Opinion: Enterprise backup options for the Mac looking up

Retrospect may be going nowhere fast, but other backup options exist

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was missing a link to more detailed information about enterprise backup solutions for the Mac. This story has been updated with the correct information.

While backup and recovery options for Apple's enterprise systems haven't always been a strong point of the Mac platform, a new crop of applications and technologies is pulling Mac OS X closer to -- and in some instances, beyond -- Windows and Linux.

Before looking ahead to what's coming, it's important first to look back. And that means a quick refresher course on Retrospect, a mainstay of the Apple community since Mac OS 7 was hosting e-mail, files and FileMaker databases. The venerable app had solid features and drivers for a fairly large subset of tape libraries. Unfortunately, it peaked in the late 1990s around Version 4.3, long before the introduction of Mac OS X in 2001. Since then, it's been in a steady decline.

Competition? Not so much on the Mac platform. Although a few consumer-level backup options existed, the best alternative for backing up a Mac was to simply drag files to a server, an external SCSI hard drive or a Windows server. Windows had options like Veritas Backup Exec and ArcServe -- and a Windows version of Retrospect. The Unix and Linux camps also had a variety of quality products from which to choose, including some eventually ported to Macintosh.

Whither Retrospect

More than a year after Mac OS X arrived, Retrospect 5 belatedly followed, offering compatibility with Apple's revamped OS but few new features and, more importantly, reliability issues that would plague it in the years to come. Retrospect 6 was released at Macworld in January 2004, and for a short time, the Macintosh enterprise community had high hopes for backup software. Later that year, Retrospect's parent company, Dantz, was acquired by EMC, a leader in enterprise storage systems, for just under $50 million.

EMC has never had a particularly good reputation on the Macintosh platform. Its Clariion unified storage systems never had a native Mac client, and the company has only recently started putting some energy behind the Macintosh version of its industry-leading virtualization client, VMware. What could have been a step in the right direction for backup solutions on the Mac side turned into what some would call a failure on the part of EMC.

Since 2004, Retrospect 6 for Mac has received just one minor point upgrade, and that was largely to make its backup software compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. On the PC side, Retrospect 7 emerged in October 2005 and was followed by Version 7.5 last year. With the possible exception of the demise of QuarkXPress, has there been a longer fall from glory among once-popular Macintosh apps? Not by my recollection.

The fate of Retrospect is important: It gives enterprises another backup software option. It's also very important to Mac-centric companies that may have more than 10 years of backups sitting on their shelves in a Retrospect format. What happens, for instance, when someone needs to pull up a marketing campaign from a few years back that's archived on Retrospect backup tapes -- and the company has long since migrated away from Retrospect? And how does that company meet Sarbanes-Oxley requirements now.

The Register.com a few months ago detailed a series EMC moves, layoffs and team changes that undermined Retrospect, and EMC has done little to dispel concerns about the software's future. When asked to clarify the company's plans, EMC spokeswoman Jennifer Dreyer left the door open to future development and said the company plans to release a version of Retrospect that supports Apple's upcoming Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard release this fall.

"Entering 2007, one of the large external factors influencing EMC Insignia's development priorities is Apple's planned Leopard release.... EMC is committed and focused on developing a backup product compatible with this important OS release," she said. "EMC does not disclose product road maps. However, I can assure you that the EMC Insignia team continues to watch the overall marketplace very closely -- including Apple Macintosh's market-share resurgence in 2006, Apple's recent deployment of Intel-based Mac products, as well as the growing use of virtualization-based products in the marketplace.

"...EMC will release another version of Retrospect that will support...Leopard. It is EMC's policy to not preannounce any new major product releases until they are available in the channel for distribution. Our Retrospect product road map disclosure falls under this announcement policy," Dreyer said.

While it's good that there will be a version of Retrospect that runs on Leopard, EMC seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach to development and innovation of Macintosh products. And it sounds like the company is advocating VMware Windows virtual machine backups for Macs in the near future. While that prospect might take Mac systems administrators off-guard, it's certainly a strategy to consider -- though not an optimal one. The ability of Windows and Linux/Unix applications to accurately back up HFS formatted partitions, including resource fork and metadata, should certainly be suspect. Additionally, adding a virtual machine layer to an already complicated and delicate process is bound to cause issues.

Other Options

A slew of competitors from the Unix/Linux camp are hoping to exploit the frustration of Retrospect users. Those attracting the most attention are Tolis Group's BRU for the small and midsize business market, and Atempo Time Navigator and BakBone's NetVault for medium to large businesses.

While Retrospect still technically works and is slated for a Leopard update, its current data cataloging system is antiquated -- especially for large volumes the application wasn't designed to handle. If catalog files get corrupted, it can take weeks to rectify a backup with the system offline. Like most applications designed in the 1990s, Retrospect also doesn't multitask well, eating up an immense number of processor cycles during backups and rendering most other processes useless -- something considered unacceptable in today's 24/7 environment. Retrospect's SCSI drivers are also notoriously finicky, making ATTO LVD SCSI cards (not Apple's) the only surefire solution, and EMC has been late to the game with fiber backup compatibility. To top it all off, its interface is clunky and outdated.

Despite those issues, Retrospect is scriptable, has a lot of legacy usage information available on EMC Dantz forums and is still the current market leader for backups on the Macintosh.

BRU from Tolis Group was ported from the Unix/Linux camp a few years ago and has years of experience in the backup space. BRU is basically a command-line application with an added GUI front end for disk and tape backups. When BRU first arrived for the Macintosh platform, its GUI front end was extremely basic and product updates came out too frequently for enterprise software. Lately, however, BRU has matured into an economical, stable, powerful and -- most importantly -- reliable solution for small to midsize businesses.

NetVault from BakBone, another Linux enterprise backup vendor, had been making a command-line- and X11-based backup solution for Macs for several years. In late 2005, the interface became Macintosh-native. The result: The application is now the most polished for large enterprises on the Mac platform.

Paul McGlaughlin, systems administrator in charge of backups for Los Angeles-based Drissi Multimedia, is a NetVault user. "I've heard rumors that EMC might finally be giving Retrospect some love, but for lots of us, it's too late. We are running on NetVault now," he said.

"NetVault is much deeper than Retrospect, as each individual computer is listed as a separate job, making less monolithic scripts and more granularity in writing backups," McGlaughlin said. "The full backup of our servers [containing 20TB of data] is running about 20% faster than Retrospect on a per-drive basis -- Retro could only do one drive -- and [we] have two drives pumping away.

"The restoration process is also more robust in NetVault," he added. "We can do full and incremental restores to any point still remaining on tape. Additionally, it supports multi-locations, multi-drives, D2D2T [disk-to-disk-to-tape], and other hybrid backup structures, including support for VTL [virtual tape libraries]. We are very happy with our options now that Retrospect isn't the de facto Macintosh enterprise backup."

Atempo Time Navigator (not to be confused with Apple's upcoming Leopard-based Time Machine, which I'll get to later) is another enterprise backup solution for Mac. While it once used a command-line- and X11-based interface, Atempo recently upgraded its UI to Apple's native Aqua look. Its reliability and configurability for SANs -- and most significantly, Apple's XSAN -- make it a viable choice for enterprises that employ this type of system. Major complaints about Atempo include its "Rube Goldberg" interface and the need for multiple applications to accomplish primary tasks.

For more detailed information about various backup options, check out Michael Dhaliwal's white paper, "Apple Enterprise Backup Solutions" (download PDF).


If you are currently using Retrospect, it may be time to make a switch. If you choose to stay on, either keep your expectations low or open a line of communication with the decision-makers at EMC. If you switch, make sure you have a contingency plan for all of your old data. You either need to keep a machine with Retrospect on it forever or migrate all of your Retrospect backups to a new solution -- not an enviable task.

For new deployments, if you are a small or medium-size business and your data and backup needs are relatively modest, BRU is your best bet. It's simple to administer, easy on resources, reliable, economical and actively improved on a regular basis. The Tolis Group has a solid reputation and is working to make a better product.

For larger Mac-based businesses, NetVault is a welcome choice. Although more expensive than most offerings, it is the backup application that enterprise Macintosh administrators have been waiting for and largely matches its PC and Linux competitors.

If your business is largely XSAN-reliant and you are comfortable with command-line backup and restoration, you might also want to look at Atempo's Time Navigator.

The Future

On the Mac platform, backup administrators are often forced to be early adopters of new technologies. In this case, there are a lot of exciting technologies and options around the corner:

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon