Backups In Real Life

By juliavdw

October 19, 2013


We hear a lot about the importance of backups for our computers but we never know how well we are protected until a problem arises. I recently experienced this "live test" of my backup system when my hard drive failed. In case this info will be helpful to someone, I duly present the experience.

The System

Here’s what I have going on for a work environment:

Primary machine:

iMac circa 2010, runs OS X 10.6.8

  • Backs up to Time Machine on a NAS drive that is connected to my office network.
  • Subscription to Carbonite for immediate access to files not in Dropbox or git repos. Carbonite backup includes external hard drives with older files and my Parallels Windows installs.

Secondary machine:

Macbook Pro, circa 2011, runs OS X 10.8.5

Backs up to Time Machine on the NAS drive

The Problem

One recent Tuesday, my primary machine would not start up. It would get to the spinning wheel on the white screen, hang and eventually show a folder with a question mark.

I looked this issue up on ye olde internette, and found some entries on on what this problem is and how to troubleshoot it. I went through the steps on this page, but found that my computer did not seem to react in the expected way, so I could not get to the utilities menu for instance, to repair my hard drive or permissions. I also went through the troubleshooting process listed for similar problems.

After exhausting my self-help capacities and coming up each time with the WSOD, I called Apple Care. The technician went through the processes again with me, and although we were able to get farther along, she also came to the conclusion that my hard drive had simply failed. She made an appointment for me at my nearest Apple Store, which is not actually that near, but I was at this point more than happy to get over there.

At the Apple Store I found that there was actually a recall out for my hard drive, and so they replaced the drive for me.

The Interim

There was a 1-3 day wait for my repaired iMac, so I was going to have to try to get my work done on my secondary system. For most projects, this is not a big problem. All my reference files are in Dropbox, and I have my to-dos synced with Omnifocus. My emails all come through and are synced using IMAP, so no worries there.

As for setting up my local web development environment, Just about everything is in a git repo, so cloning into git and getting my most recent changes is no problem, assuming I had pushed my most recent changes. Note to self: always push changes at the end of a work session!

Getting the databases for my drupal and wordpress installs is usually a matter of grabbing it from a staging remote server, but there are times where I could use my local backup. Note to self: add local database backup folder to Carbonite.

The other very important file I need is the timesheet file with my most recent times and projects. I did not find this file in Dropbox folder, so I went to Carbonite to dig around in folders on my iMac hard drive not in Dropbox. I did find this file there, but for whatever reason, Carbonite had not updated this file in several weeks.

I could log new work, but could not refer to total amount spent on each project or invoice for hours. Note to self: back this file up in Dropbox to avoid this problem in the future.

Happily it only took one day to get my iMac back, but in the interim I was able to get some work done simply because I have a secondary machine, Dropbox, git and carbonite.

The Restore

My failed hard drive had been replaced with a new one with snow leopard installed. I went through the welcome spiel until I got to the part where you can select a time machine backup to restore. I am glad I started this process in the evening because it took a bit over 8 hours to restore.

The good news though is that there was my computer ready and waiting with all my stuff in the morning. There were only a few apps that I had to re-configure or re-install. Command line git was one of them; might have been the only one essential to my work that I had to re-install from scratch again. That process was pretty quick though, and in all it was a fairly painless process.


Here are the conclusions I reached through this experience:

  • Time Machine Good! Keep backing up every machine onto the NAS drive. That worked great.
  • Carbonite is OK. It was nice to have a place to search for files unconnected to my mac install that were not in Dropbox. (To search in time machine you have to be logged into that particular install, so if you are locked out of your machine there’s no access to your backed up materials). However I was not impressed by the important file I needed not having been updated for a few weeks.
  • Dropbox is fantastic for access to current and updated materials. Everything that I had saved into a dropbox folder was up to date and accessible from all machines.

The first thing I did when I had my computer back, other than make sure all was configured properly, was to ensure the carbonite backup was set to collect the most important items for my work. The second thing was to create a Hazel rule that copied that important file into dropbox whenever it was updated. So now it can live in /Documents where it belongs but I will always be able to start with current content from alternate systems.

The only thing that I could maybe add to my backup system would perhaps be a redundant storage of Time Machine backups on a server that is not in the same building as my computers (in case of fire or other disaster). I am open to suggestions as to a convenient and cost effective way to backup my backups.