I have never been very good about backing up my data at home, and I have occasionally been bitten by the odd hard drive failure. However, most of the data I lost to these infrequent failures wasn’t too terribly important. These days, however, I have gigabytes of photos and several years worth of documents and taxes on my PC, so backups have become critically important. So, last year I picked up an HP MediaSmart EX470 Windows Home Server (WHS) to help fortify my backup strategy (and it serves as a NAS too, which is very nice). Naturally, I upgraded the processor and RAM, and added a 1 TB drive.
The WHS box has been performing its job since then, quietly backup up my desktop and my wife’s laptop every night. During the early hours of the morning, it wakes both machines from their sleeping state, backs up the hard drives, and puts them back to sleep. You’d never know it was doing anything, which is precisely how I like this technology to work.
Yesterday, the 160 GB Hitachi hard drive in my wife’s 2-year-old laptop up and died. I have read how “easy” it is to restore an entire hard drive when using WHS, so I was looking forward to a painless operation. I swapped out the drive with a brand new one, and then went to prepare the WHS “Restore CD.” Using my working desktop, I went to the “Software” share on my WHS box to find the ISO of the Restore CD. However, in that folder was a ReadMe file that told me the ISO was “out of date” and that I had to download the newest version from Microsoft’s web site. I would have thought since the the ISO file is only 230 MB, that it would have been automatically updated by Windows Updates, but I have to manually get it myself. Oh well, no big deal. I download the new file and burn it to a CD.
I pop the CD into the laptop and it sounds like an old floppy drive grinding as it takes 5 minutes to boot up. It tells me it’s searching for the WHS machine and apparently finds it as it asks for my WHS password. I enter it, and after a 20 second wait, it tells me “general network error” and that it can’t contact the WHS box. Lovely. So for the next 15 minutes I fart around with network cables and switches figuring I’ve got some kind of DHCP/DNS issue. I come to find out that the WHS admin console doesn’t even work from my desktop anymore, so I bounce the WHS machine and everything is fine now. I have no idea what that was all about.
Anyway, back to the laptop and another 5 minutes for the Restore CD to boot and now I’m through to selecting the machine from the WHS backup catalog that I want to restore. At this point, I was hoping it would figure out that the new hard drive was EXACTLY the same size as the old one and just tell me “I’ve got it from here – go get a coffee and come back in 30 minutes” but this was not the case. It pops up a window telling me that I have to “initialize” my new hard drive first, using the Windows Disk Manager. I’m no stranger to the Disk Manager, but there is no “Initialize” operation in Disk Manager. I come to figure out (after two attempts) that “initialize” means partition and format (not just selecting MBR vs GPT as the partitioning method) – I wish it had told me that in the first place. Again, I was kind of hoping WHS would do this automatically for me.
So I create one large C: partition on the entire drive and proceed to the next step. It tells me to select a source hard drive backup from WHS and a destination partition on the laptop. There are THREE source hard drives listed for the laptop – a manufacturer’s “SYSTEM VOLUME” at 1.5 GB, the large C: drive, and an 8GB D: drive. The “SYSTEM VOLUME” and D: drives are obviously manufacturer partitions set up either to help with some kind of manual hard drive wipe and restore, or maybe for watching DVDs or listening to CDs without booting into Windows (some laptops have this capability, though neither me nor my wife have ever had any occasion to try it out on this laptop). I proceed with just restoring the C: drive because I don’t want to futz around again in Disk Manager trying to get the partition scheme recreated, and the mysterious “SYSTEM VOLUME” doesn’t even have a drive letter, so I don’t know how I would deal with that anyway.
So the C: drive begins to restore. It tells me it’s going to take 4 minutes. Wow, I knew she didn’t have a lot on the drive, and I have a gigabit network but that’s still really fast. After 30 seconds, it tells me it’s going to be 5 minutes. Another 30 seconds and we’re up to 10 minutes. Then 32 minutes. Ah, the good ol’ Microsoft progress bar that goes backwards before it goes forwards. Seriously, it’s 2009 – is it that hard to have a progress bar that works, or at least makes sense? (As a developer, I know programming progress bars is a pain, but it CAN be done!)
I never know how long it really takes because we go out for an hour, but when we return home the restore has completed. I reboot the laptop and it’s like there was never a problem – it looks and works exactly the same as it did before the hard drive died. And this is all worth it. Though I think the restore process could be much easier with a great reduction in the number of steps required, getting a machine back to EXACTLY the way it was before a hard drive crash is simply amazing. My usual method for restoring a machine is to re-install a fresh copy of the OS, then re-install ALL the applications, then manually configure all the settings for the OS and apps, then restore all the data files from whatever backups I happen to have. This process usually takes days and is never 100% completed. Compared to the old way, WHS is a MAJOR step forward. I simply think the WHS restore process could do with a little fine-tuning.