Apple's new disaster recovery not so hot

The old way was better, says Tom Yager

I always do my best to turn misfortune into opportunities for enlightenment, and oh, what enlightenment the past couple of weeks has placed within my grasp. When the MacBook Pro loaned to me by Apple slipped into a coma during a full-volume image backup and subsequently died in my arms, I was forced to deal head-on with the impact of Apple's switch in suppliers and with an irrecoverable loss of data and productivity — a hardship I've never faced in five years with Macs. I lost a full month's worth of work, research, and creative projects, along with every application that requires registration keys and online activation.

I can barely conceal my glee at having so grand an opportunity as this to learn a new way. I'll be pilloried for this comment, but this wouldn't happen to a PowerPC Mac. You see, there was no reference design for a PowerPC notebook. Apple had to do all its own cooking, and that included the creation of an independent system management controller. It took a mummy's curse to put a PowerPC Mac in a fully unrecoverable state. A Mac's firmware could boot into several recovery states, ranging from Target Disk Mode to a firmware boot prompt, even when a Mac would not boot. It was Apple's home-brewed system management controller that gave Mac folk legitimate bragging rights with regard to reliability; you had to do something truly nasty to kill a PowerPC Mac. In contrast, the only way that an x86 PC, Apple's or anyone else's, can match the PowerPC Mac's resiliency is if it has a dedicated Baseboard Management Controller, which only higher-end PC servers, including Apple's Xserve, have. Otherwise, the only thing a PC does in firmware is initialise buses and catalog devices. Then it hands control to the CPU, which pulls a boot block from storage or the LAN. Intel's Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) is tidier than the old PC BIOS, but it steps out of the boot process at the same point that a PC BIOS does. A PC that can't boot is dead. A PowerPC Mac that wouldn't boot was a diagnostic challenge. It's ironic that the old PC BIOS will give me a series of beep codes indicating a component failure that I'm competent to address. Lacking even that, there is no point in calling AppleCare. A PC in this MacBook Pro's condition is not diagnosed. It is gutted and refurbished. AppleCare does offer, or at least it offered me, a shot at recovering the data on the dead MacBook Pro's drive. I'm going to attempt that myself. Apple doesn't need to see the projects I'm working under nondisclosure. My backup schedule — full volume images monthly, with incremental backups whenever I plug into the LAN — was based on my experience with Macs. I neglected to implement the more aggressive PC-level regimen except with regard to that most critical asset: email. I didn't lose any messages, and perhaps one day I'll tell you why. As for recovering from this disaster, I passed through the standard stages, including denial, rage, acceptance, and coping. When I got to the coping part, that's when I decided to make this an opportunity. A replacement MacBook Pro is on its way (thank you, Apple), so I'm not about to reconstruct my digital existence on a Windows client. Why not try a new alternative that breaks my dependence on clients? The New Way is web apps and adaptive wireless connectivity. Adopt the New Way, and anywhere you carry a device with a browser and a two-bar signal from a cell tower, you're good to go. At least, that's the idea. I settled on Gmail, which seemed perfect. Its 5GB limit is ample, it is well designed for a web app, and it has several modes of taking over for a dead client or server. I pointed it at my private domain's mail server (already switched to Windows when the Xserve I use was being upgraded to Leopard), set it to slurp all the mail backed up in my queues, and watched expectantly as the message count rose. I had more than 9,000 messages queued on my server from slightly more than a week without an online client, but when Gmail started pulling mail from my server, it stopped at 200. Repeated clicks of "check mail now" did nothing. I learned then that Gmail pulls mail in bundles of 200 messages at a time with indeterminate delays between polls. It did eventually catch up, and I was able to connect my chosen portable client, an HTC X7501 Windows Mobile device, to Gmail. However, Gmail won't reliably pull in the hundreds of messages I get each day. At one check, I discovered that it hadn't polled my mail server at all for two days. Neither Gmail's nor my mail server's logs showed error messages. My genuine never-fail client, a BlackBerry 8200, did not miss a message, but it's set to forward only from InfoWorld and a short whitelist of senders. Gmail let a lot of mail slip through the cracks. I am amazed, however, at the accuracy of Gmail's spam filter. Nothing I've run on either Xserve or Windows Server comes close. As impressive as that is, two-day delays between mail server polls puts Gmail out of the running for individual professional use. The MacBook Pro is sitting at the FedEx depot right now, so I won't bother playing webmail roulette with .Mac and Yahoo. I had greater success with the HTC X7501, with a 5-inch, 640-by-480 touch-sensitive (finger and stylus) display, an 8GB microDrive, and a snap-on keyboard, as a stand-in for a portable client. It's the most powerful mobile device on the market.

A T-Mobile BlackBerry subscription, with added hotspot access, kept me connected almost anywhere I've been. But there's a rub: The X7501, like everything below notebook class, is only wireless. A stay at a hotel left me connectionless except in the lobby. In-room internet was wired only, and while T-Mobile's EDGE signal punched through the wall, I'm not set up to rely on it for anything more than email, IM, and quick checks of news. EDGE is only a trifle better than off-line. Perhaps I'd have spent less downtime if I had configured a Windows client as a Mac replacement, but I hoped that going browser-based and lightweight mobile would better position me to just swap in the replacement MacBook Pro. But apart from wanting the opportunity to sample alternatives to Windows, I confess that I couldn't force myself to set up Windows. I now know that my recoverability expectations for Macs should not exceed those that I associate with PCs. But I also learned that modern attempts at platform and connectivity independence don't cut it, even temporarily. And where Mac client disaster recovery is concerned, I'm back to my PC dictum: There is no substitute for a good set of screwdrivers.

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