Never a truer word has been spoken than by Benjamin Franklin when he said that an “Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound Of Cure“. What does this really mean though. To put it succinctly it means:
That it’s better to try to avoid problems in the first place, rather than trying to fix them once they arise.
or to put it another way:
It is easier to forestall a disaster than to deal with it.
Although our Macs are great and do so for much for us they too need proactive rather than reactive maintenance. The benefits are tremendous in terms of:
- peace of mind that your Mac is running well
- things are unlikely to go wrong and if they do:
- you’ll have a heads up on it before
- your Mac goes haywire and say has trouble opening files and even
- heaven forbid, won’t boot or
- even worse you loose data or the entire drive
The above can and has happened to many a Mac user much to their chagrin. Thus, a proactive maintenance strategy is very essential to avoid disaster as it can a happen.
Two Aspects to a Sound Proactive Prevention Strategy
There are two components to a truly sound, proactive prevention strategy the second of which is the one I will discuss in this post. The first and in some ways the absolutely most essential aspect to a proactive approach is:
- Backup you data
I’ll return to backup more extensively in a future post but I felt it important to lay this one out front and center. If you have a backup you at least know your data is safe and sound on another medium. Should a disaster strike you can at its worst reformat your drive or replace it if need be, reinstall your OS and applications and reload your data. If you have a really sound backup strategy you can possibly even avoid doing the above.
At a, minimum have at least one backup. However a good backup strategy calls for more. At this point I’ll reference you to Joe Kissell‘s work on backup and backup strategies. If you want a really sound, in depth view of the importance of backup and having a sound backup strategy Joe Kissell has written an excellent book called Take Control of Backing up Your Mac and can be found on the iTunes store for $14.99.
Joe also writes extensively for MacWorld on a variety of topics but he has written a number of articles on backup. If a quick backup strategy is more appealing to you at the moment his article Backup basics: The quick, something-is-better-than-nothing backup system is great way to start.
Disk Maintenance Routines
This article is of course about proactive or preventative maintenance and will concentrate more on the maintenance of your system and the disk more specifically. This an area of huge debate. Some are of the opinion that current Macs do not require regular maintenance and that they are relatively self maintaining. I definitely fall into the other camp that fully believes that regular maintenance and primarily disk maintenance will avert any disaster that might be lurking. Today, to do this is not hard at all but the payoff in terms of just peace of mind can’t be underplayed.
Let’s Start: The Need for Preventative Disk Maintenance
Simply put, underlying our work of art, which does so much for us in such an easy, intuitive and delightful way is a very complex piece of machinery and software code. It is the operation of all these components but primarily the disk and I would say really only the disk and the operating system on it that has to be maintained. In this article, I will discuss the tools that you can use to monitor and maintain your disk so that problems are averted or if they develop corrective action can be taken quickly.
The Operating System
Managing your Mac and its usage and all the applications and data that reside on your hard disk is the operating system. OSX is a very sophisticated Unix based operating system and layered on top of that is OSX and the interface your working with. Combined, they allow you to interact with your machine to carry out all kinds of tasks. To do this though the Operating System and the way it is functioning has to be in top order or close to it to interact properly with the computer and execute what you’d like to do. I’d premise that the key or main component of this scenario and that which can lead to serious problems with your Macs operation lays with the volume structures.
The most critical component of a healthy running Mac is your volume structures. Granted, your physical hard drive, if kept long enough, will eventually wear out and need replacement but the maintenance tools I’m going to be discussing will let you know of this probably well in advance.
What are the Volume Structures
I asked Chris at Micromat, a company that produces two of the tools I’m going to discuss how he would easily describe the volume structures in a non-technical fashion. I think his answer is to the point and gets the message across as to exactly how they are so critical to a well operating Mac. He said:
An analogy I frequently use for volume structures is that they are like the map of your drive. It would be very time consuming to traverse the entire drive looking for files, so the hard drive keeps a volume structures file which serves to keep track of where all of your files are located. Similar to if you had a road map with incorrect information, your drive may get ‘lost’ if it contains errors. Depending on the nature and scope of these errors, problems in volume structures can result in being unable to access certain files and even prevent your Mac from being able to access the drive at all, resulting in a Mac that won’t start up.
I like this definition. You can imagine if the road map you were using to get from point A to point B said to take a right turn at the next cutoff instead of a left what could inevitably happen. Rather than getting to the destination you want you might end up merrily driving down the road only to be met by a cliff and if you don’t stop fast enough finding yourself flying off the cliff. Catastrophic disk failure I’d say with probably, in this case little hope of recovery.
Proactive Tools to Avoid that Cliff
There are a number of first rate tools that you can utilize to ensure you don’t careen off the cliff or just end up in the wrong town. Another way of putting it is the file you want to open, opens or your Mac boots when you start it up. The first tool I’m going to discuss and probably the easiest to deploy is Checkmate.
This tool simply runs in background, in no way interfering with your work or requiring you to do anything unless it alerts you to a problem which it has done for me more than once. Once installed it will constantly keep checking various aspects of your system when your system is idle so that it doesn’t interfere with what you’re doing. Should it find something that’s wrong its icon will simply change to red alerting you to that fact. By opening CheckMate itself, it will tell you what needs attention. In my case, it has identified, as I mentioned that my volume structures are corrupt. This is excellent for rather than me merrily going about my computing ways not knowing that my volume structures are in trouble and are likely deteriorating I’m advised of the fact and now I can correct the situation easily.
OSX‘s included Utility Disk Repair
All Mac‘s come with a utility for doing a variety of things with their disks called Disk Utility. This is an excellent utility for doing a variety of things from partitioning a drive, to erasing a volume or most importantly repairing a disk. There are two components that are important here and they are:
- Repair Disk Permissions
- Repair Disk
In the case of the warning indicator I received from CheckMate I’d want to run Repair Disk however from another boot volume. This will correct volume corruption. Since I’m here though I generally run Repair Disk Permissions also as these can lead to problems if the permissions become corrupted.
If You Run Nothing Else
If you run nothing else run CheckMate all the time. That way you’ll know if a problem is developing without having to run manually verify disk every so often to see if all is well. All too frequently, you might leave a manual process like this too long allowing your volume structures to gradually unravel to the point the disk will become very dysfunctional or not functional at all.
If you use no other tool to fix your volume structures, be prepared to jump to Repair Disk as soon as possible to repair your disk. To do this you will need to boot into another startup volume other than your Macs hard drive and in this case it would be Recovery HD which comes with Lion or Mountain Lion.
The Big Boys
There are a number of disk tools that you can use to accomplish what I’ve just discussed however, some lean toward the higher end and do more than what I’ve discussed. The two tools that I’m going to discuss specifically that could be and at least one should be part of your preventative maintenance arsenal are TechTools Pro and/or Disk Warrior. TechTools Pro is the big brother to CheckMate and runs a gamut of tests on your Mac while Disk Warrior is a much more specialized utility in it focuses on the repair of the disk and most specifically Volume Structures. Where all others fail Disk Warrior might save the day.
Once CheckMate has identified a problem it is now time, if you have it, to pull out TechTools Pro to repair the problem. TechTools Pro is an all around utility that does many things such as testing a number of components on your Mac such as your RAM, Video and of course the physical disk for potential disk failure or simply the presence of bad blocks (this is an area of the drive that data can no longer be written to). The very cool thing about TechTools Pro is that you can create a boot volume on an internal drive, an external drive or even a USB drive. From there, all functions can now be carried out on your Mac.
In the case of our Volume Structures corruption you’d want to run the tool Volume Rebuild. This a more intense correction of the volume structures that OSX’s Disk Utility provides and is considered to produce a more efficient volume structures speeding up operations on your Mac.
TechTools Pro can do a number of things such as identifying corrupt files allowing you to delete them. At least a couple of times a year, beyond anything CheckMate is warning me about I run the complete suite of tests, a search for corrupt files and of course Volume Rebuild. There is a function in TechTools Pro I no long run and that’s file and disk defrag. This has led to a not nice outcome so I avoid these. Other than that, this is an excellent tool to have in your war chest.
When all else fails and before you turn to your backups for salvation, enter Disk Warrior. This is a nice to have tool from Alsoft however, it is expensive and I feel is only needed under the worst of conditions. It is engineered really to do one thing and one thing well and that is Disk Repair or more specifically rebuild your volume structures. Often it can fix things that nothing else can. In addition, some swear by the volume structure it rebuilds in terms of just efficiency thus speeding up your Macs operation in a noticeable way.
At the Low End
There are a number of disk utilities which are inexpensive and will run maintenance routines on your Mac that can identify problems such as Volume Structure corruption, cleaning cache files, running the Unix maintenance scripts and a variety of other things. These can be useful tools but they don’t in anyway replace the previously mentioned tools but could be used as an add-on if you just want to go a step further. I will say though that these tools I don’t feel are necessary.
Having said this Onyx is one of those tools you might want to consider. Its free and well maintained. Its been around for years and has a solid reputation. It was actually the tool that alerted me to my most recent Volume Structures corruption. What’s nice about Onyx is its Auto mode however, unless you really know what you’re doing I would not fool around with the other tools as you could potentially do damage. Yet, it is a useful tool in your quest for that ounce of prevention to avoid the pound of cure.
With All that Said
I hope I’ve made the case for the value of a good preventative maintenance strategy. It could save you immeasurable pain in the long run. Do ensure you have at least one good backup of your data if not more and do run maintenance on your Mac. At a minimum always have CheckMate running warning you of any impending problem that is building to which you will more than likely be completely unaware of unless you manually run something like Onyx or Disk Repair on a regular basis. Having the big boys though in your back pocket could prove to be a true life-saver should anything go beyond the capabilities of OSX’s disk repair. Finally though, if you have a good backup and your system truly gives up the ghost at least you won’t have lost your data.