Other posts related to backup

 | July 8, 2010 11:45 am

Time DriveInnovation happens in fits and starts.  No single person, no matter how brilliant, capable or amazing is able to consistently create awesome stuff day in and day out.  Whenever engaged in any creative endeavor, there will be hills and valleys in productivity.

These happen for lots of reasons: maybe you’ve hit the bottom of the ideas barrel, or lost the source of your inspiration.  But there is another cause: you’ve reached your goal or solved the original problem.

Reaching such a plateau is a good thing.  It means you’ve accomplished something.  It’s a moment for patting yourself on the back, looking over your accomplishments, and otherwise appreciating that you’ve done something.  But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you should sit still or stagnate.  So, in addition to looking at what you’ve done, it’s also important to take stock of the path ahead and start formulating plans.  You might even want to find a new challenge.

And this is where Time Drive has been for the better part of six months.  Ever since releasing version 0.3, there have been few changes to Time Drive.  Sure, both Philippe DeLodder (the other amazing Time Drive Developer) and I have fixed a few bugs and made tweaks; but nothing really major.

My personal reason for this is simple: Time Drive meets my needs.  It does a good job of backing up my data.  It lets me copy things to an attached hard drive, or across the internet.  It makes it easy to search for and restore my files.  In short, I’ve reached my original goals.  I use Time Drive every day, and it’s saved my digital bacon a couple of times.

But that doesn’t mean that development is finished, or that I don’t have ideas.  Because, I do.

Even though much of the original problem has been solved, I’ve found a new one to work on; and given that you use the current version, I thought you might be curious to hear a little about it.

(In addition to introducing the new version of Time Drive and making a few other project announcements.)

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 | October 26, 2009 12:16 pm

One of the upsides of open source software is that it largely sales itselfImagine how awesome it would be if this announcement read: “Time Drive has been completely rewritten from scratch (yet again) to take better advantage of the paradigms of modern computing!  Version 0.3 has hundreds of updates and new features which will make your life easier and more fulfilled!”

There’s just one little problem … such an announcement wouldn’t necessarily be true.  (Marketing hyperbole, I never knew thee!)

The truth is this: Time Drive is a simple backup program that does a good job of backing up your data.  It offers a nice list of potential backup options ranging from an attached hard drive to a computer over the network or across the internet.  It makes it easy to search for and restore a lost file.

In short, Time Drive seeks to change the world by making an act of computer maintenance more convenient.  I’d like to think that it Just Works.

But the real test of a program isn’t how well it works, but how easy it is to fix when broken.  A good program does what you want, but a better program helps you get back on track when things go wrong.  Back when I was looking at other backup programs available for Linux, this was my number one frustration.  Most of the applications would work (for the most part), but I could never troubleshoot or repair problems when they happened.  There just wasn’t enough information available.

For an example, let’s take SBackup.  It’s a lovely little program,  with one horrible flaw.  You have absolutely no way of knowing if it is working.  It doesn’t keep log files, it doesn’t notify you if a backup job failed.  It doesn’t let you know if it is running.  Its simplicity is actually symptomatic of a flaw: it’s incomplete.

These were problems that I desperately wanted to avoid with Time Drive.  And now that I’m announcing version 0.3 of the program, I’d like to think that I have.  So, instead of marketing hyperbole and false promises, here’s the real announcement:

Time Drive 0.3 includes a number of refinements that make it easy to both backup your data and to figure out why a backup might have failed.  It’s better, easier and more refined.  In the rest of this post, I’ll explain why.

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 | October 5, 2009 3:47 pm

The Glass Ceiling When it comes to most things, starting fresh is a blessing.  The reason for this is rather simple, when starting over you don’t have to worry about baggage.  After all, baggage is only valuable when on holiday; otherwise, it just slows everyone down.

This is especially true for software.  Over time, computers tend to accumulate a rather potent type of digital baggage that can be very difficult to get rid of.  And that digital garbage results in inconsistencies that can cause enormous – and usually unforeseen – problems.

However, even though starting fresh is usually the best option, that isn’t always true.  Sometimes, it’s better to risk the problems and incompatibilities.  For example, starting over may mean that you destroy hours worth of customization, or that you lose work already created because the older version are not compatible with the new.

Unfortunately, the general rule is also somewhat true of Time Drive.  So, if you were one of those stalwart and brave individuals who decided to experiment with Time Drive 0.1, this post is for you.

In the last few days, I have been in touch with a number of people who have experienced a number of said inconsistencies and problems.  And while several of these problems ended up providing insight on mistakes made during development, some of the others were changed on purpose.  That is to say, the so called “bug” was actually a feature.

After fielding a couple of particularly angry e-mails, however, I thought that it might be good do a formal write up that describes how to work around these incompatibilities.  And while no one likes to squash bugs or fix things that previously worked, rather fortunately, every one of these problems can be overcome with a little bit of effort and patience.

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 | September 24, 2009 2:41 pm

More Stable, More Secure, More Settings and Supports Amazon S3

The first time that you attempt to do something, it’s pretty much a guarantee that it’s going to suck.  This doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing.  Shows like  America’s Funniest Home Videos and MXC have found dozens of way to cash in on the humiliation of their participants.  (And what better exemplifies pure suck than a golf ball to the groin?)

It, therefore, shouldn’t come as any surprise that creative pursuits are no exception to the general rule of suckiness.  After all, you have to overcome inexperience and ineptitude to produce anything.  The only way to ensure that a release doesn’t suck is to finish a first draft and revise heavily.  Which requires a great deal of work.

Yet … as interesting as that might be, this isn’t a post about the creative process.  It’s about Time Drive and I should probably admit that Time Drive 0.1 had a few … rough … edges.  Sure, it mostly worked, but it was new software and did too many strange things to declare anything other than a “work in progress.”  But Time Drive 0.1 was a first release and first releases suck.

Second releases, however, offer a chance to clean things up, refine the bleeding edge, and otherwise deliver the goods.  Maybe that’s why I’m so excited to announce the release of Time Drive 0.2.  This version of Time Drive is a great improvement over it’s predecessor.  So much so that Time Drive 0.2 is hereby dubbed the “More S” release: more stable, more secure, more settings, and Amazon S3 storage.

In the remainder of this post, I’ll attempt to justify such a silly name by taking a look at a few of those new features.

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 | August 14, 2009 11:19 am

Lifehacker induced change in web traffic.  Looks like move to exponential decay.It’s been an interesting couple of days.  I was rather honored to see that Lifehacker did a short highlight of Time Drive, which I thought was pretty cool.  It’s always been one of my goals to have something featured in Lifehacker or Gizmodo, and now I’m going to have to scratch that off the list of goals.  But that’s okay, I’ve got other things to fill the void.  Like … how exactly does one get invited to present at TED?

On another note … while I knew that I would see some kind of traffic bump due to the article in Lifehacker, I wasn’t necessarily prepared for the magnitude.  In mathematics, there is this thing called a step function.  It’s where you move from one value to another more or less instantaneously.  It looks like a step, hence the name.  Sure, It may not actually exist, since even very dramatic shifts still have a non vertical slope; but even so, the change in my traffic might as well be a step-function.  Between yesterday and today, I’ve had more visits to this site than I’ve had in much of the rest of the year combined.  I think that’s kind of cool, though it probably won’t last.

(This might be a good time to say that I am actually rather proud of my “lackluster” web traffic.  Though it might not necessarily be that impressive, it is, nevertheless, mine. I’ve worked hard for it, and I revel in the fact that some 40 to 50 people each day find the unorganized garbage of my mind intoxicating.  Some of them even come back!)

But as interesting as that might be, traffic stats is probably not why you’re here.  Good thing, since I’ve got announcements.

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 | August 7, 2009 1:39 pm

Time-Drive-Icon[11]In part 1 of this article, I shared a few of the frustrations and reasons why I decided to write my own backup utility rather than submit to the tyranny of currently available solutions.  While some might find those ruminations interesting, the vast majority are probably far more interested in the end result.  There is a reason why “Get to the point” is one of the most important sentences in the English language.

Here’s the short version: After becoming tremendously frustrated by the state of backup on Linux, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create my own tool.

And though I only want a few things, I want that tool to do each very well.  First, I’m looking for a solution that can incrementally backup over the network and let me restore a file from an existing snapshot.  Second, those snapshots should be compressed, encrypted and secure.  Third, it should be easy to browse old backups for existing files and restoration should be a one-click affair.  Fourth, I want a backup system that can protect me from disaster, carelessness and pathological stupidity.

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 | 12:58 am

Time Drive

It is a terrible thing to realize that you are stuck in a rut.  Being in a rut effectively means that you’ve stopped advancing and life has evolved to monotony.  No one likes to be around people in ruts, but it’s even worse to discover that you are personally trapped in one.  And, most unfortunately, I am in a rut.

Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the home page of this blog.  You will likely notice that a full six of the ten most recent posts have dealt with one subject: backing up your computer.  That’s pretty conclusive evidence of a rut.

Now, backing up your computer is a very important thing to do; you should do it regularly and have a plan.  But … well … it’s boring.  Talking, thinking and writing about nothing but backup is dull.  As one of the doctors I work with likes to say, “That isn’t sexy.  If I’m going to spend any time with it – women, food, wine; it doesn’t matter – it should be sexy.”

He’s got a valid point, backup is not “sexy” and I’d like to write about things that are, at least for a while.  This, therefore, will be my last post on backups, archives, or servers for the relatively foreseeable future (technology is just too cool to lay it aside for too long).  But before doing that, I want summarize where I ended up in my quest for the ultimate backup system.

Backup on Mac is taken care of, I use Time Machine to a Samba share.  More adventurous persons than I might even say that this arrangement approaches sexy.  It’s convenient, fast, and robust.  It even covers disaster recovery.

Backup on Windows is also covered.  The built-in file backup is easy to use and works well.  Moreover, setting up a disaster recovery system is relatively painless.

But the third major operating system, Linux, is a bit of the odd-man out.  Certainly, you can find some excellent backup systems, Back In Time is one such example.  With a bit of work, you can even tweak it so that it is almost perfect.  But it’s the “almost perfect” and closely related cousins (“mostly useful” and “good enough”) that are the problem.  They have those stupid qualifiers – almost, mostly, enough – bolted on.

Any time you hear a qualifier, you can rest assured that you aren’t going to like what follows.  Consider the rather innocuous phrase, “that may be a problem.”   Here, the term “may,” makes an already bad situation much worse.  Instead of specifying some probability of problemhood, it all but guarantees it.  Positive qualifiers are just as bad.

As a result, it angers me that nearly every backup program available for Linux requires some kind of qualifier.  It shouldn’t be like this.  Linux is a brilliant operating system in practically every way.  It is highly integrated, wonderfully modular and tremendously easy to extend.  So … after finding that nearly every backup utility in existence has failed to meet my needs, I found the situation intolerable and decided to do something about it.

I wrote my own.

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 | July 30, 2009 2:16 pm

Mirrored PoundThe most recent versions of Microsoft Windows, Vista and Windows 7, include a wonderfully useful tool called Volume Shadow Copies.  You can think of Volume Shadow Copies as insurance against momentary stupidity or negligence.

Consider that in any given day, the typical computer user (namely me) works with a lot of files.  These include data, images, and text.  As part of the workflow, I may be editing and combining changes to a document from many people.  Over time, this can result in a great deal of cruft.  Thus, while I’m working, I try and maintain some semblance of organization by applying edits to the most recent version and keeping a semi-automated log of the changes that have been made.  Older versions of the document will typically be backed up in the subversion repository on my server, or in a dedicated archive.

However, in the process of shuffling and moving the digital detritus, occasionally I have accidentally deleted the wrong file.  Which, invariably, happens while away from the backup server.  Losing work is obnoxious, frustrating and embarrassing; thus, my healthy appreciation for Volume Shadow Copies.

On a regular schedule, Windows takes a picture of how your drive looks at that moment and saves it away.  So, should you ever need to restore a lost file, you can use the Volume Shadow copies to do so.  It’s even a relatively straightforward process.  Simply right click on the folder you need to access and select “Properties.”  Then, click on the “Previous Versions” tab  and you will find a list of every snapshot that the computer has taken.image

But while all versions of Windows have Volume Shadow Copies, Microsoft decided that only those who purchase the most expensive versions (Business, Enterprise and Ultimate) get the ability to use them.  Home users are out of luck.  The Shadow Copy service is still there, but you need a third party program to get at the stored information.

The open source Shadow Explorer is one such option.  It’s free and gets the job done.  But I recently stumbled upon a second alternative that is worth mentioning, Time Traveler, developed by Bears on the Loose Software.

While reading about Time Traveler, I learned something very interesting.  Microsoft considers Volume Shadow Copies to be essential to the operation of Windows.  More than a few of the internal services like System Restore and File Backup make extensive use of it.  Support is even built-in to  Windows Explorer (the file managing utility, not the internet browser).  If you know the proper url, you can navigate to where the previous versions are stored on the hard drive and work with them like any other file.

But, bizarrely, Microsoft didn’t connect any of these technologies.  They didn’t make it easy for the end-user to take advantage of their hard work.  Sure, right clicking is easy enough … but … that’s the problem.  It’s like saying that something is “good enough,” or “useful enough.”  The “enough” is a qualifier, it implies that the solution is merely passable rather than excellent.

The problem with Microsoft’s implementation of Previous Versions is that you have to add the qualifier.  Of course a good tool should be invisible, at least until you need it.  But Microsoft’s Previous Versions is too invisible.  It forgets that you should also be able to find said tool quickly and efficiently.  To use Microsoft’s Previous Versions (assuming you even have the right version of Windows), you first have to load a context menu, then you have to go to the all-encompassing “Properties” option and find the right tab.  Only after three unnecessary clicks  can you actually review your shadow copies.  And what happens if you don’t know where your lost file once lived?  There’s no way to actually search through the archive.

You see, it’s “good enough.” And because there’s a gaping hole in the integration, others can make some money by patching it; enter Time Traveler.  Bears on the Loose took the final step that Microsoft should have taken: they integrated Shadow Copies into the rest of the Windows.

Time Traveler is a software add-on from

The program does one thing, it points Windows explorer to the url where the relevant volume shadow copy lives.  Simple, huh?   Remember, Windows Explorer already has support for browsing the shadow copies built-Time Traveler installs itself as an add-on to Explorer.  You can enable it by clicking on View->Explorer Bar->Time Traveler.  Alternatively, you can also it Ctrl+T.in.  It just needs a little help getting there. And this works on every version of Windows: Basic, Home, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate.

Time Traveler represents “Previous Versions” as it should be.  Invisible until needed, then easy to access and use.  It’s loaded  by clicking on View –> Explorer Bar -> Time Traveler.  Alternatively, you can hit Control + T to toggle the slider on and off.

When loaded, it subtly clues you into what previous versions are available via a convenient timeline.  You can open that point in time by moving the slider bar.  Hence the name, you “travel back in time.”  Windows Explorer does the rest of the work.

But even if Time Traveler makes the navigation of shadow copies easier, that one simple action doesn’t justify the $20 that Bears on the Loose charges for it.  I would say that it’s the program’s “other” feature that makes it valuable. Namely, it makes it really easy to configure and manage the Volume Shadow Copy Service.

While I am aware that managing the Volume Shadow Copy Service is possible with the Control Panel, I’m not exactly sure how it’s done.  Frankly, I’m not even sure where to begin.  I once found a few options when I was looking for something else, but I can’t remember where I saw them.  Time Traveller, however, takes all of those available settings and puts them on the same configuration page.  Want to change how often the computer takes snaphosts?  You can do that.  Want do change how much hard drive space is used to store them?  You can do that too.  Want to manually delete or protect old snapshots?  The settings for that are also available.

image

Sure, Time Traveler isn’t what anyone would call groundbreaking software.  But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable.  It transforms Volume Shadow Copies from a system tool into a user tool, primarily by linking Microsoft’s own technologies together in a more cohesive manner.  I hope that someone at Microsoft takes a good look at how Time Traveler works.  It represents “Previous Versions” done right.

 | July 7, 2009 4:36 pm

WindowsVistaBackupIcon4

Archiving files is all well and good, but it is only one part of a complete backup plan.  What should you do if your hard drive decides to fail?  Or if your computer were to be stolen?  How do you go about restoring your system right away so that you can actually get back to work?  Disaster recovery is a slightly different challenge than file backup and it requires a different tool, the “system image.”

A system image is an exact copy of a drive.  It includes all of the Windows files, system settings, programs and program files.  And when you restore a computer from a system image, it’s a complete restoration.  You usually don’t restore just a few specific files or items, that is what a file back-up is for.  (In fact, most system backups don’t even provide the option to restore a single file.)

If you use Time Machine on the Mac, it makes both a backup of your files and a system image at the same time.  Windows Vista, however, separates the two tasks.  File backup (which we looked at in the previous article), runs separately from “Complete PC Backup,” which creates the system image.  This is a disruption in the “set it and forget it” mentality that I am striving for.  Worse, the built in Windows Vista tool will only work with an external hard drive and “exclusively” comes in the Windows Vista Business and Ultimate editions. (And while Windows 7 will let you create an image to a network location, it places other artificial limitations on the process.)

You might call me picky, but I know exactly what I want in an backup image: a solution that  runs without me thinking about it, which can backup to a network attached storage (NAS) and takes differential snapshots of my system drive.   (While using an external hard drive is an “acceptable” solution, it isn’t ideal.  It injects an additional step and unnecessary complexity into the process.)  Frankly, I want the built-in backup to work exactly the Windows Home Server does.

The astute reader might ask, why not just use Windows Home Server?  It appears to work well.  (In fact, some users think it is the best thing since sliced bread.)  But from where I sit, I see a few downsides: 1) it costs money and 2) it requires me to buy new hardware.  In comparison, a Linux based server can be installed on anything that I happen to have lying around, and makes it tremendously easy to to install other programs like Subversion which offer their own advantages.

But that leaves the question, “If the built-in Vista tools aren’t acceptable, what do you use for an image based backup tool?”  Well … I’m glad that you asked.

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 | July 5, 2009 7:11 pm

Windows Vista Backup - Icon

As anyone who must perform routine (and extremely repetitive) tasks can tell you, they aren’t fun.  In fact, unless pains are taken to ensure that they are easy and convenient, they might not get done at all.  This list of unpleasant necesseties includes such joys as: balancing your checkbook, folding the laundry, and routine computer maintainence (including backing up your data).

Maybe this is why Time Machine (a backup program for Mac OS X) is the standard against which all other backup solutions are measured.  Time Machine is an all in one solution: it quickly restores files or an entire disk, can backup to a network (with a little bit of help) or a local hard drive, and it runs either automatically or manually.  In short, it makes backup simple and convenient.  Truly a “set it and forget it” type of solution.

Amongst PC geeks, there is a great deal of Time Machine envy.  (It really does make backup that easy.)  Luckily, however, it is possible to create recreate (and in some ways even surpass) a Time Machine experience on Windows.  This article will show you how.  First, we’ll set up an unattended and automated backup system.  Next, we’ll look at how to search and retrieve things from that backup, verifying that your important information is safe.  Last, we’ll look at how you can find previous versions of your files when you don’t have access to your external backup cache. 

Note: While the instructions here assume that you will be making your backup to a simple home server running Samba and Subversion, they will work with most network attached storage devices (NAS).

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