Broken disks and the joy of nesting

As our daughter’s due date looms ever closer, my wife an I have struggled with how to best rearrange our house to combine our previously separate offices into a single office. We finally decided on the new configuration, and moved everything around. The result is better, we think,but time will tell.

The point of the story is that we ended up moving both offices. Since mine was the one with all the computer gear, all of it had to be disconnected and moved. After we’d gotten things settled, I decided to work on a new layout for this site and wanted to go through our photographs. Since they amount to about 20GB, we don’t have them on every computer, and I remembered I’d moved them off my laptop onto our external 1394 “Firewire” drive. So I found the drive, and hooked it back up to the desktop. I plugged the power in, and realized I was in big trouble.

Instead of a reassuringly steady green glow, the power light was flickering. The drive wasn’t spinning (it’s pretty noisy). Maxtor’s advice was that if the drive light was flickering, the drive was bad. Disappointment turned to terror as I realized that I’d moved all of our photos (and our MP3 files) from my laptop and the desktop to this drive to make room when I was installing Linux. I had no backup.

It turns out I had made a copy on my wife’s laptop, but it was incomplete – our trip to Ireland this past summer wasn’t there, as well as some other important stuff. Normally the purpose of that extenal drive was to be the backup. Not as solid as CD’s, I know, but I was after protection from two things: drive failure and user error. A duplicate on another hard drive is good for that and fairly easy to automate – we don’t need to be able to pull up incremental copies of documents and stuff like that anyway. Set up a task to run Microsoft’s backup program, and we’re covered pretty well. But I’d managed to screw that up, and now it looked as though we’d lost quite a lot of stuff.

As took the drive apart to clean connections I realized that it was the power light that was flashing, not the drive light. Maybe it was just the power supply? I ran out to Milwaukee PC and got a new external drive enclosure – it was 50 bucks, but that seemed like a bargain. After a few minutes getting the old drive into the new enclosure I flipped the power switch and the drive spun up. I was saved! A few minutes later and redundancy was restored and my heart rate returned to normal.

I think I need to get another one of these enclosures – they are extremely handly for offloading and moving data too big to fit on a USB flash drive. They’re also a great way to use an old hard drive, or to make an accessory optical drive available to a computer that doesn’t have room for it. My desktop is a Sony slimtop, which has no room for expansion of any kind. That was why I had the external drive in the first place.

After I’d made new copies of our photos and music, I realized that we really need a convenient way to back up our laptops – preferably automatically.

My plan was that I would add another external drive, as large as our laptop drives put together, and then find some way to duplicate our laptop drives to that backup drive. I started looking at drive and file synchronization sofware like Unison (free, and multi-platform) and Vice Versa (not free, but more sophisticated, and Windows-only), but I’m realizing that this is more complicated than I thought. How do I ensure that the backup actually has a chance to complete? Our laptops aren’t always on, and it can take hours to move dozens of GB’s over a network. So instead of a service backing up the system every day at midnight, I really need something with enough smarts to realize the laptop is on, start backing up in the background without bringing everything to a halt, and will fail gracefully when the computer is suspended, hibernated or turned off.

I’m still looking, but I haven’t found the right solution yet. If anyone has a neat solution that is working for them, I’d love to hear about it!

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