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#727: Core Conundrum, Backup of Your Backup: Recap, Protection by Firmware Password


Happy Tuesday,

Tending to my garden a few evenings ago, I realized that nighttime is arriving much sooner than I’d become used to. It was light enough at 9:00 PM a few weeks ago to read outside without any artificial light, but it’s going to be another whole year until that happens again. While diminished daytime is a shame, it sure is nice to eat straight from the garden or from the farmers market. Corn is in its prime right now around here, and it looks like there’ll be well over 100 pounds of tomatoes to put up this year.

Apple’s fastest computer yet, the new 12-core Mac Pro, is now available for order. If you edit high definition video, produce complex animations, analyze our genome, or otherwise need more computing power than most of us will ever need, this machine is a monster. We’ll have the new Mac Pros in stock soon, and our trade-in program is, as always, available to help defray the cost of a new computer. Of course, your trade-in can be applied to anything on our price list.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Core Conundrum  

Though I was excited when Apple freshened up their slightly stagnant Mac Pro model a few weeks back, glancing at the initial processor configurations left me dazed and confused. Not as much: “12 cores? Heavy man!” but more in terms of just which processor(s) went with which machine.

Visiting Apple’s product page did little to placate my concerns as it presented me with droves of custom options, and no definitive answer. After further research and significant trepidation, I stand before you as a Multi-Core Man! Empowered by the strength of all 12 mighty cores, I have been able to synthesize a guide to aid in choosing your new tower of power.

The easiest way to think of the new Mac Pro is in terms of three separate models: Quad-Core, 8-Core, and 12-Core. Although Apple advertises a 6-core model, it is really a custom extension of the quad-core Mac Pro as opposed to its own model.

Quad-Core or 6-Core
The default configuration of the quad-core machine features one 2.8GHz Quad-Core Xeon processor for $2,499.99. For an additional $400, buyers can bump their clock speed to 3.2GHz while retaining quad-core performance. The lone 3.33GHz 6-Core processor configuration is also offered with the quad-core Mac Pros for an additional $1,200.

The next tier of Mac Pros, which start at $3,499.99, feature eight cores. This is accomplished by combining two 2.4GHz Quad-Core Xeon processors. Currently, this is the only available 8-core configuration. Also featured under this category, however, are the first of 12-core configured models. For an additional $1,500 or $2,700 respectively, buyers can add either two 2.66GHz 6-Core Xeon processors or two 2.93GHz 6-Core Xeon processors. Apple’s decision to include two 12-core models under the 8-core tab is a bit befuddling, and despite the presence of a specific 12-core category, they remain listed there.

The machine’s featured under Apple’s 12-core category are essentially the two models from the 8-core page but with their prices already adjusted. For $4,999.99, buyers can purchase the basic 12-core model which features two 2.66GHz 6-Core Xeon “Westmere” processors. Lastly, for an additional $1,200 which brings the price to a cool $6,199, buyers can select the dual 2.93GHz 6-Core model.

In actuality, the Mac Pro line could be even further simplified into only two different categories: 4-core and 6-core. Though 4, 6, 8 and 12-core models are all available, both the 8- and 12-core models are really just more powerful iterations of their brethren. Though things do get a little dicey once the actual processor speeds are tossed in the mix, considering the line from a two model perspective can allow for an easier grasp on Apple’s most powerful offering.

So that’s it, right? That’s all there is to the new Mac Pro? Well, in the words of our fearless leader: there is… one more thing. You’ll be pleased to hear that different processor speeds call for different RAM, which has a tendency to complicate things further.

The single processor Mac Pro’s require 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM at the 2.8GHZ and 3.2GHz mark, and 1333MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM at the 3.33GHz level. This is an important consideration to make, especially keeping in mid the single-processor machines top out at 16GB. The 8- and 12-core machines take similar RAM, but have a maximum capacity of 32GB. The 8-Core machine with a 2.4GHz Quad-Core processor calls for 1066MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM, while 2.66GHz and 2.93GHz 6-Core processors require 1333MHz DDR3 ECC SDRAM.

The Mac Pro is a powerhouse of performance, but the configuration method Apple has selected is far from coherent. Picking the right system can be a daunting task, especially for those new to the line. Rest assured, however, regardless of the Mac Pro you choose, all bring a plethora of state-of-the-art performance as well as upgradability in the future. For a machine that will last you years to come, you can’t go wrong with any of Apple’s latest Mac Pros.

  Backup of Your Backup: Recap  

Yesterday, I had to give a customer the bad news that both the hard drive in his iMac G5 and the hard drive in his 2008 Time Capsule had failed; talk about a difficult conversation! Luckily, the data on the iMac appears to be recoverable, but the Time Capsule drive, which was his sole backup for three machines, no longer mounts so it’s beyond the means of software recovery and its only hope is to take an expensive trip to a data recovery specialist if the data is truly worth the price tag.

Now, before anyone goes bashing the Time Capsule, keep in mind that all of our hard drives will eventually be doorstops. That’s the unfortunate truth of hard drive technology. While we can’t all afford to the $1,200 price tag for a shiny new 512GB solid state drive (featured in Apple’s new Mac Pro) we can take further steps to protect our data by implementing multiple layers of backup.

So far in this series, we’ve discussed using the Time Capsule Archive feature, creating bootable backups and using software and hardware RAIDs. It seems that after each article I receive a trickle of comments pointing out what could go wrong in each scenario. The bottom line is that there is no singular infallible solution which is why I recommending using a combination of techniques that fit your needs and skill level. Today’s article will discuss some of these comments and offer some solutions on ways to combine backup methods.

Let’s start with the #1 comment that I receive after every article, “But if x is corrupt y will be too!” Backups aren’t only important in the case of hard drive failure, they can also be a life-saver if one encounters software corruption. One issue with most backup solutions is that software corruption is often just copied to the backup. This is especially the case with clones and RAIDs. Now, if the issue is directory corruption, tools like Disk Warrior, Drive Genius or even an Archive and Install could be enough to fix it. Occasionally, directory corruption could be irreparable in which case ones only solution may be to run Data Rescue and hope to at least pull out the raw files.

For those who are cloning their data or using a RAID system, directory corruption, and all other types of software corruption, can be passed along. With clones, it’s always advisable to test out the clone once it’s complete (i.e. reboot your Mac, hold down the Option key and boot to the external drive to ensure it works). With a mirrored RAID system, one often doesn’t notice the issue until it’s too late since information is constantly being mirrored among the drives. This is one reason why a RAID should not be relied upon as ones sole backup solution.

One of the reasons I like Time Machine, along with other incremental backup solutions, is that there are utilities that allow you to recover from a backup on a specific date. For example, if I noticed software corruption on July 15th, but I know for sure it wasn’t there on July 13th I could use a utility like Back-In-Time to recover from that backup on the 13th. Along those lines, if I had corruption in my Time Machine backup but I had a clone of my system from a date before the corruption occurred I could reinstall my operating system and use Migration Assistant to migrate the data from my good clone to my internal hard drive.

After speaking about bootable backups (using Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!), I received an email from a customer who uses a partitioned external hard drive with one basic bootable partition and a Time Machine partition. This is a great idea that I’d like to discuss with the one caveat that it should still not be your only backup solution as if that external drive fails you’d be out your backup.

Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities) can be used to partition an external hard drive. People partition for a variety of reasons. In this scenario, we want two partitions, one that’s just large enough to house the operating system with some breathing room (depending on the OS you’re using you might need between 8-15GBs) and the other partition is for the Time Machine backup. Next, boot from an install disk (either the disk that came with your computer or a retail copy of the operating system) and follow the installer prompts, choosing the small partition as the destination volume.

Now, check to make sure your bootable partition works by holding down the Option key on boot and selecting the small partition to boot from. Having this slim bootable partition can be very helpful as a troubleshooting tool if you’re having issues with your internal hard drive. It can also be used when restoring data to a new internal hard drive. To use the other partition as a Time Machine backup simply boot from your internal hard drive, go to System Preferences > Time Machine and select the larger partition as your backup disk.

As a similar idea, you could also partition an external hard drive and use one partition for the bootable backup and the other for the Time Machine backup. While that route can be very helpful, also keep in mind the rule of not putting all your eggs in one basket; that should not be your only solution.

Let’s not forget CDs, DVDs and flash drives. Along with the aforementioned backup solutions that backup everything on your system, I highly recommend burning important files to CDs or DVDs or throwing them on a thumb drive. While CDs, DVDs and flash drives are not large enough to be a complete backup solution, they have plenty of space to throw important documents, backups of ones address book and calendar, and important photo albums. Online storage space, like Apple’s MobileMe, is another great solution for those individual files!

The last piece of the puzzle is to decide where to keep your backups so that they’re safe. I keep CDs/DVDs in protective sleeves and recommend putting them, along with a redundant backup, in a fireproof box. If you have the ability to keep backups off-site that’s another great solution in the case of theft or natural disaster.

As you can see, there are so many facets to a proper backup solution that it can seem overwhelming. The important thing is to find a system that works for you and stick to it. I encourage you to select two or three of the backup ideas from this series and try them out until you’ve developed your own routine. Once you figure out what works for you, backup can become an automated process that give you piece of mind without taking time out of your busy schedule.

  Protection by Firmware Password  

There are plenty of ways to secure the data on your laptop. There’s FileVault, which encrypts your entire home folder and often causes corruption-induced heartbreak; you can store your files in the cloud using your iDisk, a home server in conjunction with Back to My Mac and MobileMe; or Google Docs, where you can keep your laptop free of any sensitive materials, keeping them instead on a flash drive.

You can use a firmware password to set up low-level password protection on your Mac. If it were stolen, the thief would have to know the password in order to use the computer at all. Of course, he could extract the hard drive and access your data, but the computer itself would be useless.

Setting a firmware password on your Intel Mac blocks the use of T, N, or C to put the computer into Target Disk Mode, NetBoot mode, or boot from optical media. It also blocks the ability to start up in single user mode, verbose mode, to reset the PRAM or boot disk in boot manager. Of course, you are required to enter the password to boot up normally.

If you forget your firmware password, there are ways for your authorized service provider to get around the security. Be prepared with some undeniable proof of ownership before you ask to have the protection removed. And no, I cannot disclose how to circumvent the password!

You can read more about this hidden feature of your Mac at the Apple Knowledge Base:

  AppleJack 1.6 for Snow Leopard Released  

AppleJack is a command-line tool and collection of scripts for file system repair, and is used in Single User Mode when your computer doesn’t boot all the way to the desktop. Very often, we see computers in our shops that will power on but not progress further than a blue screen, or even past the initial gray screen. The root cause in many cases is a failed hard drive, but about half the time these symptoms are related to file system or other corruption that AppleJack may be able to resolve.

This utility can repair your disk’s file system, repair permissions, validate preference files, and purge your cache files. These repairs will, in many cases, get you back up and running.

AppleJack works when your computer won’t boot because it functions in Single User Mode, and is supported under Mac OS X 10.4 and up. There is one key requirement: it must be installed BEFORE trouble arises, because if your computer won’t boot, you won’t be able to install anything!

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