Wednesday, 17 March 2010

If a tape backup system requires two hours of specialist time just to change the tapes, something is wrong

I just came back from a customer[0][1], having spent the AM there changing their backup tapes. The good: ArcServe support tweeted me back even before i had the chance to write this (good work @arentejaswi!). The bad: everything else.
The manoeuvre required to change the backup tapes includes copious amounts of arbitrary-length waiting time and split-second reaction times to when one waiting has ended. It requires living with a tape drive and its controlling software that both seem to have individual minds of their own, sometimes with conflicting goals. To perform this seemingly mundane task, i need to "move a tape" (from the drive to the magazine, but only if the tape is in the drive). I need to run inventories on the tapes which take 20 minutes or more a pop. Sometimes the backup software informs me that the "Unit is busy" (which unit?), and i'll have to wait for another 20 minutes. I manually need to inform which tapes are in the "save set" and which are in the "scratch set", which probably is backup-lingo for which tapes can be saved onto (that's the scratch set, mind you) and which tapes should be left untouched (the save set, which incidentally consists of tapes that even aren't in the bloody tape drive).
All in all, using the system requires that i have a system-level understanding of it. And i don't. To operate it, i don't even know if i should; a properly trained monkey should be able to change tapes.
One problem i had today was that the backup software claimed tape 11 was in slot number five when i knew it was tape 20 in there. Tape 11 was in fact in the tape box. It took an hour of convincing the system and i'm still not sure it approved.
Still, all of that is technicalia. A system should not be so complicated to maintain that it requires hours of specialist time to do the seemingly mundane task of changing the tapes. The system should take care of doing inventories. It should understand which tapes were removed and which were replaced. It could even suggest to me which tapes i should insert next. Or it should accept whatever tapes i feed it and be able to take it from there.
At the same time, it feels unethical to the customer that they're going to see a bill from us for that changing-the-tapes time. It's not like it's their fault that changing tapes on a backup copy system sucks. But i know that something in all of this must be wrong.
[0] A real one this time
[1] Taking a therapeutic detour through my favorite curry joint