Backup your backup

Whilst I have an Apple iMac, my better half still uses a Windows XP-based PC.  Although the ultimate aim is to downsize to just one computer (the Mac) at the moment we’re still a two OS family.

Before I saw the Apple Mac light, I was quite invested in PCs. After getting my first one (a 386) as a hand-me-down in my university years, I then bought a brand new Pentium model in 1998. Since then, I’ve gone through numerous hardware iterations to the cheap and cheerful Dell machine we have now.

I’ve always been quite thorough with my data backups, and have been very glad of that fact on more than one occasion in the past. However, a peculiar situation reared its head yesterday – and, I hate to say, it was all of my own doing.

Both my Mac and my PC have external hard drives which I use for backups. I tend to keep my old backups, and just create new ones each time until I run out of space and then start deleting the oldest ones to make some room. There were about 4 years’ worth of files on my PC backup drive, and I decided that I wanted to copy some of them over to my Mac. They were too big for a memory stick, and the PC doesn’t have a DVD writer, so I decided that I’d move the drive from the PC to the Mac and plug it in directly. Both drives have the same power connector and both use USB 2.0, so to save time I left all the cables in situ and just moved the drive.

I unplugged the power supply and USB cable from the Mac backup drive and then set about reconnecting them to the PC drive. I switched the drive on, and then… nothing. Apart from a strange electrical burning smell. Where on earth was that coming from? And why wasn’t the drive spinning up?

Now when I said that both drives have the same power connector, that much was indeed true. What I neglected to appreciate was that they use rather diffferent amounts of current. Only 0.2 amps difference, but when a hard drive uses just milliamps that’s enough to fry the circuitry.

Needless to say,  I was a bit annoyed with myself. But then I started thinking. Exactly what was on that fried drive? Was there anything that I didn’t have a copy of somewhere else? Had I inadvertently created a situation where I had forgotten to backup my backup?

Now I knew there was a lot of stuff on there, but it was difficult to remember exactly what. I decided that if it was possible, I’d need to get the drive working again – if only so I could reassure myself that there was nothing on it that I needed.

So, as always, I asked the internet – and found a YouTube video from some dude who had a very similar problem to my own. He had managed to fix his drive by swapping the logic board from his fried hard disk with one from an old drive he had kicking about.

Unconvinced, I went hunting through all my old computer spares, and found an old Maxtor drive that had been sitting gathering dust. Same make as my crispy drive, but a different model. Still, the logic boards looked similar – despite the differing names printed on some of the chips. I thought it’d be worth a crack.

I carefully removed the board from the knackered disk (which still smelt a bit toasty) and screwed on the (hopefully fully functional) one from my old drive. I then fitted it back into its enclosure and prepared to plug it back in. Click. Whirr. Well, at least it was spinning up now. But would it mount? A few seconds of trepidation… and there it was – F: Backup. Success!

I decided to work quickly as I was certain there was no way my fortune would last long. I quickly scanned through all the files, and established exactly what was there. I picked out a few essentials that I wasn’t sure I had elsewhere and copied them over to the main hard disk and out of harm’s way. The more files I copied, the more the drive sounded unhealthy, making all sorts of deathly grinding noises and rattles. Clearly, it didn’t like my Frankenstein approach to hard drive surgery. Eventually, it gave up entirely and refused to do anything else. But at least I had copied a good chunk of data back to my PC to peruse at my leisure.

And this, in turn, got me thinking. Those backups – made incrementally, every two or three months – represented little snapshots of my life. This website for example. It has been going, in one form or another, for over five years now. Every time I redesigned the site, there would be a new “index.html” file containing the latest idea I’d had, and overwriting the old one. But there, on that hard disk, were versions of the site long since gone from the realms of the internet. I’d kind of forgotten about them entirely. And the same with my backups of email messages. Sure, the version I have here and now contains everything I deem to be worth keeping, but the backups have all those messages that I’ve consigned to the great trash can in the ether.

Anyway, the upshot is that the drive actually contained nothing really important that I didn’t have saved elsewhere – but I did manage to salvage some little bits of history.

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