Read our complete review, by starting with the Overview, or head right to Physical Design to see how it looks. The Installation and Initial Backup section describes in detail how we got it working, and the Advanced Features section discusses some of the bundled goodies. For testing details, we benchmark backups in Performance Results, and discuss how well it actually worked in a simulated crash in the Disaster Recovery Test Results section.
ZIFFPAGE TITLEABSplus Overview
Originally released in 1999 as a PCMCIA slot-attached external hard drive-based notebook backup solution, the CMS ABS (Automatic Backup System) gained much attention as a Comdex 2001 Best of Show recipient. Disaster recovery features were introduced in the PCMCIA version in mid-2001 permitting the ABS backup drive to fully mirror a notebook drive, becoming a bootable replica. By mid-2002, CMS also offered USB 2.0 and FireWire versions each capable of fully copying a notebooks hard drive and booting. We tested the USB 2.0 and PCMCIA devices and have used the backup products for nearly six months to get a good idea if they would work well over time for mobile users. FireWire and USB 2.0 versions of the ABSplus system are also available for OS X.
At a high level, the ABS device looks amazingly simple, being comprised of a mobile hard drive in a hardened enclosure with varied attachment options, and some backup software. But its the tight integration of its backup software and hardware, combined with true ease-of-use (once you learn the basics), that sets the CMS solution apart from other methods for mobile backup. As with any product its not perfect, and well discuss some problems we encountered – but overall were very impressed.
CMS Peripherals: For those not familiar with CMS Peripherals, theyve been around since 1983 providing storage solutions. Back in 1989 the company sold products such as the 300MB CMS Express EIDE and CMS Sentry SCSI server upgrade drives which cost approximately $3500 and $4500, respectively (the pricing was in line with competitors at the time). The past four or five years, CMS has targeted mobile storage with some very interesting products.
In 1998, PC Magazine tested CMS EasyMove solution that worked with Windows 98 and enabled painless upgrading of notebook disk drives via a PCMCIA card and cable. With EasyMove, your old notebook drive contents, including OS, applications, and data, could be transferred to a newer higher-capacity drive at the push of a button.
ABSplus: Three models of the current ABSplus system exist for notebooks, including USB 1.x/2.0, PCMCIA (which well call PC Card-attached), and FireWire interfaces. We evaluated the USB and PC Card-attached models, because our test IBM T20 notebook does not natively support FireWire.
Sadly, most notebooks today still dont support USB 2.0, but it will be standard in upcoming Banias-based notebooks using Intels Odem and Montara chipsets which also include ICH4-M southbridge. So we didnt take advantage of the higher transfer speeds of USB 2.0, but as youll see in the test results between the USB 1.x and the PC Card version, a faster interface may not make a noticeable difference in some cases.
Pricing for all ABSplus systems, regardless of interface, is as follows (these are current as of 11/5/2002):
Compared to desktop drives, these arent cheap, but for mobile drives in a special shock-mounted housing, with backup software, cabling, and disaster recovery features, its a good deal.
Below are pictures of the external PC Card-attached and USB versions of the ABSplus. CMS also provides internal ABSplus drives that work in secondary drive bays of various IBM, Compaq, and Dell notebooks, but we chose to test the more flexible external versions.
The external ABSplus devices appear simple, and weigh just 7 ounces, and measure 5″ long x 3″wide x 1.125″ high. The PC Card cable is built-in to the PC Card unit, and the USB version includes a USB cable. In either case, a 2.5″ hard drive is mounted within the enclosure. Our test units included a 20GB (about 18.6 GB formatted) Toshiba mobile drive, which came close to matching the capacity of our test IBM T20 notebook drive. The case is held together by three screws, which makes it easy to remove the drives. The custom PC Card or USB interface connector can be unplugged from the native drive connector as well. The PC Card version is compatible with Windows OSes from Win95B and NT 4.0 onwards. The USB version works with all recent Windows operating systems except Win95B and NT 4.0. Separate USB and FireWire versions with appropriate backup software are available for the Mac running OS 8.6x, 9.1 or later, and OS X 10.1 or later.
The photo of the PC Card version below shows the cabling fully extended. The cable and plastic card connector can be attached and locked into the back of the unit for easier storage.
You can get a good idea of the units size in my hand below.
The drive included in the 20GB ABSplus model is the 4200rpm, 2.5″ ATA/100-based Toshiba MK2018GAS. The drive is only 9.5mm thick and includes a 2MB buffer, and a Fluid Dynamic Bearing (FDB) motor drive. Its been tested to withstand up to 125G operating and 1400Gs of non-operating shock when mounted in the enclosure. You might want to buy one yourself without the rest of the CMS product, and you can do so here.
CMS mentioned they had a lab video showing their drive tested in a special rig that imparts some serious shock, and I thought you might be interested in seeing it in action. I particularly like the sweep tone…
CMS has tested the drive in over 80 popular notebooks from a variety of manufacturers. Still, its a good idea to check with CMS to ensure the ABS drive can directly replace your notebooks built-in drive if ever needed.
Installation and Initial Backup
The main ABSplus backup software (we tested version 4.3) screen provides options to install, read the manual, perform a disk test, or exit. Note that the Users Guide is on the CD, and no paper version is included.
Even though the initial and subsequent backup processes can be highly automated (if you chose Express versus Advanced setup, as well soon describe), a variety of configuration and usage options do exist, so it makes sense to read the manual. In fact, because Express mode installs the software and then jumps right into an automated backup, youll probably want to read the manual to see what the heck is really going on.
A quick-start guide is provided, but it doesnt give the curious (or suspicious) user much assurance or information about the actual backup process. CMS claims that in an upcoming documentation release – due later this month, the quick-start guide will add more tips and tricks, and the user documentation will better describe basic operations. An HTML-based help system will also be added.
CMS specifically recommends using their included driver and backup software rather than letting the OS discover and use built-in Windows drivers, though both the PC Card and USB units can work as secondary drives in many operating systems without CMS software. We had no trouble using the PC Card drive with Windows XP built-in drivers, but on a few occasions, Windows could not recognize the USB drive without CMS software.
We recommend always using either drive with the CMS software, because the backup features are so good.
For those who care to know, heres a compatibility matrix of native OS driver support for the PC Card and USB-based ABSplus drives.
Installation: Before you physically connect the drive to the system you should install the ABSplus software and follow the instructions. A “port-driver” is loaded, and then you plug the drive into the appropriate port or socket. The software automatically recognizes the drive and installs another driver layer specific to the device type (PC Card or USB in our case).
With the USB device, you may also see a warning from your notebook that a high-speed USB 2.0 device was plugged into a non-USB 2.0 port. Ignore that, because most notebooks do not provide USB 2.0 today. Also, when the drive is recognized, Windows may try to run AutoPlay, so just shut the AutoPlay window if this happens. The CMS program will warn you to disable anti-virus software during install to speed up the process. All of the above steps happen in under one minute.
Next, you must choose either Express or Advanced setup options. We recommend the Express setup, which automatically partitions and formats the ABSplus drive based on your current notebook drive settings. That lets it make a bootable clone of your internal drive (assuming sizes are similar). Only Windows partitions are supported for backup operations, and the bootable partition must be a Windows partition. FAT-16, FAT-32, and NTFS partitions are supported.
If you cant resist the Advanced setup, and you want the backup drive to be bootable, DO NOT check the box labeled “Disable Disaster Recovery”. Advanced Install permits you to create various backup sets for different directories or partitions that you can run separately if you so desire. It also lets you use a single ABSplus backup device to store portions of multiple notebook drives, but the backup drive wont be bootable on all notebooks. Well discuss advanced features shortly.
After the drive is initially partitioned and formatted with the Express setup option, the following actions occur in sequence:
- Sizing the backup – the software figures out the size of the source drive primary boot partition and its always the entire size of the partition, even if an incremental backup is being performed
- Source data scan – looks for changes that have occurred in the source drive since last backup -all data in the boot partition is copied to the ABS drive in the first backup session. (Subsequent incremental backups only copy changed data.) During both drive sizing and source data scanning functions (which happen fairly quickly) your system may be sluggish when performing other tasks.
- Complete system backup is performed – your notebook system can be used for other operations, and many disk-oriented operations are slowed to a crawl.
Heres a shot of the backup progress screen:
During an initial backup session only, the following steps are performed after a majority of the source disk is backed up:
- Reboot occurs after the initial major backup phase
- System files are copied to the ABSplus drive
- Sizing the backup occurs again
- Source data is scanned again – your anti-virus software likely was re-enabled during reboot, and the scan will run faster if you disable auto-protect features during the scan.
- Backup is performed again – very quickly this time
- Registry data is copied – this takes a few minutes
- Process is complete – you should now have a bootable backup drive!
The ABSplus is both simple to use in Express mode, and provides controls for users who want to create multiple different backup sets or scheduled backups. CMS has taken both individual users and IT administrators into account when designing their backup feature set. For example, PC Card-based drives can be password-protected by users, but if the users forget their passwords, thats a problem. The ABSplus provides two levels of passwords, user and master. An IT person can set a master password and unlock a user password-protected drive.
The main Backup setting screen is shown below, and is displayed during Advanced installation, or can be invoked separately. Here you see the main option tabs and the window below shows a full C:*.* backup to the ABSplus drive (listed as drive E: in our test system). The source and target locations can be modified.
Once data is backed up, it can be accessed from the ABSplus drive using Windows Explorer or other applications, with full drag-and-drop functionality. Advanced options can be configured through the settings menus, and selected directories can be excluded from backup sets.
The following screen shows the main settings menu that includes options to start backup when plugging in the ABSplus drive, and the ability to verify data.
The Advanced Options menu below is accessed from the main Settings screen above.
We wont describe all the features above, but the Scheduler section is a bit tricky. The “Schedule Multiple Backup Item Sets” checkbox is a global setting permitting backup schedules to be assigned to individual backup sets. When enabled, the Backup Items tab in the Main Setting menu changes to “Backup Sets”, and scheduling submenus become available under that tab permitting backup sets scheduled on daily or monthly intervals. The FastSync function allows backups of selected data as frequently as every minute. Also, note that the password feature is not supported with the USB drive.
One other interesting feature that isnt part of the main software set is a separate “Rescue CD” that can assist in recovering disk information if the operating system is inaccessible and the drive fails to boot. A user would set their laptop to boot from CD, and then boot into the Rescue CD, which actually runs a version of Linux, and it attempts to copy data from the ABSplus to the hard drive, overwriting all sectors with the backed up data.
The ability to do versioning and rollbacks of particular files or directories is currently missing. CMS says that these features will be provided in an upcoming release, and recent buyers of ABSplus units can receive a free software upgrade.
All together, the ABSplus provides easy-to-configure features and advanced options that should satisfy most user needs.
: Complete Drive Backup”>
The 20GB USB and PC Card-attached ABSplus drives were tested on our two year old IBM ThinkPad T20 notebook using an IBM Travelstar 20GN (model DJSA-220) 4200rpm, UDMA/66 drive. Our tests consisted of backing up 14GB of data from the notebook, which includes over 70,000 files and 3300 directories.
First we conducted an entire system backup. This test reflects a typical user experience when installing the product for the first time. We did not modify user data or ABS drive settings, and we did not perform a defragmentation of the drive before backing up. However, we did disable Norton AntiVirus for all backup runs.
We expected the PC Card device to outperform the USB device, because the notebook only supports USB 1.1, and CMS informed us that the PC Card device is a CardBus device (PCI signal translations, not ISA signal translations).
Youll note slight variations in the number of files backed up, which may be due to some temporary files that may have been created between backups, or more likely additional driver files loaded when setting up the USB device. We completely uninstalled and reinstalled ABS Backup software between each run of the different device types, because the USB and PC Card devices cannot be installed for backup concurrently.
As you can see in the results above, the USB 1.1 version was about 13% faster, but both still took a very long time – over seven hours – even though it was a backup of the entire disk. Clearly, bottlenecks existed elsewhere, because CardBus transfers should be much faster than USB 1.1. Reading and writing a mix of random and sequential data from two 4200rpm drives across large expanses of the disk surface likely was the main bottleneck, along with possible driver inefficiencies. Compared to typical 40GB DAT tape backup solutions that claim 200+MB/minute speeds transferring compressed data, the ABSplus drives are slow. But in both ABSplus cases, we ran the full system backups overnight, so it really didnt matter much.
: Large Directory Backup”>
Since we didnt have weeks to test 7 hour backups over and over, we scaled back to testing performance when backing up our ExtremeTech 2002 subdirectory on our IBM T20 notebook, which includes over 900MB of raw and edited text, spreadsheets, and graphics of most feature stories published on ExtremeTech this year.
You can see results for both drives, with no changes to default backup software or drive settings.
Here again, you can see the USB 1.1 device was actually a bit faster. It was time to try a little performance tweaking…
: Large Directory Backup – Driver Tweaks”>
Both the USB and PC Card-attached drives were set to “Optimize for Quick Removal” in the Device Manager by default. We changed settings of the USB drive to “Optimize for Performance”, but left disk write caching disabled, as shown below.
The following shots show the ExtremeTech 2002 subdirectory copy for both the USB and PC Card devices with the Optimize for Performance setting. You can see here that the PC Card version finally moves ahead, as data is able to be blasted across the PC Card interface from the Windows disk cache faster than across USB 1.1. Sure, we wish we had a USB 2.0 notebook to compare, but not this time.
Next, we tried the Enable Write Caching on Disk in addition to Windows disk cache for the PC Card-attached drive and scores actually went down a bit. As you can see in the results below, the drives own disk cache seems to get in the way for mostly write operations. But wed need a lot more experimenting with different scenarios to make definitive conclusions here.
We also wanted to see the effects of defragging the drive on the USB results, and they were largely similar, given our drive wasnt terribly fragmented to begin with. We may perform further testing with the write verification option enabled in the future, but for now, were satisfied that the drive performs adequately and is very stable in operations.
Disaster Recovery Test and
Summary”> What good would a backup solution be if it didnt live up to its claims? The CMS ABSplus claims to be able to directly replace your existing notebook drive in the event it dies. We took the PC Card-attached drive out of the enclosure and installed it in our ThinkPad T20. Note that CMS provides PDF-based drive installation and removal instructions on the provided software CD for numerous popular notebooks – a great touch, as long as you have a computer handy to look at them.
In our tests, the drive booted, data was accessible, and many applications were usable, including wired and wireless networking and Internet Explorer. However, in attempts to use Microsoft Office XP applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, we got the warning below that new hardware was discovered and the software would require reactivation. Can you imagine getting this problem when on the road and you have no access to your Office XP Professional CD? Thanks Microsoft.
We spoke with CMS, and they said its a known issue, and but doesnt happen very often. Unfortunately, CMS documentation doesnt mention this situation either. We noticed an Office XP Activation Update was included in Office XP Service Pack 1 that supposedly assists with avoiding reactivation processes when certain hardware is switched. Heck, were used to Windows XP, where weve tested up to six hardware changes before reactivation was required. We ran the updates and voila, we didnt receive the reactivation message.
But we had another major problem. The ABSplus backup drive did not have a recent replicated copy of our offline Outlook mail file (with the .OST extension). When entering Outlook we were asked both for our mail password and personal folders password, which was a bad signal. Then when trying to enter Online Mode, we received the following message in the middle of the screen:
We tried Offline mode and could see our Inbox entries, but we received an error when trying to synchronize with the server. Thanks again, Microsoft. It wouldnt be pleasant to replicate about 200MB worth of email when on the road. We thought maybe we could disable our Offline File, and then access mail in Online mode. Searching on OST in Outlook Help came up with the answer. We did disable the Offline file (with the expectation that it could be re-enabled per the help file), and we were able to shutdown and restart Outlook, then access mail on Online mode. However, we tried to re-enable the Offline file, and as far as we could tell, the menu selections to do so did not exist, as instructed in the help file. We had no more patience to pursue. Thanks again MS.
Other than the two Microsoft-related problems above, the six months spent living with the CMS ABSplus has been a pleasure. Its been highly reliable, simple to use, and its provided much needed disaster insurance for all our important notebook data. CMS will be improving their documentation to ease any nervousness of first time users, while also providing more usage tips and tricks. You should note that the CMS backup software does not use disk compression, unlike typical tape backup solutions, so you should get a capacity point that matches or exceeds your notebook drive size if you want a full mirror image.