I’ve been having a bit of an odd experience with some backup software that came with an external hard drive I bought for the purpose. The software in question is Dantz (now EMC) Retrospect Express 6.5, which I’d have to recommend as a great solution for personal data or small networks. Except a couple of days ago, I’d have greeted its mention with a hollow laugh.

It was easy to blame Retrospect.

The problem started a couple of months ago after a hard drive crash (my second this year – I’m starting to feel cursed). I meticulously reinstalled XP and restored data from backups. I prefer not to “ghost” system disks as I regard XP reinstalls as an opportunity for spring cleaning which should not be missed.

When I started to use Retrospect for incremental backups as normal, I discovered the problem. The external drive to which I was backing up would grind and grind for days (yes, days) before finally starting the backup process. You couldn’t kill the Retrospect process, either (not even with taskkill /im retrospect.exe /f. The only way to halt the interminable vibration transmitted through my desk to my mouse hand was to wrench the USB plug from the drive. Backups progressing from scratch worked normally, so my only workaround was to simply back up everything in my list of folders which I must not lose. This inevitably led to a decrease in the frequency of my backups (daily became weekly, excepting my source control database which is small relative to everything else and while slow, could easily complete in under half an hour).

I’d been researching this problem for two hours of every week since the crash, and I’d been getting nowhere. Today I started to get a “bad block” warning from a second machine accompanied by a wonderful scratchy samba beat in sync with the drive light. Uh-oh, I thought. Impending hard drive death (It’s like a sixth sense now). I couldn’t put it off any longer – I simply had to fix the problem.

But where to start? Try putting together a Google search for “my backup never finishes using Dantz (now EMC) Retrospect 6.5 on an external USB drive and I’m about to embed one of my extremities into a solid object” and you’ll be sifting through results until Jeff Atwood writes a boring blog post. It’s easy to Google hard errors like “Windows Delayed Write Failed” – just put the wording in quotes and review the possibilities. It’s less easy when a piece of software just sits there quietly shortening the service life of one of your USB devices. I have a small cache of words I trot out for Google to consume in these situations: “(hangs OR crashes OR freezes)” for simple lockups and “(grinds OR thrashes)” for hard drive activity.

In the end, when you’ve been using these kinds of search combinations for weeks with no luck, you resort to brute force searching. And this is what I did, trawling the Dantz/EMC support forums post by post. By about page 18 of posts I had an answer, and the blame wasn’t going in the expected direction.

System Restore. Great, isn’t it? Sits there, quietly monitoring everything, making sure nothing untoward can happen to your system. Including untoward things like backups, it seems. This is why even taskkill didn’t work – it seems to be MS-process aware when it comes to System Restore. This is why I’ve been risking the life of my external HD by pulling the cable out, because you couldn’t even log out or shut down. System Restore is only good on system drives. Yet by default, XP monitors every “fixed” drive you have in your system (I know, I know, I’d been sticking it out with 2000 until late last year). Why should this be the case? Why can’t XP ask you for each drive you install a program on instead of assuming that big dumpster full of ISOs, RARs and RBFs you’ve got hanging off your USB bus needs watching like a hawk?

So in a backup situation to an external drive, System Restore is the last thing you want turned on. Right-click My Computer, hit Properties/System Restore, and turn it off on a per-drive basis – which in my experience means any drive you don’t add/remove programs to/from with Windows Installer.

I’m happy to say Retrospect is right back up there in my estimation. And MS’s position in my estimation hasn’t changed a great deal.

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