The value of a good backup

While working on the fifth episode of RTTE, I learned first hand the value of a good backup. The hard drive on my editing computer (my MacBook Pro) died suddenly and without warning. Thankfully, my data was backed up in two geographically different locations.

The day my hard drive died, I’d just gotten done with some file cleanups, and was getting ready to leave for a trip abroad. I shut down my computer, then realized I needed to check on a couple things, and booted it up again, only this time, it wouldn’t start. I kept getting a grey screen, meaning video was working, but it refused to boot into the OS. And I kept hearing the “click of death” as the hard drive churned. I tried booting off the Snow Leopard DVD, but that didn’t work either. I’d tested the hard drive’s SMART status just a couple of weeks before, and the utility had told me the drive had no problems whatsoever.

I had reason to worry for a couple of reasons:

  1. The laptop refused to boot up from the OS X DVD, potentially indicating other problems than a dead hard drive. I do push my laptop quite a bit as I edit photos and video, and I’d already replaced its motherboard once. I was worried I might have to spend more than I wanted to on repairs.
  2. All of the footage for the fifth episode of RTTE was on my laptop. Thankfully, it was also backed up in a couple of other places, but still, I hadn’t had reason to test those backups until now. What if I couldn’t recover it?

I had no time for further troubleshooting. I had to leave, and my laptop was useless to me. I left it home, and drove away, worried about what would happen when I returned.

A week later, I got home and tried to boot off the DVD again. No luck. I had to send it in, to make sure nothing else was wrong. In Romania, there’s only one Apple-authorized repair shop. They’re in Bucharest, and they’re called Noumax. I sent it to them for a diagnosis, and a couple of days later, I heard back from them: only the hard drive was defective, from what they could tell.

I was pressed for time. I had to edit and release the fifth episode of RTTE, and I also had to shoot some more footage for it. I didn’t have time to wait for the store to fix the laptop, so I asked them to get it back to me, while I ordered a replacement hard drive from an online store with fast, next-day delivery (eMag).

The hard drive and the laptop arrived the next day. I replaced the hard drive, using this guide, and also cleaned the motherboard and CPU fans of dust, then restored the whole system from the latest Time Machine backup. This meant that I got back everything that was on my laptop a few hours before it died.

I’d have preferred to do a clean OS install, then install the apps I needed one by one, then restore my files, especially since I hadn’t reformatted my laptop since I bought it a few years ago, but that would have been a 2-3 day job, and I just didn’t have the time. Thankfully, OS X is so stable that even a 3-year old install, during which I installed and removed many apps, still works fairly fast and doesn’t crash.

Some might say, what’s the big deal? The laptop was backed up, and you restored it… whoopee… Not so fast, grasshopper! The gravity of the situation doesn’t sink in until you realize it’s your work — YEARS of hard work — that you might have just lost because of a hardware failure. That’s when your hands begin to tremble and your throat gets dry, and a few white hairs appear instantly on your head. Even if the data’s backed up (or so you think) until your data’s restored and it’s all there, you just don’t know if you can get it back.

I’ve worked in IT for about 15 years. I’ve restored plenty of machines, desktops and servers alike. I’ve done plenty of backups. But my own computer has never gone down. I’ve never had a catastrophic hardware failure like this one until now. So even though I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing before, I just didn’t realize how painful it is until now. And I didn’t appreciate the value of a good backup until now.

So, here’s my advice to you, as if you didn’t hear it plenty of times in the past… BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER!

If you have a Mac, definitely use Time Machine. It just works. It’s beautifully simple. I’ve been backing up my laptop with Time Machine to the same reliable drive for years. It’s this little LaCie hard drive.

But the LaCie drive might fail at some point, which is why I also back up my data with CrashPlan. For this second backup, I also send my data to a geographically-different location. Since we live in Romania these days, I back up to my parents’ house in the US, where the backup gets stored on a Drobo. And the backup is also encrypted automatically by CrashPlan, which means it can’t be intercepted along the way.

It’s because of my obsessive-compulsive backup strategy that I was able to recover so quickly from the hardware failure. Thankfully, these days backups are made so easy by software like Time Machine and CrashPlan that anyone can keep their work safe. So please, back up your data, and do it often!

One more thing. You know the old saying, every cloud has a silver lining? It was true in my case. When I ordered the new drive for my laptop, I was able to upgrade from its existing 250GB SATA hard drive with an 8MB buffer and 5400 rpm to a spacious 750GB SATA hard drive with a 32MB buffer and 7200 rpm, which means my laptop now churns along a little faster, and has a lot more room for the 1080p footage of my shows. 🙂

How To

The fastest way to back up with Time Machine

I wrote about backing up your Mac and PC in January of 2008, and I said Time Machine was a great way to back up your Mac. A year later, I still think so, though I have some reservations.

There are three ways to back up your Mac with Time Machine. There used to be only two, but thanks to Drobo Apps, we now have three. I’ll list them in descending order, sorted by backup speed. Here they are:

To External Hard Drive (USB, Firewire, eSATA)

This one’s easy, and it’s the fastest way. You get a dedicated external hard drive, you connect it to your Mac, and you let Time Machine do its thing. You can leave it connected all the time, or you can disconnect the hard drive and only back up when you want to. Time Machine won’t complain unless you haven’t backed up for a few days.

This is the backup strategy I’ve come to use, and believe me, it’s the one that gives me the least amount of headaches. I have a 500GB LaCie Mini hard drive that connects over USB. I plug it into my laptop, and within minutes, my backup is done.

Keep in mind that I’m a photographer, and I also shoot short videos every once in a while, so it’s pretty much a given that I’m backing up gigabytes of data every time. When the backup’s done, I eject the drive and put it away. This way I’m not bothered by hourly backups, which I don’t need.

To External Hard Drive via Time Tamer

Time Tamer

Go download Time Tamer, a very handy little app created by the folks that make the Drobo, and you can create an image file on your Drobo that is limited to twice the size of your Mac’s hard drive. This is useful because there is no other way to control the size of the Time Machine backup sets. There’s is no way to set a quota via its System Preferences panel, and so it’ll keep balooning until it fills the backup drive. Obviously, when you have a Drobo or another larger drive, that’s a problem.

I for one don’t want to fill up my Drobo with Time Machine backups — I have other more important uses for it. I did, however, want to limit the amount of external drives that sat on my desk, and thought I could eliminate one of them by using Time Tamer with my Firewire Drobo. Did that for a few months, but I can tell you it’s not optimal, at least not for me. It boils down to the amount of data one has to back up, really.

As it turns out, the throughput when writing to the image file just isn’t fast enough when you work with several hundred megabytes or more. Even though writing to the Drobo is usually a fairly fast operation, somehow writing inside the image file isn’t. From my own experience, it would sometimes take a whole hour to do an hourly backup, which meant that as soon as one backup finished, another would start.

To make things more annoying, the throughput to the Drobo itself, and my Mac’s general peppiness, were also affected negatively during backups. Everything churned at a slower pace. Getting at my photos or other files stored on the Drobo was a pain. If I happened to be playing a movie and a backup started, playback would stutter or stop for a few seconds. It just wasn’t a feasible way for me to work, so I stopped doing this and returned to doing my backups directly to a dedicated external hard drive.

To wireless or networked hard drive (such as Time Capsule)

This will usually be the slowest way to back up your Mac via Time Machine. Think about it: you’re going to be pushing your bits via WiFi, and even though your hardware may be “n” specs instead of “b” or “g”, you’re still not going to get above 50 Mbps at best. Realistically, you’re looking at speeds somewhere between 15-45 Mbps, which is less than Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) and nowhere near Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mbps).

For comparison purposes, I have observed transfer speeds which approached USB 2.0 speeds when using a direct, wired, Gigabit Ethernet connection between two Macs (MacBook Pro and iMac G5). If you have a wired Gigabit network at home, this might be the only way to actually get decent backup speeds with Time Machine without needing to use USB or Firewire hard drives. But if you’re using WiFi, your transfer speeds are going to be anywhere between 15-20 times slower than Gigabit speeds, which means you’ll be sitting there a long time waiting for your backups to finish, should your backup set be anything over 100-200 MB.

When Time Capsule came out, I was tempted to buy it, just like I bought the Apple TV, only to regret that later. I’m glad I didn’t end up spending my money on Time Capsule, because it just isn’t suitable for me, or for anyone with larger backup sets. It certainly looks good, but that’s about all it does and all it’ll do until WiFi speeds approach Gigabit speeds.

Takeaway message

When one of my friends shared an article from Louis Gray via Google Reader, where he complains about how slow it is to back up to Time Capsule, was I surprised? Given all I’ve written above, do you see why I wasn’t?

Do the smart thing: if you’re using Time Machine, get a little portable drive like I did and run your backups that way. They’ll be fast, and you’ll be the one deciding when to back up, not Time Machine. I don’t know when Apple will decide to give us more configuration options for Time Machine, but until they do, those who care about their time should back up directly to an external drive.