“What I want,” said a client after her hard drive committed suicide a couple of years ago, “Is a backup drive that I can just plug in and run my computer from.”
“That’s what we all want,” I said (after spending many hours reformatting her replaced-under-warranty hard drive and restoring her data from 1) the month-old backup CDs and 2) the new files on the laptop she’d rented while shipping the PC tower back to HP), “but it doesn’t exist.” Not for ordinary consumer PCs running Windows, anyway.
Hers was the kind of problem that RAID was designed to handle: an actual physical failure of the disk rather than a corruption of the data. If one in a series of RAID disks fails, you just switch one of the “mirror” disks into the master position and add a new blank disk in and presto! You’re up and running. Indeed, power users like the Ur-Guru expect to have to do this fairly frequently, since their computers are hard at work at least 18 hours a day (24 if they’re acting as web and mail servers). Stacks of burned out hard drives are a common sight in data centers.
But most small and home office users use single-disk desktop computers and are not even remotely likely to open up the machine so they can start switching drives around. (And who can blame them? I’ve found some scary things inside of those cases.) What we ordinary computer users want to be able to do is to plug something in and have the computer come back to life. We want to be able to get back to work as soon as possible after the drive deconstructs itself—on our own computers, with our own software.
Programs like Symantec/Norton Ghost and Acronis TrueImage can create exact images of your hard drive, saving hours of reformatting and reinstallation as well as saving your own files from oblivion. This is a Very Good Thing. But you can’t just connect the drive with the Ghost backup on it to your computer and power up straight into Windows. You have to run Ghost and restore the image. Granted, this doesn’t take very long over a FireWire or USB2 connection, but it’s an extra step, one which can frustrate and intimidate many people. (Almost everyone these days has to use a computer, but not everyone has to like it, and many people don’t.)
Taiwanese hardware design and manufacturing company Axiomtek may well have the answer to this problem. The latest addition to their Fastora line of Network Attached Storage devices is called the ExBoot (as in External Boot-Up). To look at, it’s a USB 2.0 external hard drive in a rather snazzy blue-lit case, complete with one-touch button, and it comes in 3.5″ (desktop-sized), 2.5″ (laptop-sized), and 1.8″ (microdrive) models. The proprietary software provides options for both one-touch and incremental backups, but its truly unique feature is its ability to replace your existing hard drive—as is, through your USB port. (You may need to configure your BIOS to allow booting from an external drive first.)
This is so amazing that Charlie White, executive producer of Digital Media Net, waxed positively rhapsodic after testing it, and gave it a 9.7 out of 10. (In case you’re wondering, almost no hardware or software product reviewed in the computer mags gets better than 8 out of 10, or at best 4.5 out of 5 stars.) This tops the ratings I’ve seen so far for the much-hyped Mirra Personal Server (about which more in Friday’s newsletter), though it doesn’t have the ability to back up more than one machine.
Personally, I’m absolutely dying to try one.