You’re only as safe as your last backup

This week, for the second time in a year, I lost the hard drive in my main computer, a 2010 ThinkPad W510 running Windows 8. I swear I was good to the computer – I don’t know why this second Seagate 500GB drive (yes, the first one was too!) decided to hit the floor. I’ve had so many hardware problems with this system – BSODs, weird display problems, and more, over the last year, that rather than try to jam it back together for one more gig with the band, I am putting my ThinkPad out to pasture, and have replaced it.

I’ll tell you what – when you have a HDD fail, Twitter is all aflutter with people offering posthumous advice on what you could have done to avoid data loss. SkyDrive, CrashPlan, Dropbox, Windows 8 backup utilities… Like free advice, everybody had wisdom to offer… Unfortunately, it was too late. The damage was done. While I didn’t lose the latest draft of my book (THANKS SkyDrive!!!), I did lose an article draft I had been working on for some time. I’m not happy about that. Here’s how it happened.

On Wednesday morning, the date of my PC’s demise, I got up early, as I often have to do, to take my eldest to ice skating before school. The day before, I had checked out a key work file from our work file server (classic SMB Windows server file share, not SharePoint). Failure 1: I skipped a step, and pulled it locally, instead of archiving it to the server and making a copy. Our process is arcane and complex at times, but it works. The document was a rather complex outline for a lengthy piece around SharePoint Search.

While I was working at the skating rink, I wrote a good 1,000 words, getting towards more than half of the article. Failure 2: I was working with the file on my desktop, not my SkyDrive folder. Failure 3: I wasn’t on the Internet while I was at the skating rink – they have no free WiFi available. As I wrote the piece, I noticed that my system was behaving really erratically. Apps were hanging and whitescreening, only to eventually come back. Running Process Explorer, I couldn’t see anybody pegging the CPU, so I couldn’t find an obvious culprit to blame. Looking back, the warning signs of impending HDD failure were all there. I had a bunch of USB Flash Drives (UFDs) with me, so I could have, and should have copied the file off. At the moment, I’m so terrified of HDD data loss, that I’m saving things into synchronized folders all over the place, and backing up everything to everywhere.

When my daughter was done skating, we headed home, and my wife took her and her sister to school as I headed to the office. I logged on, and my computer failed to resume – it was hibernated, and tried starting – only to BSOD. After the BSOD, it just hung at the Windows 8 whirligig on the boot screen. Once put in any other machine, the drive simply clicks away, and fails to mount. Dead.

Fortunately, I had been using Windows 8’s File History to back up my files. Failure 4: Because I was using it with an external USB HDD, I was inconsistent about backing it up, and hadn’t done so in a week. Meaning my outline file was dead. Gone. MIA.

I have to look back at my criticism of Windows To Go and even renew it a bit. The thought of creating content on the go, unless you have WiFi or 3G/4G connectivity back to SharePoint, SkyDrive, Dropbox, etc, it’s an invitation to lose work as I did.

I often say that if you make a user opt-in to a process, they never will. My new backup mechanism involves technologies that all happen in the background, automatically, and don’t let me opt out, as I had done with Windows 8’s File History. Though nothing aside from me bailing the file before the HDD died on Wednesday could have saved it, at least I would have had the outline from backing it up earlier. But through a series of lazy step skipping on my behalf, I hosed myself. I am disappoint.

Given that I’ve had three HDDs die on me over the last year, and have lost a spot of data during all of them other than my iMac dying (thanks to Time Machine), I still ponder why modern operating systems seem to have inadequate or ineffective means to tell the user that their drive is failing and about to die.

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