What do you look for in a backup solution?
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.
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.
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.
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.