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University gets a lesson in backup

A one-man IT band aces storage backup test at the United Kingdom's largest university.

It's not unusual for college students to spend their weekends and evenings at the library. University IT administrator Raymond Lam, however, needed a library that would free up his nights and weekends.

Lam is dedicated to his job as a Unix administrator for Queen Mary University in London, but his backup system was just asking for too much. If he wanted to run backups on weekends, he'd have to go into the office every few hours to change tapes.

Queen Mary, the United Kingdom's largest university, houses a number of schools, ranging from medical colleges to arts and law arms. The university has a centralized network, but each department has its own networks, as well. Lam alone makes up the one-person IT staff that supports a stand-alone network of 14 Silicon Graphics workstations that are used by the 450-student Department of Engineering and Materials' graduate and post-graduate students. The workstations run the SGI Irix operating system on two SGI Origin file servers running Red Hat Linux.

The research data created and stored on the department's servers is critically important to the students. "The students have worked hard on this research," Lam said. "It's my job to make sure that no material is lost."

Since the department's backup system was not automated, that job became a real headache for Lam. The student's research data was backed up on the servers using Hewlett-Packard DLT (Digital Linear Tape) 70 and older Digital Equipment Corp. TZ88 DLT 40 drives. "These drives did not have tape libraries," said Lam. "Without a tape library and autoloader, I had to change tapes several times every day. I couldn't do backups without monitoring the drives, due to the capacity limits of the tapes." Also, he only did weekend backups on rare occasions, when he could be present, because "there was no one there to change the tapes."

To make sure that the data storage capacity wasn't exceeded while he was out, he ran two file servers. "I just wanted to use one, but I couldn't risk it," he said.

Fed up with handholding the backup drives, Lam began searching for automated tape library systems and software. After exploring other tape technologies, including DAT, Lam decided to decided to stick with DLT. "I already knew that DLT worked well with our Irix/Linux system," he said. So did the Quantum/ATL PowerStor L200 library, which is designed to protect data in small to mid-sized LANs and Windows NT/2000, Unix, and Linux servers. After testing several DLT library products, he determined the L200's cross-platform capabilities and ease of use would help him achieve his goal of "hands-off" administration. Quantum/ATL, a division of Quantum Corp., is based in Irvine, Calif.

When testing backup software, Lam ran into problems installing the Islandia, NY-based Computer Associates' ARCserve software. "I contacted the help line, but they were not very helpful," said Lam. "Also, the support rep was not technically competent."

In his search for an alternative, he discovered San Diego, Calif.-based BakBone Software's NetVault storage management software. He was immediately attracted by its support for a wide range of computer platforms, including Irix and Linux. NetVault also promised hands-off operation features, including on-line application backup and high-bandwidth data transfers.

NetVault's Application Plug-in Modules provide hot backups of an application, requiring no downtime during the backup process. When an application is scheduled for backup, the APM automatically customizes the GUI, duplicating the application's GUI.

Best of all, BakBone's promise of easy installation wasn't broken. Lam installed NetVault in 15 minutes with no glitches. "That was great, because I'm on my own in the department," he said. "I can't take time off for installation workshops or being on hold on help lines."

Since the installation, he has called BakBone's help line for advice about tweaking the software. "NetVault's technical support is good," he said. "There is always someone available, someone who knows the technology well."

Now, Lam can run two full backups of about 300G Bytes of students' research data each weekend -- without going into the office. He does incremental backups throughout the week. "I can rely on NetVault to do its job," he said. "That gives me time to do my job."

The bottom line for Lam, however, is that the students' data is safe. He doesn't have to stand guard over tape drives anymore.

For additional information on BakBone Software, Inc. visit its Web site


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