Friday, May 14, 2010

... Disaster Recovery

When I booted my PC today to do some work everything progressed as expected - the monitor flashed, the post code was completed with a beep, and the system booted into Windows 7. Unfortunately as I plugged in my password and the OS loaded to the desktop something happened that was not expected...

A small box popped up on the screen notifying me that the hard drive was in trouble. Specifically it warned in dire terms that the hard drive was failing, and suggested that it would be an idea that I backed up my data.

Here is the thing - backing up my data does not really solve the problem - the problem being that my hard drive was failing. That happens - in fact it is not really all that much of a surprise, and there are elements of procrastination involved here. I should explain.

- A Little Background -

My current desktop computer was a Christmas gift from my brother two years ago. It is not a bad computer as computers go - it has a 3.0 GHz CPU and 2 GB of RAM, and it came with a 320GB SATA2 hard drive. Note that I said "came with" because that is really sort of where this story begins.

The system that this new one replaced was old - shamefully old - and not really able to do all of the things that I needed to do, hence the gift of a new and much more capable computer. What I ended up doing was plugging in my new computer with a monitor I borrowed from my wife's desk and, using disk sharing, copied all of the data and minor configuration files from my old system to the new.

The old system was not really all that useful, so it was unplugged and lugged down to the basement, where it sat all alone and presumably lonesome. I enjoyed my new computer for a few months, and then that almost spanking new hard drive - a Western Digital SATA2 - died dead. I mean it simply imploded. Stopped working. Finito. Kaput!

I pulled the drive out and loaded the Western Digital website, but when I went through the RMA process a notice was flashed that the company no longer provided free shipping materials. At the time (Winter) it seemed like more hassle than it was worth, so I closed the browser, ticked the old drive into my sock drawer where it sat, out of sight and out of mind.

I looked around the house and then remembered my old system - and the 120GB hard drive in it. Granted it was small compared to the drive that just died, but on the other hand it already had my OS installed on it! So I pulled that drive, installed it in my system, and was up and running without having to reinstall any apps in less than an hour. Bonus!

A few months later I upgraded the computer to Windows 7, and added a few applications that I need now - a video capture suite because the writing that I do in video games now requires me to make videos - and quickly discovered that I was mostly out of space on the drive. 120GB was simply not enough!

What did I do? Well, being the tech savvy geek that I am, I did... Nothing. Well, that is not entirely true - I did remove programs that I no longer use, and I moved some data off of the system to the NAS drive we use for backups and data storage on our network, but other than that, the result was to free up around 19GB on the drive, which I decided I could live with for now.

Everything went smoothly in my computing life for nearly a year - I was happy even if I had to juggle data and regularly move stuff off to the NAS drive. And then one day while I was using the computer there was a "Phhht!" sound, and a curl of smoke wafted above my now dead computer. I recognized that smell instantly - my Power Supply had died.

Despite the fact that this was a pretty decent computer, it was build by a break-out company whose main business is assembling bare bones pretty good computers and selling them at low but competitive prices. What that means is that the case - and power supply - were pretty average and, no surprise here, not the sort that you would worry over replacing the power supply for. No, with this type of case it is usually cheaper to simply buy an new case and power supply!

Fortunately I am always prepared for this sort of situation - I am a geek after all! On a shelf in the basement is a box with a brand new case and power supply in it - there are other boxes down there with spare parts - alas no hard drives, but still.

The end result of this is that I was back up and running two hours later, having swapped the guts of my PC into this new case, and life computed on. Right, that gives you the history up to this morning.

- This Morning -

So there I sat looking at the notice that my hard drive was failing. Believe it or not, Windows 7 is pretty good about providing the user with accurate information about the state of the computer - something that Microsoft got right in an OS that largely fixed all of the bad things about Vista and is, in my opinion, a wonderful improvement to my computing experience!

The problem above is that I have deadlines and work that needs to be done, and most of it cannot be done on my netbook - I need that PC. So it was not a question of "can I limp along until the drive fails?" because, honestly, the drive failing would be a disaster that would be very difficult to recover from! The smart thing to do is implement a disaster recovery plan before you need to recover from a bigger disaster.

A brief and hasty conversation with my wife devised The Plan - she would pop into Staples and grab me a new hard drive before she headed off to work - and that is what she did. I knew that you could get a 1TB sized SATA2 drive these days for around $99 which, personally and recalling the horrific prices paid for hard drives in the past, I find to be a reasonable price to pay.

Twenty minutes later she arrived with the new drive, and I proceeded to crack open my PC and install it. I had hoped to be able to clone my old drive - which would have allowed me to avoid re-installing the OS and apps, patching, and all of that other stuff that can take an entire day to complete. Alas, my old drive was simply not stable enough to permit that.

- A Clean Install -

So as I sit here writing this, I am in the process of performing a clean install. I have already installed the OS - that was largely painless because, yet again, Microsoft managed to get the process right - and so I am applying patches.

When that is done, I will need to go out and get the Windows 7 updates for the various hardware installed in my system - the sound card and graphics card were taken care of by Windows, but there are some other devices I will need to do by hand.

When that is done, I need to recreate the user account structure, install the anti-virus, anti-malware, and anti-phishing software, and then begin the long and tedious process of installing and patching the applications that I use on a regular basis.

When all of that is done, my last task will be to re-connect the old hard drive and, using it strictly as a data rather than boot device, copy over all of the data on it, and some settings files. This is a good thing, by the way!

By acting immediately rather than waiting for the drive to fail completely, I am left with the ability to recover my computing life almost painlessly! That means I will not lose my iTunes stuff - songs and games that I have paid for but that Apple will not replace if I lose the original files. I will get all of the works-in-progress, which means not having to re-shoot some of the videos that are part of the project I am in the middle of and, might I add, am past deadline on.

In short, this is a nice example of disaster recovery managed under ideal conditions.

The point of today's blog entry? I am glad you asked that!

- A Little Action -

The point of this is to remind you that waiting for things to get worse is not the best solution in a case like this. Learning early that there is trouble with your hard drive is always preferable to finding out by the drive failing on you.

You do not have to wait for Windows to tell you there is a problem - once a month I do my regular maintenance on my drives, which means using the tools that are part of the OS to scan them for errors, and correct anything that has gone wrong.

There is no doubt in my mind that, had the health of the drive not suddenly worsened, I would have caught the problem during the maintenance that I run on the 15th of every month - but Windows let me know today instead of tomorrow. The important thing here my friends is that I took immediate steps to correct the problem.

If you find yourself in the same situation, your best choice is to do the same. If you cannot immediately replace the drive, shut the system down and do not use it until you can replace the drive. Ideally you want to subject it to the trauma of booting as few times as you possibly can until you have managed to recover your data and install it on your new drive.

The old drive - the one that is failing - was manufactured in 2004, and its warranty expired in 2008, which means that I received a comfortable two extra years beyond the warranty of service from the device. Realistically that is pretty good! Oh sure, I have hard drives in some of my computers that are running now that are 15 years old - the SCSI drives in my NeXT Slab and on my Sun SPARCstation are examples - drives that are way out of warranty, but that I am confident will continue to function for years to come.

The replacement drive that I selected is a Seagate SATA2 unit that comes with a 5-year warranty from the manufacturer - that is a good sign, as in the past most drive makers only offered from 1 to 3 years of coverage. Hopefully it means that this drive is built like the old ones that still run in my workstations - the length of the warranty implies that sort of quality.

Now if you will excuse me, Windows Update has completed and all of the patches have been applied, so I need to load Internet Explorer for the first - and last - time on this PC so that I can download the installation files for Mozilla Firefox. After that I have to start going through my CD media to figure out what I will be installing - and that is how I will be spending my day...


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

. . . Memory Cards

This afternoon I needed to pull my headset and mic out of the box I keep gaming fear in so that I could chat with a mate while playing a game on XBox Live and I stumbled upon an old green metal tin that came with Pokemon Emerald. I paused for a moment, trying to remember why that tin was in this box? Perhaps some background is in order...

The box in question is a fairly large Rubbermaid plastic box that has a latching cover on it, and I use it to keep pretty much anything gaming related that I own that has wither (1) a cable, or (2) a foam or rubber element. The reason that these items are kept secured in this box is that my dog Calvin (a year-old Dachshund) is hell on cables and anything even remotely chewable. In the year that he has been my faithful companion he has destroyed:

  • 2 XBox 360 headset/Microphone devices
  • 6 Power cables including the ones belonging to my notebook, netbook, and iPod
  • 15 Ethernet cables
  • 2 lamp cords
  • The power cable for a surge protector
  • The cable connecting the foot pedal to my wireless drum kit for Rock Band
  • 2 wired microphones for Rock Band
  • 2 sets of drum sticks for Rock Band
  • A Wii nun-chuck
  • 3 Cell phone charger cables
  • 11 stuffed animals
Now bear in mind the above list is just the stuff I know about... I am sure that there are other items he has destroyed that I am not aware of. I fear looking under my bed, as that is his favorite place to stash the various items he "collects" and, every now and then, where he goes to chew on them - an activity that I can hear.

Anyway, back to the tin...

This green metal tin was familiar to me - I knew that there was a reason it was in that box, I just could not recall what it was. When I opened it - as often happens - the sight of its contents instantly reminded me of why it was in there! This tin contained all of my memory cards for the various game consoles that I own, including but not limited to my Nintendo Game Cube, Nintendo 64, PS1, PS2, XBox, and my Pocket PC.

These memory cards used to be a very important element in gaming. In order to save a game you needed them! Back in the days of cartridge games there was usually some sort of battery-backed on-cartridge memory for saving - but not always - though those were the bad old days. The days of memory cards came in between today and the days of cartridges, but I digress.

After careful thought I came to the realization that I had not used a memory card in at least two years and probably longer! I do not use my Wii much - that is mostly for the kids - and my 360 has a hard drive, as does my PS3. As I do not visit friends to game as much these days what with being in a wheelchair, I am more used to them visiting me - so invariably they bring their memory cards, not the other way around.

My son Peter has a memory card for his 360 - but only because it came with one, being that I had purchased an Arcade version when I bought my kids their 360 since I had my old 20GB hard drive to give them, having upgraded to the 120GB version not too long before.

All this thinking about game console memory cards dusted off a recent memory - I recalled having received a press release not too long ago that related to them, so as is often the case, my interrupt-driven mind then fixated on finding that press release - and the finding of it added something to this whole adventure.

The release was about the upgrade to the XBox 360 that added support for USB Thumb Drives. The gist of it is this: Microsoft has discontinued their memory cards! The USB based drives are the direct replacement for those - but of course in this day and age Microsoft expects that you will have a hard drive installed on your 360 anyway, so that is doubly a good reason for doing away with those comforting little devices that used to contain all of our progress for the games that we played.

Call me sentimental, but the news that these little plastic memory cards days are now numbered struck me as sad. They say that change is a constant in life, and I can see that. It is not that I need a memory card - I have several USB Thumb Drives that I carry around with me on my key chain - one that is strictly for my writing and that contains copies of every article, column, and walkthrough I have ever written, and one that is a "mixed mode" drive, containing a partition for the 360, a partition for my Linux stuff, and a partition for Windows that holds things like the installation files for OpenOffice and other software that I find indispensable.

All of that tucked away on neat little slabs of plastic, silicone, and metal. Each one of those thumb drives contains more memory space than literally all of my console memory cards combined, and yet as I gaze into this small green tin full of oddly shaped memory cards I cannot help but feel a sense of loss. Each of these cards is distinctly shaped so that you know simply at a glance what console it belongs to, whereas the thumb drives are ubiquitous and generic, lacking any real system identity.

I am not sure what it means, to miss something that I have not touched in years. Perhaps this is part of getting old. Or perhaps it is simply that I know that no matter how efficient my thumb drives are at holding my data, they will never enjoy the same association of identity to the joy of gaming that my memory cards do. This is progress...