Today I discovered that a backup routine I thought existed was a figment of my imagination. Nothing was lost, nobody died, but it put a shiver up my spine around what might have been--or not been. The necessary script was quickly cobbled together and tested, so all is well. The gap was small and affected only my personal websites: those I run for others have been backing up nightly forever.

The episode gave me pause for thought. How many of us have lost important work through failing to save a file, or to back up important work? Murphy knows. Yet why is it so difficult: why do we fail to do it so often?

The truth is, it's a chore, and the busier we are the more of a chore it is. Programs that do automatic file saves are a godsend, provided they do so without one having to set a preference first. Backing up whole filesystems, webservers, mailboxes and the like is another matter. Where are the operating systems that do this automatically, without one even having to think about it? For sure, there is (expensive) software that will do the trick, but it still takes time and effort to get it working.

One of the allures of Mac OS X is its Unix underpinning which should, in theory, make backing up a relatively easy and inexpensive business. After all, tape archiving (tar) is at least as old as Unix itself. But as it turns out, its not quite so straightforward: the Mac HFS filing system has quirks (resource forks and the like) which can behave badly with the traditional Unix routines such as cp and the like. Slowly, Apple is modifying these routines to behave more coherently with it's filing system conventions, but its still a minefield. And to cap it all, the lovely LaCie mini firewire external hard drive that sits under the Mac mini on my network as a backup device is quirky about setting owner and permissions on its folders.

All said, backups are happening here nightly. So far, Murphy has been benign and I haven't had to retrieve anything in anger. Testing a the restorability of a backup is something I suspect is rarely done until its too late. I can't say I'm squeaky clean on that one either: it all takes time. The trouble with this risk management business is that it's a never-ending story--even before you think about the precautionary principle.