Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Adventures with SSD's, Hard Drives and Backups (and Happy New Year!)

The holidays were quite busy in 2012. I took a bit of a break from my blog accordingly. Here we are in 2013 now, it's hard to believe! Happy New Year!

I last blogged about some key upgrades that I made to my 2011 17" MacBook Pro- including a 512MB OCZ Vertex 4 SSD and 16 GB of Ram. While my system drastically improved in terms of performance, the reliability factor seemingly dropped. Prior to the upgrade I can remember running "uptime" (terminal command) and seeing a time of 70 days- meaning it had been that long since my system had been rebooted or shut down. That is some rock solid reliability! Post upgrade, I was getting occasional lockups and system freezes primarily when browsing.  I was lucky to get 3-4 days of up time without a freeze.  Not so cool. Disclaimer: I upgraded the components myself and did not take them to the "Mac Cafe" (local Apple screwdriver shop that is an authorized Apple dealer). I do have Apple Care but from what I understand, you don't void your warranty if you do these simple upgrades yourself (so long as you can put the original stuff back in if you have any issues).

Anyway... the week before Christmas, everything came to a head. My SSD decided to bite the dust after apparently one too many crash.  Timing couldn't have been much worse, as I had a wedding that I was going to be shooting the Saturday before Christmas (Dec 22).

Other than the occasional freezes, the symptoms of my machine leading up to the crash came on suddenly and without any real warning. I restarted my MBP and I couldn't get past the grey screen with a progress bar. In fact, the MBP would shut down after about 30 seconds. I quickly went to Apple's support site and found out that this issue indicated a bad hard drive. A lot was going through my mind at that point:

  • What all am I going to lose?  
  • Will my backup will really work? 
  • What about all my videos and photos that only live on my MBP that I hadn't yet backed up...

Then I quickly got a little frustrated:

  • This drive is only 3 months old!
  • I'm never buying another OCZ product again...
  • WHY ME?? WHY NOW??

My mind was racing. I was subconsciously calculating the gigabytes of space of HD videos and Photos that I had done since the switch over from my previous Seagate Momentus XT drive. In my panic, I had forgotten that the majority of my raw video footage (at least) was stored the other HDD that I put in my Superdrive bay.

Then I remembered back to similar crash a few years ago. My 500 GB Seagate Baracudda drive "gave up the ghost"- which also happened to be the exact day of our wedding anniversary (Sept. 4th). The drive itself was less than 6 months old. Apparently the batch of HDD's that mine came from had an issue with Teflon coating coming off the heads of the drive, which eventually rendered the drive useless. I had several hundred GB of home video footage on that drive. I lost footage from some really cool video short movies that I made for a church youth group lock-in. Fortunately I still had all my mini-dv cassette tapes, so I was able to re-import those (which took about 3 full days!).  I could have used a hdd recovery service but they wanted almost $1500... just not quite worth it for what I lost.

Fortunately, I (somewhat) learned from that mistake and purchased 2 1 TB external Seagate drives and started a poor-man's backup with some custom written batch files. I started backing up all my photos and videos to this drive and still am using this solution today. But that solution was mainly intended for my PC, and not my MBP...

Fast forward back to my current dilemma.  I decided to immediately pull the SSD from the MBP and test it externally to see if it was the issue, or if my MBP had another problem. Fortunately I still had my previous HDD laying around in an enclosure. I popped the old drive out, set it aside, and then placed the SSD drive into said enclosure. I connected the drive from my Windows 7 machine and no dice. I also tried connecting the SSD with a USB to Sata cable... nothing. The SSD was definitely kaput.

The truth settled in. My SSD was *toast*. I might have lost my videos and/or photos. I might have lost programs and applications that I had installed.Final Cut projects of some WIP videos.  Ugh... I didn't know for sure that I was going to be able to get my data back. HOW COULD I LET THIS HAPPEN AGAIN? Well, maybe it wouldn't be so bad- after all I was using backups, but wasn't sure how reliable they would be. No time like the present to find out!

I quickly googled to see how to restore a system from my Time Machine backup, which was my best shot.  My "plan B" would be to utilize my HDD from prior to upgrading. My "plan C" would be to utilize my backup prior to installing that drive, which would have been basically how I ordered the machine. I found an article on Apple that was very straight forward. However, there was a slim possibility that I wouldn't be able to restore my system if I had chosen to exclude system files.  I didn't remember what I had excluded at that time.

I popped in my previous Seagate Momentus XT drive in the main HDD slot. Viola- success! No more grey screen with progress bar. That confirmed that the SSD was the issue, and deal with that later. Of primary importance was getting my system back.

Per the Apple instructions, I held down Command-R during boot. It found my Time Machine backup, which was stored on my Time Capsule. I quickly came to another dilemma because I only had this drive on hand  (which also contained my system prior to upgrading to the SSD). I would need to "have faith" in the Time Machine backup or settle for my system state as it was when I upgraded several months prior.  In retrospect, I made a pretty hasty decision. I probably should have went to Best Buy and purchased another Seagate Momentus XT ($120 or so). Nevertheless, I decided to "have faith" and wiped my backup drive in order to restore.

The time machine initially indicated it would take about 6 hours to restore over the network.  Luckily, I have a 1 gigabit network. Overall there was 400+ GB that needed restored.  I was a Nervous Nelly for the next few hours as the process went on. After about 2 hrs, the time machine restore was complete. I was immediately concerned, thinking that perhaps not all my data was there. From 6 hrs down to 2? Why? The skeptic in me immediately thought not all my data was going to be there.

After the Time Machine completed the restore, the MBP booted up.  The first thing I noticed was the spinning wheel- which I hadn't seen since my SSD upgrade. I did a few checks and immediately saw an application that I had recently installed on my task bar, so I knew that my backup was current. I then went to check my video folder.  Everything was there! That's when I remembered that my videos were on a separate disk, so there was really nothing much to worry about.  Next was checking iPhoto.  When I launched the application I was a bit concerned. Apparently, the thumbnails do not get backed up, because it had to generate thumbnails for all my "events".  I cancelled out of that and went to browse my events... Fortunately, everything was there as well.  The "last backup" time on my MBP was visible in the top menu bar, and it read about 1 hr before it crashed.  CRISIS AVERTED!

As you can see, there was a lot of drama in my SSD fiasco. I'm not a big fan of drama, especially when it comes to my own data. While I am very thankful for my Time Machine backup, I still feel a little exposed. I have countless hours of video footage and photographs that I do not want to lose.  After tweeting about some of my issues, I began exploring better backup options. @kpett pointed me to a nice article from @shanselman. I like his philosophy: make 3 copies of anything you care about, use 2 different formats, and have an offsite backup.  I am going to adopt a very similar strategy.

An old but wise SysAdmin once told me- "Never let a good Crisis go to waste". I don't enjoy invoking this mantra in most situations, as I'd rather avoid the crisis all together if possible. But there is some truth to it: a crisis is often the catalyst that can lead to a change in behavior.

Consequently, I'd like to end on this note: I have decided to make a New Years Resolution. I'm going to have a solid backup strategy for 2013. In my next entry, I'll share my massive overhaul plan (currently in process) for my new backup strategy.

A few other comments to tie up some lose ends: I still experienced system freezes after replacing the SSD with the old HDD.  I decided to run some memory tests. Everything checked out. I came across a few articles that suggested  swapping the memory slots. Since I've done this, I'm going on 5 days with no freeze ups. That doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to have corrected the issue- pretty much a new record in uptime since my upgrades.

As far as the SSD goes, I shipped the drive out on Dec 19th. I'm still waiting for the RMA. My machine is painfully slow again, but I'm still able to be productive. Cash flow is a little tight right now, but I may purchase another 512 GB SSD to have on hand (probably from another manufacturer) in case I have another situation.  The SSD has a 5 year warranty on it.

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