Dan's Take

The Day the MacBook Died: A True Backup Story

The El Capitan upgrade wrecked Dan's laptop. Fortunately, he was prepared. Are you?

Like any good shaggy dog story, I have to tell you one story and then follow up with another one. Let's start with my personal production environment.

My work desk is covered by computers, backup disk drives and cables. I typically work with two MacBooks (one a mid-2012 MacBook Pro Retina 15", and the other a MacBook Air early 2014 11"). I do have another system which executes Windows 7 and an ever-changing Linux distribution used for specific project work. A server sits nearby to provide shared storage and print services to the network.

I'm very aware of the potential for problems, which is why all work files are synchronized across the machines. Each machine has backup software executing so that it takes a snapshot when something changes on its own file system. The systems are also backing up critical files to cloud storage.

Over the years I've experienced disk problems and software problems arising from updating applications and operating systems. One time, I even spilled a full cup of coffee on a laptop (a terrible waste of coffee, I might add) and watched the machine flash once and die an ignominious death.

Having backup files has always saved me and allowed me to fix the problem, reload my files and get back to work.

Installing El Capitan
Apple's App Store app notifies me if an update or new release has been published for OS X, my productivity applications (word processors, XML and HTML editors, and so on), database software or utilities. Before automatically downloading and applying these changes, I typically wait a few days, checking the forums to learn of problems and solutions; only then do I download the updates and apply them.

Over the weekend, Apple released "El Capitan," OS X 10.11. The forums told stories of  smooth installations, improved performance and slightly reduced battery life, so I took the plunge. I downloaded the update image (slightly over 6GB), backed up the systems, closed my eyes and started up the installation. The installation on the older MacBook, as one would expect, took longer than the one on the newer, smaller system. In about an hour, both systems were running the new version of the operating system. I noticed an ever-so-slight improvement in performance, and started work on several projects.

Dancing the Shutdown/Restart Mambo
Typically, I shut down my systems after finishing work. This is a good idea for those working in the greater Tampa area, as it's known for lightning storms, power surges and dead electronic equipment.

After a phone conversation with a client, I attempted to boot up my production environment and make a few changes to an eBook I'm working on. The MacBook Air booted right up. The MacBook Pro Retina wouldn't restart, hanging at the beginning of the boot process. The boot indicator stayed stubbornly on zero. I did the routine step of resetting the NVRAM and trying to boot the machine again. No joy.

Then I tried to refresh the OS installation using the local image. After this 30-minute-long process completed, the same symptoms -- system starting just fine after the installation, but not being able to restart after a system shutdown -- returned.

I then tried to refresh the operating system installation using the images on Apple's servers. This process took forever and provided the same results.

My Computer's Fallen and Can't Get Up
I've always been impressed by Apple's support staff. They're friendly, professional and appear to quickly learn the level of expertise of the caller. The triage specialist and I had a short conversation about the steps I'd already taken and what I should do next. She said I'd already taken all the steps she'd suggest and immediately forwarded my call to Josh, a senior advisor.

We booted the system into recovery mode, used the disk utility to verify that there wasn't a disk hardware problem or a messed up file system. Josh admitted he was stumped and asked if he could put me on hold while he contacted someone from engineering.

Ten minutes later, Josh came back, asked a few questions about my system configuration and told me that Apple knows about this problem and is working on a fix. He explained that the only course of action I could take to get my system up and running again would be to reinstall OS X 10.10 "Yosemite." He asked if I had a recent backup. When I explained my cross system/cloud backup strategy, he told me that most people he spoke with didn't go to that extreme to protect their systems and data. I had to say that I've experienced a number of different types of failure and my approach has saved the day more than once.

So that system is now running Yosemite and I'm back to work.

Dan's Take: Back Up Now or Feel the Pain Later
There are a number of backup products offered by suppliers such as Acronis, Norton and Symantec, and quite a number of cloud backup services, such as those offered by Acronis, Carbonite, iDrive, mozy, Norton, and about 20 others.

Chose one and use it to save yourselves from losing data, and potentially weeks of time to recover. In my case, I didn't lose a file and was operating again in a couple of hours. I would have faced a terrible fate if I hadn't planned ahead. Let my experiences be a warning to you.

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company.

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