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Building user-proof backup

Find out why Snyder Drugs chose Tandberg's SLR7 tape drives and how they implemented them throughout their drug store chain.

Snyder Drug Stores needed a fool-proof backup in each of its 80-plus retail branches. To meet that need, network architect David Rose had to find a backup system upgrade that wouldn't fool users.

Each retail store's manager is responsible for creating backup copies of store data on tape. "They are not always diligent in the care and operation of computer equipment," said David Rose, network architect for the Minnetonka, Minn.-based drug store chain. "They're not IT people, at all."

Evidence of the lack of diligence is all too apparent when IT staff members visit stores. For example, part of the daily backup process is swapping blank tapes for full tapes and storing completed tapes in the store's fireproof safe.

"We have gone to the stores and found tapes stashed all over," said Rose. "We found a tape on a big speaker the manager had brought so he could listen to loud music in the office."

Recently, Rose was charged with a project to upgrade the backup systems in each store in the Snyder Drug chain. His research and previous history with vendors led him to choose Dell PowerEdge 2500 servers running Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Santa Cruz Operation's SCO Unix. He found that the servers and operating system were a good fit for the company's legacy retail store application, Pharmacy System Software from Fort Worth, Tex.-based PDX Inc.

The issue of media costs caused Rose to take a hard look at the company's legacy backup hardware, Oslo, Norway-based Tandberg Data SLR tape drive. Through the acquisition of the Drug Emporium chain, Snyder Drugs added almost 80 stores to its empire. The Drug Emporium stores currently use DAT technology for their storage. In working with DAT, Rose found that the SLR tapes are approximately twice as expensive as the DAT media.

On closer examination, Rose discovered that the IT staff got far fewer trouble calls from the Snyder Drug Stores using SLR tapes than from DAT users at Drug Emporium.

A critical issue with the DAT tapes is cleaning. "DAT seems to need cleaning more frequently, and, of course, they always forget to do that in the stores," said Rose.

Another source of constant trouble is the fact that the heads on the DAT tape drives tend to get misaligned easily. This doesn't happen with the SLR tape drives. Recently, Rose had to employ a data recovery service to retrieve data lost in a Drug Emporium store when a DAT tape drive head became misaligned.

In the final analysis, Rose determined that the time saved in trouble calls and recovery of lost data balanced out the higher cost of SLR tapes. "When you have a small IT department that's short-staffed, that extra time might be considered priceless," said Rose.

Most stores in the Snyder chain ran either Tandberg's SLR2 or SLR3 drives, so store managers knew how to handle SLR drives. Operating the latest version of the SLR drive, SLR7, would require little or no additional user training.

"We're changing enough as it is, and the people at the store level have a comfort level with the SLR tapes," said Rose. "They are used to swapping the tapes in and out of SLR drives."

Rose has found that fool-proof backup is an achievable goal with SLR drives. "SLR is much more reliable than other technologies I've used," he said. "The SLR drives seem better able to handle the abuse and neglect they face in the stores."

That reliability is a product of the SLR7 tape drive's linear recording technology and error correction features. The SLR7 two-channel thin film magnet resistive head writes two tracks simultaneously. Data striping and error correction code blocks over the two tracks, making it easier to restore data from damaged media.

Each Tandberg Data SLR7 tape drive can store up to 40G Byes of data. That's more than enough for current and near-future needs, said Rose. Currently, each store is backing up only around 4G Bytes of data daily. "We don't anticipate needing any more capacity than we already have for a long time," said Rose.

The upgrade rollout began in December of 2001, and progressed at a rate of four stores per week. On one night in each store, a Snyder Drug IT specialist installs the Dell servers, which are pre-configured with the store's applications, and the Tandberg Data SLR7 drives. The tape drives run on Mount Airy, MD-based Lone Star Software Corp's Lone Tar backup application. On that same night, a data conversion service provider makes sure that all data is swapped out to the new system. Finally, a pharmacology specialist proofreads the pharmacy data to make sure there are no errors.

"It's been going fairly quickly," said Rose, who predicts a completion date of April 2002. After that, his team's toughest job will be making sure that the users don't foul up the fool-proof system.

For additional information about Synder Drug Stores visit its Web site.

For more on Tandberg Data SLR7 drives, check here.

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