Remember to backup or the story of how I rescued the files from my wife’s MacBook Air

Remember to backup or the story of how I rescued the files from my wife’s MacBook Air

I preach, back up, back up, back up at work. And my home server is backed up too. But once my wife stopped coming into the office after the birth of our daughter….I never got around to figuring out how to back up her MacBook Air. It was always something that I would get to eventually.

Then her MacBook Air crashed and I got a frantic call at work, a few text messages, and an email.

She was browsing on her computer…and then it crashed and now it wouldn’t start. It simply showed a circle with a line. She was in a panic, what about the photos of our daughter? The movies? Her music? I told her to relax, it shouldn’t be a problem and I’d fix it when I got home. I was wrong. Very wrong.

I struggled to resurrect her laptop for a few hours….and finally came to the conclusion….the problem was a bit more serious than I’d thought. As I schedule my appointment at the Apple Store Genius Bar she posted her anguish to Facebook and looked for reassurance from friends. Most told her not to worry, the Apple Geniuses would be able to fix it. And honestly I thought the same thing, so I was apprehensive but still not panicked.

Our trip to the Apple Store

So the next day I took off work and traveled with the family to the Apple store (or is that pilgrimage?). We waited patiently for our Genius to call us. I reassured her they could fix it or as her Facebook friends had…if they couldn’t solve it…they could get the data off the hard drive.

Finally our time came…we explained the situation….the Genius hooked up the laptop, ran some tests and declared….the hard drive had suffered a severe failure. They’ll need to replace it. I started to worry. “Can you retrieve the data?” I asked. “I’ll buy an external hard drive right now and you can copy the information to it.”

The Apple Genius very politely said, “I’m sorry, we’re not able to store or retrieve customer data.” And that even if they were, they weren’t set up to do that. And he recommended we consider if we really needed the data recovered. I started to panic as my wife became visibly upset. I asked if they could replace the drive and give me the old one….and after a check with the manager, even though it’s against standard policy…because of our situation, they agreed to make an exception and return the dead drive to us so we could try to recover the data. But then he also explained that the unique connector of the MacBook Air drive meant that we couldn’t simply plug it in to another computer. I asked him how long for the new drive replacement - they said 3-5 days because it wasn’t in stock.

I looked at my wife and she was physically ill she was so upset.

While she wasn’t directly upset with me, “her home IT guy,” I still felt responsible. I preached back up, back up, back up…and yet…I didn’t back up her MacBook. So we thanked the Apple Genius, said we’d think about it, and that I wanted to give it another try myself to retrieve the data…and we left. The Apple Store and Genius were terrific but the end result wasn’t what we expected but it wasn’t Apple’s fault.

The drive home wasn’t good

My wife sobbed a bit as she thought of the photos and videos she’d lost of our daughter’s first birthday. As she talked I got upset too and got mad at myself. I promised her…no matter what…I would get her files…if I had to sell a limb to pay for it, I’d get it done. After all, I felt responsible. I was responsible. I was the one who told her to delete photos from her iPhone since they were on her laptop. I was the one who upgraded her to iPhoto 11 but then failed to show her how to back up her photos to MobileMe (though she asked repeatedly). And I was the guy that didn’t have a back up strategy. So I knew I had to dig deep into my inner geek and find a solution.

How I recovered the files from the failed hard drive of my wife’s MacBook Air.

Fortunately, I was a bit lucky. At my home, I run a OS X Server on a Mac Mini. So I knew I could  Netboot the MacBook Air and get it running over the network. Just like the Apple Genius had done at the Apple Store. But first I’d have to learn how to set up and configure Netboot. 

Step 1) I learned how to setup and configure Netboot under OS X Server Leopard

It took about four hours of research, trial and error, and some struggle. But I finally figured out how to get Netboot running. The process isn’t hard once you know what you’re doing.

First, your best bet is to have a Universal Installer DVD. I had a family pack of Snow Leopard. You stick this in the server, then open up System Image Utility (one of the Server Admin Tools) and you can easily create a disk image and/or netboot image. Once that’s done. You add the Netboot service under Server Admin. You choose network ports and you pick a hard drive to store files on - I chose my internal hard drive.


Once you select your hard drive and click save, Server Admin creates a netboot directory under your /Library directory. Inside this you’ll find NetBootSP0 - copy your Netboot Image you created with the System Utility into this and you’re almost done.  Next, if you’re running the firewall, open up NFS (port 2049).  I did have to close and open server admin in order for it to recognize my netboot image.


Under the image tab, check: default, enable, diskless, and leave the protocol set as NFS. The diskles option is important, especially in my case, if you don’t choose it, when netbooting the local hard drive is used as a swap drive to hold temporary files. Obviously, since the drive in the MacBook Air was dead, I had to use diskless which copies all swap files across the network. That’s it. Now start the Netboot service. It should start fine.

To get the MacBook Air to Netboot - I had to connect it to my Apple Extreme router via the USB Ethernet - it doesn’t seem to work over WiFi. Then I started the MacBook Air, held down the “n” key and waited. A spinning globe appeared (indicated netbooting was working) and the machine booted.

Step 2) Repair or Recovery - DiskWarrior4 to the rescue

The next step was to try to resurrect the hard drive. I tried Disk Utility and it gave the same message that the Apple Genius received - the disk was damaged - it couldn’t fix it. So I started to research what I could use to A) fix the drive or B) recover files. After a short while I discovered DiskWarrior4 was the perfect option. It can fix things that Disk Utility can’t sometimes and if the disk is really in bad shape (like ours) it can recover files. So I whisked off to DiskWarrior’s site, purchased the download and installed it on the Netbooted MacBook Air.

DiskWarrior ran for a long while but in the end, while it couldn’t repair the disk, what it did was it rebuilt the directory and found lost files and placed them all on a temporary read only virtual volume. This volume mounted on the desktop like the old hard drive and held most of the files (a few were unrecoverable). It was great. It had all the files, her photos, videos, and music. I was saved! I did a little dance, praised DiskWarrior, and announced I had done it.

My celebration was premature - I couldn’t copy the files

After a short while I discovered a problem. I couldn’t access or copy the files to our home server. DiskWarrior4 honored the permissions set on all the files. So I couldn’t access Elaine’s (my wife) files - I didn’t have permission. So at first I tried Chown and Chmod functions to change the permissions. But the “temp disk” created by DiskWarrior4 is Read Only. So you can’t modify permissions.

A bit more research led me to RSYNC. It’s a utility included with OS X that can copy files from one location to another (even a remote location). It’s a terrific utility that can run as sudo root so it will override permission restrictions. However, it’s command line only. So I started to plug along trying to use terminal and to learn the cryptic language that rsync utilized. I’m not one to shy away from using terminal, but I’m no expert either. And I was failing. So naturally, I started to research online to see if someone had created a GUI for rsync. Bingo, several people had…so I looked up a few and settled on RipCord for Rsync.

RipCord for rsync was very simple to use…though it did take me a second try to get it to work. I had not typed my path correctly so the files couldn’t be copied. Once I fixed that…seven hours and 40Gbs later….I had recovered all her files. This time…my wife joined me in my celebration dance. I felt terrific…as if I’d be crowned uber super geek….but I was most pleased with recovering the memories of our daughter.

Back up, Back up, Back up

Once the files were recovered to the server’s internal hard drive (from my wife’s MacBook Air) I immediately copied them to the external RAID6 4 TB drive. Then watched as they were backed up to a third drive by Apple’s Time Machine. Then I set up a G5 Tower in our home office and coped her photos and videos to a fourth drive and added them to iPhoto 11. And finally, I copied them into the cloud by sharing them up to MobileMe. Her files now exist in five locations. They will not be lost again.

Additionally, I’m now also evaluating cloud-based back up services. We use Dropbox at work…but that gets cost prohibitive…and it’s not automatic for the whole machine. After her laptop is repaired…I want an automated, flawless back up solution for it, just like at our office. I evaluated Mozy and Carbonite but settled on BackBlaze. I read about BackBlaze on Techcrunch and so I downloaded the trial. It’s working nicely (as expected since it’s founded by an ex-Apple guy) and it’s ridiculously affordable. $5 per month for unlimited storage.

Of course the proof still remains to be seen. It’s currently backing up the MacBook Pro I’m typing this on…but since it does it automatically in the background…it’s going to take days to weeks to complete the initial back up. Then it’ll keep incrementally backing up files (so it’ll be quicker). But so far I like what I see. It allowed me to set a personal encryption key - so my files are encrypted by me and can only be accessed by me - which is nice when you’re trusting the cloud. But the real test will come when the initial backup is complete - I’ll test restoring files. A back up is only good when it can reliably and easily restore files. So that will be the true test. But so far I like it.

But if there’s one lesson I can leave you with….back up, back up, back up or you’ll make your wife cry. And nobody wants that.

May 28, 2011

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