I Think I Can… I Think I Can…

How Good is Your Data Backup?

Published November 19, 2012 - 0 Comments

If you’re a fan of Apple’s iMessage instant message service, you probably noticed that yesterday was not a good day for iMessage users.  Apple reported that “some users” experienced an outage that lasted several hours through the afternoon and evening.  I’d be willing to bet that it was a little more than “some” because I couldn’t seem to find anyone who had iMessage working.  But that’s fine.. this isn’t about the failure… It’s about what happens after the failure.  It’s about the backup.

To be more accurate the backup actually takes place before the failure, and then the restore comes after.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine that at least one of Apple’s servers took a dive yesterday and had to be replaced.  Then the tedious process of recovering data from backups had to be completed.  Network administrators generally like to bring hardware back online gradually, rather than a single flick of the switch, so this would have taken time.  Imagine the sheer amount of data flowing through Apple, and the backlog of messages that might have made it into the queue before everything went down.

Now think of your own data.  Whether you have a single laptop that you carry from room to room, or an elaborate home or office network, undoubtedly you have plenty of data files that are precious to you.  Those movies of the baby’s first steps.  Pictures you scanned from your late grandfather’s collection.  Financial spreadsheets from the last 10 years.  And don’t forget the music..  oh the music…  Hours, no..  days of your life spent inserting CD after CD, ripping your favourite tracks to your hard drive  and cataloguing  them into precise mood-reflecting playlists.  Are you backing up this data?  Of course you are.  Are you sure?  How good is your backup?

It’s ironic timing, but I had actually planned yesterday as a test of one of my backup solutions.  All Apple computers come with Time Machine backup capabilities built-in.  Simply plug in an external hard drive, and your Mac will ask whether you want to use that drive for Time Machine backups.  Once you accept, Time Machine will automatically back up all your files (or only some, if you don’t want a full backup).  It’s a very slick system, but I’d never done a complete restore from backup.  Yesterday I decided to try that.

I wiped my Macbook Air clean of all data.. not even an operating system… I wanted to simulate a complete and total loss of data on my laptop.  After rebooting my OS X installation USB drive and plugging in the external Time Machine drive, I had a fully functioning laptop back up and running in 15 mins… with no personal data missing.  You can’t ask for much better than that!

I would never suggest that this full blown test is right for everyone.  I had minimized the risk by ensuring that my laptop wasn’t holding any critical files to begin with.  But I think we should all consider from time to time just how we’re backing up our most important files, and whether those files are really going to be there for us if we need them.  Computers are unpredictable, and failures do happen.  It happened to Apple.  It can happen to you too.