and are much faster than DDS3 drives as well. The best DDS4 drive on the market is the Seagate Scorpion 40, which is also available with backup software bundled as the TapeStor DAT 40. The Scorpion 40 is rated at 165 MB/min native and 330 MB/min compressed, and in our testing achieves throughput of more than 300 MB/min on compressible data. At $650 or so, the Scorpion 40 is definitely not cheap, but its large capacity, high performance, and use of relatively inexpensive large tapes make it an ideal drive for backing up workgroup/departmental servers and high-end workstations. Robert uses a Scorpion 40 tape drive on his main personal workstation, which has more than 200 GB of Ultra160 SCSI hard disk space. If you need to back up huge amounts of data, particularly if your backup window is short, we think you'll be delighted with the Seagate Scorpion 40 tape drive.

Seagate recently spun off its Removable Storage Solutions (RSS) tape drive business unit as a new affiliate called Certance. The drives themselves remain the same for now. Even the model numbers were unchanged when last we looked, although new models will have Certance CD numbers rather than Seagate ST numbers. Identical drives, some bearing Seagate labeling and others Certance labeling, will coexist in the channel for some time. Our endorsement of these Seagate-branded tape drives extends to the similar Certance models, although package contents (such as bundled software) may vary slightly from Seagate to Certance units.

Although we're advocates of using tape drives for backup, we recognize that not everyone needs or can afford a tape drive. If you're in that position, you're not completely out of luck. We've tested several alternatives to tape drives, including superfloppies, CD writers, DVD writers, removable hard drives, and so on. Each of them has disadvantages?expensive or unreliable media, slow throughput, or small capacity (or all of those)?but using any of them is better than not backing up at all. Even backing up to floppy disks is better than nothing. After considering and testing alternatives, here's our recommendation:

Tape drive alternative

Plextor PlexWriter Premium CD-RW drive or Plextor PX-504A DVD+R/RW drive. The PlexWriter Premium costs about $100. It writes at 52X and rewrites at 32X on $0.20 CD-R discs or $0.50 CD-RW discs, and stores about a gigabyte of data on a standard 700 MB disc (which can be read by nearly all standard CD and DVD drives). The PlexWriter Premium is nearly as fast as a slow hard drive, creates very reliable backups?although not as reliable as a tape backup?and is useful for other purposes such as copying audio and data CDs. The major limitation of the PlexWriter Premium is the approximately 1 GB capacity of its discs, which for many people is no real limitation at all. If you do need more capacity, the $225 Plextor PX-504A DVD+R/RW drive writes or rewrites about 4.7 GB of data to DVD+R or DVD+RW discs that sell for only a few dollars each. Like the PlexWriter Premium, the Plextor PX-504A DVD writer is fast, roughly matching the throughput of a DDS tape drive.

Like all optical writers, these drives have significantly poorer error detection and correction than a good tape drive. That's easy enough to get around, though. Simply make two copies of your backup. Even if a file is corrupted on one copy, which happens infrequently, that same file will almost certainly be accessible on the second copy.

In one sense, optical backup is more convenient than tape backup because you can access your backup data directly with an optical drive. We confess that, being belt-and-suspenders folks, we make CD-R and DVD+R backups of our current working data in addition to our tape backups of our entire database. More than once, we've reached for that optical disc backup to retrieve an accidentally deleted file without having to fire up the tape drive and restore it.

We recommend buying both a spindle of CD-R and DVD+R discs and a stack of highspeed CD-RW or DVD+RW discs. Do routine daily backups to an RW disc and then recycle the discs as necessary. For example, if you have 30 RW discs, you won't need to overwrite your daily backup disc until it's a month old. Once a week or once a month, pull a full archive set of your data to CD-R or DVD+R and store it somewhere safe.

For updated recommendations, visit: http://www.hardwareguys.com/picks/tape.html.