VXA-1 Tape Drive: Swift, Silent Backups

Ecrix VXA-1 Tape Drive

$899 internal SCSI-2/$1,049 external

In a Nutshell

Rating: 4 1/2 Penguins


* High capacity

* Fast

* Virtually silent


* Limited Linux support

* Pricey tapes

Review (VXA-1)
Unobtrusive Protection: Ecrix’s quick and quiet VXA-1 SCSI-2 tape drive.

System Requirements

* Any system with a SCSI-2 interface and backup software

Technical Support

* Three-year warranty with free phone support for duration

* Compatibility information on
Web site

In the movie Moonstruck, Vincent Gardenia’s character observes that with plumbing, “Something always goes wrong.” And so it is with your valuable data and system configuration. The best protection against hardware failures and user errors is to back your system up on a regular basis. Ecrix’s attempt to make backup chores less taxing is the VXA-1 tape drive, which stores up to 66 GB of compressed data per tape cartridge.

Another key issue Ecrix is addressing with the VXA-1 is the reliability of backups. We’ve all heard stories of the sysadmin who, under pressure, discovers that a tape drive can’t read a backup it created and verified just days ago. Unlike other tape drives, the VXA-1 mimics the way TCP/IP data is sent across the Internet. TCP/IP breaks your data into packets and then reassembles it at the destination, even if the packets have arrived in a different order from that in which they were sent. Similarly, the VXA-1 stores your data on tape in 64-byte pieces, each tagged with error-correction information and an identifier that indicates its place in the data stream. This allows the drive’s four heads to try to read each data packet independently — possibly reading them out of order when the tape is misaligned, damaged, or stretched — and still rearrange them as needed.

Test Driving the Drive

The external VXA-1 we tested worked extremely well. We attached it to an Adaptec 2940AU PCI card and accessed it from Linux as /dev/st0. We performed backups of an entire Linux installation using Merlin Software Technologies’ PerfectBackup, and also wrote a single file of several hundred megabytes to the drive with the tar command. We also tested the drive briefly with the BRU and Arkeia backup programs.

Using PerfectBackup with compression turned on, we saw a backup rate of about 3.5 MB/second, while the tar command delivered over 6 MB/ second, both of these measurements being averaged over several runs. The 3.5 MB/second rate is short of the 6 MB/second Ecrix claims for the drive with compression, but it’s still respectable, working out to just under five minutes per gigabyte.

For all its advanced technology, one of the most welcome features of the VXA-1 is as simple as silence. On our test systems it was literally quieter than the computer’s fan or hard drive.

Not Quite an Emperor

We were a little disappointed at the lack of Linux software included with the drive. All the tools and drivers on the included CD are Windows-specific. Clearly anyone using this type of drive can easily acquire one of the free or commercial backup software packages, but it would be nice not to have to expend the extra time and money. Ecrix has said it will remedy this, and it expects to have several Linux software bundles available in the coming months.

Another minor issue is the price of backup media — the VXA-1′s special tapes are pricey. A single V6 tape stores 12 GB uncompressed or 24 GB compressed and costs $29.99, while the V17 tape holds 33 GB or 66 GB and costs $79.99.

The VXA-1 is a solid performer for anyone needing a server-, network-, or workstation-class backup tape drive. If the tapes were cheaper or the product included a Linux software bundle we would have given it the Emperor Class Award.

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