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How to avoid backup disasters

Valuable lessons you should pay attention to

Bill Snyder recounts his experience of cleaning up a backup and subsequent hard drive replacement that went seriously wrong, and offers some valuable lessons to ensure you avoid backup disasters.

Read the help files first

I really do live in my email. I contact so many people from so many companies and organisations that putting all of those contacts into a database or text files is simply too laborious. And the mails contain much more than just contact information. I simply would be hamstrung without them.

Rather than use webmail, I keep my email on a local drive using Mozilla Thunderbird as my mail client. Not only does that keep everything handy whether I'm online or not, but I can do a really good job indexing it with Thunderbird's built-in capabilities plus a handy desktop search application called Copernic.

What's not to like? Thunderbird's backup scheme (you knew I was going there, didn't you?) is kind of wonky and not built in. You've got to root around your hard drive and find a profile folder and copy that to another drive. It should be transparent, say the friendly geeks on the Thunderbird boards. But it appears, and I admit that I still don't quite understand why everything doesn't moves smoothly when the profile is copied.

So when I reinstalled the program, I had none of my emails. I didn't panic - not at first anyway. I went on the web, rechecked the instructions and again copied the folder from my backup on an external drive to my new 'C' drive. Nope. Still didn't work, though when I looked harder at the backup I found most of the folders, but none of the several thousand emails that were simply in the inbox.

To begin with, here are two things to help you avoid this problem. If you're not using web-based email, (and maybe a lesson here is that it does have advantages) be really, really sure you understand the backup and recovery procedures.

The way I solved the problem - at about two in the morning - was this: because I was so concerned about losing stuff, I kept my old hard drive and spent £25 for a USB enclosure that allowed me to use it as an external drive. I then searched it using keywords I knew were in the emails and found the inbox, hidden deeply in a nest of obscure directories. Yikes, what a pain. But that leads me to suggestion number two: if you're old hard drive isn't dead, keep it because you may need to pull stuff off it.

What not to throw away

Another lesson: I have a very large Seagate external drive I use for backup and a place to store big photo and music directories I don't need on my laptop. It came with a nice little program that automates backups and restores. But I carelessly installed the software on my local drive, and when I replaced it, I couldn't do the automated restore, but rather had to drag and drop everything. Pretty dumb. So that's lesson number three: Store backup software on an external drive.

As I mentioned, I had a problem when I tried to reinstall Adobe's Photoshop Elements. After I loaded the software it asked me for the registration key. It wasn't on the CD; frustratingly, it resides on that long ago recycled box. Fortunately, I had registered it, so when I went to the Adobe website I was able to retrieve the order number and give that to someone in sales who then gave me the key. All of that took some time that I wouldn't have wasted if I had simply jotted down the key when I bought the software.

Finally, iTunes. Here's the Apple support page I should have looked at, but didn't, and wasted lots of time finding my playlists and ringtones.

I'm up and running with almost nothing lost - except a bunch of time I'll never get back and a few hours of sleep. Hopefully, you'll avoid the pitfalls that I didn't, and keep your backup from going astray.

  1.  Valuable lessons you should pay attention to
  2. Read the help files first
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