The Trouble with Time Machine

I guess it’s the 21st century equivalent to getting a lump of coal in my stocking. I don’t know which of my many moral failures led to my name appearing on the Naughty List, but my MacBook’s hard drive crashed on Christmas morning.

To understand what a disaster this might be, you need to know that my computer runs my life. Not only does it have my calendar, all my business records and patient data (carefully encrypted), source code to my many web sites and programs, and a collection of critical encryption and digital certificate keys; it has keys to all the other computers, accounts, websites, and such on which I rely for my day-to-day activities. Security on my server farm is controlled by keys that are hundreds of digits long, and the passwords I use are tens of digits of gobbledygook. They are not memorizable. I rely on Apple’s keychain and a password server utility, 1Password, to keep track of them.

When you’re so heavily invested in having a computer available, it’s essential to have good backups. I usually use a program called SuperDuper! that makes bootable “clones” of my laptop. If my laptop’s drive fails for any reason, I just plug one of my backups in a keep right on computing.

Problem #1: SuperDuper! and Leopard

My best laid plans, however, were foiled because a Mac OS X Leopard-compatible version of SuperDuper! has yet to be released. While waiting for SuperDuper, I have been relying on Apple’s Time Machine feature for backup.

Problem #2: Time Machine disks aren’t bootable

Time Machine is nice, but the backup disks it manages cannot be used to start your computer. Without a bootable external drive, there was no way to start my machine.

But wait! I could use the Leopard install DVD to install Mac OS X on the Time Machine disk, and work from there…

Problem #3: Leopard won’t install on most disks without repartitioning

When I tried to install Leopard on my external drive, I got a message that the install would erase all the data on my drive. Even though I had used Leopard to erase and prepare the disk initially. Even though one of Leopard’s features is that you can repartition without erasing the drive. It turns out that Leopard requires a special partitioning scheme on bootable drives. Unless you’ve used Disk Utility to completely repartition your disk, you won’t be able to install a bootable system on it!

I wasn’t about to erase my backup disk. Back to the drawing board.

Against the eventuality that something other than a disk drive failure renders my MacBook unusable, I maintain a fully-functional Aluminum G4 PowerBook as a backup computer. Getting back to work should just be a matter of restoring one of my Time Machine backups to the PowerBook and scraping the sticky layers of spilled juice and jam off of it (the machine doubles as a toy for my two year old son Joshua).

Problem #4: Western Digital Passport drives are incompatible with PowerBook G4 computers

I fired up Time Machine on the PowerBook, plugged in the backup drive, and…

Nothing. Neither Time Machine nor Disk Utility can even see the backup drive.

It turns out that the backup drive requires more power from the USB port than the PowerBook can provide.

Problem #5: Time Machine won’t restore a disk without a system on it

I limped through the next day using the PowerBook without any of my recent files on it while waiting for my new drive to be delivered. It came, I installed it (trivially easy on the MacBook following this video), re-partitioned it, and tried to restore my Time Machine backup, but Time Machine wouldn’t even show the new disk as a destination. In desperation, I installed Leopard on the new drive. As part of the initial configuration of Leopard, it offered to restore from a Time Machine backup. Alas…

Problem #6: Time Machine doesn’t do a complete backup/restore!

After waiting hours and hours to install Leopard and then restore from the Time Machine backup, I discovered that Time Machine doesn’t restore system files. I had to update the system using Software Update (time consuming, but not a tragedy). Worse, however, is the fact that I had modified some system files and the modified files were not restored by Time Machine! Those files can be restored manually, but that means figuring out which files I modified and restoring each of them individually.

I can understand why someone might want to restore everything except the system, as they might be trying to recover from a malware infestation. I can also understand that Apple doesn’t want Time Machine to provide a mechanism for bootlegging Leopard. But the inability to quickly and accurately recover from a disk crash is a serious limitation to Time Machine.

I’m pretty sure everything is restored and working. As a bonus, I now have a 200 GB drive spinning at 7200 RPM, replacing the 80 GB 4200 RPM factory drive. Bigger, faster, cheaper — even after 34 years this industry continues to amaze.

Prior to this, I thought I was being a bit paranoid keeping multiple backups in multiple locations and maintaining a functioning backup laptop. Now I’m wondering if I might even need yet another layer of redundancy.

Ron – 31 Dec 2007