Backups, backups, backups.

Computer hardware will fail eventually. We all know this from experience and instinctively. That such complex systems work as reliably as they do should be the amazing thought, not the idea that someday they will crash.

Yet one of the recurring plea's I get is from people who failed to back their data up. The story itself varies remarkably little each time the call comes in: "please help, I lost [everything/the last 6 months/some important project]".

There are some ways to recover data from a broken computer, but the most common failure mode of a modern machine is a corrupted hard drive, which in turn requires specialized software to recover. In the worst case scenarios, a company like OnTrack needs to utilize their amazing hardware lab to recover the data (a service that will run hundreds if you are luck, thousands if you aren't).

So when my primary desktop failed, I felt I was prepared. My systems are backed up to:

1. A system image on a removable hard drive, via Windows 7 System Image Backup (which is built into Windows 7.
2. A network server keeps a copy of my data, via Second Copy.
3. An internet service designed for remote backups, via Carbonite.
4. A notebook I use to be able to quickly spring back to productivity, also via Second Copy.

And yet, it took me a weekend to be back on my feet properly and two more days to bring my desktop back up to speed. What happened?

The first problem was that the system image being created when I did a "successful" System Image Backup was backing up... corrupted system files. This is a completely unexpected result, but the devastating truth is that the Windows 7 image backup has no verification step. Rolling back to a month earlier image (I take a full image weekly) showed that even that copy had log files filled with "warnings" about failed shadow copies, while the backup itself reported "success".

This is a lesson in reading log files as much as not trusting what software tells you. The backup software should have never accepted failed shadow copies as a source for backups, but there it is.

With the realization that I was going to be a month out of date and still running a version of Windows throwing massive warnings, I decided a re-install was in order. Getting Windows 7 back online was painless enough via the installation media, but the big pain was the massive amount of software that I had to re-install.

Office Suite, Development Tools, Database, Utilities, Graphics Suites and more. Some of it I have still not reapplied because it isn't necessary yet. Then there was the data... how was I going to get it back the fastest.

That is when I discovered what windows image backups really are... virtual machine hard drive images! Better yet, they can be mounted quite easily via a quick script, I found the best description at How-To Geek: Mount and Unmount a VHD File in Windows Explorer via a Right-Click.

I ran a check-disk on these virtual drives and found that no *data* had been lost. I was quickly able to retrieve my large databases and other important files, but better yet, I moved those files to a safe place so I can use them in the future as well.

Even so, four days were either lost or less productive due to the amount of reconfiguration, recovery and adjustments that had to be made, all because I trusted the system image was actually making a useful recovery point.