What not to do with your external drive

Over the weekend, the Seagate 1TB Free Agent Desktop drive we had decided to fail. No warning signs, no feedback, just no longer working. I lost a little bit of data, and I am not happy.

I was stupid. With all my knowledge (and experience) in redundant systems, server environments, and backups, keeping files on this large of a drive without a real backup was a REAL (and stupid) risk. I had split this drive into two volumes, 400GB for Time Machine, 600GB for Storage. Most of the Storage volume just had original off-the-DSLR photos (which are actually kept in the iPhoto library as well), some manual backups, and certain downloads. All of this, plus a year of Time Machine backups, just gone.

It could have been worse, much worse, but still a stupid move on my part.

So what happened? While I am still not 100% of the details, basically a general drive failure. The disk corrupted, mainly ruining its Catalog File. The drive still knew it had two volumes, and in some testing, could actually see the root level file names, but no content or deeper levels. I did just about everything I could think, even using an HFS+ reader on our old PC. I also tried DiskWarrior, which I have written about before. DiskWarrior immedialty mentioned hardware failure. When rebooting from the DVD, it started to repair the drive, but failed as well. I am sure there are a few things I am missing, but if DiskWarrior doesn’t work – you are really in a bad spot. This drive was so bad off – I can’t mount it anywhere anymore, nor even format it.

Luckily this drive has a 5 year warranty, and already being sent back to get a new one. I’ve never really been a fan of this drive, mainly for:

  1. Seagates lack of true Mac support. You would think this wouldn’t matter, but I shouldn’t have to find a windows machine to flash the external case’s firmware.
  2. The tool they provide for updating drive settings is Windows only
  3. This drive has a known sleep issue, and due to #3, was a pain to fix (Their tech support agreed to this).
  4. This drive is also known for running a little hot, as well as having power supply issues at times.

So after wasting an entire afternoon trying to revive this disk, I started to way-overthink solutions. The easiest, fastest, best, but also most expensive solution was to go buy a Drobo and a bunch of disks. The Drobo provides a very elegant and easy solution, and many of my fellow Mac users have been recommending them. But with a kitchen and bathroom remodel, plus an upcoming west-coast vacation, this is just to far out of my price range.

There are RAID’ed smaller external drives too, but while some of these support RAID 1, in some cases these RAID enclosures were doing some tricky work between your computer and your backup. I do not want this.

My near final solution was to actually build my own RAID/Fileserver, something I had wanted to do for a while. We have an old PC sitting around that I use to store some files already, plus some old code and VS 2005. Right before purchasing 2 WD Drives, I decided it would be a smart move to check my motherboard specs – which reminded me I only had 2 SATA ports – one already in use. This means I would have to move my current install to an IDE drive, reformat a ton of things, and generally spend a ton of time I would rather put elsewhere. If I was going to go that far – I would rather build a new machine (or purchase a Windows Home Server) – which at that point would be out of the price range.

Eventually I realized I was really over thinking all of this. While I create a bunch of things (code, photos, etc) at home, and all of this is very important – this isn’t where I spend most of my days. I don’t get to spend as much time as I wished creating items on my Macs, and therefore don’t have all that much to back up or store yet. In most cases, everything I use/create easily fits on the iMac (or in Deb’s case – the MacBook). With fine-tuned Time Machine preferences, I could make my backups go a long way for much cheaper.

So what did I decide?

I ended up just buying a Western Digital 1TB My Book Studio. This device has USB 2, FW400, and FW800, which the iMac can support each. I will end up using FW800, due to its much higher transfer rate. And this drive will have the whole 1TB dedicated for Time Machine. I will take more time than I have before to fine tune my backup settings on Time Machine, something I didn’t do much of before. I may go as far as to exclude iPhoto and iTunes libraries – and just have them automatically rsync to the device on a set basis as well. I won’t store anything else on this drive that isn’t already somewhere else.

I am also moving Deb’s music and other files to the MacBook, where she spends 95% of her time on computing. This way, we reclaim a little bit of space back on the iMac, so I can store more on the internal disk. I will also be picking her up a smaller (500GB or smaller) USB 2.0 drive, so she can use it for Time Machine as well.

I hope that maybe for Christmas we may expand this a bit and purchase a Drobo or NAS device for the house, if we find ourselves running out of room on internal drives in machines. I don’t see this happening just yet, but will someday.

Cliffs Notes: Don’t be stupid. Backup drives should be for just that – backup. Just because you have 1TB of space doesn’t mean you should use it. And if you have a Mac, get a drive now and start using Time Machine. If you have a PC – Windows 7 has a built in backup solution that works great as well (both my stepdad and mom are using this on their PC’s). Oh, and Hard Drives will always fail. Be ready for that.

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