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Thu, 23 Feb 2006

From the Mysterious Future…

Let me tell you a little story about backups and why it might be time for you to start doing them…

I was enjoying a quiet evening at home after surfing the ‘net when of a sudden I heard a strange “honk” noise come from my laptop. I figured it was some popup window or flash site that was trying to get my attention. Looked through all my browser windows and didn’t see anything, so I closed whatever ones had a lot of advert’s and thought nothing more of it.

A few days later, I heard it again. Since I had been pretty consistently visiting guitar sites (especially looking for spanish music), I figured that there was some advert or popup that was making it through FireFox and FlashBlock. Ignorance is bliss, so I closed some windows and went on with life.

At work the next day I was doing something (I forget what) and all of a sudden the computer locked up when it was accessing the hard-disk. Programs were behaving like they were trying to do something, but were not able to access the hard drive (I later found out this had something to do with the drive “heads”, the part that actually reads data from the disc). The programs seemed like they might have recovered if I had let them alone for a while, but since it was about 5pm on a Friday anyway, I just turned off the computer and went home for the weekend.

Since I finally had something to do for work, I fired up the laptop on Saturday / Sunday and finished what I had been working on Friday (Java stuff for extracting metadata from files if you really must know). It was then (after a few hours of relative java goodness) that I heard the noise again. No browser windows open, no popups, headphones cranking (so I knew it wasn’t from the computer’s speaker) … definitely a “strange noise” coming from the hard-drive / CPU-fan area.

Not quite crisis mode, but definitely got my attention- copied the most recent files off the HD and onto my USB stick, and immediately shut down the computer. Since the computer seemed to be fine for an hour or two at a time, and the only other failure mode I had observed was ~system lockup~ I had assumed that it might have been a failing CPU fan, but didn’t have anything more concrete than that.

Then came the nerve-wracking part. The computer booted up fine, programs opened and closed, everything appeared to be working, but that intermittent clicking noise could only be coming from the hard drive. Not trusting Apple techs to care much about my data, I immediately started figuring out how to back up the 60gb HD. CDR’s were out. I had cheaped out and not gotten the DVD burner, which might have been useful in this situation. Spamming the data over LAN / WiFi to my desktop would probably not be that great of a solution (take too long). I didn’t want to have to be repeatedly accessing the whole hard drive since I didn’t know how long it would last or what kind of corruption it might have, I really needed to prioritize my data rescue…

The sad thing is I had a 160gb external Hard Drive for situations just like this. Once upon a time I thought to myself that I have a fair amount of data and it couldn’t hurt to back it up. $150 later at Fry’s and I had a $160gb external USB hard drive. Yay. What I really wanted to do was put all my muzak (~20gb of legal OGG’s) on a shared drive / server so that my laptop could hit it, the desktop could hit it, and potentially my future XBMC media-center television thingy could hit it. Plus I wouldn’t be wasting 20gb across multiple PC’s and I could avoid the stupid sync issues that came up when I ripped new CD’s. Put them on the shared drive, all computers could access them.

In order to do that and not keep my 450W desktop PC on all the time I also found a neat little device, the Linksys NSLU2 (now also runs linux), for $100 that promised to turn any USB drive into a network accessible share. Sweet! $250 later and I had 160gb of network accessible storage that was small, modular, quiet, and didn’t use much electricity. One thing that Linksys doesn’t tell you about their NSLU2 is that it “eats” the disk you give it and reformats it to use a proprietary protocol (basically ext2/ext3 since it’s really just an extremely small linux computer designed specifically to serve files), but I didn’t find out about that until after I had copied all my crap to it. Oh well, not too big of a deal since my other computer runs Linux, but still a bit of a waste of time.

Fast forward to about 6-8 months ago and I’m pretty sure a lightning strike took out the venerable NSLU2, leaving me with a cute little hard drive in a cabinet next to the TV that wasn’t network accessible and I couldn’t be bothered to pay another $100 for another NSLU2, or even connect the Hard Drive to my main computer since I was backing up files to it, and didn’t ever need any data off of it (emphasis. ;^).

Fast forward to now, and I’m sweating bullets because my laptop is making dying goat sounds, the external hard drive is formatted to ext3 (which Mac can’t read or write by default), and my latest backups are 6-8 months old at best. Well, I persevered… copied most of the data off the external hard drive onto the 60gb internal drive on my desktop… nuked the data on the external drive and plugged it into the mac laptop. Can’t access it. Found the ext3 tools for OSX and briefly played with those, but figured: in case of catastrophe, the simpler the better, so reformatted the drive to be FAT32 (lowest common denominator) and set about copying files off the laptop.

Let me share with you my experiences with backing up stuff in a priority order. Luckily OSX is very amenable to backing stuff up (especially in the normal case). Simple “tar -czvf backup.tgz /Users/rames” is enough for almost everything non-system. Since I didn’t trust the Hard Drive, I figured I need my Documents folder more than my Music folder, so I was stuck dragging files onto the external HD directory by directory.

The order that I came up with was basically:

~/Documents — most everything I had created

~/Desktop — stuff I hadn’t gotten around to filing yet

~/Local Applications — I had a lot of funky / strange utilities that I didn’t want to have to find again

~/Downloads — all downloads go here. Technically this is low-value since I could just re-download it, but having the original source archives is like my security blanket.

~Shared — This caught some music files I was sharing with my wife as well as misc homework documents, resumes, etc

~/svn-rames — local SVN repository for some source-code type work

~/Pictures — managed by iPhoto

I want to talk specifically about Pictures for a minute… on OSX iPhoto rocks. Even the older version that I have is really cool. You plug in your camera, the pictures get imported, life is good. We had all our digital wedding pictures, family pictures, vacation pictures… everything, all those memories were hidden behind the friendly iPhoto interface. iPhoto is so cool, I had even forgotten that there were extra files that I needed to back up from there until I was almost totally done with the backup process. Given a choice between 1gb of Shareware programs from “~/Local Applications” or 1gb of irreplaceable memories from “~/Pictures”, it’s pretty clear what choice should be made.

The data transfer itself was a real treat. Since as the night progressed, the hard-drive was getting steadily worse and worse, I ended up having to quite literally “shake” the data out of the computer. If the drive stayed in one position too long, it started slowing down the data transfer (from 1-2mbps to 10-20kbps), so there I was with the computer balanced on my knee, gently rocking it from left to right, saying little prayers to the computer gods that this directory or file would indeed make it out of the laptop and onto the hard drive. Toward the very end, I was holding the laptop upside down directly over my head with one hand (applying gentle agitation to keep the system from locking up) while the other was trying to use the track-pad to drag one directory icon over to the hard drive icon. Fun.

Satisfied that I had copied as much data as possible, I turned off the laptop and went to bed.

In the next couple of days, I talked to Apple, made an appointment with their Dallas store and dropped it off for servicing. Free hard drive replacement, but they charge a $50 data transfer fee (“AppleCare covers the hardware not your data, you pathetic victim of MTBF”, very crappy attitude). Luckily I had done as much as possible to satisfy my own idea of “backing up important files”, and very luckily, they were able to recover pretty much everything onto a new drive and I got the laptop back with the same passwords, background images, everything as before the laptop started making noises (even my 20gb of music, which I hadn’t backed up due to concerns that might push the poor HD over the edge). So it cost $50, but it ended up being worth it to have the peace of mind of getting everything back instead of just 90% back.

The moral of this story is: Backup early, all bits are not created equal, remember your pictures, and don’t screw around if it sounds like your computer / HD is making funny noises.

17:42 CST | category / entries
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