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Lone-tar version 3.2.3.1

This is a review of an OLDER version. New features are available in the current Lone-tar release- check their web site for details.

Lone-tar is one of the Supertar products. As is true for all these products nowadays, there are versions for SCO Openserver, Unixware, Linux, Solaris, HP and more. See www.cactus.com for demos and more information.

Strangely, for a product who's primary market has been SCO for many years, Lone-tar is not installed with custom. That probably makes it easier to support the product across multiple platforms. Unfortunately, like all good techs, I didn't bother to read the installation instructions- I tried custom, and when that didn't work, I looked at the disk and saw that it seemed to be in the old Xenix "install" format- so I used "xinstall". Unfortunately, the product will appear to install with that method, but doesn't actually. This was all my fault, of course- the instructions were in plain sight; I just ignored them.

You do have to register before installing. That can be done by fax, phone or the web. I deliberately waited until 6:00 PM EST to try registering by fax and over the web, just to see how long it would be before I got the reply I needed. It was typical- noon time the next day. There is a phone number you supposedly can call 24 hours a day if you need the registration immediately. You could also download a demo version from http://www.cactus.com and upgrade it to a licensed version later.

I liked that the install offered an option to print out the Release notes and/or the entire manual. Another interesting feature was a question that allows adding Xenix file system support to make the Airbag rescue disks load faster. The install in general was exceptionally easy- the only objection I had at all is that some of the text was in red, and that made it hard to read on the failing monitor I used for this test. It asked all the right questions, suggested reasonable defaults for those who might not fully understand their options, and proceeded quite quickly, including making a set of "Airbag" emergency boot diskettes. That diskette creation was surprisingly fast, and I liked the option to leave an image of each disk on my hard drive, which of course makes creating another set even faster. All in all, this was a very nice installation- it could be made better by taking advantage of available OS information about type of hard drive and tape drive, but it's quite OK as is.

ltmain menu You start the program with "ltmenu". As you can see, it's a simple, character based menu with no frills. I've shown it here in its default SCO colors, but you can can change the color scheme easily- the manuals are all on line, and there's even a key-word search built in, so finding out little details like this is very easy. However, I could not figure out how to shut SCO console color off entirely- the documentation implied that I could, but no matter what I did, I got color. Truthfully, I didn't look very hard; I just changed the colors to something I liked better. I did this by editing /usr/lone-tar/.colorMENU and /usr/lone-tar/.colorQUIT. These settings were much easier on my eyes:

# .colorMENU
setcolor -n
setcolor -r hi_white blue

# .colorQUIT
setcolor -n
setcolor -r hi_white black
 

However, I would have much preferred to just disable this entirely- which you certainly could do with enough reworking of the menu scripts, but that's more work than I'm willing to do just for colors. Part of the problem is just setcolor itself- setcolor -n does NOT change the -r options back to default, so it's very easy to get confused while trying to set this to what you want (or don't want)- which may very well be what was happening to me when I was trying to shut it off. Even if you log off, your colors don't change back to their boot up defaults, so it's very confusing.

I like a simple menu like this, because I know it's going to work under almost any conditions, on almost any terminal emulation. Also, because all the menus are just shell scripts, if I need to modify them or just go directly to a particular function or sub-menu, that's easy to do. Understandably, more complex interfaces can't be done with simple shell scripts, but I'm always glad to see that these are at least available as an option. No doubt Lone-tar will one day succumb to pressure and build a graphical interface; if they do, I hope they keep this as an option.

Of course, you don't have to use any of these menus. The lone-tar binary (/bin/lone-tar) can be run manually just like tar. If you just type "lone-tar", you'll get a complete usage summary (hint- if you want to redirect that to a file, the easiest way is to use "script"- just run "script" and then type "lone-tar", exiting script with CTRL-D when done).

All of the Supertars are based on the same underlying binary, but they each add their own personality and features, mostly in the surrounding menus. Therefore the performance is going to be very similar if the same equipment, block sizes, etc. are used. It's never been clear to me how much modification the different vendors actually make to the binary. At the present time, I have current versions of both Edge and Lone-tar on this machine, and the binaries are significantly different in size, but return almost identical usage instructions and complete my disk backup with nearly identical times. There ARE slight differences there, but more importantly the general usage and philosophy of the surrounding environment is very different and that's why you need to try them all if you are considering first time purchase.

ltsetup

You control just about all of Lone-tar's actions through the Environment menu. You can also just edit the /usr/lone-tar/ENV file directly if you feel comfortable with that, but new users should probably stick with the menu. I left everything at defaults and started my first backup. While it ran, I looked back at this to see what I might want to change.

For example, I might want to log all users off before a backup, and keep them from logging back in during it. You can tell it to abort an automatic or manual backup if the most current (last) tape was left in the drive. You can add raw partitions to the backup list and specify virtual (sparse) files.

Sparse files are a feature of Unix that is often used for hashed index files where the file is very large, but most of it has never actually been written to. By default, Unix allocates no data blocks for any parts of the file that it doesn't need to. When the file is read, the OS just provides null bytes for those sections- therefore an ordinary tape backup would have to write those null bytes to tape, and if the file were restored, it would read them back, thereby accidentally and unnecessarily increasing your disk usage. If Lone-tar knows that a file is sparse, it will watch for that condition and neither write nor restore the unnecessary null bytes.

You can also control your catalog files, turn printing of results on or off, ask for notification of file names containing spaces, set the pruning level for log files, and more. One item I didn't immediately understand was the setting of a LAST_FILE name, but actually this is an interesting feature. Whatever you set this to is guaranteed to be the very last file that Lone-tar will put on the tape- therefore, if you look quickly at the end of the backup/verify logs and see this, you know that the backup or verify was complete.

As I've pointed out in previous reviews of Supertar products, don't assume that some feature of Lone-tar that I mention is or is not present in the other Supertars. These guys are always aware of what the competition is doing, and they all update their products frequently, but that does not mean that the products are identical, or even generally similar- they have very different styles and very different ideas. Therefor, it's a very good idea to get demos of all of them so that you can choose what is best for your individual needs.

My first Lone-tar backup finished, but with some error. A TSS (Tech Support sheet) was automatically generated and printed as a result (this feature can be turned off if desired). This has instructions to email or fax the report to Cactus and then follow up with a telephone call. It's nice to see a company actually going out of its way to solicit support calls, but I decided instead to just try a different tape (I had noticed an error on this tape on a previous backup with another Supertar product, so I was already suspicious of it).

ltdoc

While that tape was running, I took a look at the on-line documentation. It's very useful to have that accessible from the menu, and the keyword search of Frequently Asked Questions is a very nice touch. One of the ways Lone-tar tries to distinguish itself from the other Supertars is by providing exceptional support, and this attitude carries forward into the product itself (as it should).

Documentation also includes access to the logs and catalogs of backups and verifies you have made. Again, this is nice to have immediately available from the menus. You have options to view the logs, and since you can control the setting of PAGER in the ENV section referred to above, you can use your favorite tool such as "less" to enhance your viewing.

The Detailed Summary file gives options for examining or printing the log file. The Short Summary looks at the last 2 lines of the error log, and offers to automatically tack it onto the /etc/motd file so that you'll see any errors from the previous unattended backup when you log in.

The On-Line Documentation choice brings you to another menu which breaks down the docs into their various sections and lets you view or print each individually. I thought it was very helpful that the menu shows you the number of pages before you decide to print. The documentation includes a Tips and Useful Hints section that a new user would find enlightening. The 25 page Error Reference section is quite detailed and tries to explain what some of the actual causes might be for any errors encountered.
lthelp

By the way, every menu screen has a Help choice that fully explains each menu choice whenever they aren't just selections that open up to a more detailed menu. Here's the Help from the main menu, showing you the shortcuts you can use the get where you want to be more quickly.

Restores

My second backup finished without error, so it verified automatically, and printed and emailed the results- either or both of which can, of course, be shut off. By default (and I didn't notice any place to turn it off) Lone-tar creates an index file during the verify that can be used for Fast Seek Restore.

The ability to do fast seek is actually a function of your tape hardware, but it is present on most modern drives. What this lets Lone-tar and the other Supertars do is create an index that records how many blocks into the tape each file is. The software can then ask the tape drive to skip very quickly to that position. Then normal reads are done, but the net result is that you can restore any file in a very few seconds. For example, if I did a traditional restore of a file from the backup I made for this review, it could take up to 90 minutes to restore any given file. With the Fast Seek Restore, it takes perhaps a minute or two at most, and that includes answering all the necessary questions about what you want and where you want to restore it to.

I did have trouble with this, though. Although I could use Fast Seek Restore for some files, I could not use it for two test files I selected that happened to be in /tmp. I don't know why; these were about in the middle of the tape- I could restore files before them and after, but not these. I tried it several times, but it always failed. I could and did restore them with a traditional restore, however, so there was nothing really wrong with the tape.

I then tried asking to Fast Seek Restore a slightly earlier file (I just checked the Catalog file to find one) and then told it to do a normal seek (Lone-tar gives you that option) for the remaining file. That worked, so it's a good trick to keep in mind should you ever encounter this problem, and it's apt to be much faster than a traditional restore even if you do miss it the first time as I did.

Shortly after writing this, I received new "fastseek" and "color" binaries from Jeff Hyman at Cactus. The "color" now has the option of shutting color off entirely (though this still is confusing for reasons explained above) and the other seems to have entirely fixed the fast file restore problems. As I have often said, it's not at all unusual for companies to have minor glitches in new releases- what counts is how fast they fix them, and Cactus came through with this in just a few days.


Crony

Lone-tar of course has the ability to set automatic backups. In addition to that, though, they include "crony", which lets you edit crontab files through a menu driven interface. You can edit each entry, changing the command or the schedule, and inactivate particular lines (which just puts a "#" at the beginning of the line so that cron won't see it) or delete lines entirely. For an administrator not comfortable with traditional Unix editors, this could be very helpful.

Airbag

As promised, the Airbag diskettes booted quickly. During their original creation, I also had the option to add an Airbag startup capability directly to the hard drive (it's just a new entry in /etc/default/boot and an image of the A2 boot disk placed in /stand). This lets you bring up the Airbag recovery menu in seconds- an excellent idea.

The floppy boot disks can also be built to support BTLD's. This would mean that you could change your controller hardware and still manage to use the Airbag disk to boot from. Naturally, restoring an entire tape in that situation wouldn't produce a workable system- you'd need the BTLD again to boot it, and then you'd need to actually install the BTLD, so it would have been easier to do this ahead of time and create new Airbag diskettes, but this still could be an important feature in some circumstances.

Another new feature is the ability to configure a modem for use with the Airbag program, so that a remote technician (your dealer or support people at Cactus) can dial up and take control of the restore. This could also be a great feature for organizations with remote sites without local support personnel. A mini-Kermit file transfer capability is included so that you could even send a needed or updated utility.

The Restore features include the ability to restore an individual file system or just automatically recover the entire system. Naturally, that could just be the root, which is often all that is needed in many crash situations. Additionally, individual directories can, of course, be excluded. The restore does a sanity check on the hard drive after it reads the tape to be sure that files necessary for boot are present; if they aren't, it copies them directly from the floppy.

There are nice little "extras" in here, too, like the ability to see the output that the boot produced so you can identify the devices that were seen (this can save all sorts of confusion when multiple tape drives are present, etc.). It's obvious that Lone-tar pays attention to the small problems that come up during these restores and tries to add features to make it easier.



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Lone-tar version 4.0 contains MANY new features.

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---December 20, 2004
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