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Struggles with a Hard Drive failure - 2011

Why a good backup strategy is important.

 “Come on Rainbow Wheel!” – What’s up with that, I thought?  I see it from time to time when I really get crazy with too many things being open, but then I just reboot, and now thanks to Lion everything automatically re-opens to where you left off, so sometimes that is sucky.  In this case I forced closed most everything and I am just trying to get into Mail and it is stalling like an old Chevy that is out of gas on the freeway.  Couple of more reboots to try to clear things up and I’m starting to get that sinking feeling in my stomach.  Something isn’t right; my computer that I spend way too many hours working on every day with doesn’t act like this.

Ok, so I know you are thinking, just run a permissions scan on your drive and that will fix it.  Sure that usually helps get things back in order and clears up a rainbow wheel or two here and there, but this time that wasn’t the case.  So I ran a Verify Disk on my main boot drive, no issues.  Ran it on my main hard drive – OOPS!  There’s a problem, no worries, just run a repair and we will back in business.  Well the particular hard drive I believe had other plans.  Disk Utility comes back and says in bold red letters that it can’t repair the disk, backup your data and reform the drive. WHAT?  That seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it?  Ok, let’s reboot, hold down the option key and startup from a recovery disk.  Everyone has a recovery HD just lying around right, with the OS X Lion repair boot image on it?  Yeah, me neither, so I had to create that before I could attempt the repair boot / scan process.  Once I had trashed an external USB hard drive and put the Lion boot image on it I could try this Disk Repair thing again to see if that helps.  Nope, same error, no luck, ran it several times, several reboots, same error, however problem was only getting worse as the machine was having trouble running almost anything now. 

From another computer I went to and ordered a couple of 3TB Seagate Barracuda XT hard drives, because it looks like I am going to have do this whole backup and reformat process.  Now why two drives you ask, well, sometimes a drive arrives DOA and I didn’t want to prolong this process and as you’ll see later I had other plans for that second drive.  It is Sunday night, so I am requesting Next Day delivery via UPS and I’m expecting to get my drives on Tuesday at the earliest.

Ok, not wanting to give up, I think, well maybe I just need to pull the drives out of the chassis and reseat them, maybe it is just a connection problem and I can be out of this and back in working order.  This sure this sounded like a good idea at the time.  However, by the time I was done pulling drives, swapping positions, and trying many, many system restarts the whole house of cards came tumbling down.  Now I’m stuck at the Apple White Screen of Death and the whole system won’t boot at all.  Damn It!  Why did I have to go and make things worse?  – Whatever I’ll deal with it tomorrow…

After a long and not very restful evening, I’m back in the office in the morning, with the hope that I can get this system at least booting again.  I take the system out from under the desk, disconnect everything, and bring it up on to the desk.  Mac Pro’s are big, heavy, well crafted machines.  I open it up and take out all the three hard drives, both memory cards that hold 12Gb of RAM and the video card just for good measure.  After spending about a ½ hour cleaning and dusting everything off I begin to put everything back into the machine and cross my fingers.  Nothing, but a white screen…  Normally, I would have put the machine in my trunk at this point and gone to the Apple store for some expert advice and some much need handholding and reassurance that everything was going to be all right.   However, we live in Bakersfield, CA and if you know anything about this town, it is at least two hours from everything, including the nearest Apple Store.  So I now have to decide if it is worth ½ a day to drive there and back or keep messing with it on my own.  How much worse can I make it?  Well as it turns out that was bottom and it only gets better from here.  I decided to take out the drive that was giving me trouble and just see if I can boot the machine without it.  Yes!  It boots.  I have another account on the machine that is an administrator account that is stored on the boot partition that let’s me log in successfully.  (Advice: Always have a second Admin Account that is kept on the boot drive if you store your main day to day user profile account on a separate drive as that account won’t be able to log in without access to the user folder – Trust me on this…) 

Ok, so now I’m on to something.  I should be able to recover all my important business related files because I had the foresight to do some things far in advance of this failure.  I have a Time Machine backup, so that should restore most everything once I get a new drive.  I had been excluding some things from my Time Machine backup as they were too large for the smaller disk.  Non-mission critical things like all my iTunes music, movies, tv-shows, podcasts, audio-books, regular books, etc…  Anything that I had bought from iTunes I could get back, but there was a bunch of stuff that I copied from CD’s and DVD’s that I have.  Well, that sucks, but doesn’t stop the earth from spinning.  I am also going to lose all of my Parallels virtual machines, as they are very large and I don’t back them up with Time Machine either.  That really sucks as I have a main Windows 7 64-bit profile that I use all the time and a few others that I use occasionally.  I guess I can recreate them, but it will take time.  Oh the number of security updates for Windows alone will take hours to download and install.   Whatever, at least my data is safe in the cloud and I am able to work from my laptop while I wait for new hard drives to arrive. 

After a few hours of getting some actual work accomplished, I thought I might try putting the bad drive back into the machine and see if I could get it to boot again.  Not sure why I thought this was a good idea, but I really wanted my stuff back.  So after a few attempts, I was able to get the machine to boot with the bad drive connected to the bus.  Not something that I would say was reliable, but it did give me hope that I might be able to recover some data from the drive before it failed completely.  Thus the search for MAC OS X Data Recovery utilities was on.  First up: Disk Warrior – version 4.  I’m sure it is a great program, but didn’t help me at all.  I ran it against the drive and it was able to locate about 79Gb of information out of 900Gb.  Not really the results I was looking for, but the idea is sound.

I was looking around for other tools when I ran into Drive Genius and that immediately led me to Data Rescue – version 3.  Now I was contemplating sending the drive in for data recovery, but I knew how expensive that would be so it wasn’t really an option.  But, if I could use the tools that the professionals use and give them a whirl then I thought why not.  In fact Drive Genius, Data Rescue and a 16Gb thumb drive was on sale from Prosoft Engineering so I picked up the bundle and downloaded Data Rescue to a thumb drive that I already had.  Now all I had to do was wait for the drives to show up…  Where is the UPS guy already!  Checking the UPS tracking number, I was able to see that my drives arrived in Bakersfield at 6:40am and by just after 4:30pm they finally found there way to my office.  Is there only one UPS guy in Bakersfield?  Whatever, they got here and I was able to begin the ultimately data recovery game. 

548063_g1I installed the first new hard drive in the machine as the Mac Pro’s have room for four SATA hard drives.  I asked my computer nicely to behave itself with the new hardware and just boot up.  After several long seconds at the infamous white screen the joyous Apple logo appeared and I knew we were in business.  A few more seconds of the spinning progress indicator under the Apple logo and I was presented with the user login screen.  Success!  The main login didn’t work, I didn’t expect it to, but my backup login did.  I had previously installed Data Rescue and I immediately launched it.  It took several minutes to figure out my machine’s configuration.  It found the bad disk and told me that I was in danger of having a hardware failure.  Really - where were you two days ago, I thought?  It recommended that I clone the bad disk to the new drive and then attempt data recovery from there.  Ok, good idea I thought, but the drives are different sizes, I’ve already created a 3Tb partition on the new drive, etc…  No worries, Data Rescue just confirmed that I didn’t care about the data on the 3Tb drive and began the clone process from the 1Tb drive.  This took many hours to complete, and Data Rescue continued to tell me that the 1Tb drive was about to fail and I should get my data off of it.  Its going as fast as it can I said as I watch the pretty animation of 1’s and 0’s flying from one hard drive platter to a second one!  Five hours later the clone was complete.  Then, in Data Rescue I ran the Quick Scan process to see what it could find on the new drive and it looked like I might be ok as I could see the files and directories for iTunes and for Parallels.  Ok, it’s late, I’m tired and I’ve got work to do tomorrow…

I start by removing the 1Tb drive from the system and install the second 3Tb drive in its place.  I don’t want to name it the same as the old drive for fear of mixing things up somewhere down the road.  The clone drive doesn’t come up automatically when I boot the machine, OS X complains about the cloned volume being corrupt and therefore it can’t mount, however volume is viewable in Data Rescue. That doesn’t sound good, but fine I’ve come this far let’s continue.  So with a new fresh 3Tb volume partitioned and available, I start by restoring my Time Machine backup.  Let’s get things back in order I thought and then we can worry about data recovery later.  The process is simple – startup as an administrator on the machine, find the folder that you want to recover and just enter into Time Machine.  From there go back to the latest time that you see your data and have it restore it.  Well that’s all well and good, but I changed volume names, so that wasn’t as easy as I would have hoped.  But there are enough options in Time Machine to get it to restore the data to a different volume.  Right click is your friend – use it. 

First Attempt:  Time Machine unrecoverable data error – WTF!  This is ridiculous I thought… However, I’ve been through enough backup/restore processes in the past that if at first you don’t succeed, try your backup/restore process again.  I swear, I didn’t do anything different the second time, but I got prompted for user credentials for my main day to day account and the Time Machine data restore was off and running.  Encouraged by the small victory, I went back to work while it spent many hours recovering user directory.  Once finished, I had to go into system preferences -> user accounts, right click on the main day to day account, choose advanced options and change my user directory to point to the new hard drive.  Seems simple enough, but somehow I messed it up and upon my first reboot / login attempt on the main account it gave me the same unable to login error.  I logged in through the backup account, checked everything, found that didn’t change for some reason, corrected it again, checked it this time, logged out, and logged in to my main account. 

It was a great feeling to see the familiar dock icons come up – then lots and lots of programs just started loading – all the things that had been loaded when the last Time Machine backup had been completed I’m assuming.  Now, I work on a lot of projects at the same time, and about twenty-five windows and programs just kept opening and complaining – No Internet access, no second monitor, no peripherals – nothing and they all wanted to tell me about.  I thought the voice over was a rapper as it kept trying to tell me that something needed my attention.  Ok – I get it; don’t get your CPU’s in a bunch; calm down.  I closed everything while I thanked Apple for the auto resume feature once again…   Then I started checking things.  Contacts – good, documents – good, mail – it wants to import everything – fine I’ll get back to that.  Most everything looked good, except that I know that the Parallels data files are missing and iTunes is empty.   So onward to Data Recovery... 

f03b96I run the Data Recovery tool inside Data Rescue.  It begins to chug away at my cloned hard drive moving the files and directories over to the new hard drive, or so I am led to believe.  After many hours of pretty animations of 1’s and 0’s flying into what looks like a small explosion where different file icons emerge and fly into a recovered data folder it finally finishes and pronounces, Successful Data Recovery.  I guess that machines and people have different definitions of successful data recovery.  I started iTunes and it jumps in my face and tells me that my library file is corrupt or missing and I need a new one.  Hmm – ok, fine, do that.  I then get the nice clean welcome to iTunes screen with no music, no nothing.  A look through my finder shows me many many files in my iTunes library, so I’ll tell it to go search and I’ll spend many hours putting everything back into some sort of semblance another day.  ITunes diligently goes off and chugs against 550Gb of stuff and almost too quickly comes back and says that it is done.  I think – Wow these new hard drives are fast – however only 79 files were added to my iTunes library.  There should be like 4,700 or so – what happened?  I click on a few to try and play them and my first reaction is – hey, that isn’t that song, nor the next one, umm - that’s a podcast not a song, whoa that sounds like R2D2, what the heck is going on?

It turns out that Data Rescue’s Data Recovery is very much like the scene in the 1986 movie “The Fly” when Seth Brundle first attempts to teleport the baboon – you know when the pod opens and the baboon is all turned inside out.  Yeah, that’s what happened to my files - 1’s where posing as 0’s and 0’s were clustering together when they shouldn’t be, it was just digital pandemonium.  Ok, that sucked and the Data Recovery tool really gave the impression that it knew what it was doing with my files…  Well maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t, I don’t really know.

Now in all the chaos over the last few days, I had read a few (many) blogs and articles on the subject of data recovery.  I remember reading somewhere that said the really cool feature of Data Rescue was the clone feature and the fact that it somehow put the bad volume that couldn’t be mounted by OS X on your desktop while it was loaded.  I looked and there it was, my old volume was indeed there.  I clicked on it with finder, and there were files in there.  Whoa, I said, can I just copy the files I want – I did a quick look on a couple of music file and they played so I thought, what the hell, can’t be worse that what I just did.  I deleted everything that Data Recovery just attempted to get back for me and I used basic Finder to move the files from the clone volume to the new volume.  550Gb of iTunes stuff and 200+Gb of Parallels images and who’s your uncle, I had my stuff back!  I launched iTunes and instead of being yelled at that my library was corrupt, there were all my files, music, playlists, movies, tv-shows, podcasts, etc…  I had the Internet connected at this point and it even began downloading new stuff like nothing had ever happened.  My Apple TV even popped up back in the list – which is amazing all on it’s own, because I am forever putting in a code for the first generation thing to be found.  Next, after telling Parallels that the .PVM files had just moved to a new volume, even Windows 7 started without any trouble at all.  I continued to check around for a bit but finally called it and said data recovery complete!  Now let’s get this machine back under the desk where it belongs – it really puts out some heat…

I hooked everything back up Wednesday afternoon.  I booted the machine, logged back in and began the final steps.  I renamed my Dropbox folder and had to go through the steps to relink my account, once that was done it had download 26Gb of business documents and files from my account, which it was apparently happy to do.  I launched mail and finally said go for it – import your heart out.  A couple of hours later and I am back in business, good as new!

I came into the office and was able to get back on the main computer to do some work and it feels good.  All my mail has been located – thanks to Time Machine, which also recovered my preferences, contacts and a host of other things.  My iTunes and Parallels are back thanks to Data Rescue – as unorthodox as the data recovery was.  I’ll bet if I read the manual there was a better way to get my data back – who reads software product user manuals anyway?  I don’t believe that I lost any data throughout this whole ordeal; I did lose many daylight hours, some sleep, and a little bit of color in my hair, although there wasn’t much color left to begin with…

After a day of good works - I have re-partitioned the clone disk and set it up to be a 3Tb Time Machine backup and I am currently in the process of having everything backed up in Time Machine – all 886.1Gb of stuff.  I highly recommend a good plan for data backup as all hard drives are going to fail.  It is just what preparations you have put in place when they do.  Lastly, thanks to Newegg – for a quick delivery on some much needed hard drives, and general thanks for some good luck and fortuitous outcomes in data restoration. Lucky Bamboo Indeed!

Thanks for reading…

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James Nagy

James NagyJames Nagy

Co-Founder and Managing Director of Sprocket Websites, Inc.; Co-Founder Chicago Area DotNetNuke Users Group; Co-Founder and Managing Partner of J&S Tech Designs, LLC

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Full biography

I am an entrepreneur - and there is nothing like being your own boss and owning your own business. I own a Consulting business, J&S Tech Designs, LLC with my wife and business partner Susan. I also own a Website Design, Development, Services & Marketing business, Sprocket Websites, Inc. with my partners Susan, Don and Kate. My passion is in helping businesses grow and prosper through use of technology and creative innovation.


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