Friday 15 August 2008

Sudden Onset Digital Amnesia

On Monday a faithful servant of mine was diagnosed with a very serious illness. It was quite distressing.

I first noticed something was wrong when I went to wake him from Sleep last week. He groaned and made grinding noises rather than his usual cheerful whirs and beeps. No shimmering pearl appeared on his visage; instead the room filled with a smoky odour, and his face remained black.

I phoned the doctor as soon as I could. He came to the house and was soon examining the patient, not with stethoscope, but with digital voltmeter. It told a tale of voltage fluctuations on the motherboard well outside the usual range. This case called for immediate hospitalisation and an operation.

After successful surgery to transplant the power supply, things seemed to be looking up. Many vital signs were testing positive as the doctor went over them, one by one. Then he came to the DVD drive: no sign of life. He fiddled with cabling, and tested again. Nothing. A check of one of the DIMM slots revealed that that too had suffered. But then he made the worst discovery of all.

It was the Primary SATA drive. Dead. Infectiously dead in fact, because, when hooked up to the motherboard it drained life from the whole of the system. With that disconnected however, one bootable hard drive remained to my servant, allowing him to hobble to life again. And thus the diagnosis was made: Sudden Onset Digital Amnesia.

He is home again now, but a shell of his former self. Reduced from his hardware-accelerated, Composited Desktop, Windows Vista glory to Windows XP and GDI graphics; his precious photographic memories of my holidays and special family moments mostly gone; no longer holding any record of my financial accounts; unpublished Project Euler solutions passed away into the digital ether.

He says nothing, but sits with a reproachful air. Why was I not backed up? No RAID. No copying to optical media. Not even an online backup. And so I write, that his suffering might not be in vain, and that you might share in the moral of his story.

The Moral of the Story

So to me has happened one of those things which I always assumed happened only to other people. I had planned to make backups. I even had a box of TDK scratch proof DVD's on the shelf to hold the backups. But somehow it never seemed a top priority. Now I know better.

But I'm an optimist by nature, and things are not as bad as they could be. It was the photos from early 2007 onwards that were held on the disk that went down, but some of the best of those I've put on my daughter's blog. On the disk that remains I have everything prior to 2007. Getting that backed up is now a top priority.

A couple of weeks back I read (via Jurgen Appelo) about Mozy, the online Backup Service. The idea of online backups is too take all the hassle and risk out of the job. You install a piece of software on your computer; it monitors your disks for changes, and sends updated files to be stored somewhere in the cloud. No worries about what to store your backups on; no need to find a secure off-site storage location. It's all handled for you.

In all the reviews of competing Online Backup systems I've looked at MozyHome has consistently come out top, so I signed up. They have a free version that gives you 2GB backup space, but for only $4.95/month per computer (less if you take out yearly or two yearly subscriptions) you get unlimited space on their servers.

I've not used Mozy much yet, but so far this is what I've learnt about it:

  • You can backup entire folders, or you can ask Mozy to look for files matching particular criteria (file type, size, etc.)
  • All files are encrypted before being sent over the wire. You can choose your own key, or leave Mozy to take care of that. This adds security, but does have the downside of making Mozy backups take longer than some competitors
  • You can control how much bandwidth and CPU power Mozy takes up for the backup process, and schedule when backups should happen.
  • Mozy performs incremental block-level backups, only resending files or parts of files that have changed.
  • There are plenty of options for getting your files back again: there's Windows Explorer integration, a web-download option, or even an option to have your data put on DVD and posted to you (for an additional charge)

Unless you have the patience of a saint, and feel no particular urgency to get backed up, you'll need a Broadband Internet connection to make this happen, preferably one with very high download caps. But who doesn't have one of those these days?

And what about my other disk, and all those lost digital memories? I could pay to have it recovered professionally, but prices start from around £250. So I've decided to put that money towards a new laptop instead - that way I can compute downstairs, rather than tucked away in the spare bedroom, and maybe my wife will feel less of a computer widow. And sometime in the future, when all my remaining data is safely stashed away, in all the spare time I don't have, I'll have a hack at the disk myself.

Footnotes and Postscripts

  1. MozyHome Reviews:
  2. A variation of Online Backup: CrashPlan. The idea is to pair up with a friend who has a computer someplace else, and then use CrashPlan's software to mutually backup each others data over the Internet. The main benefit appears to be the absence of Monthly fees.


Anonymous said...

re>CrashPlan - I'd say the main benefit is data integrity. We validate that your backup archives are in working order automatically so that when you need to restore, you can! Google "mozy restore" to see what I'm talking about.

Avoiding monthly fees is nice, but more importantly is getting back large amounts of data in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks. You can back up on-site or off-site, or both!

Unknown said...

Thanks for alerting me to the Mozy Restore problem. It seems that most of the issues were reported more than six months ago so hopefully they've been addressed by now.

However, I'm currently on a monthly subscription with Mozy; my options remain open, and I'm going to be giving CrashPlan serious consideration.

Amharican said...

Here is another review of Mozy:

Unknown said...

Amharican, Annoymous,
Thanks for that. The backupreview site looks very useful.


Sam said...

Thanks for alerting me to the Mozy Restore problem. It seems that most of the issues were reported more than six months ago so hopefully they've been addressed by now.

However, I'm currently on a monthly subscription with Mozy; my options remain open, and I'm going to be giving CrashPlan serious consideration.

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