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I made what could have been an extremely expensive blunder.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.net.

Like many of you, I maintain computers for other folks. In particular, I'm the IT guy behind my wife's business and of course her personal computer, a Dell laptop not unlike my own.

She uses Outlook, and in the process of performing some maintenance on her computer the other morning I accidentally deleted her PST file which contains all her email.

All 800 megabytes of it.

And no, it wasn't in the recycle bin, this was a "permanent" delete from within a Windows command shell.

"No problem" I thought, a little nervously. "I'll just restore from last night's backup."

As I've mentioned here before, I have a fairly extensive backup system at home where in the wee hours of the morning important files are copied from machine to machine to machine, and some even off-site, ensuring that there's a fair amount of redundancy. One "central" machine, my primary desktop, then also does a true full backup using Acronis True Image Home.

I've often said that it would take something like four machines failing simultaneously in two different locations for us to actually lose our previous day's email.

By now you can see where this is headed.

I looked at the backup of my wife's email.

It was three months old.

For reasons I'd figure out later were related to the wireless network card utilities, my wife's laptop hadn't been getting backed up for the prior three months.

As you can imagine, this is where panic starts to set in.

My only hope of recovery was an undelete utility.

I happened to have a copy of a fairly simply undelete utility called Restoration, so I turned it lose. Much to my relief it did, indeed, find and recover the entire 800 megabyte file.

Only then did I tell my wife what was happening.

Needless to say, once the restoration was complete I then immediately backed up, for real, and corrected the problems that were preventing the nightly operation.

I tell you my embarrassing story simply to remind you:

  1. that you need to back up; but you already know this, right?
  2. that you need to, every so often, check your back ups to make sure they are what you think they are.
  3. that no one is immune. If you don't think you don't need to check ... you need to check.

If it sounds like my backup approach is somewhat complex, well that's because it is. And the more complex it is, the more frequently it needs checking. If you're using a simple backup solution such as an automated tool, then perhaps you won't need to check as often, but I strongly recommend that you check.

A backup that isn't working is almost worse than having no backup at all.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.net and enter 12304 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.net.

Article C3328 - March 22, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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15 Comments
Matt
March 22, 2008 6:09 PM

It's interesting because I used that same program to recover my progress from a game called N. http://thewayoftheninja.org/

Big Dan
March 23, 2008 9:15 AM

That's the problem with backup apps you never really know if they're working until you actually need the backup. I got burned by one I thought was backing up my whole C:\Documents And Settings\Dan\ directory it left me with a 2 GB zip file which I thought was everything unbeknown to me it wasn't backing up hidden folders, bye bye Thunderbird profile and all my application settings.

Of course because I ASSUME it was working I never checked.

Ross Cherednik
March 28, 2008 6:20 PM

As we all eventually learn, the biggest mistake is presuming no mistake will be made. Welcome to the club. You have lots of company.

Diana
March 28, 2008 7:08 PM

So how do I know if my backup harddrive is really backing up what I need? I did finally buy one and have it running, but have no idea how it works etc or how to check it.

Margaret Louk
March 28, 2008 7:21 PM

I back up regularly to my external Maxtor, but I also burned all my music and photos to DVD just in case. I also have taken to ordering the cd when I purchase a new game. My friend's computer just crashed and took all their games with it.

Frank Lee Doobyus
March 28, 2008 7:55 PM

Leo, that is one of the best - and most effective IT columns I've ever read! Absolutely outstanding!

We're all so bloody sharp, and so "in synch" with IT ... and then something very simple reminds us ... we're also HUMAN.

Seriously - Congratulations on one of the most "human" IT columns/lessons ever.

Mike Williams
March 28, 2008 8:57 PM

To answer Diana's question above, the only way to check is to do a real test: restore the data and see if it works. Better to practice now instead of when you really need it, right? Note that this requires some care and some knowledge of the files you're restoring, so you don't trash your system. I have 2 recommendations: 1) read the documentation that comes with the tools you're using, and 2) start out by restoring a simple file or directory that you can afford to lose.

Colin
March 29, 2008 12:40 AM

Hi Leo a big thankyou and allso a pat on the back for printing this article and letting the rest of the world know that we are all human and not infallable, even the gurus we look to for help, and for pointing out that PC's dont allways behave as they should. Its no good saying "yes i regually backup",but do we allways check the backup.... i think not. You could have kept quite on that one but choose not to Top Man..

Simon Brew
March 29, 2008 2:53 AM

Many thanks Leo for this sensitive and revealing article. I'm delighted that you managed to recover the situation..

As for checking that backups actually work, there's a useful feature in Norton Ghost called verify or integrity check. This goes through the motions of restoring a backup image onto a specified hard drive, but doesn't actually change anything or transfer any data. You can use this to check that your restore images are OK.

I know you're a fan of Acronis True Image software (which I have also installed), but I don't think Acronis offers a verify facility - any other views?

David Hawkins
March 29, 2008 5:42 AM

A while ago I installed CrapCleaner which unfortunately cleaned out more Cr*p than was intended. so much so my PC would not boot up and I had to use my backup which worked fine but as the last back up was three months previous I lost 3 months of e-mails. If I was to use "Restoration" as Leo did, would I be able to bring back those lost three months of e-mail?

David

Dave
March 29, 2008 5:55 AM

I recommend a minimum of 2 independent backups!
Checking the capability to recover before a failure is very important. I have had issues with
both the built in M$ Vista backup and with True Image using Vista. I suggest using online backup as one of the solutions.

Betty
March 29, 2008 12:50 PM

Wow, at least mine was only a system problem which was quite a learning experience, after I discovered my image was no good. Actually Acronis True Image does have a verify option but I had not used it. I learned, the hard way, to use it. It's now set on automatic.

Bruce Watson
March 29, 2008 3:54 PM

I don't know if this is standard for everyone, but backing up the .PST Outlook file requires the program to be closed. I, too, found this out the hard way. I now have a backup tool (http://www.cobian.se/) than can close programs, do the backup then reopen (if desired). Like Leo said, check to be sure what you want to happen IS happening.

Ken Crook
March 29, 2008 9:39 PM

"I know you're a fan of Acronis True Image software (which I have also installed), but I don't think Acronis offers a verify facility - any other views?"

Acronis does have a verify option. I don't know how it works but every time I do an Image backup I do the Verify Backup to make sure what I just did is good.

About a month after I bought Acronis True Image I installed a program that added something to the IE toolbar to allow capturing video from Youtube. It messed up my system and the only way I could find to correct it was to do a restore from the Image I had done a couple days before. Acronis True Image saved me! It is a great program and easy to use.

Ravi Agrawal
December 2, 2008 10:20 PM

This is related to the "it happens to me" part of your newsletter dtd 02/12/2008 when you upgraded RAM on a server which would simply not accept & you had to remove the additional RAM.

Well, hardware particularly RAM is probably the hardest part to diagnose next to PowerSupplies & Hard Disks. I faced a similar situation & had to finally remove my upgraded RAM.

Following was the situation-

I had a very quiet & smooth running PC (at home) with 512MB Ram. I own 2 PCs one at work and the other at Home. When I upgraded the Work PC, I had a 128MB module left in spare which I decided to use in the home PC to make it up to a total of 640 MB. All said & done, I fitted the RAM in PC which the Bios detected well & Windows XP too.

Now comes the fun part. My PC started to lockup randomly (within 5 minutes or 2 hours or maybe never until I shut it down) with the screen display becoming distorted. Like you break the whole in small bits of 1x2 cms & all the pieces get scattered overlappling each other. At times, I was presented with a Blue Screen & at other times a continous beep from the PC speaker. I was facing this problem since the last 6 months or so until it finally dawned on me to remove the RAM (yes it was 6 months & I completely forgot the change in Hardware done by me).

Following were the extreme measures taken by me.

1. Removed Nokia PC suite which I thought was causing the issue.
2. Updated the motherboard drivers with the latest ones.
3. Updated the display drivers (from Intel) with the latest ones.
4. Tried with a different monitor (but the problem would not appear on the other monitor). In ambiguity that the monitor also could be having problems.
5. Checked the RAM with MEMtest for more than 3 hours (passed happily without problems).
6. Added a USB PCI hub to the motherboard feeling that something might have gone wrong with USB circuitary on the motherboard.
7. Disconnected the CD Rom from the motherboard.
8. Checked the Hard Disk for errors.
9. Moved the Pagefile to a different partition of the Disk.
10. Fiddled with Bios to change the memory allocated to the Display adapter.
11. Checked the Fans if they were running (well, they were) & downloaded a temperature utility to monitor unnecessary heating.
12. Last but not the least, a complete reinstall of Windows XP.
13. I thought it could be SP3 which was causing the problems but I ruled that out too. (LOL, I too believe in keeping Windows updated),
14. Ofcourse, I searched the Internet for Clues but nothing related caught my eyes.

The problem would simply not go away, Until I felt that it was a dying motherboard. but if it has to die, it has too.

I just could not recall when I upgraded the RAM & that the issue was because of RAM. Since RAM had passed the MEMtest, I thought I could safely rule it out.

But things don't work that way & at times, it is only a hit & trial that works despite all the geeky measures you take.

With that extra 128MB module removed, the PC is working fine as before.

Ravi.

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