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Questions fly as EMC Retrospect fades

All signs point to the end of life for EMC's Retrospect backup software for small businesses. Sources say the company cannot support an SMB software channel.

EMC Corp. is undergoing drastic changes these days: folding in a $2.1 billion security acquisition, spinning out 10% of VMware, building a services business and generally morphing into anything that doesn't resemble a storage company. The latest knock against its traditional business has hit the Insignia small business group and the Dantz Retrospect backup software team.

EMC paid a little under $50 million for Dantz in October 2004, picking up Retrospect, a backup product installed in several thousand small businesses worldwide. It relaunched EMC's move into the small and midsized business (SMB) software market and was the beginning of its Insignia division.

Fast forward two years and Retrospect hasn't been "officially" killed, but the team operates with a skeleton staff. Dantz founder, Larry Zulch, has quit, and EMC refuses to commit to future development of the product.

There is a glimmer of hope for all the users waiting on an update to Mac support, a large portion of the Retrospect base. A final update to Retrospect 7.5 is slated for delivery in March and will include updates for Mac OS X, as well as Microsoft Exchange 2007. However, this is based on work that was largely finished in December, before the SMB group within EMC was cut back.

Generally more open with its software roadmaps, EMC has been evasive and cagey when it comes to the future of Retrospect. One source close to the product said development could still happen within the next 12-to-18 months, but that in the end the developers (all four of them that are left) might "look back and decide it's really a 7.6 release, rather than 8.0."

Another year for a dot release when it's already been a year without one? Anyone else see the writing on the wall for this product?

Hardcore fans

And yet many users of this software remain ardent fans. John Welch, Unix systems administrator for Kansas City Life Insurance, is determined to continue using the product for as long as he is able. "Even if they discontinue the product completely, it's not like the copies we have will burst into flames and erase themselves," he said.

Unfortunately, the story of users that gave up on Retrospect doesn't have a happier ending. It's the ultimate Catch-22, said Rich Koch, director of design services for The College Board. The company felt compelled to move to software from Tolis Group Inc. after Retrospect 6.1 was no longer working correctly with its OS X servers and newer tape libraries.

"We have not been impressed [with BRU]. At times I've had to rewrite scripts I thought were working, five or six times," Koch said. "What I'm saying [to EMC] is 'take my money, please! Just give me what you have in Retrospect version 6, but make it work with newer libraries and the newest Mac OS.' "

Koch, along with several other users contacted by over the last few days, said he even watches Dantz Retrospect mailing lists in the hopes of a new update. "I'm an art director," he said. "We don't have a full-time IT person to baby-sit this backup server."

But why kill it?

"If they canned this product, they would have to build or buy another one," said Steve Duplessie, founder and analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. "It makes no sense, especially since it's my understanding that they are going to put more emphasis on the SMB space, not less."

EMC has never disputed Retrospect's popularity among SMB customers, and it also appears the product is still making money. Was the problem that EMC's cozy relationship with Microsoft led to unequal treatment for Mac within its internal research and development? In other words, did EMC lose sight of the product's core historical customer base and then lose control of the business? Or is it a simple matter of concern for the bottom line, and Retrospect a baby thrown out with the bathwater?

To allege that Retrospect is dead is to effectively answer "yes" to one of those questions. Industry insiders speculate that EMC can't get its channel story straight for SMB software and will focus instead on low-end hardware devices. The company confirms more SMB news is in the works, but would not give details.

The upshot? Users should insist on written commitments from EMC regarding roadmap and support contracts, especially for legacy storage products like Retrospect.

Additional reporting by Jo Maitland, News Director.

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