16 May

Time Machine to the Rescue

Time Machine is a set it and forget it backup utility that Apple introduced in OS X 10.5 that is used to automate backups of your computer’s data. Having fallen victim to a hard drive failure years before, I promptly setup Time Machine to keep tabs on all the important files on my iMac in case such a catastrophic incident ever occurred again. In the 3.5 years that I have been using the app, it has only been tested a few times: once when a friend of mine, in a drunken stupor, claimed he could hack my non-password protected computer and decided to perform a sudo rm -rf / from the Console (which, just to be clear, is not hacking…BEN), and once or twice to retrieve some old files that I thought I no longer needed. This weekend, however, I put Time Machine to a full test.

When I went to bed last Thursday, my computer was fine. When I came home from work on Friday, my computer was not fine. The OS had frozen, and no amount of mouse clicking or keyboard button pressing would awake it from its ice cold slumber. Connecting remotely via SSH also did not work, which really had me worried. The obvious fix (which I learned from years of using Windows) was to give the computer an old fashioned hard reset. When this failed twice, my next option was to boot up using my most recent operating system CD and to try to check/repair the disk using Disk Utility. When Disk Utility puked at me 2-3 times, I knew I was in trouble. In one last ditch effort I went old school from the singler-user command line and attempted a /sbin/fsck -fy, which also failed. Even after all the futile attempts at salvaging my disk, I knew that I had a Time Machine backup safe and secure on an external USB drive that basically contained a clone of my computer, so in theory all of my files should be just fine.

For those of us that have spent any extended amount of time in the Land of Academia, theory isn’t always backed up by empirical data…or is it empirical data isn’t always backed up by theory? Either way, I remember in physics lab once or twice when I may or may not have fudged some data points to make them fit better on the trend line. In my present day story, I had no control over the trend line and had no effect on whatever outcome Time Machine had in store for me. I had never tested out a full system restore from a Time Machine backup and had no idea if it would really work. All I could do was cross my fingers and wait the seven hours that it would take to fully restore my 300GB of data. I went to bed wondering and hoping that everything would be a success, however, I had my doubts.

Before we continue, I’d like to make a point for all the Mac haters. Apple does not design or manufacturer hard drives (sidebar). The hard drive in my iMac could be the same hard drive that is found in your Dell or your HP or whatever other non-Apple piece of hardware you own. All Apple did with my iMac was pick a good vendor and a good model, then stuck it into the machine. In fact, you can read the specs on the Western Digital Caviar SE WD3200AAJS that failed me on their website. Actually, now that I think about it, this is NOT the first Western Digital drive that I’ve owned that has suffered a premature death. Interesting.

Moving on, the next morning I woke up to the pleasant site of a fully restored system using a brand new hard drive. I had lost nothing.* Time Machine had succeeded! The free app built directly into the operating system had worked exactly as advertised, and as and end user, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome. Time Machine had kept my files safe, and when I needed them was right there to say, “Here you go, Mr. Lepolt, sorry for your troubles.” That’s exactly how I would expect backup software to work. Bravo.

If you own a Mac, use Time Machine.

*Time Machine allows users to “ignore” directories to backup, and as expected these directories were not restored.

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