Help, I’m frozen in Carbonite!

As I’ve said already, for the last while, my venerable white iMac had been acting up. Fearing the inevitable, I decided to listen to all that advice out there about backing up my data. One of the solutions I chose was to sign up for Carbonite. Carbonite is a backup service that I’d heard about on the Macbreak Weekly podcast with Leo Laporte. You pay a fee (a relatively reasonable one at that) and download the software onto your computer (Mac or PC) and Carbonite goes to work backing up essentially your entire computer (minus apps and videos). It sounds like a great idea, right? Yes. It’s probably still a good idea, but I want to share a few lessons from my experience so far that they don’t tell you about on the podcasts.

A long long time (… ago, in a galaxy far far away)

If you’re anything like me, with a modern computer and modern computer needs, over time you gather more than your fair share of files. After several years, you end up with a nest egg of more than just a few itty bitty text files. I didn’t really realize how much stuff I had on my computer until I started my initial backup. It was going to take days and days to upload these files to Carbonite’s servers. Thankfully, one of the features of the software is that you can make exceptions, to choose which folders (the ones with large, expendable files) you could leave out of the backup. So I started cutting out large folders, especially stuff that I had backed up elsewhere. Eventually, I shaved the upload time down a bit, but it was still no blink of an eye. Just so you know, in the end I had a total of 60GB of files — so I’m not blaming Carbonite for taking its sweet time, but it’s not how I thought things would go.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

So since I was slightly selective about my backup, I fully expected to be selective about my restoration now that I’ve got my new computer. Carbonite is also equipped with a feature allowing you to browse through your backup files and folders. You can choose what you want to restore: keep one file and discard another. At first I intended to do that very thing, but do you have any idea how many files there are in 60GB? Over 315,000 in my case. Not about to spend my 40s going through that huge haystack, I decided to use the automatic restore mode on Carbonite, where all I had to do was match the user account on my backup against a user account on my computer and Carbonite would take care of the rest.

A long time ago (the sequel)

I have now been waiting on my restoration for 4 whole days. The computer and the software have not stopped running in that time. I am just glad I have unlimited Internet access!

I should tell you about my first experiences with Carbonite. There’s a little progress bar, and a countdown telling you how many files (out of the total) have been restored. Sometimes the numbers don’t move. When I woke up the next morning to check my progress I was amazed that several thousand files had been restored. However the count seemed to have stopped. I thought the software had frozen (oh me of little faith!) and I restarted the preference pane. When the preference pane started up, the progress bar was all swirly and the message indicated that it was still calculating the file count. This went on for at least 15 minutes, at which point I gave up and hit cancel. Y’see, I was under the false impression that once I restarted the restoration, progress would continue from where it left off. When I saw it start from the beginning again, my jaw dropped. There’s one day of solid computing that I won’t get back.

Next time round I did not hit the cancel button no matter how much I doubted the progress. My faith was rewarded as the numbers slowly crept towards the finish line. I even had a Carbonite miracle when I woke one morning to find that almost 100,000 files had been restored overnight. Unfortunately, that was a bit of a tease as the pace has now slowed down to parity with a dying snail. Now I just hope that I can get this done by the end of the week, so my computer can move on with its new life.

As for me, I still don’t doubt that it’s a good service, and it’s not as if another service can really do any better, but this has been an eye-opening ordeal. Now that I’m in the home stretch I just hope that nothing bad happens to disrupt the process before it’s done. If that happens, just look at Han Solo’s expression in the image above to know how happy I will be about that!

Update: A New Hope

After almost a week of solid restoring, I got home from work and found that the Carbonite pref pane was not displaying anymore on my screen, replaced with a pop up warning message about how Carbonite encountered some errors restoring some of my files. There was, unfortunately, no confirmation that my long restoration was complete. I looked at some of my folders and found that they appeared to be full of restored files. It took me a while to find the error log, but it was actually just sitting on my desktop. I opened the file, much to my shock, there were hundreds of files listed, which couldn’t be restored. I panicked a bit and immediately clicked on the button for Carbonite Support that was on the pref pane. I submitted an email form with my problems and clicked submit, but never really felt like the message actually got through.

There was also an option to go with live chat support. There was even the status message saying that there was someone available to receive my chat, so I clicked the link. A friendly support guy came up on the other end of the chat window and I asked about whether my restoration was complete, and what the error log meant. He was very helpful to confirm that the process had completed, but he wasn’t quite clear about the error log. He asked me a few questions about it, and eventually I uploaded the log to him. He recommended seeing the files on my computer by taking remote control. I have always been wary of situations where support folks have to take control of your computer. I feel kind of powerless, but I’d done it before at work, so I figured it’d be OK. Eventually he was combing through the folders on my computer, looking to see if the error log files were indeed restored. They weren’t, but as I looked through the log as well, I saw that the missing files were simply non-essential files, or files that I had already backed up to my Drobo drive. I quickly told the support guy that we could stop the remote control process because I didn’t need the files restored. He also told me that if I needed those files back, I could always come back to my backup and manually transfer them to my computer.

In the end, he wasn’t super helpful, but at least he was very nice about it. Carbonite’s support seems pretty good, but I think it would have been preferable if the software and web site were built with more newbies in mind, who may not know everything that’s going on. Plus, when someone loses their computer, it’s a very stressful time and people are very attached to their files, so there should be a whole lot more handholding within the restoration process.

All in all, I can’t say that I’d recommend Carbonite as a backup solution, but it’s alright. There may be better, more user-friendly ones out there. Hopefully there are also some quicker ones out there.

In the end, between my Drobo drive and Carbonite, I think I’ve got everything back that I needed, so I guess that was the point all along.

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