Thursday, 26 February 2009

Why I Need Trusted Storage

Yesterday I went to the Apple Store to get my laptop hard disk repaired for the FIFTH time. Each time the data has been unrecoverable - or worse - partially recoverable. Each time I have lost material that was not backed up and each time my different sets of historical backups were recovered but only partially integrated with each other. After all, each fatal disk crash knocks a week out of your working life, what with trying to extract anything important from the smoking remains of the still-spinning disk, taking the machine to the repair shop, waiting for them to repair it, working on another system, getting email sorted, getting your old machine back, restoring the operating system and applications and then trying to copy all your old backups onto the new disk. The effect is that each subsequent crash has confused my backups / restores to the point where I have folders within folders within folders of different sets of partially restored material and I no longer know what has been restored where.

How could I possibly get into such a lunatic state, I hear you ask. Is this man the worst kind of professional incompetent? Everyone knows you have to back your stuff up. Why doesn't he just buy a big disk and use Time Machine? These are good questions. I ask them of myself all the time.
  • Our school systems team disavow responsibility for all laptops. We are literally on our own if we dare to have mobile machines.
  • When I started on this voyage of data loss some three years ago, Time Machine wasn't invented.
  • Disks that you buy for backup are just as likely to go foom as your own personal laptop disk. My main coherent, level 0 backup on a LaCie Terabyte disk just stopped working one day, just when I tried to restore my work.
  • Large disks are forever being used for other urgent purposes. Students need some space for something. A project needs some temporary storage. You need to be able to transfer a large amount of data from one machine to another. It gets difficult to manage the various assortments of undistinguished grey bricks that build up in your office. Which one has the old duplicate backup on it that is no longer necessary?

There are lots of other mitigating circumstances with which I won't bore you, but what I would like to lay down are my beliefs that (a) backup management is a complex task that requires serious attention and preferably support from professionals who can devote some attention to it and (b) it is never urgent enough to displace any of the truly important and terribly overdue academic tasks that you are trying to accomplish TODAY so you don't get sacked.

I've had a lot of time to reflect on this since my laptop started plunging me into regular data hell, and the idea of trusted storage for me isn't just about having files that don't disappear. It's about having an organised, stable, useful, authoritative picture of my professional life - research and teaching - that grows and tells an emerging story as my career develops. That's mainly what has been disrupted - I can pretty much find any specific thing that I want by grep/find or desktop search. But the overall understanding of what I had and what I had been working on has been disrupted and damaged and fragmented.

So an intelligent store should help me understand what I have - a bit like the way that user tools like iPhoto help you understand and organise thousands of images. It should be possible to get a highly distilled overview/representation/summary/visualisation of all my intellectual content/property/achievements as well as a detailed and comprehensive store of all my individual documents and files.

I guess you can see where I'm going with this. I've gone and got the ideal desktop storage and the dream repository all mixed up. Well perhaps I have - but why not?

Anyway, all's well that ends well. My colleagues all clubbed together and got a terabyte Time Capsule for work, that is run by a sympathetic member of the systems team. And Apple just phoned up to offer me a brand new 17" MacBook Pro in exchange for my broken old one.

Still, I'd really like to make my data store intelligible as well as safe!

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