Tape Backup Alternatives


As it was in the 1970s, tape media is used to store large volumes of information. Magnetic tape media is sensitive to scratches, magnetic interferences and can tear. It is slow and the information it carries is not instantly accessible as it is with hard drives. The tape mechanism itself is based on some technologies invented before anyone ever thought about computers. It is mechanical, based on moving parts that can break and jam. These days if you happen to have a low-end tape drive and it fails, no one will fix it for you. If you have a warranty it will be replaced. If not, you will have to purchase a new one, possibly with a new type of tape cassettes because although the technology remains basically the same the tape drives are getting smaller, can contain more information and support new bus technologies.

For now, there is no real alternative for most of the market. However, at the low end of it (and surprisingly enough for the high end of the market as well) there are a few alternatives that will eat their way into the mainstream as the technology evolves.

Hard Drive Backup

Disk space has always been a problem with servers. There was never enough. Sure, you would plan your hard drive purchase according to Exchange Stand Edition database capacity which you knew would never exceed 16GB.

However, virus attacks, spam and database corruption issues proved that a 40GB disk drive on your server might not be enough.  Suddenly you would have a really large SMTP queue because of some problem or database inflation. You might need some additional space to serve as temporary space for defragging or repairing a database.

While this might still be true, disk drives are becoming cheaper while their capacity increases, mainly due to the popularity of the S-ATA IDE technology.

Also, in a lot of small businesses you would find that the workstations are newer than the server. Since documents and mail are mostly stored on the server, you would get workstations with a lot of free disk space.

A few years ago, backup software vendors began adding backup to file options when the popularity of disk drive backup grew. Backing to a disk drive was convenient when working projects which required a lab so you could trace your steps. It was also quite handy when dealing with crises situations, or when tape backup malfunctioned.

Backing up with Windows Backup (formerly known as NTBackup) to disk became the most reliable tool around, when you think of things that can go wrong with complex backup solutions that rely on several components to work.

However, disk backup is not comparable to tape backup. You can take tape media home or put it in a fire-proof safe box so that in case of fire you can rebuild your servers with the data intact. There is little use in backing up all this important information to the same server that might crash. Of course, there are new ways to do this that can overcome these limitations.

You can backup to a different disk drive. Simply add a regular inexpensive IDE drive to your server. You can also buy a pair of external IDE drives that connect using USB 2.0 or Firewire and put them in the safe before you go home. External USB drives are also handy if you need to transport data to a remote location, say a conference.

Remote Backup

You can also backup a server from a workstation or a remote server. To remotely backup Exchange you would need to install Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC) and Exchange System Manager (ESM) on the remote computer from which you intend to perform the backup.

These are the pre-requisites for installing ESM:

Windows XP SP1

  • Internet Information Services Snap-In component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • SMTP Service component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • WWW Service component (SMTP requires this)
  • Disable WWW and SMTP services after installation (we only need the SMTP snap-in)
  • Windows 2003 AdminPack (provides NNTP snap-in and ADUC snap-in)

Windows XP SP2

  • Internet Information Services Snap-In component (In Add/Remove Programs).  Installing the SMTP service is no longer necessary; in SP2 the IIS Snap-In component installs the SMTP snap-in as well)
  • Windows 2003 Server AdminPack (provides NNTP and ADUC snap-ins)

Windows Server 2003

  • Internet Information Services Manager component (In Add/Remove Programs).  In Windows 2003, the IIS  Manager component includes the SMTP snap-in.

Windows 2000 Professional SP3

  • Internet Information Services Snap-In component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • Windows 2000 Server AdminPack (provides SMTP snap-in, NNTP snap-in and ADUC snap-in)

Windows 2000 Server SP3

  • Internet Information Services Snap-In component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • SMTP Service component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • NNTP Service component (In Add/Remove Programs)
  • Disable WWW, NNTP, and SMTP services after installation

After installing ESM, make sure you install the latest Exchange service pack.

ESM extends Windows Backup allowing it to remotely backup Exchange.


The Compact Disk technology originated in the music and video business. This technology evolved over the years from a read only media for listening to music to video and file storage media that is now called DVD-R.

DVDs are not vulnerable to magnetic interference but scratch easily and deteriorate over time. But they are much cheaper than backup tapes and have a simpler mechanism that is easily fixed. Most of the problems with DVD recorders and players happen when the laser beam is not focused or aimed properly. This can be fixed at almost any electronics shop.

However, DVDs don’t hold as much information as Tape Cassettes. Regular DVDs hold 4.7GB of information though there are now DVDs able to hold more. Also, the DVD-RW technology is relatively new and of course its media is more expensive.


Capacity (GB)








Single side/layer





Dual layer





Double sided





Dual layer/side

Naturally, DVDs with more capacity cost more. DVD-18 looks like a good option for backing up the 16GB that an Exchange server will hold but you need to flip the DVD media because it is actually a dual layer DVD that has two sides. It also means you cannot really label properly.

So, for now, DVD-RAMs are only suitable for backing up small Exchange servers. But this will probably change in the next few years. There are two competing technologies developed for storing and displaying high definition video.

The Sony Blu-ray format will offer a capacity of 25 GB per layer on a single sided disc. It has wide industry support and will be available for PCs by the end of 2005. This means that a single dual layer Blu-ray DVD-RW will have contain 50GB, surpassing the low-end tape which have a capacity of 40GB when utilizing compression.

There is also the competing HD-DVD technology, supported by the DVD forum and Toshiba.  The Read/Write version would have a capacity of 20GB and no dual layer version which is a big minus when it comes to the PC Market. This would explain why hardware vendors other than Toshiba are reluctant to provide HD-DVD PC Recorders while major vendors such as HP and Apple line up behind Blu-Ray.

I believe that for small businesses Blu-ray recorders will replace tape backup two years from now and will become mainstream even if 40/80 tape cartridges will try to save the day for the ancient tape technology.

Backing Exchange to a DVD

The major backup utilities today all support backing Exchange to a DVD drive and even allow spanning across multiple DVDs. I recommend the DVD+R format which allows for direct editing on disc, background formatting so you don’t have to wait before you can use the disc, built-in defect management and multi-session writing. It also has dual layer support unlike DVD-R.

The native Windows Backup does not support backing up to a DVD. I really hope that will change by the next Windows version. If you really need it today you can buy FireStreamer DVD which adds DVD+R support to NTBackup. DVD-R media is not supported.

If you still would like to backup Exchange to a DVD-R you can simply backup using NTBackup to a file and copy it to your DVD using any DVD writing application.

The Future

While DVD technology seems promising, an even more promising technology, which right now is very expensive, might make DVDs obsolete. Various memory cards, similar to those used with digital cameras, which do not need electricity to retain their information, are in existence on the market. They don’t quite hold as much information as DVDs but they are improving. Unlike DVDs they do not scratch and are very fast and small. Just stick one in your card reader, backup and remove and you’re ready to go. They are and will probably remain more expensive than DVDs and Tape cartridges. However, they can be re-used more times without decreasing their reliability and will enjoy improved reliability.


Knowing to backup Exchange to file can be useful in various scenarios, especially when your tape drive fails.

While the DVD backup technology is still in its infancy, and not yet quite right for the storage that Exchange typically requires today, this will change within the next few years. As the memory stick gains on DVD technology DVD backup will even become cheaper trying to fend off its eventual successor.

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