Sunday, September 20, 2009

Back From The Dead

"There are two kinds of hard drives: those that have failed, and those that will."

A week ago I fired up my home desktop machine, waited, and got nothing but a blank, black screen staring back at me. I didn't have another monitor on hand to test it, and no way to diagnose the problem. I assumed the worst: it was a failed hard drive. I unplugged all the peripherals, loaded the box into my car, and took it to a local computer shop to be triaged.

I had to wait a whole week just to hear what the problem was, because I had several machines in the queue ahead of me. I was able to sneak some time on my oldest daughter's Macbook during that dry season, but it was painful. All my development tools (e.g., IntelliJ, databases, Grails, etc.) were on my desktop.

I got my machine back yesterday. I started to think that it wasn't a hard drive problem, and fortunately I was correct. Diagnostics showed that memory and hard drive were both fine. My 5 year old monitor gave up the ghost. So I picked up my machine, turned in the dead monitor, and bought a 22" one for just $149. Not too bad.

I'm not that crazy about the place that repaired the machine. When I called to ask the prognosis, the kid told me that everything was fine, but my anti-virus software found "a bunch of viruses". He said he could run the cleanup for a mere $118. I politely declined, but I almost blew my stack: "Are you kidding me? What are you going to do, stand there and watch Kaspersky do the clean-up? How can you quote me that figure with a straight face?" If you look at what Kapersky is identifying, you see that it points out things like denial of service possibilities for the Java JDK that I'm using. That's not a "virus", and I wouldn't want the software to be removed.

The machine had dust in it when I picked it up. When I complained that the kid should have at least blown it out before servicing it, I was told that cleaning is another for-fee service. What a business.

So I brought the whole thing home, vacuumed it out, and set up the new monitor. I spent some time trying to finally sort out my backup and recovery problem. I've had scheduled Microsoft backups for a long time, but they aren't complete disk images. I bought a 250GB Passport external hard drive to replace the undersized 140GB one I had. Now I could copy my entire hard drive if I wanted. I found an inexpensive disk imaging suite called Acronis and set up a nightly backup. I had my entire hard drive on my Passport this morning, compressed into 15 neat 4GB files. I think I'll buy a license.

Just one last problem: How to you boot a PC without the hard drive when you don't have one of those ancient floppy drives? The answer is a USB key, of course. I started creating a bootable USB key, following the instructions from Greg Schultz at this link. I was almost done when I ran into another roadblock: I needed the Windows XP Professional installation CDs, but HP didn't give me any when I bought this machine five years ago. Where was I going to get a copy of Windows XP Professional, now that they don't sell or support it and we've moved through Vista to Windows 7? E-Bay, of course. I put in a bid last night and won at $70. It should arrive next week, and I'll be able to boot from a USB key next time I have a problem. I'll be able to diagnose any problems that I run into, and I'll be able to restore any failed hard drives from my backup. Brilliant!

I'm happy to spend some time thinking about this issue. I realize now how central the stuff I've got on my machine is to my life. I use a password generator to create passwords now. I can't possibly remember them, so I keep them in an encrypted vault called Keeper from Callpod. If I can't access it, I can't do on-line banking or pay my daughter's fee bill at university.

I have a drawer and albums filled with photos from our film camera days. If my hard drive crashes, I'll lose all those digital snaps I've got. Until I get into the habit of keeping them in the cloud, there's a significant memory loss if that disk drive head touches the spinning disk.

There's just one catch: How do you test this arrangement? I'd like to know that I can recover without any issue, but I don't know how to prove it. I don't want to wait until the next failure to find out if any of this is worthwhile.

We all need to think harder about our recovery plans.

My next thought will be about networked storage. I can buy a terabyte monstrosity to house all my whole family's data, but I'll want it attached to my network so everyone can see it. And I suppose I'll need to buy two, so I can backup the backup. And I should take the backup of the backup to my safety deposit box once a month so it'll be there in case my house burns down. Geez, where does it end? Someone with a more apocalyptic vision would be building a hardened data center to go along with the fully-stocked, armed to the teeth underground bunker in the back yard.

Here's another interesting question: When a new desktop would cost me a mere $500-600, why would I not just toss this relic and buy a new one? It's easy to calculate the cross-over point when this becomes a fool's errand. What did I buy yesterday? New monitor, a larger external hard drive, a USB key devoted to booting, backup and recovery software, and Windows XP Pro CDs. The total is a significant fraction of the cost of a new machine.

Am I an eejit to keep this machine going? I've written about Moore's Law in our lives. This is the third desktop machine I've bought for home use, and it's the first one that wasn't hopelessly outdated by the time it passed its fifth anniversary. It's a dual core machine with 4GB of RAM and a hard drive that's still only half full.

While I'm mulling over my economic trade-offs, I'm glad to have all my data and my familiar development environment back.

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