My Backup Strategy

I recently read an article entitled Mac Software for Advanced OS X Users over at AppStorm, and one of the tools it tipped me off to was SMARTReporter. SMART stands for “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology”, and it is a monitoring technology built into most hard disks. SMARTReporter asks the drive for it’s status every once in awhile, and if there is trouble, it alerts you. This seemed like a good idea, so I installed it. Just a few weeks later, SMARTReporter began notifying me that OS X was reporting I/O Errors with the drive. Soon after the first few warnings the computer started hanging. I quickly attached one of my external backup drives, and while it took some time, I was able to update the backup to include any files that had changed since my last backup.

I took the computer to the Apple Store and while they were ready to replace the drive under warranty immediately, I had a non-standard drive. When I ordered my Macbook I chose the 7200RPM disk, which isn’t typically carried in the physical Apple Stores. They ordered the disk, and the next day they called me back to say it had arrived and to schedule a time to bring the machine in to have it replaced. They replaced the drive in about 20 minutes, and when I got home I hooked up that aforementioned backup drive and had my computer restored to normal in no time.

Now this entire ordeal was annoying, but I never truly got angry. The truth is that my fairly regimented backup strategy gave me the confidence to know that there was almost no chance of me losing any data. In fact, in the 24 hours between my visits to the Apple Store, I was able to continue to use my laptop by booting off of that Firewire Backup disk. I honestly didn’t expect the replacement to arrive in 24 hours, so I even went a bit overboard and MacGyver’ed a method of keeping my laptop portable while using the external disk.

In a few conversations I’ve had since all of this happened, some questions have come up about my backup methods, so I figured I would write them up here.

I love my MacBook Pro, but at the end of the day it is just a hunk of hardware that will go bad at some point. The data stored on that computer is much more valuable (to me) than the hardware itself. My computer contains email archives going back to the early 90s, photos going back even further, all of my music, documents, writing, code, and more. Preventing the loss of this data is worth a bit of hassle, but I promise you that my methodology is only a bit of hassle. In practice it isn’t anywhere near as painful as it seems. I start with the low-hanging fruit and then get into the more involved practices. The most important thing to take away from this is that no backup method is 100% reliable, so make sure you choose more than one way to backup your files.

  1. The first line of my defense is Dropbox, which is where my “Documents” folder lives. Dropbox gives every user a free 2GB virtual disk that lives “in the cloud” (in other words, online). The Dropbox application which runs on your computer ensures that a copy of that virtual disk is also in a directory on your computer. If you add, modify or delete a file in the Dropbox folder on your computer, it will (almost) instantly be copied up to “the cloud”. If you are offline and modify files on your computer, the next time you are online it will copy any changes up. Furthermore, you can run Dropbox on multiple computers and it will keep all of them in sync. Want to get at your documents at work? Easy. This is one of those brain-dead simple tools that can be a lifesaver.
  2. The next step is Apple-specific. Apple’s Time Machine is backup for everyone. It requires almost no configuration and can totally save your bacon. In a default configuration, you pick an external hard disk to use, and every time you connect it it will backup your computer automatically. If you leave that external hard disk connected all the time (as in the case of a desktop computer) then Time Machine will perform a backup every hour. One great side effect of this is that it keeps old versions of files it has backed up around, so if you accidentally deleted a file yesterday, or made a change which you want to “undo”, you can grab the file from last week’s backup. They have made the configuration so simple that the act of simply attaching an external disk to your computer is enough; Mac OS will ask you if you want to use it with Time Machine. If you are a 100% laptop user like me, you may want to invest in Apple’s Time Capsule, which is a network device which Time Machine can backup to over the network, freeing you from having to connect disks to your computer. As a bonus it is a Wireless-N router, so you can kill a few birds with one stone.
  3. As if Time Machine and Dropbox got mashed together, BackBlaze [referral link] backs up your hard disk to that pesky “cloud”. The service costs $50 a year, but for that you get a complete, off-site online backup of your computer. That first backup takes several days, but it just plugs along in the background and you will most likely not even notice it is working. Once it is all backed up, it will copy updated or changed files up to their servers on the fly to keep your backup current. Note the emphasized words back there, off-site. In the event of a real disaster (fire, flood, robbery or the like), any number of backups at your home might be destroyed. That is why paying for one of these services is worth it. BackBlaze has several competitors (Carbonite and Mozy, among others), so take some time and figure out which one works best for you. Note that BackBlaze won’t back up any files bigger than 9GB. This is much bigger than only the largest video files, but it is good to note. (Update [20120331]: BackBlaze has removed the limitation on file size, though it is still restricted by default. You can easily change the default in the BackBlaze preferences panel)
  4. One of the things that NONE of these previous methods will get you is a way to get RIGHT back on your feet after a hard disk crash. If you want that you are going to need to keep a live copy of your hard disk, and the best way to do that (on a Mac) is with Carbon Copy Cloner (which is “donation-ware”, meaning it is free but the developer could use your support). Get (another) external hard disk, particularly one that your computer can boot from (on most Mac’s this means a FireWire drive, but check to make sure). Then use Carbon Copy Cloner to create a clone of your computers hard disk onto this external disk. Once you’ve done this, try and boot your computer off of this external drive. If you were successful, your computer should boot and look exactly the same as it normally does (although the external drives are often much slower, so everything may take a bit longer). Repeat this ‘cloning’ on a regular basis so if the hard disk dies in your computer you have a quick way to get back on your feet. I have a calendar alarm every Saturday morning to remind me to connect my clone drive.
    1. Advanced Tip: If you want to make life a bit easier on yourself, investigate CCC’s “Scheduled Tasks” functionality. You can cause a clone to happen automatically when you connect your external clone drive, and you can also cause it to only clone what has changed since your last clone (which should cause the clone to take much less time).
    2. Extra Credit: Once you get a CCC workflow that works for you, you may wish to consider duplicating your efforts with a second clone drive, and keep that second clone drive off site. Keep it at your desk at work or even at a trusted friend’s house. I personally keep my second drive in a safe deposit box at my bank. So I am not going to the bank every week, I keep one clone drive at home, and I clone to it every Saturday. Then once a month or so, I go to the bank and swap the clone drives. This way I have a clone that is no more than a week old at home, and one that is no more than a month old off site.

That all looks complicated, but really only the 4th level requires any “manual” intervention. Once Dropbox, Time Machine and BackBlaze are all set up, they don’t really require any work on your part. And for those first three methods, the initial setup is really easy, even for the novice.

Please don’t let the apparent complexity of #4 scare you off easily, because having a clone to boot from can be a life-saver. Because of this cloned drive, when the hard disk in my Mac started to fail last week, I simply ran CCC to update the clone before the drive completely died, then I rebooted my machine off the clone and was back to the races. I then ran off of this backup until Apple got the replacement drive in, and when I got home from Apple I just used CCC to clone that external drive back onto the new disk from Apple. Given that it only took Apple 24 hours to receive the replacement drive, this might seem like a bit of overkill, but what if it had been a few days? Or a week? I added #4 to my regimen after my last drive failure, I was out of commission for a few days because I didn’t have a clone to boot from.

The key thing to remember, especially about methods 2-4, is that unless you configure them otherwise, they will backup every file on your system. Even files that you might not think are important will get backed up. To me, this is a key feature of good backup strategy. Unimportant files have a notorious way of becoming really important the moment after a hard disk crash. Any backup method which requires you to manually select or copy files yourself is doomed to failure.

The Slow Death of my PC

I’ve been surprised at how long my PC has lasted with little-to-no maintenance.  I don’t really use it for anything besides playing games anymore, and I soon intend to replace that function with an Xbox 360.   For the past 6 months or so it’s been hobbling a bit, with one of the disk drives occasionally making odd noises on boot and not being recognized by the BIOS.   Today, that drive finally gave up the ghost..  Unfortunately, it was my main boot drive which contained the “Documents and Settings” folder.  This would be nearly a non-event for me if it were lost, but Corinna might have had some files on there that were important.  I managed to coerce the drive to boot one last time and copied that directory off onto another disk, but I just barely made it under the wire.

For the next few hours, I tried to get my legitimate, purchased, copy of Windows XP to install onto another drive.  I’ve installed from this disk on several occasions and on several machines over the years (including this machine).  For some reason it was being stubborn, though, and would hang on the last “text based” screen before it truly starts the install.  Frustrated, I found a bootleg copy of XP online and then used that disc to install XP, using my legitimate license key.  Now the machine boots and I get to enjoy the fun of bringing a 6 year old OS up to date with patches, etc.  Fortunately I had a copy of SP2 burned to CD for such an occasion.

I know I’ve said this before, but allow me to reiterate:  When this computer needs replacement, it is being replaced with a Mac.  My PowerBook never gives me this much grief, and I simply don’t care to fight with my computer any longer…

Futile attempt to recover my Powerbook disk

Out of the blue last night my laptop’s hard disk died… The machine locked up, I hard rebooted it, but it hung on the Apple logo… I booted it up with my 10.4 system disk and tried to use Disk Utility to repair the disk, but that said it couldn’t fix the problem.. I tried (as you can see in this photo) TechTool Deluxe to try and repair the volume, but that also couldn’t fix things…

I finally decided to try and reformat the disk, but when that didn’t work, I realized the drives number was pulled… Fortunately I have Applecare and I backed up the disk on Thursday… =)

SIGGRAPH 2006 Electronic Theater

Last night I attended the premiere of this year’s Electronic Theater at SIGGRAPH 2006. It was an expensive ticket, but it was a great time. My favorite shorts were “Doll Face”, “Carlitopolis”, “A Great Big Robot From Outer Space Ate My Homework”, “Growth by Aggregation 2 (the Utah variation)”, “Noggin”, “One Man Band”, and the Best of Show “One Rat Short” (which really deserved the accolades. I appreciated most of these films on both technical and creative merits… Most everything shown, however, was great, so I felt guilty picking the above as my “favorites”. Before the show they had this rig from Cinematrix that allowed the audience to play games on the big screen by holding up a red/green paddle. It was pretty wild, but the actual games were somewhat gimmicky. The best was a game of pong where the room split down the middle into teams and each side had to coordinate moving the paddle by showing the proper paddle color for up and down.

Another highlight of the show was seeing Sony’s new 4k digital theater projector. It was simply astonishing, no two ways about it. I think once Sony can actually make these projectors in quantity and start shipping them to theatres, there will be little argument left for mainstream theatres sticking to film projection. After the credits they did a little demo, showing two renderings of “Growth by Aggregation 2 (the Utah variation)”, one at 2k resolution and one at 4k, and the difference in detail was night and day. The Electronic Theatre itself was pretty impressive, given that it was just a large “ballroom” at the Boston Convention Center. They had a decent surround rig (although it seemed only a few of the shorts took advantage) and the seats were amazingly comfortable. Way better than I expected.

Yesterday was also my first experience with the new Silver Line subway service. For those not “in the know”, the Silver Line is actually a bus service, but with dedicated, (often) underground roads which avoid traffic. I wonder how the cost/benefit breakdown works for bus vs. train as far as subway goes, but the experience was pleasant. One annoyance is that the MBTA is currently in the midst of transitioning to their new automated fare collection system, CharlieTicket/CharlieCard (similar to the MetroCard in NYC). For instance, I have to use change/tokens to board the Green Line trains when they are above ground (like by our house), but once they go underground I can no longer use change/tokens, but instead have to use the new CharlieTickets (which don’t work above ground). It will be nice when the trains are upgraded to take the new cards so I don’t have to scrounge for change when I want to go down town.

Update: Holy shit, I forgot to give props to the short “Flow”, which was a highlight/demo reel of Scanline’s fluid simulations… It’s the best artificial water I’ve ever seen.

A Noted Harvard Symbologist

I’ve been killing myself trying to finish this design document at work and I finally was able to send it out for review on Friday afternoon. Hopefully people won’t have too many comments about it, because I’d really like to write some code sometime this year.

Got my Powerbook back on Friday, it was shipped out, fixed, and back in the apple store in less than 72 hours. Seems to be working great now, I had forgotten how nice the keyboard backlight was after going without it for a few months. If I had known how fast the turnaround would be on the repair I would have had it fixed ages ago.

Pretty laid back weekend, saw The DaVinci Code with the film club last night. As I expected it was way better than the book, which is a worthless steaming pile of shit. That said, it isn’t a GREAT movie, just a good, entertaining flick. It was pretty much exactly what I was expecting, and I’m not entirely sure why the critics have been so harsh on it… Maybe they are all in the pockets of Opus Dei.

More on the Superboard II

My dad read my earlier journal entry on the computers I’ve used and provided more info on his Superboard II:

By the way, our first computer was an Ohio Scientific Superboard II, as far as I know there was never a “III”. It had 24K of ROM and 4k of static RAM, later expanded to a whopping 7k. Data storage was on cassette tapes. It had a 6510 8 bit processor (Update: Think he actually meant 6502) clocking over at a cool 1mhz. It had a keyboard built in and output NTSC B&W video. It had built in 8k Microsoft BASIC in ROM, as I recall I remember seeing Bill Gates name in the code when I did a hex dump of the ROM. It also had a bug in the string garbage collector that would crash the computer after basic was used for a while – thanks Bill.

Update: My dad also found this page with some more Superboard info as well as links to software and an emulator!

Take us back to DEFCON 5

Sometime soon after I got back from CSH Welcome Back I noticed that there was a minor scratch on the screen of my beloved Powerbook, dead center no less. At first I just thought it was a hair or something, so I busted out the Windex and gave it a good bath to no avail. I started looking online and some people recommended the Janvil Plastic Scratch Removal System for removing scratches from LCDs. Nobody with a Powerbook specifically, so I was a little worried that the screen would melt or something, but I ordered the kit anyway with a little trepidation.

I got the kit last week, but didn’t build up the nerve to actually try it until tonight. It seems to work like a champ… I mean, when the screen is off (or under really heavy glare), you can clearly see the “polished” spot, so I mean, it has some effect on the screen, but for my usage it is way, way, WAY less distracting than the dead-center scratch. And as far as heavy-glare usage…. let’s face reality, the Powerbook screen isn’t all that useful under those conditions as it is… :)

My Computers

Someone today asked me about some of my early computer experiences, and so I ended up making this list of all my computers.

  1. Ohio Scientific Superboard II (or III?) – This was actually Dad’s computer, and while I vaguely remember using it on a cardboard card table in the basement of our house, I really don’t remember much. I seem to remember dad saying it was a Superboard III, but I can’t find any references to that model online (other than my own). We had the base model without any fancy stuff like cases… (Update: Dad wrote me giving me some more details about this machine)
  2. Commodore 64 – My grandparents bought this for me for an early birthday, probably at the prodding of my father… :) We originally got it floppy-less and used only cartridges and hand-input BASIC programs, but we eventually got a 1541 floppy drive to do real work with. I believe at first we used a small television as a monitor, but at some point we got a Commodore monitor (can’t remember the model, it wasn’t a 1084S).
  3. Generic 386/33DX – After the C=64 died, dad bought a PC, which I used for quite awhile until I could afford the Amiga. I cut my teeth on DOS and Windows 3.0-3.11 on this machine for the first time (I had never really touched a PC before this).
  4. Commodore Amiga 500 – I saved for a long time to buy this computer, and used it for years without a hard disk before I saved and plunked down $400 for a external SCSI controller with a 120MB disk. This computer was my trusty sidekick for years, even though my parents would take it away for about half the time (get midterm progress report, confiscate computer; get report card, return computer). I subjected it to the “pepsi syndrome” on several occasions and it eventually gave up after this trauma. actually brought it back from the dead once by replacing motherboard traces with wire, but this was just delaying the inevitable..
  5. Generic 486 DX4/100 – While I had the Amiga, my dad replaced his PC with a faster one. I would trade back and forth from the Amiga to the PC, mostly using the Amiga…
  6. Generic Pentium 166MHz (Summer of 1995) – This was when I really got to know how to use a PC. After my fallen Amiga I was quite reluctant to replace it with a PC, but the flailing of Commodore really forced my hand. It was on this computer that I had my first experience installing Linux (first Slackware, then 1 month to setup PPP, then hard disk crash, then retreat to Red Hat Linux 3).
  7. Generic Dual Pentium II 350MHz (Late 1997) – When I started getting excited about BeOS, I decided to go Dual Processor.. DP worked great in BeOS, but in Windows it was just a pain in the ass.. More drivers than you can believe have DP problems, and I am amazed to this day that I ever bought a second DP machine. I just wanted to say I had dual procs.. :) I believe this machine is now at CSH and is called neverforget
  8. Generic Dual Pentium III 1GHz (Late 2001) – Pretty soon after I moved to Boston my computer, now 4 years old, started showing it’s age. This machine worked like a champ, save the onboard sound who’s drivers didn’t like dual procs.
  9. Apple Powermac G4 733MHz (Late 2003) – When Rovia folded, I got this machine… I was always anti-Apple, but I’m never one to look a free computer horse in the mouth. I fell in love with OSX on this machine, and it became my primary workstation until I moved in here with . This is now living at CSH.
  10. Generic Pentium 4 3GHz (Summer 2004) – When Doom III came out I needed a new computer, so I bought this one. I finally gave up on Dual Proc machines, and was actually remarkably lazy and ordered all the same parts that had picked out for his machine. It treats me well and will probably live on until it can no longer keep up with the videogames of the day.
  11. Apple Powerbook G4 1.67GHz (March 2005) – I had wanted a notebook, particularly a Powerbook, for some time, and when I finally paid off my college/stupid/unemployed credit cards I treated myself. This is my primary workstation these days, and I sometimes bring it to bed with me and hug it until I fall asleep. Don’t tell Corinna. =)

Cabin fever

Last night I started to acknowledge that I was going stir crazy from staying at home doing nothing, so I made a pact with myself to get the hell out of the house. :)

Chuck and I decided to go out and play pool, which was alot of fun. We played 9 ball for about 3 hours, and we were pretty even (although I was ahead by 2 games). Afterwards, we met James and Amy Bauer at the Victoria Diner. That was a fun time as well, even though Victoria’s has slipped from real diner status (no longer open 24h on weekdays).

Today, I have to run some errands, then I have two things planned, and I am not sure which order they are going to occur. I am helping James buy some network equipment for his basement studio. I can’t believe that he has made so many albums and not had his computers networked together….. Especially given how cheap ethernet gear is… After I help him out with that, I am going out with Amy to see her boutique out in Long Valley… She has some space in this larger store and sells antiques and modern stuff as well. I told her that I was going to visit it a long time ago, but my sentence in Rochester had prevented me from doing so. Now that I have been released on good behavior, it is time to keep my promise. :)

Goddamn computers

I am thinking of replacing my motherboard. The USB on it is damn near completely non-functional, and the addon USB card I purchased to try and make up for the fact that my motherboard’s USB support eats it isn’t much better. I can’t even get my Logitech Mouseman Optical to work on the onboard ports, and when I have it connected to the add-on ports, the OS fails to recognize it about 1 out of every 3 boots. I then have to crawl behind the computer and disconnect and reconnect the mouse a few times until it lights up.

My motherboard (Asus P2B-DS) has been perfect in every other respect, the onboard Ultra2 SCSI works great, I could use a few more PCI slots, but whatever. In replacing the board, however, I have a few demands:

  • Onboard Ultra(2 or 3) SCSI
  • Dual Slot 1
  • Support for all the Pentium IIIs (my current board only supports up to 500Mhz or so)
  • Isn’t completely outdated…

I don’t think that these requests are unreasonable, but apparently the motherboard manufacturers do… There are three boards I have found that are close to these specifications. All of them have limitations:

  • Tyan Tiger 133 – Lacks SCSI, but has pretty much everything else. I could get this board and a Adaptec 2940U2B for about $200 and be done with it. It is apparently no longer made by Tyan, but I still see it all over the place.
  • Tyan Thunderbolt – Everything plus the kitchen sink…. The major disadvantages are that it costs around $375 and only has a 100Mhz FSB
  • AOpen DX6G Plus – Everything I am looking for (plus an Ethernet controller), but it only has a 100Mhz FSB (and apparently doesn’t run with PC133 memory installed)

Does anyone have any suggestions? At this point I am just thinking of waiting a little while and just starting from scratch again….