When all backups fail

Posted on July 06, 2016

It is now Wednesday, July 6 at 3:29PM. As of this moment, I’m recovering from 5 consecutive days of backup failure and computer hard drive failure. Let me explain:

On Thursday Night, June 30, I became aware via computer pop-up message that normal backup routine could not be completed because my trusty backup drive would no longer take the backups. Oh dear - time for Disk Utility! Well that didn’t work: Drive cannot be repaired. Time for a new backup drive. I’d deal with this over the weekend.

The following day, on Friday, July 2 around 2PM, my husband and I sat down to play Minecraft together (one way we like to spend together-time,) and Minecraft wouldn’t load. In fact, half my screen was frozen and the other half was beach balling. Restart! Turns out that would be the last I saw of my mac for a very long time.

Drive Failure

The computer hung, and hung, and hung on the restart. It just would not budge. After about 30 mins, I pressed my phone for recovery mode - in which it started up just fine. I ran Disk Utility, all the while thinking “why does this feel like deja vu?” And then it hit me - if this drive doesn’t repair, I have no backup drive to restore from, because that died yesterday! Good thing for my online backup.

Online backup failed too

I made an appointment at the Apple Store to get some good help. Meanwhile, I googled “Carbonite Restore" to read about the process to recover files. I was greeted on the FAQ page with this:

Just a note before you begin: Carbonite doesn't currently support the ability to do a full restore from a PC to a Mac or vice versa.

What this actually means: I can’t download all my files. 0_0 oh. Fuck.

So, I’m using the “#1 Backup Solution” and I can’t recover my computer?

It’s dawning on me that through a series of reliance on a service whose marketing I trusted over my own research, and dumb, dumb, dumb bad luck, I may never ever see my mac again. And this backup service took absolutely none of the credit for my being so completely screwed over by trusting them, so don't use them. Ever.

Luckily, my dead drive could still be read, but not deleted from or installed from. So there was something I could do.

Here’s what I did to get through this situation, both ways that worked and ways that failed.

Win: I got 2 new pieces of equipment - a new 5TB Seagate backup to replace the failed drive, and a Thermaltake Blacx Dual drive mount. This secondary one was awesome because it allows me to mount drives to my computer, NES-cartridge style. I ended up breaking my broken drive out of its casing to eliminate the circuit board in there as being at fault, which happens sometimes. As it turns out, this did not help, but it didn’t make the situation any worse, and now I can use any laptop, SATA, or SSD to keep my own backups of things in my own way. I just pop that thing in and off I go.

Loss: I tried skimming off the top of my Time Machine Backup. When you look at a time machine backup, you see a catalog of dated sub-directories under your computer’s name. I thought I could take the most recent one and restore from that, saving myself the pain and time taken from making a copy of the entire thing, which might have taken years.  Well I ran into issue after issue, after hours of “preparing to copy” or “preparing to migrate” each time. Just an error message and no progress. Days were wasted on this.

Loss: I tried copying the whole darn thing. There was another, very old computer backed up to this drive that the OS would copy first, and err out. So again, I’d go through “preparing to copy” for hours at a time (4? 6?) only to have it fart out with something like “There was an Error. Code -50.” We got around this by only copying my computer’s directory to the new disk and leaving the old-old one there, backups which were no longer critical to my business. This approach would have worked or been "Win" if this older aged backup db had not been present.

Loss: I fussed around with file names way too much. Mac stores its Time Machine backups in a directory on your drive called Backups.backupdb. If you name anything this, it locks whatever’s inside away from you. You can’t copy into it, you can’t copy out of it. 

The way to get your computer’s files into a Backups.backupdb directory is to copy your computer’s backup directory out of your dead directory into an untitled folder or something named “future backupdb.” Once it’s in there, make sure all the invisible files that are siblings to your computer’s directory are there and then rename it Backups.backupdb. This required the command line and the sudo command to get around system protections.

Win: My weekend was nearly 4 days long. I’ve been dealing with this for 5 days but lost only 2 days of work. I don’t know if this is Karma giving me a break, or laughing in my face.

Win: Once my Time Machine files were set up in a new backup drive, Migration Assistant took care of the rest. Since there were differences in some configs (possibly the entire system software .. I should really know that) Time Machine was not going to work. Even though it could see the backups, it would not restore them. Migration Assistant, however, was practically jolly in its acceptance of the task.

I sincerely hope that if you’re facing this issue and you happen upon this piece, that it saves you some time.


- Have an online backup service like BackBlaze at all times, even if you have backup drives. Backup drives fall, fail, break, and just age out of their designed lifespan. And there’s no warning.

- Have a backup drive as well, because you don’t need the internet to work to make them work.

- Mac fusion drives, in heavy use, last about 3 years. Keep track of your computer’s lifespan proactively and plan your replacement, either of the drive, or the whole darn thing, before any of this happens.

- If you're nerdy enough to have a computer-based business and need backups in this manner, be sure you know your way around the command line or at least know how to google commands with a goal in mind of how to use the terminal. Without it, this would have never been possible.

Editors note: Posted a year later, because it got buried in my stack of potential blog posts, and then I moved. This is still just as relevant and is still informing how I approach aging equipment and backups. 

When all backups fail Image

Caroline C. Blaker

Welcome, I'm a solo-preneur web professional living in the Land of Enchantment. I blog about things related to personal and professional life. My business specializes in Content Management Systems - ExpressionEngine, Craft CMS, and WordPress — and learning of new-to-me tech like Laravel. I also like writing content like you see here. Please consider hiring me if you’re looking for a developer who is responsive to email and gets it done on-time and in-budget.

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