High Variance

Crashed Disks, Imperfect Backup Strategies, and Lessons Learned

I work regularly with two computers. At home, I have an iMac with a big drive that is on all the time. At the office (and everywhere else) I use a MacBook Air. All my documents and data are stored on Dropbox and I use Subsonic to stream my home music collection wherever I happen to be. If I watched movies, I could probably do the same with them. With this setup, I am equally productive on both machines and it doesn’t take that much work to keep apps and preferences in sync.

I used to think I had the perfect backup system. At home, my iMac’s internal drive is backed up to an external disk with Time Machine and to the cloud with BackBlaze. Since all my documents and data live in Dropbox, they’re duplicated (along with old versions) in Dropbox’s cloud. My Macbook Air has almost nothing sacred outside Dropbox and until recently, I thought that if the disk failed, all I’d have to do is reinstall my apps (just a few minutes work with the App Store) and I’d be back in business. I was wrong.

About two weeks ago, it happened: my Air’s disk failed: The only thing that showed up on my screen was a blinking Folder icon with a question mark in the center. I quickly dropped off the machine at the local Apple store for service and muddled along for a few days with my old ThinkPad Hackintosh. When I finally picked up my repaired machine, it had a pristine installation of Lion and nothing else. I brought it home, installed Dropbox, and let LAN Sync work its magic over the local wifi and in a couple hours my documents and data were back. Then, with the press of a button I installed my 25 or so App Store apps.

That’s when I realized just how many apps I rely on are NOT in the App Store. They fall into four broad categories:

1. Apps that break Apple’s sandboxing rules

Several really useful utilities want to insert themselves deeper into the operating system than Apple would like.

1Password: Lets me use ridiculously long strings of unguessable gobbledy gook for passwords without having to remember them. Also securely holds all my account numbers, credit card numbers and plugs this stuff into web pages as needed.

Alfred: After a simple Command-Space I can type short incantations to make amazing things happen. You really need to check out the web page to see how awesome and productivity-enhancing this is.

TextExpander: I type short things like “;s” in any app and TextExpander fills in long snippets of text.

KeyRemap4Macbook: I use it to give me emacs key combinations pretty much anywhere, but the app can do lots more.

Moom: Makes it easy to move and resize windows to common places and sizes.

DefaultFolderX: It expands the File->Open Dialog to show bigger QuickLook previews and makes it easy to select commonly used paths. It’s super-useful if you have very hierarchical directory structures.

2. Apps from companies that don’t want to give Apple 30%

Microsoft Office: The cheese sandwich of software–it does its job competently, but it’s hard to get excited about it.

Stata: My go-to data analysis software. Fast, feature-filled, relatively shallow learning curve, and great documentation. What more do you want?

Papers: Manages big collections of pdfs and simplifies search for academic literature.

3. Apps I think should be in the App Store

These apps are free and frankly I have no idea why they’re not in the App Store:

Skype and Google Chrome: If you are reading this on a computer screen, then you already know these two.

Aquamacs: Puts Mac lipstick on an old pig of an editor. That said, I’ve been using emacs for 20 years and I love it.

nvAlt: I’ve been using nvAlt for about six months to manage all my miscellaneous notes. It’s super-easy to search and the data are accessible on all my devices.

4. Apps that are just too geeky for the App Store

You’re going to be spending quality time at the command-line if you use brew, Ruby, and Octopress, so you may as well install them by hand.

Once all I installed all these apps, I still had lots of little things to do. I had to tweek the preferences for most of my apps. I had to set up the finicky network printer in the office. In order to access the secure university wifi network, I had to install the required certificate. I could go on, but this gives you the flavor–The whole process of getting back to where I started took far longer than I had envisioned and I don’t want to go through it again.

The Solution

The main requirement of any solution was that it back up what wasn’t already safe–i.e., everything outside my Dropbox folder. But any solution also had to need absolutely minimal human intervention. I am not to be trusted to manually mirror drives every week. I also wanted to do as much as possible with hardware I had lying around.

Because we’re only talking about about 40 GB, I was able to repurpose an old 250GB external drive as a Time Machine disk that now lives at the office nestled into a book shelf. It’s plugged into a hub along with my phone charger, iPad charger and USB ethernet adapter. The first thing I always do upon arrival is plug the Air into it’s power adapter, the external display, and the hub. This procedure hasn’t had to change at all. When I leave, I pull the external display cable and close the lid on the Air. Jettison automatically waits for any ongoing Time Machine backups to finish and ejects the external disk before sleeping the Mac. As soon as I hear the disk stop, I unplug the hub and my power cable and I’m ready to go.

The other day I took my favorite winter coat to a tailor to have the zipper fixed. The woman very graciously showed me that nothing was actually broken–I’d simply forgotten that it was a two way zipper and both parts needed to be at the bottom in order for it to work. It was embarrassing, but I was still happy since the “repair” was extremely fast and it cost nothing. I feel the same way about this adjustment to my backup system. It’s a little embarrassing that I didn’t recognize the weakness up front, but I’m also really happy that it was so easy to fix.