A Damaged Hard Drive Can Ruin Your Whole Day - Hooray for Backups!

Dan Knight - 2003.03.28 - Tip Jar

Thank goodness for backups, utility software, and partitioned hard drives. After spending most of Thursday and Friday with a damaged hard drive, I'm thrilled to be up and running again. We finally posted our first site update since early Thursday morning at just before 3:00 p.m. today.

I don't think we've had site updates this late in the day since I worked an IT job full time and did Low End Mac after I got home from work. I also don't think we've gone a day-and-a-half without new content in years (excluding weekends and holidays, of course).

What Happened?

Thursday morning Software Update launched and asked if I wanted to install the latest security update, which had been out since Monday. I hadn't heard anything bad about it, so I installed it, rebooted my TiBook, and nothing has been quite the same since. (For the record, I don't think the Security Update had anything to do with the drive problem, but you never know....)

The problem didn't manifest itself when browsing or working with email, but when I tried to do a global search-and-replace throughout the site, it became evident that something was very, very wrong. BBEdit Lite, which is usually such a speed demon, would pause for maybe 30 seconds, maybe two minutes, as it tried to read files. I'd never seen anything like it before.

When the problem didn't disappear with a reboot, I decided to boot into OS 9 and run some utilities - Disk First Aid, the AppleCare version of TechTool, and Norton Utilities. Disk First Aid and TechTool didn't find the problem; I'm sure DiskWarrior 2.1 would have missed it, too, if I'd been able to locate the CD.

Norton Disk Doctor

Norton, on the other hand, found such a big problem running the surface scan on my work partition that it just hung at the same spot. I booted back into OS X, ran Apple's Disk Utility, and it found nothing, but Norton hung at exactly the same spot. Nothing could make it go past that point during the media scan.

Backing Up

I'd been working on a mailbag piece, among other things, and didn't want to lose that or any other changes I'd made so far that morning, so I connected my old 10 GB drive (the one that came inside my TiBook and now lives in a FireWire enclosure) and tried to copy everything from my work disk to the external drive. Like Norton, it would get so far and then hang up.

Booting back into OS 9, I tried the same thing, hoping that Copy Agent would be able to work around the trouble. No luck. Back and forth. Try this. Try that. Get nowhere - and then it was time to go to work.

Before I left, I launched File Synchronization in hopes it might succeed where regular copying and Copy Agent had failed. Almost. It came a lot closer, but it also strained against the bad part of the hard drive.

I had another go at it Thursday night, but although File Synchronization strove valiantly to copy everything, the drive problems made it incredibly slow. So I canceled and resolved to tackle it again Friday morning.

In the end, it was a combination of File Synchronization, Copy Agent, and Retrospect that let me get back to work - and it still took hours.


I booted into OS 9 and used Copy Agent to move all of the loose files from the bad partition's main directory to a folder on the FireWire drive. Then I dragged the folders over one by one, noting which ones hung things up. Folders affected by the damaged hard drive included the System Folder, the Norton folder, and the folder where I keep my working copy of Low End Mac.

I trashed the System Folder and Norton folder, since I could copy the first from my main partition if I needed to and reinstall Norton from a CD. The important thing was to recover as much of LEM as possible, so I opened the folder and dragged folders from the damaged partition to the LEM folder on the external drive. And I noted where the problems were.

Then I ran Norton on the external drive. It identified a few mangled files, which I trashed. With any luck at all, I'd have 99.99% recovery (LEM has well over 10,000 files).

After this, I erased the troublesome partition and ran another Norton surface scan. Same story. The damage appeared to be physical, not something in software like crosslinked files or a damaged filing system. It does look like I'll need to replace the hard drive, which I've had for less than a year.

But back to site recovery. After trashing the damaged files, I synchronized the copy of LEM on the external drive with my backup copy on my main partition using File Synchronization. The deleted files were back where they belonged, although they might have been slightly older versions than what had been lost.

After this, the next step was to set up my backup computer, which I'd moved earlier in the day while Norton was trying to fix things, and get all of the site files back from the most recent backup. As luck would have it, that backup was about one hour before the problems began.

I restored yet another copy of my LEM working files to my main partition and then synchronized it with the copy on the external drive telling it to use the most recent version of any file where the time stamp was different.

It worked. I ended up with a couple damaged files after all that, but one I had yet another local copy of, and the other I'll still have to get from an earlier backup. But at that point I had recovered my files.

An Ounce of Prevention

Redundant backups are never a bad idea. Low End Mac is hosted on a remote server, so even if my house burns down or my TiBook is stolen, there's going to be a copy of it. And I also have two CD-R copies of the website - one by the computer and another copy at my other job. These aren't quite current, but in a pinch I could use the CD-R to recover a file that had somehow been mangled.

Then there are the two local copies. I kept my working copies on a separate partition and used File Synchronization about once a day to duplicate it to my main partition. This is useful mostly when I forget to rename today's article before I edit and save it. Oops, get it from the main partition.

Finally, there's good old Retrospect network backup. In our cyberlair (what would be a family room in a home with less geeks) sits my old SuperMac J700 with a single task to do - run network backup. It does this at about 50 MB per minute to an 80 MB FireWire hard drive, and recovery from the drive is nearly as fast as backing up. That was a nice lesson to learn today; prior to switching to FireWire, I'd been using tape drives, and file recovery was always a long, slow process that involved two or three tape swaps.

Fortunately I'm a firm believer in backups. At this point I still haven't checked the status of the mailbag column I was working on before I decided to install the security update, but at the very worst I'll be able to recover it from the outgoing mail folder in Apple's Mail program.

Benefits of the Crash

Can anything good come of this kind of hard drive failure? Perhaps. It definitely reinforces my conviction that backup is important. Regular backup. Redundant backup.

I'm also grateful that I do partition my hard drives, since if I hadn't done so I would have lost the whole 20 GB drive instead of only a 2 GB partition. In a pinch, I could have set up an external 3.5" FireWire drive, but I would have completely lost my portability. And my old 10 GB drive just doesn't have the space for the 12-13 GB of files on my computer.

Working with an external bus-powered FireWire hard drive keeps me portable, although it is one extra piece to carry. It may also be a bit more efficient. Maybe.

Here's my thinking on that. My main hard drive is a fast 5400 rpm unit with an 8 MB data buffer, but both partitions had to share that buffer. The 10 GB Toshiba drive doesn't spin as fast or have as large a buffer, but the whole buffer is used just for my website files. Further, the FireWire bus may be more efficient than the IDE bus used by the internal drive - I've certainly found that a fast FireWire drive can run circles around even the 20 GB 5400 rpm TravelStar.

Finally, this convinced me to stop postponing ordering the DiskWarrior 3.0 upgrade. Not only will this be a full featured utility program that boots and runs in OS X, but it has a new feature that can monitor your drives looking for potential failure. I have to wonder if that would have caught this problem before it became so big.

Peace of Mind

Once upon a time I backed LEM up to a Zip disk, but we've grown too big for that. I've been doing network backups at home for years, something I learned all about in my IT job years ago. With a backup, you can recover from almost any disaster that doesn't level the building. Been there. Done that.

Whether you back up crucial files to floppy, Zip, CD-ROM, your .mac storage space, or a network server, it's always a good idea to have at least one backup of anything that's important. I've never had a hard drive problem like this before, and without backup the situation would be a lot worse than it is tonight.

Bad stuff happens. With multiple backups, you should be able to recover from almost all of it.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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