A review of EMC Retrospect 8.0 for Macintosh


What do you look for in a backup solution?

If you have only one system, you might choose a local FireWire or USB disk, and a simple quasi-real-time application, like Time Machine.

If you have multiple systems, you have to consider multiple local disks and backup applications, or one central target (a tape, NAS, whatever) with one or multiple applications. Local will be faster and cheaper in isolation, but you’ll have multiplying station costs. And the (potentially extreme) hassle of monitoring multiple independent backups.

This quickly growing ball of hair makes you consider more capable alternatives, like ChronoSync backing up to central storage.

For my home backups, I’ve been using EMC Retrospect for years. First, when we were a Windows household and Dantz was still an independent company; and then, after an ill-fated switch to Memeo when we switched to Macs, we returned to Retrospect 6.0 for Macintosh.

Sunday, EMC released Retrospect 8.0 for Macintosh, an eagerly-awaited update to its Macintosh backup product. I’m now using it in my home network, which consists of an iMac (running the new Retrospect client), a MacBook Pro (running the Retrospect 8.0 engine and console), a 2TB RAIDed LinkStation Pro Duo NAS, an Airport Extreme running in 802.11n-only mode, and CAT5e FTP cable.

Obligatory background

This release surprised me. I tried every Retrospect 8.0 Beta from Beta 1 through Beta 5. Beta 5 wasn’t near Gold quality, and I expected to see something (e.g., another couple of Betas, followed by a Release Candidate or two) before the dust settled.

But Retrospect 8.0 went Gold (i.e., a product release) two weeks after Beta 5. While surprised, I thought, wow, maybe they did an insane amount of bug fixing and testing in two weeks! I purchased 8.0 as soon as I got the announcement.

I very much like Retrospect 8.0’s design direction. They’ve designed great improvements over the 6.x product in every area. Most of it works much well, but some critical aspects (see below) do not.

This caliber of backup application is complex software. 8.0’s support forums have comments from many users who, like me, are current (in some cases, long-time) EMC customers, recognize this new software isn’t trivial, respect the Retrospect organization’s hard work, and want this release to succeed.

That being said, it’s also important to recognize that EMC chose to release Retrospect 8.0 for sale. EMC is positing that it’s worth paying for. It’s fair to evaluate it by the same standards as other products in its price range. Viz:

  • Cut them slack for their Beta releases? Of course.
  • Cut them slack for Release Candidates? Sure.
  • Cut them slack for technology previews? Yep.
  • Cut them slack for a product you pay for? Nuh-uh.

My snap review of Retrospect 8.0 for Macintosh

Rather than review the various windows and tabs, I’ll cut to the chase.

Don’t buy it yet unless you like wrestling with software. Wait until at least one minor release update is available. There are way too many bugs, gotchas, and head-scratching moments for the average SMB, or the typical sophisticated user.

If you must buy it, first give it a full (and I mean deep and detailed — don’t just run it a couple of times, see that it seems to work, and then put down your credit card) trial evaluation. Make sure everything you might ever need it to do works as advertised before you buy.

EMC should have kept it in the oven for at least one more Beta/RC test cycle. I can’t recall a Gold product release that was as buggy and incomplete as this one.

Some features don’t work yet, are explicitly missing, or are flakey. Consider:

  • Connecting to other Mac clients is hit or miss.
  • Backing up Mac clients is very slow. It’s barely acceptable for my home network, and I’m sure it will be unacceptable in SMBs.
  • It can’t read Media Sets (nee backup sets) written by previous Retrospect versions. One user asked: What if Microsoft released a new version of Office that couldn’t read files created by previous Office versions? It would be unacceptable, and it should be unacceptable here. EMC’s response is to advise that users should keep Retrospect 6.1 around. Ick. I would like to give them credit for promising to eventually add this functionality… But, again, this is no longer a Beta — they’re selling this product.
  • The two Retrospect 8.0 user forums document too many problems touching core functionality aspects, involving common devices or network configurations, and/or that are too blatant. I have to wonder about the depth of QA on these bits. For example, at least one user preference isn’t saved across application launches. Reading/modifying/saving user preferences isn’t rocket science. Yes, this is a qualitative criticism; I invite you to skim the main and bug-report forums, and reach your own conclusion.

Documentation? What’s that? It has a ReadMe and a “Getting Started” guide. There’s no User Guide. I.e., no detailed documentation. Yes, it’s promised. Again, they are charging money for this software.

The UI is still rough in places. Some icons, window and pane layouts, etc. are dodgy.

I encountered serious problems with even my small network. Some were symptomatic of asynchronous design bugs. Perhaps not surprising, as dividing the backup server into a separate engine and console is one of the big changes in 8.0.

For example: I go to the “Media Sets” pane to create a Media Set with one member. My NAS’ network shares aren’t displayed. Huh, that’s weird. I poke around, but can’t see how to make them appear in the display. I flip to another pane, do something innocuous, then flip back and presto, they’re there! Huh, what?

Another: Retrospect 8.0 sees the iMac client on the network. I add it as a source. Great! I exit Retrospect, then re-launch. It still sees it as a source. Great! I then run a backup script, and get an error because the backup client can’t be found. Huh, what?

Another: The flakey display of space and compression statistics, and the like. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work, and sometimes (like compression) they never work.

Summary

Will this be a huge rockin’ improvement over Retrospect 6.0? Yes. Is it a huge improvement now? No. Rather than give you pleasure, it’s more likely you’ll grind your teeth down to teensy little nubs.

If you buy it, expect their user forums to become your best friend. And expect that you’ll ask at least a couple of questions like, “I did X and Retrospect did Y. What the heck happened? How do I work around this?” You won’t ask this only if you have a bizarre network, or antiquated or bizarre devices, which you would expect with any backup software. You’ll ask it even if you have a vanilla-flavored configuration.

For now, let the early adopters deal with the idiosyncrasies and wait until more issues are resolved.

———
Update: Read my more recent post about Retrospect 8.0.

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19 comments
  1. Heraclides said:

    Nice to see your review. In particular, it’s nice to hear from someone who has followed the beta releases, etc., as I rarely have time for that.

    I’m less worried about not being able to access the older backups, as I invariably make up “native format” archives for long term storage, in parallel to and separate from the incremental backups.

    (I have three “layers” of backups: TM for immediate/short-term, Synk is another option; incremental & offsite for medium term; native format archives of “closed” datasets, etc., that are likely to never change for the long term: old projects that are long finished, etc. and cleared off the hard drives. Somewhere in the mix is version control for specific things that are actively being worked on.)

    Cut them slack for a product you pay for? Nuh-uh.

    I agree, and even more true if it’s a data-critical application.

    There’s no User Guide.

    This is a pet peeve of mine about applications in general…

    For now, let the early adopters deal with the idiosyncrasies and wait until more issues are resolved.

    I’ll join the waiting multitude 🙂 I invariably wait for a couple of point releases for products that would impact too much if they didn’t work well. (e.g. for OS X major releases, I usually wait until about 10.x.4) As a self-employed consultant, I can’t afford to have something go belly up.

    Might possibly buy the upgrade now though, to offset any later prices bumps on the assumption that the point releases should be free updates (?). Not sure on that one.

    A quick comment about “if you had one system … Time Machine”. Unless you mirror the TM hard drive to an external HD and stash the mirror offsite, i don’t think there is a way to make offsite backups with TM. (True?) To me if your backup is next to your machine, or in the same building, then it’s only as good as the security of the machine itself. If you have a fire, etc., you’ll most likely lose both… If you really care about your data, you’ll want to put a copy of it offsite (and in media more suitable for long-term archival than an HD). A point with this is it’s not dependent on the number of machines, but what your data means to you.

  2. Ed Anderson said:

    Your review reflects my take on this release. I’m a long-time <> user of retrospect. I tried the beta release earlier this year and saw that it was more destructive than useful. I PAID for what was advertised as the public commercial release in early April, only to find that it was a later generation beta. It remains such. If EMC remains true to their effort, I feel it will eventually produce an acceptable upgrade to the version 6 iterations, but to rope users into paying for a beta – bad form, EMC! Pleas for help to EMC tech support are answered by referals to the forums, where users in the same boat are encouraged to knock around ideas and unofficial fixes while EMC watches the action. No updates since 4-8-09 and I feel like a fool for paying for it.

  3. I am returning this software. It crashed my server 3 times in the span of 1 hour.
    Retrospect 6 and 8 are the ONLY apps that have EVER crashed the server. I can live with 6, although it is a pain, but I know how to avoid the crashes most of the time.
    Who on earth would make the server run on 10.4, but the console only on 10.5? IDIOTS!
    8 is crapware.

  4. Anthony said:

    I have yet to play with this since I gave up on Retrospect back at version 5 for any real archiving, played with version 6.1 and found no real improvement; and from what I’ve read in this review nothing has changed. EMC Retrospect may have a fresh coat of paint but its foundation is still poorly designed. All of the described issues are the same ones that the earlier versions suffered from; clients connecting and then not connecting for the backup. I am glad someone took the time to actually review this app; good job.

  5. Joel M Miller said:

    *** Retrospect 8 Means Not Looking Back ***

    EMC’s announcement of Retrospect 8 for Mac highlights some “Important Information”, namely that it doesn’t run on PowerPC Macs, but that “of course” It still backs up PowerPC clients. So you figure they’ve disclosed the major limitations, and if you’re on an Intel Mac you’re OK to upgrade.

    You would be wrong. Once you’ve purchased the software, you find out, either by trying to use it or by reading all the way to the bottom of the Read Me file that v8.0 will not recognize — will not append to or restore from — backups created with previous Retrospect versions! Is it not fundamental to a backup program to be backwards compatible? Apparently not. I’m supposed to keep using my old Retrospect 6.1 to append to and restore from my existing (large) set of AIT-5 tapes, and spend $3,000 for another set of backup tapes for use with v8.0.

    Retrospect 8 will not import clients or scripts from previous Retrospect versions, and cannot access backup sets created by previous versions. It is not an “upgrade” in the usual sense: it is a different program, related to previous versions only by similarity of function and EMC’s hope that existing users will buy it and only later discover the trouble and expense required to make use of it.

  6. Anne said:

    Wish I’d found your post sooner. We’re now two + weeks w/o a backup for the company. The info SAYS you can have both versions co-exist but when in frustration I wanted to run backup via 6 so we weren’t so far ‘exposed’ to a hard drive failure, the system says: client reserved / duplicate. Oh joy.NOT.

  7. John said:

    @Anne: Yes, it’s a disaster. I wrote a couple other later reviews of it in this blog; hunt for them if you want some light reading. 🙂

    I’ve had my home backups goofed up because of it; your situation is of course far worse.

    Don’t know if you follow the support forums, but, last week the product manager commented that another update is scheduled for this week. It will have “hundreds” of bug fixes, and, finally, support for PPC Macs.

    Tell you what. If they don’t release a user manual soon, I’m going to really flame them, because no manual this week will mean that the manual didn’t exist even in draft form when they released 8.0.

    I hope 8.0 isn’t doing any damage to your reputation within your firm! Are you catching any flak?

  8. Martin said:

    Retrospect 8 is a flaming turd on your doorstep. How would you like to be charged $1,000 for that privilege?

    They just released 8.1 and while it has fixed “hundreds” of bugs, there are many hundreds more to go. For me, it arbitrarily won’t back up “Proactive Backup” clients as well as regular Mac clients. The email notifications are completely broken, so you’ll be combing through the log every day to see what got backed up and what didn’t. The forums are full of bug reports and very few workarounds – plus the fact that the search function on the forums is atrocious.

    After many years struggling with the poorly designed and buggy 5.x and 6.x, 8.x has proven to me that the problem is not with the software, but with the software development methods used at EMC. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

    • John said:

      Yep, I completely agree. I wrote about the 8.1 release, too. It’s a complete disaster. And they still don’t have a flippin’ user manual. And what the hell is it with network performance? It’s not just that 8.*’s performance is so bad, it’s also that EMC was completely oblivious that they had a performance problem.

      I used to tout Retrospect to friends, and now I’ve turned 180 degrees around. I’m wondering whether to throw in the towel completely, or stick with them until the next minor release and see how that turns out.

      Funny you should mention the forums — I had the same impression. Why do forums suck so badly in so many sites? Dang it, I wrote about that, too. 🙂

  9. JT said:

    Thanks for the reviews – I got a bad feeling about this when I couldn’t even figure out how to get a license key (to say their download/eval methods are cryptic is an understatement.)

    So, what would anyone suggest as an alternative? Time Machine is completely insufficient for my requirements, so please let’s not get into that discussion. Instead of asking me what those requirements are, how about just names of software people use and LIKE, and I’ll figure out which of them might be suitable (and others can do the same thing, to make this conversation more useful.)

    JT

    • John said:

      My review of the latest version — 8.1 — is still negative.

      Even so, I’ve decided to stay with Retrospect 8.* for now. I’m hoping this piece of garbage will gradually get better. Three minor revs from now, it might be where it should have been when they started selling it. But I’ve already paid for it, so as long as there’s no retrograde motion in the functionality of their updates, I’ll stay put.

      For an alternative…

      I strongly recommend against Memeo Lifeagent.

      In this post’s comments, @Daniel spoke positively of Crashplan Pro.

      In this post’s comments, Adam Carrier mentioned BRU from TOLIS Group.

      When you make your purchase, could you come back here and tell us what you did? Thanks!

  10. Anne said:

    Yes, I am catching flak. I had to roll back to our previous 6.x version. My credibility has taken a huge hit.

    EMC needs to sort this one out pretty quick. I can’t believe it made it to the market in the condition that software it. I’m not touching any updates until I start to read glowing feedback.

  11. Martin said:

    After being jerked around by several point releases that continued to suck, I dropped Retrospect 8.1. It was a waste of $1,000, which I regret, but unreliable and troublesome backups are unacceptable. The cost of the time I was spending on maintaining it far exceeded the purchase price. I demo’d CrashPlan Pro and it fit the bill for us. One week into running CPP and no problems to report. Thanks for the recommendation, Daniel!

  12. Martin said:

    Ok, after a year of using CrashPlan Pro I can now confidently say that it is a very good product. The backups are trouble-free, the restores are very fast and the flexibility of their design is very powerful. We are happy customers! (70 Mac workstations, 15 Linux servers, 1 Mac server)

  13. What’s even more disturbing is that four years later and now up to version 10.1, the product is no better.

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