A Successful Failure: My Hard Disk Crashed Today

At my day job (where I am an application software developer), when things go wrong, we complete what we call an “after action report” (AAR1). You might consider this post an after action report for what happened to my iMac today. The short version is that the hard disk got corrupted and was not bootable. It took me about 2-1/2 hours to wipe the disk, reinstall the OS and restore my data from backup. The only thing I lost was time, and in that sense, this was a successful failure. If you want the long version, read on:


Beginning around 11 am I restarted my 27″ iMac. I started up but was displaying a gray progress bar below the Apple icon and it was taking a long time to progress through the bar, after which the computer would shut down. I booted the system into recovery mode and ran a disk check and discovered that the OS partition had become corrupted. I would have to wipe the disk and reinstall the OS to get things working again.


This was entirely my fault. I was cleaning up the wires behind my desk today and unplugged the iMac prematurely when it was already in “Shutdown” mode. My guess is that losing power while writing to the disk during shutdown is what caused the corruption. So I have no one to blame but myself on this one.


To understand the recovery, you have to understand a little about my environment. The iMac itself has a 1 TB internal drive. I also have a 1 TB external drive. The external drive contains all of my media (music, movies, TV shows, photos) as well as all of the installers for the software I use. The internal drive contains the installed OS, applications, and local data (the stuff in My Documents). Both drives are backed up daily to the cloud using IDrive Online, the cloud backup software I’ve been using for a few years now. In addition to the daily backups, IDrive also instantly backs up changes to files smaller than a certain size in real time. My iMac connects to my network via ethernet, but also has access to wireless. In this case, it was an advantage to be connected to ethernet because it meant one less configuration step.

First, I booted the machine in Recovery Mode and used the disk tool to wipe the OS disk partition and reformat it as a journaled partition.

Second, I used the Recovery Mode options to reinstall the OS from the Internet. The estimated download time was 1 hour, but it actually took 28 minutes2. It took another 20 minutes to install the OS . I didn’t have to sit by the computer for any of this. It was automatic.

Third, once the OS was installed, I had to go through the basic configuration (account creation, etc.)

Fourth, I installed Google Chrome (my browser of choice) and the IDrive client. I then restored the My Documents and Downloads folders to my profile. I didn’t need to restore anything else because I had what I needed on the external drive or in the cloud.

Fifth, I went through my Downloads fold on my external drive and, in alphabetical order, installed all of the applications I use, configuring them where necessary.

Sixth, I started the App Store and installed all of the apps I’d purchased through that venue.

Seventh, I started iTunes and pointed it to my iTunes media folder on the external drive. I then re-enabled my iTunes Match and Genius options.

Eight, I made sure all of my connected devices were functioning with the iMac (iPhone, iPad, FitBit Ultra, Fujitsu ScanSnap s1300i).

Ninth, I configured all of my commonly used app settings and accounts. (Set up Chrome the way I like it, connected Evernote to my account, configured Growl, Mathematica, etc.)

Tenth, I added back in my customizations (desktop background, launch bar, desktops, etc.)

All of that, from start to finish, took about 2-1/2 hours, only about half of which I had to participate in. There are still a few minor configuration changes I need to make, but at this time, my iMac is back to the state it was in, more or less, before I pulled the plug this morning.


Well, for one thing, don’t pull the plug when the computer is writing to the disk. Duh.

It might have gone a little faster if I had a way of backing up all of my profile settings. I think there is a tool that can do this and export them to a file, which I can in turn either store on my external drive or back up to the cloud.

Having data in the cloud was a godsend. Having data on the external drive was also very helpful because it meant I didn’t need to download quite as much data. Having a very fast Internet connection also helped.

But I think this goes to show that the money I spend on IDrive for my cloud backups ($125/year, I think, and that backups up all of our machines and this WordPress website) is money very well spent. A friend of mine used to say, with regard to backups, that it isn’t that backup that is critical. It is the ability to restore data. Today, I was able to recover from a completely unusable machine, back to normal functionality in a little less than 3 hours. In my book, my $125 was money very well spent. Having a current backup saved me lost time, lost data, increased anxiety and stress. And the backups just work. I get a notification when they are done but otherwise, they just run in the background with my needing to intervene. This is exactly how they should work.

  1. We love our abbreviations.
  2. I have a pretty fast Internet connection at home.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

3 thoughts on “A Successful Failure: My Hard Disk Crashed Today

  1. A real ‘happy ever after’ story – I hope my ‘After Action Report’ is as rosy when the day eventually comes!

    Interested that you didn’t include Time Machine in your recovery workflow – I always assume that my time capsule would do most of the heavy lifting if I had a crash and I have Crashplan as my cloud backup service of choice just in case the absolute worst happens (e.g. my house burns down with the TC in it).

    Any reason for not using Time Machine?

  2. Hi Jamie, thanks for sharing your recovery system. I hope that this inspires many people to act. A solid back up system is very easy to maintain and doesn’t that’ve to be hard to set up. My personal preference is to maintain bootable clone drives of my boot drive. That way, I can reboot from the clone and be backup and running as if nothing had happened in as long as it takes for me to hook up the drive and reboot. If my internal drive is still functional, I can clone the backup back to the internal drive at my leisure. This would solve the “how do I get all my settings, profiles , etc question” you had in your post.

  3. Phew! Good job you have such an effective backup in place. It’s surprising how many people don’t. I’ve seen many faces fall when I tell them that I can’t recover their data,

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