Backup tape formats:
Removable, but not cheap.

A removable hard disc makes a good backup system.



by Bill Barnes, PCCC

The floppy disc is dead. Seriously. The 3-1/2" magnetic disc drive is an option at Dell and Gateway, even in full-size desktop computers.

What's the alternative? In the same selection screen where Dell lets you pay an extra $20 for the disc drive, the either/or option recommends a USB "Memory Key" flash ROM "drive". But that's still not quite a floppy drive.

The USB flash drive is a great bit of technology. It's very fast, nearly universal between Win2x computers, and smaller and more rugged than floppy discs to stick in your pocket. With capacities up to 256 MB and more, it's a necessity for transferring more than a couple of today's data or media files. At the practically give-away promotions available every couple weeks, you should get one if you haven't succumbed yet. They're great for carrying your work back and forth from the office.

But they're not really give-away, compared to floppy discs. You wouldn't want to stick a file on one and hand it to a colleague, never-to-see it again. While you might pass it around at a conference to share the Power Point presentation, you want to be sure you get yours back. And, even with front-of-the-case USB ports, they're not as easy to plug in as a floppy.

When you're transferring files, the floppy still has that nagging 1.44 MB limit. While data files may succumb to WinZip, JPEGs and most other picture files are already compressed so their native 750 KB each is as good as you're going to get and that's one picture per diskette. A couple of technologies 5 or more years ago tried to extend the 3-1/2" magnetic format. The slot I stick my 720 KB single-density floppies into can also write a 120 MB high-capacity disc. I've never used it and wouldn't know where to buy a blank disc now.

Of course, the technology for sharing data now is the CD-R. The media are available for pennies and they hold 700 MB -- plenty enough for just about any data file format. Sure, you're using 1.5% of its capacity to pass along that 10 MB demo but it doesn't hurt when you buy them by the 100-spindle. But there is still one file format where the CD (or even DVD) just won't cut it.

Backup media

A full-system backup can get huge -- just right-click on C: and choose properties to see how much you're storing on your computer. Sure, you archive your pictures to CD when you download them and back up Quicken to your flash drive every time you use it. But did you catch your email folder that includes cousin Tom's picture from before he went off to Iraq? And what about those MP3 albums you laboriously mixed from a dozen CDs? You might even have been in the middle of editing the kids' videos before you left for vacation.

When lightning or a virus hits and takes out your whole system, do you really want to face finding all those data from their original sources? Now you need a medium that stores in tens of gigabytes, not just the few hundred megabytes needed to share that big database.

The traditional backup medium is tape. You can buy a basic tape drive with a native capacity of 20 GB for about $200-$250. Then tapes cost about $1-$2 per GB.* Filling this tape with 40 GB of compressed data (assuming you don't have too much already compressed data such as .JPGs and .MP3s) will take all night. The next day you take the tape offsite and you're protected. When you need to restore that spreadsheet you just trashed, expect to wait 5-15 minutes while the system looks for your file on the tape.

Another high-capacity backup medium is the conventional IDE hard disc. Large internal discs are now marketed for about $1/GB or less. External USB or Firewire discs don't cost much more if you catch them on sale. If you use a hard disc for your routine backups; you have a medium that is universal, stable, and fast. Plus, being a random-access device, when you go to restore a single file you will find it almost immediately.

You say "isn't a hard disc inherently a built-in component of the computer, and isn't one of the goals of a backup to move your data to a different building?" Obviously if you spend an extra 50% per GB for an external hard disc it's easy to carry it with you. It's also easy to make any standard IDE hard disc portable. Several manufacturers offer a front-panel removable drawer that will hold a disc. Then you just unplug and carry it with you.

If you use a hard disc and a backup program to archive your entire data, be warned that you will be generating a single huge file. If your backup disc is formatted FAT32, you're limited to a 4 GB maximum file size and the backup will fail. Be sure you format your disc as NTFS and are using Win2000 or WinXP.

Everyone forgets this

The vital, forgotten task for any backup system: Test your backups! After your first partial or full backup, restore a representative file before you really trust your backups.


First published eBytes & Bits, July 2004








* Tape technologies**:

Consumer-type tapes:

20 GB native capacity
Drive $265
Tapes $40

Server-grade tapes:

36 GB native capacity
Drive $1,000
Tapes $20

160 GB native capacity
Drive $3,700
Tapes $55



An alternative option:



More reference points:

** Most tape drive and tape specification and price data represent list prices from, June 2004, and are very approximate.

Bill Barnes is a freelance small business system administrator.

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Last updated Thursday, July 01, 2004 10:29 AM