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Archive for February, 2011

Just for the record, disk and other hardware failures can and do happen to everyone, and being techno-savvy really doesn’t decrease your chances of this happening.  Neither does being a techno-ignoramus.  It can and will happen, sooner or later, to everyone.  Or, perhaps your laptop will be stolen, or your house will burn with your desktop machine destroyed.  So then, are you ready to recover?  I’m going to discuss my experience in both planning for, and recovering from, a total disk drive failure.  Hopefully it will help you prepare for the experience.

Preparation is about 98% of the battle here, and I’m often dumbfounded at the number of people who are not willing to spend any time to do this.  They don’t backup their data, they don’t know what programs they are using, they don’t know where the CDs are, and especially they don’t have backups of their pictures.  Then, when the inevitable happens, they wander around beating their breasts and rending their garments and saying with incredulity, “is everything really gone?  Forever?”  To them, all I can say is, “yes.”

Preparation

First and foremost, of course, is to have your data backed up to somewhere outside your house.  Go ahead and back it up locally to one of these little external drives if you wish, but even then get another copy of it stored elsewhere.  There are several ways to do this; I have used Jungle Disk, a good solution, but now I’m using Carbonite, which has the advantage of running all the time and backing files up whenever you modify them, to one of the Carbonite data centers.  It’s basic configuration backs up not only your data, music, and pictures, but lots of system-level profiles and stuff so when you do a whole restore, you get a very complete restoration of the machine as you’re used to seeing it.  In addition to this, I use a utility program, MozBackup, to save my Thunderbird-resident email data.

Then, the matter of passwords and website identities.  There are several approaches here, too, including Password Safe, which I used to use, and LastPass, which I now use.  I discuss these options here so I won’t do it again.  LastPass  has also the advantage of being “cloud-resident” so you can access it whenever / wherever so while you’re waiting for your machine to emerge from the Service Department, you will have access to these sites as you yourself, by accessing your LastPass vault from another computer.

This brings up another point, that in addition to preparing yourself to recover your machine, you should plan to get along on borrowed machines while you’re waiting.  Your data files are remotely-accessible from Jungle Disk or Carbonite, so you have data, and Lastpass or Password Safe will let you get at your passwords, but if you use an email client (Thunderbird) as I do, and especially if you have multiple email accounts (as I certainly do!), make sure you know how to get to your mail provider’s webmail portal.  If you use Gmail or another web-resident email system, you already know this and don’t have the same problem.

If you have a lot of programs loaded on your machine, beyond the usual Microsoft etc. programs, it helps to have a list of them — I have about 80 “other” programs of all kinds so this is a big issue with me.  What I do is use the command-line interface (cmd.exe), change my directory to \program files, and execute the following:  dir /b \users\[yourusername]\programs and this will give you  a list of at least every directory that has a program in it, stored in a file called “programs”.  You can figure it out from there.  If you have a 64-bit Windows machine, you will also have to cd to \program files (x86) to get the 32-bit programs, too, and then if you say:  dir /b >> \users\[yourusername]\programs you will have an almost-complete list.  I say “almost” because some of them install inside these directories and there might be three or four actual programs in a directory with the company name on it, so it won’t tell you what actual programs you have installed.  I got fooled by this situation a couple of times.

Linux users have a neat way to do this using apt-get, which will dump all the apt-get commands to a file, which when executed, will reinstall all this stuff in one swell foop.  If you do Linux, look into the apt-get options.

And then finally I strongly recommend that you dump your bookmarks to a text or HTML file, located somewhere Carbonite or whatever will back it up, so you can get to your favorite hundred or so websites without having to remember their URLs.  More on this below.

Recovery

So then, drive croaks, and off to the repair depot it goes.  Thanks to a combination of Carbonite, LastPass, my dumped email addresses, and my dumped bookmarks, I had a reasonable ability to function, cyber-wise, for the three days they had it.  I had access to secured machines both at home and the office, and both Windows and Linux, so I wasn’t afraid to open up my LastPass vault on them.  So, plan went as planned thus far.

Since the drive was dead anyway, I elected to use this as an opportunity to switch from Windows Vista Business 32-bit to Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. They delivered it to me with Win 7 on it, and I immediately used Win Backup to create a system backup file on my external hard drive.  I could have used one of several other OS-image programs but I used the Win system utility.  Then, without taking a moment to do anything else whatsoever, I launched out onto the Internet and downloaded and installed Avast! anti-virus and scanned the whole machine.  So for this machine I’ll be using Win Firewall + Avast! in place of Zone Alarm, which has gotten rather bloated since CheckPoint bought them.  I reviewed the Win Firewall settings, made sure it was on, and then proceeded.

I decided to load as many of my other programs as I could, and then take another OS backup, before I loaded the data back on.  First of course came FireFox, so I had a decent browser to work with, and then the LastPass FireFox plug-in. This immediately reminded me that I wasn’t sure what plug-ins I had loaded, surprise.  So I sat and wracked my brain to remember them.   Then, I just pretty much worked down my list and installed away.  It was at this point that I discovered how many license keys I had managed to not save in LastPass, so I was scrambling to find them, and sometimes I couldn’t until I had recovered my Thunderbird mail files, where I had saved all my registration-response emails.  So, this was another wake-up!

After about 8 solid hours of reloading programs, and reconfiguring them where I had to, I took another system image and launched into data recovery.  Because of the OS change, I couldn’t just have Carbonite restore the whole works because some file locations had changed.  So I had to hand-place some of them — tedious, but it worked.  I suppose the whole data restore took perhaps another 8 elapsed hours, in several chunks due to the directory repositioning.  I timed these for periods when I was going out of the house, or for at night, so elapsed-wise, it was about 2 days more — but I brought back some stuff first so I was pretty well in business right away.  Carbonite gives you this option, to preferentially load certain files first.

Takeaways

  • Preparing for disaster is dull and boring, but it’s almost all that matters.  Do it, and do it well, or die and don’t cry.
  • Making sure you can function without your own computer for a week or so will improve the quality of your life more than you can imagine.
  • There are lots of little things that contribute to sanity, such as license keys, written email addresses, and bookmark lists.  You might consider putting the last two, periodically, on a USB drive you can use with any machine in the interim.  Update it once in a while, and you are in good shape.
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