Retrospect 6.1 review

Once upon a time, Mac users had a very simple choice if they were serious about backup: use Retrospect, or cross your fingers. Large Mac installations would hold off upgrading their servers until a compatible version of Retrospect became available. But how the mighty are fallen. Backup requirements have doubled every year, but the price of storage has fallen, stone-like, to the point where it often makes more economic sense for smaller networks to invest in some low-cost software and a set of external drives than a high-end solution such as Retrospect.

Retrospect is a cross-platform, client-server backup system, supporting Mac, Windows, and UNIX systems. It comes in two starter versions; Desktop, which includes licences for two remote systems; and Server, which includes 100 remote licences. Each can be expanded with additional licence packs (in sizes of 1, 10, 50, or 100 users). The Server software is installed on the Mac with the backup hardware, and every Mac (or PC or Linux box) you want to back up needs a copy of the client software. Each client can be installed with its own security code, so it can’t be used by a third party as a method for getting at secure files illegally. Once installed, the server allows you to add available clients from the network, ready to be backed up.

There are a number of conceptual hurdles that new users of Retrospect face, chief of which is the backup set. A backup set is a group of media (tapes, CDs, DVDs and hard disks) that constitute a sequence of backup snapshots. You start by creating a full backup, which can span a number of tapes, say, and to these you can then add backups incrementally using new tapes – you only need to add those files which have changed since the last backup.
Sequential backup offers advantages in both speed and size, since it’s obviously quicker, the fewer the files that you need to write.

Backups can be automated using scripts. Retrospect can generate scripts for you, based on one of five options – Backup, Duplicate, Network backup, Archive, and Restore – which you can in turn alter. For each script you specify the source (a local drive and any number of networked clients), the destination (a backup set you have already defined), a schedule (so the backup can happen after-hours, say), and a set of selection criteria (essentially a set of search terms for including or excluding files from the backup). Scripts can handle recycling rotation so, for example, two backup sets are alternated daily, re-using media each week.

The real ace up Retrospect’s sleeve is its support
for a huge variety of storage media. For certain things such as tape and autoloader backup, Retrospect remains the only proprietary option for Mac backup. It also supports CD and DVD writers and rewriters, FTP sites
for Internet backup, and can span backups across hard disks and XServe RAID. It will even cope with hot-swappable hard disks.

If you’ve worked with Retrospect for a long time then sadly you begin to look upon it as a necessary evil. That it is a powerful piece of software is undoubtedly true, but there are a large number of niggles, which this update fails to address. In terms of interface it seems overly complex. OS X has some great GUI features
that mean you shouldn’t have to burrow through seven layers just to restore a single file. If you’re going to offer people printed schedules and reports, then it should be possible to print them to PDF. And if OS X can handle doing other things while simultaneously burning a CD, why can’t Retrospect?

There are also still functional holes for such a high-end backup solution. First, only administrators can do restores – the client software offers no real interaction with the backup archive. Second, OS X has a built in ‘Wake for Network Admin Access’ option. One would think that having your Mac backed up would count as network admin access, but as yet it’s unsupported by Retrospect, so client machines need to be awake in order to be backed-up. Third, unlike the Windows version, which supports something called ‘multiple simultaneous backups’, on the Mac server only one client can be backed up at a time – so slow clients can cause a log-jam for a large network of machines.

Overall, one gets the impression that for the chaps at Dantz, the Mac is still a second-class citizen. The one big feature of this release is support for access control lists and extended file attributes on Mac OS X Tiger server, which are both surely just compatibility issues rather than new features. Retrospect is no longer the only game in town. For smaller Mac installations low-cost (not feature-poor) applications, such as Super-Duper or Chronosync (or free UN*X utilities like Rsync), mean now there is a choice out there. Admittedly these operate on the push principle (users ‘push’ data up to the server, rather than have Retrospect ‘pull’ data from the client machine), but given the price of external storage, and the ease of scripting a backup process to DVD or external drive, just being the only backup application that can write to tape no longer cuts it.


If you run a large network, and don’t have a comprehensive backup policy, then Retrospect may be a good option to look at. However, if you’re already running Retrospect, probably the only reason to upgrade to Retrospect 6.1 is for compatibility with Tiger Server. EMC Dantz seem to acknowledge this, as for once the upgrade from 6.0 to 6.1 is free.

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