Being Prepared For When "It" Happens

Hard drive failure: they often say, "it's bound to happen". And when it does rear its ugly head...ho boy...you're in for some good times. And when I say good times, I mean spending my whole Sunday up through today piecing together everything I lost when my primary solid state drive bowed out of service with hardly a "au revoir" or even a "c'ya sucka!"

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Usually hidden away from view, this 3TB external drive was essential for getting back up and running in a couple hours, restoring almost everything I lost from my primary SSD drive.

Fortunately I'm not new to this inevitable process of rebounding back from Arrrgh Drive failure. Years working as a graphic designer I learned pretty quickly about the necessity of having a backup and can prove to be paramount when a situation goes pear shaped. In fact, I've got most of my files backed up in triplicate these days, not to mention keeping a portion of my photos and music up yonder in the rarified air of the cloud.

Although SSD drives are rated and advertised as being more robust than their old tech platter counterparts (since there's no moving mechanical parts), it's also a much younger technology. Who knows why this drive failed after only a few months; that's for the team over at OWC to figure out once I send back my under-warranty drive for replacement, since there were no signs of imminent failure or unusual use prior to the disappearance of my primary drive.

There's no time where you deserve to pat yourself on the back than after a hard drive has failed, and you've got your whole setup backed up or cloned ready to go. There's a small, but important difference between a backed up drive (in my case, using Apple's Time Machine) compared to having a cloned drive. An application like Time Machine operates with a regular incremental backup schedule, either automated, scheduled or manually maintained, replacing the backup data as time progresses.

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The other option is to duplicate or clone your drive, bit for bit, using an application like Carbon Copy Cloner, which produces a snapshot of your drive (Carbon Copy Cloner and another app, SuperDuper!, can duplicate your drive on a schedule). Both are useful, but in my case, I didn't want to use a drive I had cloned months ago, especially since my last Time Machine backup was only an hour or so before the drive died.

To cut to the chase, I was able to swap out the dead SSD drive, drop in an old backup, and restore my setup using Time Machine. This process of restoring gigabytes of data took plenty long, but the sweat required sure beats the tears of losing everything.

One quirk noted in the process of restoring from Time Machine: passwords, application serials and even my email inbox either disappeared or needed to be reentered (in almost all of the cases, the files were there, but the connection between the files and related apps had been severed). My Eye-Fi SD card isn't connecting, some of my Photoshop filters aren't showing up in their menus. So I'm still finding myself launching apps to discover missing serials, passwords, extensions, and other useful tools; thank goodness for LastPass, since the online password locker kept track of my online log-in data; one less headache to worry about.

So not to frighten you or use scare tactics, but it's almost inevitable one day you'll find yourself in my shoes. Whether you want to be wearing flip-flops or steel toed boots is up to you. But here are my recommendations for being prepared for when "it" (unspeakable, like Voldemort) happens:

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How to Prepare BEFORE Your Hard Drive Fails:
1. Purchase an external hard drive specifically for backing up your drive: external USB drives are shockingly affordable these days, so there's absolutely no reason you shouldn't have at least one drive dedicated for daily backup purposes. Aim for a drive larger than your computer's current capacity (I'd say at least 25% larger) to allow for any growth in stored data. Think of this like purchasing a slightly bigger belt, knowing you're likely going to gain some digital weight.

2. If you're like us and want additional insurance, purchase a second external drive** and create a clone; update at least once a month. This works great because you'll have a drive you can immediately drop in or boot from and it will feel just like before (depending upon how often you clone your drive). SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner for OS X users, Clonezilla for Windows 7.

3. Consider uploading your most prized digital photos onto a cloud service or digital photo hosting site like Flickr. The same can be done with music files. For more private documents, I prefer keeping them stored on a few flash drives and safely stored away either in a safety deposit box or with dear old mom; just anywhere except your own home. Think of these all as insurance for a disaster like a fire wiping out all your physical storage devices.

4. Invest in good hard drive protection and hardware diagnostic software. They don't always work, but for less catastrophic instances, I've been able to save or revive data from failing drives or were warned in advance about impending doom early enough to not be caught with my proverbial pants down. I've been a longtime user of both TechTool Pro and DiskWarrior, partially out of habit from an earlier era when operating system and hardware was nowhere as robust as it is today.

5. Invest in a computer toolkit and learn the basics of hardware repair. By no means am I qualified or knowledgeable to do serious repairs (hey, I'm a Mac user, right?), but I was able to remove and replace my own hard drive, run comparative diagnostics isolating and identifying the SSD drive failure , and get myself up and running with a operable system simply because I had the right tools and had watched a few how-to videos online taking me by step through the process of opening my laptop. Don't act helpless...everyone starts off knowing little to nothing, and its only when you attempt to fix things (and sometimes fail), you learn how things work and how to repair them when they stop working. In the end, you can always mosey on up to the Genius Bar and plead your case if you can't fix it yourself.

** It's also advisable to have a backup USB external hard drive case to quickly convert an internal unit for external use; this is particularly useful when shuffling drives around to run diagnostics to verify any ongoing issues. I keep a cloned drive in one, ready to hook up or swap out.