NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, July 2003
Ultimate Backup
by Warner Mach, SEMCO Member
from 06/2003 SEMCO DataBus
semco@semco.org (click to email author)

I set up my mom to use e-mail through AOL. There were some doubts in the family how well this would work, but it has been highly successful, and she is able to e-mail her favorite relatives and friends.

However, I had some concerns with the possibility that a bad hardware or software glitch might sour the experience (and that I might be in for an extended repair session). Especially I was concerned that she would get a computer virus, or something of the sort; but I did not want to confuse things by installing virus checkers and firewalls.

We were lucky with her initial computer set up; there were no major problems. When the time came to upgrade, my solution was to get a custom machine built with two removable hard drives. There were three separate hard drives in total, each in its own holder, and I cycle through them.

Periodically I copy from the main drive to the secondary drive using Norton “Ghost” (or "PowerQuest Drive Image" - NWA-PCUG Editor.) I boot up from the Ghost diskette and copy under DOS, so no Windows files are open. The whole copy only takes a few minutes. After making the copy, I switch to the secondary drive so that the newly copied hard drive is out of the machine.

A few weeks ago I had an unexpected opportunity to test this system when my mom complained that the dial-up had started to take a very long time.

When I checked the system I could see that it was doing a number of retries on the dial-up and was getting connection failures and switching to the secondary phone numbers.

I tried a number of obvious things, including changing around the dial-up numbers, replacing the modem board, and trying different phone outlets. These operations did not help.

I then called the phone company to get a check on the line. The phone technician reported that the line had no problems.

Finally, I called AOL, even though it seem unlikely to me that it was their problem. The AOL person asked me: (1) Whether the “buddy” pop-up appeared when I logged on; (2) Whether I could get to the Internet. Since I was exclusively concerned with e-mail, I could not answer these questions. However, I did indicate that the problem had started happening in the previous couple of weeks, and I was puzzled by why things would change.

She indicated that the computer was "like a car": You can drive a car for some time, and then a bearing, or some other part, gives out, and you have a problem. Since I have been involved with mainframe software for over 30 years, this explanation struck me as rather strange. Software does not "wear out" (even though techies like to kid about "bit decay" and "software rot"). Generally you can figure that software "goes bad" when something gets changed.

I got an "incident number" from the AOL person and hung up, so that I could do further tests on the computer. When I logged on through AOL this time, I noted carefully whether a "buddy" pop-up appeared and whether I could get to the Internet. And, indeed, both of these tests failed!

I then got the back-level removable hard drive that I had backed up a couple of months before and put it in the drive and booted up. Using this drive I was able to dial to AOL with no problem at all, and I saw the buddy pop-up and was able to get to the Internet.

I noticed one other thing when I logged on with the back-up disk: AOL apparently detected that the software was back-level and downloaded (without asking permission) an “upgrade.”

I called the AOL help desk with my incident number and was transferred to a (different) technician. I explained my whole series of tests, and he indicated that Microsoft Windows "dial up networking" had somehow gotten corrupted. If I had been running Windows 98, he would be able to assist me over the phone, but since I was running Windows XP, I would have to take the computer back to the manufacturer! Hopefully I was still under warranty! He seemed to regard this as a minor matter. I regarded it as a major problem.

Because of the backup system, all I had to do was update a couple of addresses in the address book, and mom was back in business.

It is my suspicion that, at some point, one of the automatic AOL "upgrade" caused a problem for "dial up networking." Apparently this problem had been solved between the time that I created the back-up hard drive and the time that I booted from it, since the download that I received after the post-boot download did not recreate the problem.

The analogy between cars and software might better be phrased: "What would happen if a new engine were periodically downloaded to your car?"

The other question that has to be asked is why can’t you buy standard PC’s with multiple removable hard drives? Clearly this is an obvious answer to a lot of user problems.

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