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In backups, do as I say, not as I do

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Backups: Do as I say, not as I do

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

Experience is both the best and worst teacher. You shouldn't have to burn your fingers on a hot stove to know what heat is all about, and you shouldn't need to lose hundreds of megabytes of files to be reminded that backups are essential.

But that's just what happened to me. I am embarrassed about this, not only because it happened to the guy who's been preaching the doctrine of regular backups, but also because the files I lost were precisely the ones I could not afford to lose. They represented two or three years of work.

Gone are all my word processing files—the programs and the texts. Gone are my fax files, including hundreds of fax numbers I had collected over the years and at least 100 fax documents that I send off to readers when they request something by fax.

Gone are the hundreds of notes I had written to myself as reminders. Gone are the three or four large beta-test word-processing programs developers had sent me, at their expense. Gone are the specialized fonts I had collected, as many as 400.

And gone are the days when I can quit writing for an evening and go to bed, expecting everything to be available the next time I sit down at the keyboard. I am now chastened and wiser and sadder. To say that I have relearned an old lesson would be a way of squirming out of the responsibility I have to take for my foolishness. If I had really learned that lesson years ago, this never would have happened to me.

I cannot blame my computer or my hard drive. I can't even blame the software that I was using that controlled every access to the files on that drive. One by one, the separate partitions on that drive—areas that I had set aside on the huge 1,200-megabyte drive to keep everything organized and to speed up access—began to lose their data, and in a period of two days every single one of the 10 partitions failed.

I tried every software utility that I could find in an attempt to bring that data back to life, but the special program that controlled the drive was so new, and did its work so cleverly, that nothing currently available could coax the file structure back to life. In 48 hours, more than a billion bytes disappeared.

I had made a fatal mistake. I thought I had backed up everything on that drive. It's only one of many drives on that computer, and I use the other drives for quick backups. I also use SyQuest removable drives and a Floptical drive. Backups are relatively easy.

And maybe that's why I made the mistake. I had moved the entire contents of one of the partitions to another location on the big drive, and then erased the previous group of files. I still had everything at that point, of course—and I still had the backup copy of those vital files on another drive.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, that other drive started to act up. It's an old Seagate, one that has served faithfully through years of abuse. Now and then it shows its age by making little noises and refusing to copy files properly. A quick reformatting has always set it right, so I went ahead and ran my reformatting software.

On the drive that held the backups of all those vital personal files.

So when the big drive coughed and sputtered under the load of system software that was misbehaving, it took everything into the grave along with it. It could have been a major annoyance, a big time waster, if I had made sure of one thing—if I had followed my own advice and had two backup copies of everything on that drive. The backups that survived did not include the files I had worked so long to create.

There. That's it. No big message, no preaching. If I can't follow my own advice, I'm certainly not going to shout it out to you. There are lessons in this, but they are probably smaller and more private than we perceive them. Of course I've changed the way I do backups; I may be dumb, but I'm no longer a fool.

Mostly, I've been reminded of the impermanence of things. And that's made me wonder how important all those things actually were, if I could lose them and keep on going, without tears, and maybe without guilt.

I'll never know. It's time to do a backup, and I've got to get to bed.

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