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Just a Thought - Mac Backer

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- January 28th, 2004

"Honey Cake, the Johnsons are coming over and I want to show them our 2006 Montana vacation pictures. Are they up on the Mini yet?"

"Why yes, they are Sugar Plum. I loaded them up a couple of days ago, before that big storm knocked out the power. Wanna take a look?"

"Absolutely Baby Toes!"

"Hmmm, something seems to be amiss, Dumpling Lips; nothing's coming up on the plasma screen."

"Eh? I hope it's nothing serious, Candy Lobes, the Johnsons will be here in half an hour and I'd so like to show them the momma bear that chased you after you tried to pet its cub."

"Yeah, thanks for reminding me, Celery Nose. I'll check out the mini and see what's up."

A little while later...

"Well, Hobbit Feet, it looks like our mini got hit by an electrical surge; it's fried."

"What? How did that happen, Potato Cheeks? I thought you bought a surge protector."

"True enough, Mosquito Mounds, but someone unplugged it from the surge protector and plugged it into a regular outlet in the bedroom."

"I wanted to watch our wedding movies the other night while you were out with the boys, Pencil Pal. I forgot to put it back before the storm hit."

"And now, Danish Hips, all of our movies and photos are gone, including your precious wedding photos."

"Well, that's OK, Lard Lump, maybe I can get some new wedding photos, after our divorce is final!"

"Good for you, Pizza Face, I only hope the camera survives the session!"

What soon to be ex-mister and misses mini owner failed to do was something that so many of us ignore; they didn't backup their stuff.

I know, I've talked about backing up your data before, but as we immerse ourselves in this new digital lifestyle, backups are becoming increasingly important, as the preceding vignette illustrates.

Take the new Mac mini for instance: Here's a wee box that's aching to be a media center. It plays DVDs, has all the necessary inputs and outputs to let you connect cameras, both still and movie, and nearly any type of screen you want, including that fancy new high definition 50" plasma TV you bought yourself, err, your family for Christmas.

And if your believe any of Robert Cringely's line of thinking, that Mac mini you're thinking of buying could prove to be a lot more useful than just a mere repository of your pictures of Sugar Plum.

So, you will become more dependent on your computers to not only keep your digital life in some semblance of order, but also to keep your digital life safe. A good uninterruptible power supply helps, but is not the complete answer. Your photos, your music, your movies, your correspondences will all be contained in a little box less than 7" square. Very nice indeed..., until your hard drive crashes.

"Eh," you say. "Hard drive crash? Isn't that rare nowadays?"

Yeah, pretty rare, but not rare enough. And while Macs don't suffer from the plague of viruses and worms that keep PC users up pacing the floor at night, Apple's computers still rely on basically the same hardware used in many PCs.

True enough, I've got Macs that have been running almost continuously for 4 years with nary a hardware hiccup. I've got power surge protecting uninterruptible power supplies on all of my Macs, still a hardware crash could happen, and, being the technically experienced person that I am, that worries me.

Of course, a hardware crash could happen to any computer -- Macs are not inherently immune -- but you won't care about any other computer, just the one you have your stuff on.

"But Vern, there are backup applications available to help keep my stuff from becoming a fading memory," you might offer.

And to that I will agree, but here's the rub: Most computers today come with at least a 40 GB had drive. The faster Mac mini boasts an 80 GB drive. Most backup solutions available to consumers revolve around burning your digital data on CDs or DVDs, or having another drive available to move data to.

While it's true that some of that 40 to 80 GBs is stuff that you won't want to back up - why back up the OS or apps, just reload them - your stuff could still occupy far more space than what's available on a 700MB CDr or even the 4 to 6 GB of a DVD ROM. A small music collection can easily top 10 GBs, one Summer worth of photos could fill a high end iPod, and if you shoot movies you know how quickly your clips can gobble up space. And while hard drive backup solutions work, you can't archive that data, and you are stuck trying to decide what data to dump from the backup drive to make room for new data. So, for an increasing number of people, there is no way to reasonably backup their digital life.

Hmmmm. I smell an opportunity for Apple.

Those of us in the IT world know that backup is an essential part of any IT strategy, and companies will spend millions making sure that business critical data can be restored in the event of a hardware failure or other catastrophe. One of the more widely used IT backup solutions comes from Veritas; NetBackup, along with dedicated backup servers that can include impressive looking tape robots, allow IT backup administrators to capture, catalog, store, and restore hundreds of terabytes of data to any server across the entire enterprise. The data is often compressed so that what may have occupied 100GB of disk space takes up only 20GB on the tape.

Folks at home don't need anything so grandiose; all that is needed is a way to capture and restore, say, 40 GB of compressed data. What the Crew at 1 Infinite Loop needs to do is come up with a consumer's backup server; one that's cheap and easy to use. There are already some backup solutions available, but none have Apple's touch for making complicated tasks easy.

What I envision is a box about the size of the Mac Mini, that contains a DDS 4 DAT tape reader/writer, and some processing power. This Mac Backer would run a scaled down version of Veritas' NetBackup so that the Mac Backer can backup all Macs on your network. It would include a user interface that even a child can use; allowing users to easily schedule backups, possibly interfacing with iCal for scheduling and reminders.

The only question remaining is; why would Apple bother creating such a device? There really wouldn't be a lot of money in it.

The only reason I can think of that makes sense is that, with such a device in its hardware lineup, people, including the corporate IT types, might take Apple more seriously, thus opening more doors into corporate server rooms, where the real money is. And, of course, making this Mac Backer would get Apple the undying gratitude of millions of Mac users.

In the meantime, backup your stuff by any means available. It's good advice, and it might even save a marriage or two.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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