VirtualAcorn Technical support:
Backups and Recovery

Here's a simple piece of advice. Keep a regular backup of your VirtualAcorn installation. That way if something nasty happens recovering your files will take just a few minutes. In case you aren't sure 'Regular' means at most weekly and ideally daily as even a backup from last month could be seriously out of date.

If you don't keep regular backups start now. An external USB hard disc is cheap, very cheap. You can easily pick up a 3TB+ drive for under £100.00 and that's a lot less then the cost of trying to re-assemble years of files from memory. If you only want to backup a VirtualRPC and nothing else you can buy a 128GB USB 3 stick for not much more than £20. That's a massive insurance policy against data loss for very little cost. Even if your PC only supports USB 2 you should still buy a USB 3 storage device as many larger USB 2 devices are extremely slow and are hence unsuitable for regular backups.

I have encountered a few users who didn't keep backups and lost important files. In one case the user complained that there was no point in keeping backups as it was too late. As I pointed out it was too late for this occurrence but when something similar happens in a few years time they would be very grateful that they started keeping backups after the first data loss. Just because the horse has bolted once doesn't mean it won't do it twice.

A backup you can't use is like a chocolate teapot

Any backup only becomes important after things have gone wrong. If nothing ever failed backups would be pointless as we would never need them. The purpose of a backup is ensure that important files aren't lost. In addition a backup should be designed to get everything back and running as quickly and as simply as possible. Some years ago I tested a different backup system (which I won't name as I am a paragon of virtue) to see how it performed. Things looked great so I kept it running on one particular old PC that was just handling e-mails.

As I half expected the hard disc on the old PC died after a few months. I decided to replace the PC with a brand new one as it came with the brand new version of Windows. So I needed to copy some files from the backup onto the new PC. I didn't need all of the backup just a few files. A simple drag and drop would do the job...but...things didn't work out that way as the backup was compressed. So I couldn't just drag out the few files I wanted. The data in the backup was also encoded using some strange algorithm. So I have a backup but it's locked inside this lump of unreadable data.

In order to recover the backup I needed to install the backup application on the new PC. Which as you remember had a new version of Windows. Which the backup software didn't support. The end result was the backup was completely useless. In fact it was worse than useless as it had given me a false sense of security. I thought that the company would be behind me, supporting their products and helping their users. Wrong. They were going to 'look at the problem' and I should 'uninstall the product' as it wasn't suitable for the new version of Windows but they would 'release a new product in the coming months'. I was also told that I could run the application on the older version of Windows, which I didn't have any more.

Around and around it went for a week and a half. Time wasted because their software has locked my backup into a safe that they wouldn't give me the key for. And there's a little moral here. A backup you can't use is worse that no backup at all. Why? Because you still have to recover by hand but you waste time trying to get the broken backup to work first.

Preventative maintenance

In the previous section I explained that a backup you can't open because it's locked with some proprietary system isn't worth having. A backup that you can't open because it's corrupted is just as bad. So as well as backing up your files regularly you should also test the backup itself to make sure it's complete and working. Ensure that the disc being used can be verified correctly by Windows. It's easy to test the VirtualRPC in the backup because you just run it. If it works OK and your files are present then things should be fine. I suggest checking your backup once a week.

A customer of mine who ran a small business using VirtualRPC, accounts were kept using Prophet, Datapower held his customer database and over 75% of the files generated by the business were produced on RISC OS. He was sensible but one hard disc crash put him out of business. His hard disc in his PC died because it was five years old and he hadn't replaced it after three years (see the 'Three year rule' section later in this article). That shouldn't have been much of a problem as he kept a regular backup. An external hard disc was connected to the PC via USB and he had written a script that copied all his work to this drive weekly.

So far so good. About 18 months before the crash he had plugged in a USB memory stick, it just a small one, and hadn't bothered taking it out as Windows was apparently using it as a 'ReadyBoost' device. So why was his backup nearly useless? It took me a few minutes to spot why but by then it was way too late.

When we looked at his backup everything seemed in place but after he had re-installed VirtualRPC and then installed his backup over the top it was clear something had gone badly wrong. All of the files in the backup were out of date. Two years of accounts were missing, the database was out of date and over two tears worth or work was missing. It became clear fairly quickly that at least 24 months of work had vanished. What on earth had happened?

Do you remember that USB stick? His backups failed directly after he had plugged that memory stick in and as he hadn't noticed that Windows had moved the drive letters around.

His backup script was hardwired to copy the VirtualAcorn folder to a folder on drive E, which was the external hard disc. However when Windows next started after he had plugged in the USB stick the drive letters got changed and drive E was now the USB stick and the external hard disc had been allocated a different letter. So his backup script was trying to copy the VirtualAcorn backup to the USB stick. If the stick had been big enough it wouldn't have mattered but the stick wasn't. However it wasn't just the change in drive letters that spelt doom, his script was written reasonably well but it didn't report errors. If something went wrong, such as the script trying to copy files to a device with no free space, the script would just exit without putting an error message on screen.

I do still feel sorry for the chap, he did the right things but what he missed out was preventative maintenance. If he had replaced the hard disc in his PC on time he wouldn't have lost the data. If he had checked the backup on the external hard disc he would have noticed that no new files were being copied. If he had written his script to report, rather than suppress, errors he would have known what was happening. It took a series of mistakes for his data to be lost. There is a genuine technical term for this type of event in the IT industry, it's called a 'clusterf*ck'. It's a situation where a set of smaller survivable mistakes (f*cks) join up to produce a fatal problem.

The three year rule

If you have suffered a disc crash and the hard disc in your PC is over three (3) years old the drive needs to be replaced. Don't treat that as advice instead treat it as a command from on high. The reason is simple. Manufacturers build drives to a standard design but there will always be microscopic variations in materials. This means that some drives will fail before others. Manufacturers will know that all their drives will work for three years but after that they don't know which drives will fail after 3 years and 2 months and which will carry on working for a decade. If the manufacturers don't know for sure then neither do you.

If you are using SSD drives the three year rule still applies, only more so. Whilst an SSD has no moving parts physical electrical wear in capacitors from many high speed read/write cycles will eventually result in data loss. The high speed performance of an SSD comes at a cost, it's like a sprinter, it's fast but it can't keep it up for a long distance.

If you aren't sure about a drive's health you can install a SMART monitoring application if your device supports it. On some PCs you may need to activate the SMART feature in the BIOS before the monitoring app will work. However you still need to replace primary storage devices every 3 years. Drives that are being used for backup purposes should last considerably longer but do check the drive periodically as a corrupted backup device isn't much use.

I didn't keep backups and my VirtualAcorn won't boot because my hard disc has died

There's an ancient chant designed for this situation. Just repeat this phrase 'Oh, wa, taf, ool, iyam' gradually increasing the speed each time. After a few seconds you should be flooded with the knowledge of the ancients.

Now let's get back to fixing the problem. If you have lost your personal files and you don't have any backups then the files are probably gone for good. I say 'probably' because it's possible that they might be recoverable. There are a sea of 'hard disc recovery' applications available for Windows and some of them are very poor. We recently tested several of them, the problem for RISC OS users is that some Windows file recovery applications will only recover a small sub set of known Windows file types and will ignore directory structures. The worst one we tested is called 'Disk Drill', it's very expensive and in our opinion next to worthless. At the other end of the scale is Restorer Ultimate.

Restorer Ultimate is one of the most impressive pieces of software that we have seen in a long time and at the time of writing cost a measly $29.00. Despite being a Windows app that hasn't ever heard of RISC OS it successfully recovered every type of RISC OS file, with filenames, file types and directory structures. It pulled a 99% complete VirtualRPC installation with tens of thousands of RISC OS format files of a drive with a hardware fault. It wasn't super quick, it took nearly 2 days and it needed a PC with at least 8Gb of RAM (which means a 64 bit version of Windows is needed) because there were so many files that it ran out of RAM on a 32 bit Windows 7 installation.

There a couple of standard steps you must take if your hard disc is reporting errors. Firstly never save anything to it, important files might get overwritten. Secondly take an image of the drive with Restorer Ultimate and only work on that image. Never try and recover directly from the damaged drive only recover from the image as you want to minimise any use the drive gets as any use may increase the area of damage.

If Restorer Ultimate can't recover your files then the only other alternative is a professional disc recovery service. Using such a service won't be cheap but they may have access to more sophisticated tools. Search on-line or ask in your local PC dealer if they have any recommendations for reliable data recovery services.

I didn't keep backups and my VirtualAcorn won't boot but my hard disc is OK

If RISC OS won't boot and you don't have a backup of the !Boot folder the only real option is to re-install VirtualRPC over the top of your current installation but read all of this article first. Whatever you do don't try and uninstall VirtualRPC before re-installing as you will lose more files. Just install directly over the top of the current installation.

Before re-installing make sure that you have a copy of your unlock code as you will need it. If you've lost it, never wrote it down or just can't find it you can recover it using these instructions. Just make sure you recover your unlock code before you re-install VirtualRPC because the record of it will be overwritten during the re-installation.

After you have re-installed VirtualRPC you will need to unlock it. Unless there has been some hardware change the unlock code you have should work. If not follow the instructions in the VirtualAcorn registration window to request a replacement code. Don't install the optional software packs or any other components unless its essential.

Virtual RPC should now be starting OK and RISC OS should boot into the desktop. You will need to reset the screen resolution, the pinboard will have been lost and a host of other settings will probably need changing. Once you have VirtualRPC configured how you want start taking a backup so you can avoid having this problem again.

What backup application should I use?

We often get asked about recommending a backup application. There are some amazingly feature rich (that's tech speak for complicated) backup suites available but you don't need them for backing up your VirtualRPC installation. We recommend the application we use for our own VirtualRPC backups, Karen's Replicator.

Karen's replicator isn't really designed to backup your Windows installation or your account information it just copies files, quickly, quietly in the background to a timetable you set. You can set it to mirror changes, so that if you delete a RISC OS file the backup of that file will also be deleted. We have Karen's Replicator on each machine and each machine also has an external backup drive. The backup is set to run daily at 4:00pm and typically takes a few minutes. As it runs in the background using minimal resources you won't even feel it if you are running RISC OS in full screen.

The only possible 'problem' with Karen's Replicator is that there won't be any future development as the developer, Karen Kenworthy, sadly died in 2011. Karen's replicator does work on Windows 8 and Windows 10 but make sure you have installed VirtualAcorn following our latest instructions.

Backup media

One final topic needs to be covered, what device do you use to store the backups. There are a number of choices but we recommend using one of the following:

  • A brand new external hard disc designed for backups.
  • A USB 3 memory stick with a capacity of at least 64GB.
  • Writeable DVDs (for specific backups not for regular use).

What's important is that the backup can be made quickly without slowing down the PC. Old slow devices are not suitable for use with backups, so don't use:

  • Any secondhand/repurposed/re-certified hard disc.
  • Any device that can't be easily disconnected from the PC and taken to a different location.
  • Any USB2 memory stick as the read/write speed is too slow.
  • Any memory stick with a capacity less than 32GB.
  • Writable CDs (as they don't support deep enough directory structures).
  • Tape drives, ZIP discs or anything else that's old technology.

If you follow our suggestions you should be well equipped to survive and quickly recover from any hard disc date loss.

Finally

Just in case someone wonders I am happy to say that we (3QD Developments Ltd) or I (Aaron Timbrell) have no commercial relationship with Karen's replicator, How-to Geek, Major Geeks or Restorer Ultimate. We haven't been paid to provide a recommendation nor do we receive any payment for any clicks on the links provided in this article. Our recommendation is simply based upon our experience.

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 Copyright (c) 2016 3QD Developments Ltd. All rights reserved. All trademarks are acknowledged. All details are correct at the time of publication, E & OE.
Last Edit Date 30/11/16
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