The value of a backup…

To quote my friend John, "The value of a backup is not in the backup.  It's in the restore."  I got to feel this first hand last night.
I've been having some performance issues over the last week with my wireless connection, and after doing a fair bit of reading, decided to do a laptop rebuild.  I've been meaning to do it for a while anyway, as I wanted to try the 64bit edition of Vista, and this seemed like a good time to take the plunge.  Armed with an excellent ThinkPad specific post at, I proceeded to set up for this process.  I made my restore disks, downloaded all the drivers and placed them all on a USB hard drive.  In addition, I also made a backup of my data, as suggested.

Now, I've lost count of how many times I've reinstalled a PC/laptop OS, and I've never had an issue.  I've used CD's, DVD's, hard drives and USB drives to back up and store my data during migrations.  In fact, the USB drive I used for this migration has already been used to do it previously.  This time, though, I did something that turned out to be... well... it seems to be leaning towards the stupid side of the brave vs stupid balance.

The drive is a Western Digital 250GB external USB hard drive.  It works very nicely, is compact, quiet, and has more than enough storage for what I need to do.  It also came with a little program on it, called WDSync.exe, to sync data between your computer and the hard drive.  Now seriously, why would you have that for any other reason than to create a backup?

I figured I'd give this thing a shot, and started using it to sync my data on Wednesday night.  For the next two days, I ran the software diligently to sync the data between my laptop and the drive, and it appeared to work really well.  Remembering the saying above, I also took it to my wife's PC to see if I could get the data back.  I tested with a few files, copying them back to her machine, and it seemed to work.  I was thinking, "hey, this is pretty cool!" :)  No more need to wipe the drive and re-copy everything... I only needed to back up the change between the two, so it was way faster!

As an additional part of the back story, I should also mention that I run VMWare on this laptop, and actually run my work desktop as a Virtual Machine on a daily basis.  There are a few reasons for this, which I won't go in to, but suffice it to say that the VM is used Monday through Friday, and is quite large.

So Friday night, I sat down, and synched the drive one last time before I wiped the laptop.  I watched carefully to make sure that the VMWare image that I use a work was synched.  19 huge vmdk files later, I was ready to begin.  As a final check, I just opened the synching software to make sure all the VMWare files were indeed listed, and they were.  I unplugged the USB drive, removed the Thinkpad's hidden restore partition, rebooted with my MSDN Vista x64 DVD in the drive and set to work.

The reinstall went very smoothly.  I've got no complaints there.  The more times I reload Vista from scratch, the easier I find it to do.  Upon gaining a desktop again, I then installed all the correct drivers, and everything seemed good.   But then I tried to restore my data...

First off, you don't appear to be able to sync from your backup to a new computer.  It gives you a cryptic message about being a new machine, and needing to do something which sounds ominously like deleting the backup set.  Not a chance was I doing that!  There is also an option to copy files to the PC, so I went that route.  Making sure everything was selected, I set it to go.  It went ripping through files, cheerily putting them in a deeply nested directory from where I told it too, until it hit my work PC VM.  I then received a nice little message about the USB drive being inaccessible.  Naturally, I told it to try again... and again... and again...  By this time, a cold sweat started forming... again... again... again... and then it started peeling off more files.  I started to relax until this process repeated itself.  I just kept telling it to try again and eventually it worked... or so I thought.

Upon checking my files, the software had failed to restore two main blocks of files (that I know of).  One was my entire work VM image.  That sucks.  The other set of files were a huge amount of work I did on the book stuff.  Fortunately that has all gone in now, and I have email backups of much of it, but still, it sucks.

I tried the restore again, and received the same issue.  I'm now pretty sure that the original synching process itself didn't work right, although I never got so much as a warning.  You'd think that, just maybe, that would have been something important to mention to a user wouldn't it?  Maybe a different message than "All files successfully synched." (Or whatever it was.)  After all, isn't the entire point of synching your files to make a backup of them?  And the entire point of a backup to be able to restore it to a different computer?  (Even if it is the same PC, but reformatted, it is essentially a different PC to the device!)

After further playing, I found out that a few of the snapshots in my main VMWare testing tree won't load either.  I'm not impressed.

In hindsight, I should have stuck with just making a straight file backup to the USB drive, and not bothered with their software.  I should have.  I did make an effort to check the backup, but obviously didn't do enough checking.  I  supposed I should have attempted to restore the entire thing to my wife's PC, but it's a little late to be doing that now.

As far as good news for me, at least the book, images and example files are all in to the publisher.  Of course, I wouldn't have done this if they weren't.  😉

And as far as my work VM... the old PC I virtualized is still in my office, and has not been wiped out yet.  Using VMWare's migration tool, I can easily re-image it,  it will just take some time.  I'm also fortunate in that I can access our Citrix server to get a working desktop while I'm waiting.  (I'm on a desktop as I do a fair bit of coding and testing apps, and I don't want to risk bluescreening the Citrix server.

Overall, this is just going to cost me some time, and didn't really lose anything critical, but it's still VERY frustrating.  Particularly where I thought that I had done sufficient testing.

As an interesting point, I'd been talking with a colleague at work about backups of data for the "Road Warriors" of the organization, as well as synching data.  I see these as very similar issues, which are becoming more and more important as time goes on.  My issue sort of helps to demonstrate that point.  In my case, I have a file that is important to do my work, and it's now gone and needs to be rebuilt.  In other cases, we may have people who take a file away, then need to load it back up to the server so others can work on it.

To my understanding, this is one of the issues that Microsoft Groove is supposed to solve.  For those who don't know, it's supposed to be a software to sync data over the inter/intra-net to a central server.  Every user would then be able to share files which get synched up when the network/internet is available.  For laptop users, this also offers a very convenient backup solution as well.  I may just have to start looking at this more seriously now...



7 thoughts on “The value of a backup…

  1. Hard lines Ken! I got a little USB HDD thingy for backing recently up. I removed the sync software as soon as I got it, not because I thought it would cock up, but because I wanted Grand-Father, Father Son, type archives.
    I was think during the drive to work the morning that I should look into getting some sync software to copy my desk top files to the company network - I'll be extra careful now!

  2. Hey Ross,

    That's the kicker with this stuff, right? You make the assumption that it will be easy to restore to another machine, because why else would you use it? But the kicker comes down really, that you need to test all this stuff (completely) before you need to use it, or you could be SOL.

  3. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the tip on sync software! I haven't used it before; I rely on True Image from Acronis. Having had a major disk failure as a student, I'm paranoid and I reckon the best way to get your PC back is by restoring a full image.
    Sounds like I'll keep doing the same 😉

    BTW, I like your comments on VMWare too. I will take a closer look at that, for my setup...


  4. Hi Ken,

    Sounds like you took all reasonable (and some extra-precautionary) steps. I just got a little 320GB WD that came with the WDSync software. I did a little backup test on my laptop and it seemed to work fine...then I repartitioned the WD (it came prepartitioned as 32 FAT, so I had to redo as NTFS). When it came time to download the software, I went to the WD site and they wanted me to register (mandatory name, address, phone, etc.) in order to download the WDSync software. I refused, started searching, and ran into your comments, which convinced me that WDsync is probably not a good way to spend my limited time. Thanks


  5. Thanks. I keep getting this pop-up asking me to run wdsync.exe, and I was wondering what it's all about. I'd rather have that whole image backup, like Denis refers to. Never heard of Acronis True Image--will have to look into that.

  6. Joan,

    Over the last few years I've gone away from trying to do any kind of full disk image backup. I prefer to do a complete OS reinstall so I know what's there.

    I now backup all my data files using Mozy ( It's lightweight, cheap, works, and has my data offsite and accessible when I need it. I've had to use it a couple of times to get files back, and have always been satisfied. 🙂

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