Monday, February 5, 2007

MacBook Pro Woes

I was excited to get a MacBook Pro in December. The new Core 2 Duo machines are very fast (having four cores wouldn’t matter much for what I do), have a reasonable RAM ceiling, have good external display support, and a 200 GB drive can, as Rentzsch says, hold me. (I apparently have more data than he does, but I don’t need access to different OS versions on the go, so I have those partitions on an external drive.) I thought the MacBook Pro would make a good main Mac, and I would no longer need to synchronize with a notebook, a process that had become more difficult now that my desktop and notebook had different processor architectures.

So far, the switch has been a mixed bag. I liked using the MacBook Pro, but after the first full day of use it wouldn’t turn on, even in target disk mode. The hard drive isn’t removable, but through my extremely good luck it died in the middle of a backup, after all of the changed files in my home folder had been copied. Apple replaced the logic board, and all was well.

About five days later, I started seeing various crashes and freezes while backing up. Sometimes even the Finder froze. After running various repair programs, everything checked out. I zeroed the drive, did a clean install, and that seemed to fix everything.

In mid-January, the freezes returned. DiskWarrior reported a disk malfunction. Drive Genius reported bad blocks. I did a 7-pass zero with Disk Utility, and everything started working again.

A few days later, I started seeing problems with LightScribe. It kept stopping in the middle of burning a label. Everything else remained fine, though.

At the end of January, I started seeing freezes again, but Drive Genius said the drive was fine, and DiskWarrior found only minor problems.

Yesterday, DropDMG reported an error while backing up a particular file, and I found that the Mac would freeze whenever it tried to read that file. I also found that numerous system fonts were no longer working.

Today I ran Drive Genius, and it found some more bad blocks. I decided to send the MacBook Pro to Apple. The guy on the phone was very nice and didn’t ask me to perform any additional tests. In retrospect, I probably should have given up on this drive sooner. He promised that Apple would replace the drive, rather than try to repair it. I’ve written down the drive serial number from System Profiler to make sure. It’s annoying that every time I call Apple they ask if I want to extend my AppleCare beyond the first year.

These problems have cost me time, but I don’t think I’ve lost any data. I’ve been careful to have both clones of my hard disk (made with SuperDuper) and archives of individual folders (made with DropDMG and cataloged with CDFinder). The former are essential so that I don’t waste too much time getting up and running again, and the latter are essential so that if I later find out that a file was damaged, I can go back and find an older version of it that’s not. My really important data is stored in either EagleFiler or Subversion, both of which can verify that the files have not changed since their last known good states. However, while this backup strategy has worked, I did learn some things and recognized the importance of others that I had been less sure about:

  1. You must have a recent clone of your whole drive. I didn’t always insist on this, but it’s such a time-saver. Even if you have backups of all your folders, it takes too long to copy everything back into place. And these days I depend on a lot of Unix stuff for development that’s scattered and thus not easy to backup or restore.
  2. You need SuperDuper and its Smart Update. I like to make complete clones—and for this you don’t need Smart Update or SuperDuper—because (a) I don’t want to depend on the integrity of files that weren’t recently copied, and (b) doing a complete clone is a good way to check that all of your data is readable. It helps spot problems sooner. But, you also need to clone regularly—more than once a day—and SuperDuper can complete a Smart Update while I’m having lunch. rsync is a possible alternative, but it’s still buggy.
  3. You must have a backup Mac that can boot from the clone. Even if your main Mac ends up not needing repairs, you need to be able to continue as normal while you’re checking it. Storage use has increased so much faster than storage speed that it’s easy to waste a whole day running a few disk utilities, re-formatting, and restoring from a clone—if you don’t have a backup Mac.
  4. You need at least two reasonably up-to-date clones. Clone A is newer, and that’s what you’ll switch to as soon as you discover a problem. However, you can’t restore from Clone A while you’re using it, since it’s not a good idea to copy files that are in use. And restoring can take up to four hours, even for a comparatively small notebook drive. So you need a Clone B that you can restore from while you’re using Clone A. Later, you can Smart Update the original drive from Clone A, and that will only take 20 minutes or so now that it’s been primed with Clone B.
  5. The other reason to have two clones is so that you can continue to have two clones. If you’re now using Clone A as your main system, then you only have one clone backup. In order to return to the state of having two clones, you need Clone B so that you can create Clone C while using Clone A.
  6. Software like Drive Genius is good for telling you when there is definitely a problem, but if it reports a clean bill of health, take that with grain of salt. Keep notes of any strange behavior so you can see if it recurs.
  7. Archiving DVDs off-site is a good idea, but you should also keep copies of the recent archive DVDs locally on a hard drive, so that you can access the data more easily.
  8. Notebook drives are slow. Really slow. It’s hard to really appreciate this until you use the same Mac with a different drive.
  9. No matter how silly I’ve felt making more backups than I would probably need, there always seems to come a time when I’m glad that I have them.

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"Archiving DVDs off-site is a good idea."

My advice is to forget DVDs, tape, and all that crap, and just use big hard drives (I have three external 250 GB drives and one internal on my iMac -- all more or less identical clones, staggered a couple of days apart), which you can store off site. DVDs just don't hold enough, and they're a hassle to refresh to new media when they wear out, or when DVDs eventually go out of style.

SuperDuper is great, but I'm not able to version files. It'll be interesting to see how it works inconjunction with Time Machine.

Thanks for the lucid explanation. I use SuperDuper, DropDMG, and a WiebeTech SilverSATA removable hard drive system to implement a backup regime similar to the one you describe. But your Clone A/Clone B/Clone C system plus the distinction you make between "complete" clones and "Smart Update" clones has filled in some important gaps.

As a follow-up post, would you mind explaining how you use DiskWarrior (which I have) and Drive Genius (which I don't)?

SuperDuper rules. It saved me once again last week, when my PowerBook's hard drive died suddenly. A MUST HAVE. Of course, like with any other backup tool, daily clones are required. I use to perform two clones a day (at lunch time and at the end of the afternoon when I'm at the office). In Smart Update mode this doesn't take much time, and I can work while the copy is running... As I'm paranoid, I have two backup disks : one is on a NAS connected via Gigabit Ethernet, the other one is a firewire drive.

Not to sound like the AppleCare folks, but you should seriously consider getting the extended AppleCare warranty. I've had two PowerBooks and a MacBook, and if you take your laptop anywhere at all, chances are good that something will bang loose over a three-year period. If you need to fix basically anything at all, you're better off, moneywise, having bought the service.

Of course if you're planning on upgrading sooner than that, it's a different consideration. I've tried to keep mine the full three years and then Craigslist.

I'm in the graphic design field, not programming, so maybe my two cents is applicable, but...

Isn't it possible that cloning the whole system several times a day could hasten the demise of your drive?

If your applications don't change much, wouldn't a one-time clone of the system suffice, while periodically backing up only project data to external drives?

I'm a long time fan/user of SuperDuper!, having used it for several years. At this time I run two "smart" backups in the middle of the night when the computer is otherwise likely to be not in use. One of the backups is repeated nightly and has its own bootable firewire drive. The other backup alternates weeky amongst four partitions, two bootable partitions on each of two firewire drives. The nightly backup drive is swapped out weekly and kept in an off-site safe place. I thus have what I feel to be appropriate redundancy in case of hardware failures. I also have the ability, if needed, to step backward in time when accessing a file, albeit in weekly increments. I'm sure that when Time Machine is released I'll likely adjust my backup strategy to take that into consideration.

Mark: I like DVDs. Hard disks cost between 5 and 10 times as much per MB. And they're really too big for the batches of data that I want to move off-site, unless I rotate partially filled drives. I do have an off-site clone (a compressed, encrypted disk image on a hard drive), but for archiving I think DVDs work better. I'm not sure whether hard drives hold data longer than CDs/DVDs. I haven't had problems with any of those technologies. Certainly, they're durable in different ways.

Jonathon: I run DiskWarrior's directory rebuild about once a week. I don't use its other features. I only recently started using Drive Genius, because I found that its Scan feature would let me check all my drives for bad blocks.

Nate: Perhaps it's irrational, but I just don't want AppleCare. It sounds like extortion. I've been maintaining Macs for more than 15 years, and I don't bang them around much. Some have died during the first year (covered by warranty), but none have died during the second or third year. I figure that with all the money I've not spent on AppleCare, I could buy a replacement Mac if needed.

Mr. Orange: Theoretically, cloning will wear the drive out faster. However, based on how long drives are supposed to last, I don't worry about it. Also, Smart Update puts less strain on the drive, since it only copies the files that have changed. In my case, most of the files are data; applications are only a small fraction. I make daily full .dmg backups of the main folders that are changing. The chances that this will help me discover a problem with the drive early, before it's gotten serious, are much greater than the chances that it will wear out the drive before I was going to replace it, anyway.

"Notebook drives are slow. Really slow. It’s hard to really appreciate this until you use the same Mac with a different drive."

Perhaps that is because you chose a drive that operates at 4200rpm. There is a reason that Apple defaults these machines to a 5400rpm drive. Yes, you are stuck at 4200rpm if you want a 200GB drive, but please, realize that this is a matter of the speed of your drive, and not about laptop drives in general (though I do agree with you that 4200rpm is damn slow).

Nate: Yeah, I knew what I was getting into, and I thought it was worth it given that the 200 GB would let me have a fully functional portable system. That extra 40 GB makes the difference. However, I was surprised at the speed difference, especially compared to a 3.5" drive. A drive that spins 58% as fast benchmarks at only about 20% of the speed for random accesses.

I did read some benchmarks showing that when near capacity the 4200rpm drive is actually faster than the 5400rpm notebook drive. I'm not sure I believe this, since it definitely goes against the conventional wisdom, but I'd be interested to hear what other people have observed. It does make a little sense in that the 4200rpm drive must have greater data density.

Secondly, even 5400 and 7200rpm notebook drives are slow compared with 3.5-inch desktop drives.

rsync may still have issues, but psync works just fine. I use it nightly via cron to create a fully bootable copy of my main hard disk (among other data backup plans).

One of the things I like to do is make sure that one of my "B" clones is to an identical notebook drive in an external enclosure. That way, if it's just a hard drive failure, I can swap in the other notebook drive, update it from the A clone (a faster external drive) and get on my way.

I use SuperDuper! daily and rotate through 3 removable WiebeTech TrayDocks. One TrayDock is always sitting in my safe deposit box at a time with it being swapped out weekly. On top of that, I rsync my home directory daily to my server which not only has RAID1, it backs up to a third internal drive hourly and then I have another TrayDock on that which I backup regularly as well. There is never such a thing as too many backups. Last year when my PowerBook's hard drive failed, I had virtually zero downtime. However, my most recent backup (2 hours old) was sitting in my safe deposit box that I couldn't get to for 2 days!

Lachlan Coles

I'm glad to see you're on top of it all and not obsessing in the least over your back-ups.

I use Super Duper! once a minute and rotate through 2 Raid1 Servers which back up to another 2 Raid1 servers which back up to another 2 Raid1 servers and so on.

In fact my data is so precious that I also do a complete dump of everything to an old dot matrix printer every second of every day.

My faithful manservant, Horstt, feeds this dump into an old Xerox machine and then scans the copies into my second desktop machine which is set up as a webserver.

Though his grasp of complex computing principles could be described as "Neanderthal", Horstt completes a complex schedule of backups from this second machine (which is networked to the first), as well as a series of impressionistic sketches in crayon that convey the very essence of the data he has posted.

As a fail-safe, he also downloads every posting using an old TRS-80 we found in the basement and backs that up on a tape drive that I bought in a dump sale from Crays back in the day.

When I am resting, (admittedly this is not as often as it used to be given the incessant noise and constant requirements of my back-ups), I send Horstt out foraging for wood and other scraps or small rodents that we can either cook or pulp to feed the paper mill I constructed behind the house.

Unfortunately, the neighbourhood is not what it used to be as the noise has driven all but the criminally insane far away.

Understandably the trees had to be chopped down to feed my insatiable appetite for data security, but I consider the loss of general amenity, (ie. my neighbourhood looks like a moon-crater), a small price to pay for that sense of peace I have in the odd millisecond between the elecronic whirring and the general clatter.

You'll be pleased to hear that lately I feel my productivity has actually increased ever so slightly, as I now have the utmost faith in my backup system that I've actually been able to sit down and code for maybe ten minutes in a row ... of course, with the dot matrix printer whirring away near my ear and Horstt's frequent muttering, I tend to find my code is just rubbish, but the important thing is that it's MY rubbish, and all of it is being captured and archived for posterity.

Now of course something I failed to mention is my UPS and my external solar array linked to the generator in the shed ... You can never be too careful.

Michael: You may not have changed your ways, but Apple has changed. Buy the AppleCare, especially on the PowerBook/laptops.

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