Backups and Failing Hard Drives

Once upon a time...

My 2012-vintage MacBook Pro was getting creaky with the piling on of 5 years of OS upgrades, so in May of this year (2017) I bought a SSD from Crucial to give it a boost. At the time I noted that the Mac's original 500GB drive was beginning to hint that it might be unwell (I've no specific notes on what this hinting might have amounted to) and that my experience of this to date has been that the Mac tells you the hardware's totally fine until the very moment it drops the disk heads onto the platter and writes its name across your data. So, twofold reason to get drive. A couple of evenings of tooling around with disk copying and OS install tools and I'd managed to swap the new drive into the drive bay on the Mac. Hooray!

Now, I'm rather paranoid about backups. I've lost a bunch of stuff over the years, most notably and annoyingly all my photos from a holiday in Honduras in 1999, and every system upgrade of one sort or another has resulted in a trail of old files archived somewhere that sometimes I go to the trouble of pruning and merging into current hardware, sometimes not. In any case, Macs tend to make this easy: you can have Time Machine do local snapshots (good as long as you have disk space and the drive doesn't fail) and snapshots to a Time Capsule aka remote disk share. I prefer the latter, since it means you're not putting all your eggs in one basket. However, I've also installed Arq, so I get periodic backups to "the Cloud"; since my Time Machine backups are to a local machine on the home LAN, the Arq backups serve as my offsite backups.

It's worth adding a note on the Time Capsule setup here: it's a 2009-ish Mac Mini, purchased as a refurb model, with a Drobo (also pre-owned!) hooked up to the firewire port. Over the course of several years the Drobo has been upgraded to the point where it's now carrying a 4TB disk and 3 2TB disks, and frankly the concept of a 2TB disk terrifies me, but the bigger problem than "how much data is stored on this small, book-sized slab that can fail at any time?" is that a firewire interface is not the fastest thing in the world, nor is the Mac Mini the fastest server in the world, and the whole thing runs rather slugglishly when it gets busy with, say, Spotlight indexing or whatever.

Or restoration of 300GB of MacBook. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On October 9th, about six months after I'd installed the SSD, I had some weird problems that smelled disk-related. I rebooted the machine and it did a bit of disk cleaning on the way back up, so I immediately took a rsync backup of my home directory onto the Mac Mini's internal drive (not on the Drobo, so faster), and in the course of doing this the MacBook locked up hard. Uh-oh. Rebooting produced a long stream of disk errors and no actual booting. After a bunch of tinkering and experimentation I turned it off, let it cool down, and restarted it from a recovery disk to copy off the rest of my home directory. Ok, data safe, time to do actual recovery work.

At this point I was interrupted by: a business trip to London, a failed dishwasher, a need to replace the dishwasher ASAP because of the next thing, which was a ten-day trip to Seattle, and and and. Basically the sick Mac sat untouched for a couple of weeks with me unable to do anything to it for lack of sufficient free time.

Finally finding some time, I figured I'd just restore from backup. Find the old HDD, boot from recovery, restore from Time Machine. Please wait six to ten days for data to restore. Ok, not quite that bad, but where the Mac Mini / Drobo combination is slow normally, it got really slow when I was trying to pull the backup off it. Being impatient, I started fiddling around:

Eventually, I did this horrible thing: got myself a USB/SATA adapter that would support a 2TB drive (cos I had one knocking around from a previous Drobo upgrade), used Disk Utility to "restore" the entire Time Machine Volume onto said 2TB drive so it now looks like a Time Machine Volume, not a Time Capsule, plugged that into the MacBook, and then restored. Getting the data onto the 2TB drive (remember, Drobo + firewire + slow Mac + yes, I have about 1.5TB of backups for the MacBook) took about a week. Literally. Not exaggerating. Restoring it to the MacBook was a bit faster and was done in two days. Once all that was done I was back in business.

Or so I thought. About a day later, the laptop froze again, and this time when it came back it declared there to be no hard drives in the system. Judicious poking around established that it's most likely the disk controller gone AWOL, and I suspect that's going to require a logic board replacement. I've taken the hard drive out and plugged it into another USB/SATA adapter, so I'm typing this with the hard drive sitting next to the laptop on the end of a 15cm cable. Guess I'll be looking for Mac repair shops this weekend.


Waider