The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Wednesday, 12 November 2003]

Backup for the average user

Mike Deem is talking about how WinFS will make it much easier for users to backup their data once Longhorn comes out:We are working with backup vendors to [sic] great backup support in WinFS. User’s won’t have to know where their files are in order to back them up. The same powerful query capability they use to find their items can be used to identify the items to backup. The system should take care of the rest.I say bravo. Backing up is a major pain point for end users, as it has been for way too many years now. But then he goes one better:In WinFS you’ll be able to easily tell the system to replicate a set of items to another WinFS store, and ask the system to keep them in sync. Viola [sic]… instant backup.It’s great to see Microsoft thinking about these things, and to build them into WinFS.

I don’t think the big problem right now is that it’s too hard for users to comprehend the “insert CD, drag files to it, burn” part of backing up their data (even though there certainly are people out there still struggling with that concept). The big problem seems to be to know (a) where the files are that need to be backed up; and (b) which files need to be backed up. WinFS will solve the first problem. It doesn’t matter where the file is, it’ll find it for you. Cool. From my experience, though, the bigger problem is (b): which files to back up. Figuring out that the spreadsheet you just created should be backed up is not hard, but there are so many parts of the system that are silently touched by the system and that need to be backed up. Like email. Where on your harddisk is your email? Where are the customizations you made to Word? Where are your bookmarks? What are the odds you’re going to remember to back up those files?

This is one area where the Home folder centricity of Mac OS X (and other Unixes) can really save your behind: If you remember to back up your entire home folder, all your settings, even the ones you’ll never remember by yourself, will be backed up. And if you don’t fight the machine by saving your files outside the sanctified area, your risks of data loss decrease tremendously. As an aside, this was a huge pain point for old-school Mac users as they migrated (often kicking and screaming) to Mac OS X–the feeling that being forced into a sort of user ghetto on their hard drive diminished their sense of control over the machine. During my tribulations at the Fruit Stand I even had a customer who insisted on saving all his work into /Library. Not maliciously, mind you, he just didn’t know any better. I didn’t want to delve too deep into his thought processes, so I can only assume he felt that a library would be a good place for his Works.

The challenge for OS developers is to make it very obvious where files are being stored, without the users (customers) feeling that they are being forced. There’s room for improvement everywhere.

Oh, and if you want to experience the goodness of automatic syncing of files between filesystems today, have a gander at rsync. Beautiful piece of software.

Music: Sonix by Ak 1200

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