November 13, 2011

∴ It Never Fails When it Doesn't Matter

This past week was the annual Quilter's Quest, the busiest selling week of the year for our small business, Kelly Ann's Quilting.

It's a time when we simply cannot tolerate a computer failure. Our point of sale, accounting, customer and inventory databases are all automated. Although we have more than one point of sale station, an outage at one impairs the entire operation.

So of course we suffered our first computer failure in six-and-a-half years of business this morning. The only saving grace was that today is traditionally the slowest of the five Quest days.

I got a panicked call from my wife as I was finishing up outdoor work around our home. The Microsoft Windows installation on our main machine had locked up, and a reboot brought a corrupted system registry. Hard stop.

A quick restoration of the point-of-sale software database to a secondary machine got us into business for the day. On to the corrupted machine.

That machine's backup image, residing on a Drobo FS across the local network, was invisible to the emergency boot cd. The restoration software was unable to acquire an IP address from our router and wasn't talking on the network.

A reboot into the Windows recovery cd gave me a command prompt, so I logged into the partition holding our software and data. I was able to copy the corrupted system registry file to a backup, then delete the corrupted file itself. I copied a pristine registry copy into place from Microsoft's backup registry directory and rebooted the machine.

Up came Windows. I used a system utility to fall back to a previous restore point, rebooted again and we were back in business on that machine.

So, two lessons. First, make sure carefully laid backup plans are actually useable in the event a restoration is needed. And second, the Windows system registry is a ridiculous point of weakness. There's no way around it short of moving to a more robust operating system.

If our point-of-sale and accounting software were available in identical capability for Mac OS X, that machine would be doing second-string duty in a closet.