Back trom the Dead

March 31, 2008

MacBookAir I ordered my MacBook Air soon after they were announced in January 2008 – I needed to upgrade, and I was intrigued by the ultra-thin and light form factor, as well as the idea of having an SSD, flash-based drive (similar to memory cards in digital cameras), which I’m convinced will be the norm in a couple of years. I’ve been thoroughly delighted by my choice: this machine is precisely what I wanted. I don’t miss the integrated optical drive (I have the external one), the machine is plenty fast (faster than my previous Intel-based MacBook Pro on most things), and – a bit to my surprise – I don’t even miss the larger screen (13.4” instead of my previous 17”). I can even live with the minimalist ports (a mere three: audio out, USB, external display), though life requires a bit more patience without Firewire 800.

Unfortunately, my drive died. Some drives are simply lemons, and it certainly doesn’t help that this is a newer technology as applied to internal drives for computers, but the irony is that Apple trumpets the reliability of SSD, which has no moving parts for enhanced durability.

Fortunately, I’ve learned my lesson before, and I’m pretty diligent about making backups, especially now that it can be fairly automatic with Time Machine and my Time Capsule (wireless base station with integrated drive for backups). Automated backup has been fairly trivial for desktop machines for quite a while (with scheduled software and an external drive), but the magic of the wireless solution is that it works so well for laptops as well, since it backs up whenever it can and tolerates interruptions.

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t any problems (which is actually the main motivation for this post). One challenge I was aware of is that Time Machine backs files up, but it doesn’t create a bootable drive, which can make accessing the backed up content a bit difficult (there are solutions to having having Time Machine co-exist with bootable disks, though I’m
not sure any of them are as tolerant to the mobile nature of laptops and transient connections). Another challenge is that Time Machine backups made through a wireless connection aren’t directly browsable – the sparse bundle disk image can’t be navigated as easily as when Time Machine works directly with an external drive, because it’s actually using network storage. For whatever reason, I couldn’t get “Browse Other Time Machine Drives” to work properly either, perhaps because it was a network backup (that option is available when you Ctrl-Click on the Time Machine icon in your Dock – it’s not available from the menu bar or from the preference pane). The best work-around I could find was the following:

  • start the migration assistant application (in your Utilities folder)
  • select migration from Time Machine backup
  • select the correct drive and connect (don’t migrate)
    • open Terminal (also in your Utilities folder)
    • type: ls /Volumes
    • note the likely name of the Backup image
    • type: open /Volumes/[backup image name above] (type in the first couple of letters of the drive and press tab to auto-complete the rest)
  • browse into “Backups.backupdb”, the name of your computer, the backup you want…

Not the easiest procedure, but it will allow you to retrieve files in a pinch, if – like me – you can’t navigate to them otherwise.

Anyway, I did finally get my MacBook Air back with a new drive and I performed a full restore from the Time Machine backup, which worked fairly smoothly. (Again, there were a couple of hickups: you can only restore when booting from the installation DVDs, but the DVD drive takes up the one USB port on my MacBook Air that I’d prefer to keep free for my Ethernet dongle in order to restore faster from the network drive – I should have tried my USB hub but didn’t. When I booted with the DVD in another machine, which is now possible for MacBook Airs, I was
unable to mount the network drive properly (permission issues that weren’t a problem when booting locally). So I had to boot from the external DVD drive and complete the backup over wireless, which was slower, but that’s ok since I was sleeping through most of it.)

As reported elsewhere, Apache didn’t work properly until I manually created the needed logs directory sudo mkdir /var/log/apache2 (the logs directory deliberately isn’t backed up by Time Machine). Also as noted elsewhere, Mail had to re-index all my mailboxes, but failed to do so properly, which would have left me without a huge number of my messages (some messages were simply corrupted, but for some reason all the messages added since my previous migration to the MacBook Air weren’t imported properly). The best solution I found was to open the relevant directory in Time Machine (~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes/Archives) and to restore the directory as it was before the disk crash, and then to manually rebuild the index (Click on the Mailbox file menu and choose
rebuild).

Finally, if I were starting over, I’d probably try these instructions to avoid Time Machine starting a backup from scratch after the restore instead of just continuing from where it was.

Sorry for the longish post – hopefully someone will find some tip of use if they run into any of the same problems that I did. And now I’m back from the dead.

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