Recovering from a Mac Hard Drive Failure

   I'm writing this because I made a big blunder I'm going to have to fix when I return home, and want to write it all down while it's fresh on my mind so I don't make the same mistake again. Hopefully, it might help someone else as well.

   I've had a long, good history with Macintosh hardware, so in the nearly 3 years that I've been backing up to Time Machine, I've never had to recover more than just a few files that had been lost due to my error. This weekend, however, I had a complete hard drive failure. I did everything I could think of, but it was beyond resuscitation. After many hours, I finally gulped and hit the Erase Disk button.

   Here's how it happened: I back up every computer in the office to a 6 TB LaCie RAID drive attached to my file server machine. Time Machine isn't supposed to be able to do that, but I found a little freeware utility that allows Time Machine to back up over a LAN to an external drive. Don't remember the utility name, but I'll post it as a comment when I can get to it again. But it's not the main story here...

   There were problems all along the way. The computer kept trying to do a safe reboot, but failed again and again. What next? I have a huge deadline on a very important job, so waiting until I could get to the Apple store simply isn't an option. Compound that with the fact that I had to board a train this morning and will do a lecture at Rollins College in Winter Park before returning home, and it's clear that it was essential to get the thing started before leaving. But how?

   I remembered something from years ago about starting a Mac from the system install DVD, so I hunted around the office until I finally found the DVD. But nothing was easy this weekend. I can't just eject the DVD that's already in the machine because it has to be started up for the eject button to work. And the new Macs no longer have the manual eject button where you can kick out the disc with a straightened-out paper clip. I went to the file server and did some Googling, and discovered that you can hold down the mouse key while restarting and it'll kick out the disc. But will it do it if the machine never fully starts up? It was worth a try, but it didn't work with my Bluetooth mouse, apparently because it never gets far enough into the startup process to enable Bluetooth. Panicking, I hunted around and found an old mouse with a tail and plugged it into my laptop. It worked. Out with the other disk, and in with the system disc.

   Another round of Googling reveals that if you want to start up from the DVD, you should hold down the C key while starting up until the apple appears on the grey screen. Matter of fact, this handy page that I found on the Apple site lists all the startup keys you can use. That works... It finally starts up! At least that means the motherboard isn't fried, which is a problem I couldn't do anything about.

   The install disk takes you right to the installer, naturally, but I didn't want to install a n system quite yet. I first wanted to figure out what was wrong. But there didn't seem to be the option of doing anything but reinstalling. Like I said, I have very little experience with major Mac failures, so I'm a novice at recovery. But eventually, I noticed that one of the menus in the menu bar is Utilities, so I clicked there and discovered that you can get to several things from there, including Disk Utility. Now we're cooking... Or so I thought. I tried first to repair the disk, but it said that it couldn't be repaired... so now, after all these hours, I at least know that it's a hard drive problem.

   When Repair didn't work, I decided to try Repair Disk Permissions. That failed, saying that the disk needed to be repaired first. But now Repair was greyed out, so the only thing I could do is Verify Disk. That failed, telling me the disk needed to be repaired. No kidding! But this time, the Repair button was working again, so I clicked it, wondering if some of the other steps might have changed something. No such luck. Apparently there was nothing left to do but wrasse the disk.

   But by now, I'm having some serious heartburn, because I'd never tried to recover a full hard drive with Time Machine before. What if it didn't get everything? What if my files were lost? Catastrophic data loss, more often than not, results in the failure of a small business in subsequent months, so this is serious stuff. I'd used the Mac's Target Disk mode before when migrating from one machine to another. To do it, you start the target machine up by holding down the T key during startup, then plug it up to the other machine with a FireWire cable for a high-speed connection.

   It started up, but when I plugged it into another machine, the only thing that came up on the desktop was the install DVD it had used for startup. Feeling really sick, I opened Disk Utility on the other machine. It could see my disk but it wasn't mounted. Would it mount??? It did!

   I could see the files, but were they good? I copied a few to the other machine and tried to open them, and they appeared to be OK. Huge sign of relief! So the first thing I did was copy the really important job and a couple other very important things. But the idea of erasing the rest of that stuff was just too terrifying. This was the last time I ever had assurances of seeing those files, if Time Machine didn't work as billed. At first I looked at copying all of my User folders, but that's over 300 gigs, so I dropped back and just copied the Documents folder within my primary User. Still around 100 gigs.

   During the time it took that to copy, I got to wondering what else essential I might be missing, and then it occurred to me: al of my dozens of gigs of email was inside my User's Library, and I had a lot of stuff on the Desktop as well. So I copied all of those to an external drive, since there's not enough room for all that on the other laptop.

   By this time, I'd despaired of getting my laptop running again before having to leave, so i decided to take the other laptop instead. But by the time all the copying was complete, I decided to give it a try... What's to lose, right?

   So I took the laptop over to the file server. Seems like I vaguely recall something about FireWire networking, and if that worked, that would be a much faster file transfer. More Googling revealed a somewhat complicated set of procedures, but that was for an earlier version of OS X. Wonder what would happen if I just plugged them up? In Mac-like fashion, it just worked!

   So I went back to Disk Utility on the install DVD, which had an option to restore the disk from a Time Machine backup. But try as I might, I couldn't get it to show either the source drive or the target drive in the right windows. Wonder if I might need to actually install the system on my hard drive first? Maybe it doesn't work from the install DVD? So I did the full system install, which took roughly a half-hour. At least there's no disk swapping anymore since everything is on a single DVD.

   After install, I went to Migration Assistant, because that's what you have to use to restore the disk after you have a system installed. I tried to install the disk, but it couldn't see the RAID source drive; only the file server's startup disk. Things got a little fuzzy here since I was clicking so many things here, trying to find a combination that worked, but I think it's here that I made my big mistake. Nothing worked, so I gave up and took my laptop back to my desk, resigned to restoring it over the LAN, finishing after I left on my trip.

   But back at my desk, I still couldn't see the RAID source; only the server disk. So I thought "wonder what happens if I mount the RAID drive directly on my laptop?" I did that, and a backup source appeared, but it still said "Server". Exasperated, I figured that this had to be the RAID drive since nothing else was mounted on my machine. Maybe it showed up this way because the RAID drive is normally hooked up to the server? So I set it up to restore, and finally hit the button that erased everything on my hard drive.

   It seemed to be working, but something wasn't right. There was a only about 250gigs of data to be restored. But i knew that I had about 450 gigs on my drive. What was wrong? What was it missing? No way to know now; all I could do was to let it run through and see what happened.

   Because I was backing up via high-speed FireWire, the restore actually finished before I had to leave. But it was obvious that something was seriously wrong aaa soon as I was able to look at what I had. Tons of stuff was missing. But strangely, there were old applications that I knew I didn't have on my disk, and some of the newer applications weren't there at all. Slowly, it dawned on me... what I was looking at was a mirror image of my file server's startup disk!

   But why? How had that happened? I'll never know for sure, but I noticed that the disk sparse image (whatever that means) of my disk on the RAID backup disk said MacBookSteve plus some gobbledygook. That's my computer's name, not my disk's name! Apparently, every disk I hook up to my laptop gets backed up to this one sparse image. But what was the name of my computer now, after the restore?

   Sure enough, it had inexplicably been renamed "Server". I'm sure I did it somehow, back during those fuzzy hours. Wonder what happens if I rename the computer? I went to the system preference for Network. Under one of the tabs, you can set the name of the machine. I renamed it MacBookSteve, then went back to the Migration Assistant. Finally, everything was there! All my Users, my settings, etc... All there! But there's no way I was going to have time to restore all 450 gigs before leaving, so I decided to limp along with my hard drive mirroring my server disk until Thursday. When I get back, here's what I'm going to do:

   A. Connect the RAID backup drive directly to my laptop.

   B. Boot the laptop with the system install DVD.

   C. Erase the disk (again!)

   D. Install the system Snow Leopard.

   E. Change the computer's name to MacBookSteve.

   F. As a precaution, I'm going to do all the system updates before doing anything else, so that Snow Leopard is completely up to date.

   G. From Migration Assistant, migrate everything from my backup.

   Hopefully, that should do it! I'll post any significant snags as comments to this post.

   Postscript: That worked.

© 2012 The Guild Foundation Press