RISC World

Backup solutions for RISC OS

Dave Holden investigates the available options...

Let us assume that you have an older style RISC OS machine, such as a RiscPC, which is still the most common machine used for running RISC OS. Your machine is likely to be a little long in the tooth, it may well have many years of sterling service left, but your data could be at risk. The life expectancy of a modern hard drive is around three years, any longer and you run the risk of it packing up with little or no warning with the consequent loss of your valuable information. What you should do is take regular backups using a suitable medium. Then if the hard drive dies it's not so serious and you can restore things with the minimum of inconvenience.

As such this article is not intended to explore the various solutions available for people with the latest hardware. If you have an Iyonix or A9 or are using Virtual Acorn then there are a variety of options open to you. Rather it is aimed at people who have a RiscPC, A7000, an older machine such as an A5000 or one of the rarer models like an Omega or Mico. Here the hardware options are rather more limited.

If you have a USB card in your machine then USB drives are a possibility, but this is far from ideal on older machines. You could also back up to another computer (normally a PC) over a network, or even use some sort of network backup device. Once again this isn't ideal since whatever system you use it almost certainly won't be 'RISC OS friendly' and so you'll need to use some sort of filename translation or archiving software. This might not be a problem while everything is working OK but it gets much more complicated if your RISC OS machine dies because you'd need to set up an identical system to extract your data from the other machine. Both of these options also require additional hardware in your RISC OS computer. Of course, you may already have it networked to a PC but if not you would need to purchase a network card.

CD writers

One possible solution is a CD writer. This is something that many people with a RiscPC already have for its many other uses. However, it's not really a viable solution for making regular backups. As you can't modify or update data on a CD you can't do incremental or differential backups, you have to create a complete new CD (or a CD of the new or changed data) each time. This is time consuming and awkward so fails to get past the first hurdle of all backup solutions - it must be quick and easy. If this isn't the case then backups get put off and the longer you put it off the more data will have changed, so not only will it take longer (hence even more likely to be postponed) but you lose more if your hard drive fails.

CDs are therefore not a good solution for regular backups, but they are ideal for archiving data. This means storing data which isn't likely to change. Things like old correspondence, photos, and similar data. If it's stuff you don't need every day then you can archive it to a CD and clear it off your hard drive completely, and if you do need it just pop the CD in the drive. This frees up space on the hard drive for more recent material and also makes normal backups quicker and easier because there's less data on your hard drive.

A second IDE hard drive

This is (normally) the cheapest solution. However there are a couple of problems. With an A7000 or single slice RiscPC there's nowhere to put one (assuming you have a CD drive, and that's pretty much essential these days). It is viable with an A5000 since there is space for a second hard drive and, as you aren't likely to have a CD attached to the IDE bus, there's a spare IDE 'slot' for it. However many RiscPC owners will have a third-party IDE interface, either an APDL or Simtec IDE card or a Unipod, and this means you can actually fit up to 6 IDE/ATAPI devices. If you have one of these and a 2 slice RiscPC then you can easily fit a second IDE hard drive, but once again there's a problem.

Another important feature of a backup device is that it must be possible to separate it from the computer. A second hard drive fitted inside the computer doesn't fulfil this requirement. If the computer is dropped, stolen, or suffers some other catastrophic failure (don't think it won't happen - my house was actually struck by lightning a few years ago which did all sorts of damage to electronic devices) then whatever disaster happens to the computer is also likely to happen to your backup.

The simple solution to this problem is to put the backup drive into a drive caddy. This is a sort of drawer unit which fits into a 5" drive bay. The hard drive is fitted into the removable part of the drawer and so can be quickly removed from the computer and put in a safe place except when you are actually carrying out a backup. This also has the advantage that if your data is particularly valuable then you can have two different backup drives in separate caddies and use them alternately so that even if your backup drive fails you still have the previous backup to fall back on.

This is an extremely good and cheap solution, and it's the one I'd normally recommend. However it does require a machine with space for the drive, and this means a two slice RiscPC, so it's not suitable for A7000 or earlier machines. Also it requires a third party IDE card, and although this isn't very expensive it does mean that if you're hoping to use the same system to backup more than one machine you'll need an IDE card in each one.

One big advantage with using a second IDE drive is a backup device is that if you make your backup drive a 'mirror image' of your main hard drive than if the main drive fails you can substitute the backup drive and get your machine up and running again with the absolute minimum of wasted time. All you'll probably need to do is rename the drive. No need to wait while you obtain and fit another drive and restore everything to it.

SCSI hard drive

SCSI is now almost dead for Acorn computers. However quite a few people do still have a SCSI interface fitted, even if they use it only for a scanner, so it should be considered.

Obviously the same caveats apply as to a second IDE drive, but SCSI does have the advantage that a drive in an external case is possible, which is not really the case with IDE. This is a useful option if you have an A7000 or a single slice RiscPC with nowhere to put a caddy. With an A7000 you will obviously lose the ability to have an internal CD ROM if you fit a SCSI card but two device external SCSI housings are available and you could then fit a SCSI CD ROM into this as well as your backup drive.

This is the approach that was often used in the days before the RiscPC. The disadvantage is that the external case then becomes rather large and heavy, and also, because it contains your CD ROM you aren't likely to want to disconnect it and put it in a 'safe place' except when actually backing up your hard drive, although you could combine the two methods and put the backup hard drive in a caddy in the external case.

The biggest problem with SCSI is that it's now rarely used by 'mainstream' computers. All the RISC OS SCSI interfaces use the (now obsolete) 50 pin connectors, and modern SCSI drives are invariably very high speed (10,000 rpm) devices intended for RAID arrays on servers and tend to be even more expensive than they were in the past in comparison with IDE. Secondhand drives with the older 68 pin connectors can still be found and 68 to 50 pin converters are available but it's probably not a good idea to use a secondhand drive of unknown provenance as your main backup device. Also SCSI CD ROM drives don't seem to be available any longer and SCSI CD writers are even rarer.

Parallel port drives

The biggest advantage with drives which connect to the printer port is that they require absolutely no additional hardware. This not only reduces cost but makes them far more flexible since they are not tied to one machine - they can be used to backup multiple computers and also used for data transfer between different machines or sites.

There is one disadvantage and that is they will inevitably be slower than a normal IDE or SCSI drive because the speed of data transfer is limited by the printer port. This is not as serious a problem as you might think. If you have a lot of data then your first backup will often take a very long time as the entire content of your hard disc needs to be copied. However subsequent differential and incremental backups, if carried out regularly, will not take very long as only a few changed or additional files need to be dealt with.

As well as dedicated parallel port drives it is possible to obtain plug in parallel to SCSI converters for Acorn computers. One example was made by Atomwide and I do still have one of these that I used many years ago to simplify upgrading the hard drive on machines like the A3020. As the driver software is now very out of date and, as far as I'm aware, doesn't even support drives larger than 512 MB let alone long filenames I don't think they're really worthy of serious consideration for most people.

Zip drives.

There are two problems with Zip drives. The first is that they're rather small capacity for backups (normally 100 or 250 MB per disc), but even more important is that the discs are very unreliable. Zip discs are really just large capacity floppies, and they suffer from the same problems as normal floppy discs - they wear out and don't retain their data integrity for more than a couple of years.

Zip drives are great for data transfer between machines but I would never recommend them as a backup device. Because of the way they operate they are very slow when copying a lot of small files and this makes them much slower than most other options when using them for differential backups though much faster if you archive your data first into a few large archive files (but then you might as well use a CD writer).

Zip drives are available in three different types, internal ATAPI, fitting into a 3.5" floppy drive slot, and external SCSI or parallel port. You will need a third party IDE interface to use the ATAPI version, they can't be connected to the internal IDE interface, and only the Simtec or Unipod support Zip drives. You'll also need a two slice RiscPC (or, of course, an A5000 as this has provision for a second floppy drive) but if you have a two slice RiscPC and a 3rd party IDE card there are far better options available as we've already seen.

The external printer port version obviously requires no additional hardware and is external to the computer so doesn't require a 2 slice machine. However, as we shall see next there are much better ways of achieving this flexibility without the disadvantages associated with Zip drives.

A printer port Zip drive. The SCSI version is physically identical.

You might think that the ATAPI or SCSI Zip drives would be much faster than the parallel port version and this is true when copying large archive files, however the fact that they operate like a large capacity floppy drive rather than a hard drive make them abysmally slow when copying lots of small files when they're only marginally faster then the parallel port version.

Syquest drives

These are effectively hard drives with a removable platter. The original Syquest drives were bulky 5" units, first with a capacity of 44 MB with later models having 80 and eventually 200MB capacity. They were mainly used on Apple Macs, then ubiquitous in the publishing industry where they enabled publishers to store an entire book on one disc so that data could be kept secure and readily exchanged between the composing computers and the printer. At this time, because they were primarily used on Macs, they used a SCSI interface as this is what the Macs of the time used.

The real advance came with the introduction of the 270MB drive. This was a completely new design using much smaller discs and fitted into a 3.5" floppy drive bay. It was available in IDE or SCSI versions and the cartridges were much cheaper than the old 5" drives, so much so that for the first time they were cheaper per MB than floppy discs.

This was then followed by the 135MB EZ 'Flyer' drive. The problem was that this appeared just after Iomega launched their Zip drive, and although the EZ was far superior in every respect it was the Zip drive which grabbed the limelight and even the introduction of the larger capacity 230MB drive couldn't restore Syquest's market lead.

The next drive was the 1 GB SparQ (pronounced 'spark'). This was in direct competition with Iomega's Jazz drive with the same capacity. Iomega then launched a Microsoft-style campaign to eliminate the competition, tying Syquest up in a variety of lawsuits alleging patent infringements (never proven and subsequently dropped) but enabling them to obtain injunctions preventing Syquest from selling the SparQ in a number of countries. There were also a series of allegations about reliability (this from the people who produced the Zip drive!) and this campaign so damaged Syquest that they were forced into liquidation in 1999, although a spinoff company purchased the rights to the technology and continued to sell drives for a number of years. Strangely, now that they had eliminated the main competition, Iomega never bothered to pursue this company with the same allegations they had used against Syquest.

Three generations of Syquest drive. On the left is the original 44 MB external SCSI drive, in the centre a 270 MB internal IDE (the same physical size as a 3.5" floppy drive) and on the right the 1 GB SparQ parallel port drive.

From the introduction of the 270MB drive I sold all the various models as backup and data transfer drives for Acorn computers. Unlike the Zip drives they were fast (capable of much higher data transfer speeds than any Acorn interface) reliable and relatively inexpensive. We fully supported Syquest drives on all the APDL IDE interfaces.

When the SparQ drive appeared with its 1GB capacity it looked like the ideal backup device and was available in parallel port and internal IDE versions (for the first time from Syquest there was no SCSI option). APDL had already developed (though never released) a driver for the parallel port 230 MB EZ drive and we soon adapted this for the SparQ. However by the time this was released the 'rumour mill' was in action against Syquest and although we sold quite a lot of drives it appeared that Syquest would soon be no more.

The DataSafe

Having developed the software for the SparQ drive and seen how successful this was as a backup device for RISC OS we looked for an alternative. At first we tried a 2.2GB drive manufactured by ORB. These were actually based on the 2.2GB drive that Syquest were working on when they went into liquidation, but it never proved popular. By that time PC hard drives had become very much bigger, and so even 2GB would require many discs for a backup.

The solution was to use a conventional fixed 3.5" IDE hard drive in an external case containing a converter to enable it to be connected to the parallel port. This fulfilled all the main criteria required for a backup device; it had plenty of capacity (as big as the hard drive fitted), it could be readily removed from the computer when not in use and it was easy to use - it appeared on the icon bar and worked just like another hard drive. It also had the advantage that it could be used with most models with a bi-directional printer port - even the humble A3010 and A3020 models- and as it was a parallel port drive you could use it to transfer data between machines or backup several computers. We called this the DataSafe and it was a huge success.

The APDL DataSafe

When RISC OS 4 appeared with its new 'long filename' drive format another advantage became apparent. Since the drive in the DataSafe could be partitioned if you had some computers with 'old' format hard drives and others with 'RO4' format you could partition the drive and use different formats on each partition, thus allowing you to backup both old and new OS machines onto the same device.

For shear Megabytes per Buck the DataSafe is the winner but it is rather bulkier and heavier than the other parallel port solutions described. This is not a serious problem when used as a backup device but it is a consideration for moving data between locations since it's a bit too big and heavy to put in a pocket.

Backup software

I'm only going to touch upon this briefly since this article is mainly about hardware.

The traditional software was a dedicated program such as Hard Disc Companion or HardBack, and these are still widely used. An alternative approach, and the one that I use, is software which 'mirrors' one drive (or part of a drive) onto another. The two best known of these for RISC OS are !SyncDiscs from David Pilling (the one I use) and !DirSync from Jan-Jaap van der Geer, both of which are Freeware (I have included both in the Software directory of this issue -ED). Either of these makes it very easy to ensure that a directory on your backup drive and all its files and sub directories (which can be all or only a small part of your hard drive) is a true reflection of the same structure on your main drive. Since they only copy or update that part of the data which has changed since the last backup if you do this regularly and restrict the operation to just that part of your hard drive where data may have changed the whole thing is very quick and painless.

The SparQ again

After writing this article I managed to obtain a quantity of brand new SparQ parallel port drives at a hefty discount. As a result of this I'm able to offer them to RISCWorld subscribers at a very low price. I can supply a SparQ drive complete with two 1 GB discs and the software to use it with almost any Acorn computer with a bi-directional printer port (effectively any Acorn model with a hi-density floppy drive) for the bargain price of just £15.90 plus carriage, which is about one tenth of the price a decade ago.

Having re-evaluated the SparQ drive all over again I have found some new advantages and uses for it.

If you have RISC OS 4.39 or better on your RiscPC or A7000 the RISC OS driver software will let you read PC format discs, so it's an ideal way to transfer data between a PC and a RISC OS computer. If you're using Virtual Acorn then you can set up a 'mount' for it within VA to give you an easy way of transferring data back and forth between VA and a 'real' Acorn machine. If you're thinking of migrating from a RiscPC to Virtual Acorn then, if you don't have a network card it would be worth buying one of these drives just to transfer your software.

I've tested it on the Omega and it works perfectly and I know it also works on the Mico and RiscStation machines.

Of course, now that hard drive sizes have increased you might think that a 1GB disc is too small for a full backup, but a lot of RISC OS users still only have a few megabytes of (changeable) data on their hard drives. If you've got a CD writer then the unchanging part can be archived to CDs and you can use the SparQ drive to quickly and easily backup the changing part of your data.

So, it's still a very useful addition to any setup and it's completely self contained and doesn't require any additional hardware so it's also ideal for transferring data between machines at different locations. All you need to do is plug in the drive and run the software (from a floppy disc if necessary) and the drive is there on the icon bar.

If you'd like one of these bargain drives complete with two 1 GB discs, RISC OS software and a full years guarantee on drive and media for just £15.90 then contact APDL before they all get snapped up.

You will need to add £8 UK carriage, but if you're going to Wakefield and order before the show you can pick it up there and save the cost of carriage.

Contact APDL at

      39 Knighton Park Road
      London SE26 5RN
      Phone: 020 8778 2659