Backup disasters: How you can avoid them

As poet Robert Burns famously put it, the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley, that is, they often go awry. Im thinking of those lines as I struggle to clean up a backup and subsequent hard drive replacement that went seriously wrong.

Im not exactly a bozo when it comes to hands-on work with a PC; Im very diligent about backing up my work; I hold on to installation disks of programs Ive purchased and keep an eye on the health of my system. So I was surprised, and yes, a bit embarrassed, when it looked like Id lost some 4,000 emails (including archives), most of the playlists in my iTunes library and the use of the fairly expensive Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Ultimately, I managed to solve nearly all of the problems I created for myself. Here are five essential tips to keep your well-planned backup from going astray. Remember, the best backup in the world is useless if you dont have a logical way to restore that data.

  • Be sure you really understand the backup procedures that are part of many programs, particularly e-mail, password managers and iTunes.
  • Test your backup/recovery every now and then to be sure it actually works the way you want it to. That includes backups to the cloud.
  • Don't make the mistake of installing recovery software on a drive that may become inaccessible.
  • If you've purchased software, you've got to keep more than the original install disks; make note of the security key that many publishers annoyingly put on the package, not the disks. If you've downloaded the software, be sure you keep a copy of the key on an external drive. And although it's annoying, fill out those registrations forms you get on install and send them in.
  • If you're replacing a hard drive that still works (maybe it's simply too small), keep it in a USB enclosure so you can pull data off it in a pinch.

Read the help files first

I really do live in my e-mail. I contact so many people from so many companies and organizations that putting all of those contacts into a database or text files is simply too laborious. And the mails contain much more than just contact information. I simply would be hamstrung without them.

Rather than use Web mail, I keep my e-mail on a local drive using Thunderbird Mozilla as my mail client. Not only does that keep everything handy whether I'm online or not, but I can do a really good job indexing it with Thunderbird's built-in capabilities plus a handy desktop search application called Copernic.

What's not to like? Thunderbird's backup scheme (you knew I was going there, didnt you?) is kind of wonky and not built in. You've got to root around your hard drive and find a profile folder and copy that to another drive. It should be transparent, say the friendly geeks on the Thunderbird boards. But it appears, and I admit that I still dont quite understand why everything doesn't moves smoothly when the profile is copied.

So when I reinstalled the program, I had none of my e-mails. I didn't panic - not at first anyway. I went on the Web, rechecked the instructions and again copied the folder from my backup on an external drive to my new "C" drive. Nope. Still didn't work, though when I looked harder at the backup I found most of the folders, but none of the several thousand e-mails that were simply in the inbox.

To begin with, here are two things to help you avoid this problem. If youre not using Web-based email, (and maybe a lesson here is that it does have advantages) be really, really sure you understand the backup and recovery procedures.

The way I solved the problem - at about two in the morning - was this: Because I was so concerned about losing stuff, I kept my old hard drive and spent $35 for a USB enclosure that allowed me to use it as an external drive. I then searched it using keywords I knew were in the e-mails and found the inbox, hidden deeply in a nest of obscure directories. Yikes, what a pain. But that leads me to suggestion number two: if you're old hard drive isn't dead, keep it because you may need to pull stuff off it.

What not to throw away

Another lesson: I have a very large Seagate external drive I use for backup and a place to store big photo and music directories I don't need on my laptop. It came with a nice little program that automates backups and restores. But I carelessly installed the software on my local drive, and when I replaced it, I couldn't do the automated restore, but rather had to drag and drop everything. Pretty dumb. So thats lesson number three: Store backup software on an external drive.

As I mentioned, I had a problem when I tried to reinstall Adobe's Photoshop Elements. After I loaded the software it asked me for the registration key. It wasn't on the CD; frustratingly, it resides on that long ago recycled box. Fortunately, I had registered it, so when I went to the Adobe Web site I was able to retrieve the order number and give that to someone in sales who then gave me the key. All of that took some time that I wouldn't have wasted if I had simply jotted down the key when I bought the software.

Finally, iTunes. Here's the Apple support page I should have looked at, but didn't, and wasted lots of time finding my playlists and ringtones.

I'm up and running with almost nothing lost - except a bunch of time I'll never get back and a few hours of sleep. Hopefully, you'll avoid the pitfalls that I didn't, and keep your backup from going astray.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline

Read more about security in CIO's Security Drilldown.

Tags PCapplicationsUtilitiesTechnology TopicssoftwarephotoshopmozillaiTunesseagateappleTechnology Topics | Securitysecuritybackupe-mail

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)

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