I hate Time Capsules

April 7, 2009

With the introduction of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, Apple released their built-in backup software Time Machine. Time Machine just runs in the background, automatically copying your precious data to another drive. A great idea, now it’s easier than ever to get people to back up. But what about laptops?

Laptops are a huge part of the computer market today, especially for Apple. The problem is that they are, by nature, mobile and not likely to be chained to a desk with an external hard drive hanging off. That means people have to remember to plug that drive into their laptop from time to time, introducing a factor of human error and forgetfulness. There must be a better way right? Isn’t there a way to make backup as wireless as the rest of the laptop? Apple thought so, and released Time Capsule, an Airport Extreme base station with a hard drive built in. Leopard detects Time Capsules on the network and backs up to them over your wireless network with the one-click ease Apple is famous for. There’s just one teensy, weensy little problem:

HFS+ sucks

For those unaware, HFS+ is the file system used by Macs. That is, the organizational system by which the computer keeps track of where and how your data is stored on the actual disk. The problem is, it dates back a long time and as needs have grown, it has started to falter. Big drives with lots of files, especially that change all the time like on Time Machine, make a wreck of HFS+’s catalog. When that catalog gets messy, the drive starts running slow, or may develop problems accessing certain data. The traditional Mac fix for this has been Alsoft’s Disk Warrior, a miracle piece of software that takes your HFS+ catalog and rebuilds a nice clean one. Note, not fixes it, makes a new one. All nice and perfectly organized. Disk Warrior is almost critical on Time Machine drives just due to the sheer number of changes as data is added hourly, and old snapshots are removed. Eventually, all Time Machine drives are likely to need this done.

The issue on Time Capsule is that there’s no way to run Disk Warrior on it. Disk Warrior needs to unmount the drive and have direct access to it. How can you do that when it’s attached over a network? Well, you can’t. Not unless you gut the Time Capsule and attach its drive right to your computer. There’s another problem too. There are actually two HFS+ filesystems you need to worry about. The first is the one on the Time Capsule’s actual drive. The second is the one within the sparse disk image that your backup data is written into. Time Capsule (as well as network Time Machine backups to OS X Server) create a virtual drive as a sparse disk image to back up to, and since this is its own virtual volume, it has its own filesystem to worry about. If either filesystem has problems, your backup fails. Disk Warrior is able to rebuild the filesystem within disk images, and should be able to do it if you mount the Time Capsule’s drive as a shared folder. However, you still can’t rebuild the filesystem on the actual physical drive in the Time Capsule.

The worst part about it is that Apple sells this thing to lay users as a completely turn key system. Set it and forget it. That’s great until HFS+ eats its own tail, then what? Then you call your local Mac IT guy (me) to try and fix the damn thing. If it’s just the sparse image, there is hope. If it’s the filesystem on the drive, probably going to have to format it. It’s really frustrating to see people getting hit like this, from the random home users that call my office to the likes of Wil Wheaton. If your Time Capsule backup has stopped, and rebooting hasn’t solved it, I almost guarantee this is the problem. If your regular, local Time Machine backup has similarly stopped, this is probably the same issue, but at least that’s fixable.

Apple. For the love of god, get us a new filesystem that can actually handle your backup scheme. I am tired of dealing with this.

Update: In addition to the incident that prompted the writing of this post, just as I finished up somebody else walked in complaining that he can’t back up to his Time Capsule. Gee, I wonder what the problem is?

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4 Responses to “I hate Time Capsules”

  1. joel said

    I am a lay user of mac. I purchased time capsule as a turn key way to back up and forget it. I was sorely mistaken. My imac harddrive died and I went to restore with my time capsule. Nothing. It would not mount and it just spins. I purchased disk warrior but I have a bad feeling it is to no avail as I cant get it to do what It needs to do. AGHHH!!!!!

  2. Sofia said

    I hate my time capsule. Says its backing up, but days and weeks later absolutely nothing is there. It has already lost two months of data and now its out of warranty. What a scam, Apple. Very disappointing. Im just going to use a regular external hard drive. At least I can go in and access the data! For 1/4 of the price too.

  3. Nick said

    Thank you for posting this, ive been messing around with mine all day and finally got to the point of googling ‘i hate time capsule’ so i could vent my hate reading other peoples hate.

    I work in a small business, 20 people or so with a 2TB time capsule to backup the Macs and let me just say, this thing has never worked properly, its had it uses but only after hours and hours of faffing about.

    For starters, it automatically takes the name of the computer as the name of the backup, so it has 3 backups all called the same thing……i should ask you to name it something specific or carry an unique ID thats visible at least, mounting the images and checking the folders is just so slow and dosent even let me mount most of the time.

    Im very mobile with my laptop and one day my time capsule poped up a notification saying it could no longer backup to that file and had to create a new one….this has obviously happed to a few other members of staff as well because there are several completely redundant backups, it didn’t quite have the decency of tidying up after itself wasteing a massive amount of space.

    I have also TRIED to delete these useless backups but there is just no sign of it doing anything which is extremely frustrating. To sum up, i have a backup drive that is slow, unresponsive 90% of the time, wont let me restore directly from, wont let me delete old backups and i dont even know what backup belongs to who, its a complete fucking mess.

    I generally applaud apple for its pricy yet top notch equipment but this thing is absolute toss.

  4. Nick said

    Ow…..at least the air port works though but nothing like bringing up the migration assistant and it only showing 1 of the 10+ different backups on the capsule whilst saying something like ‘Make sure the drive is attached to the network’…….it IS the bloody network. GAWWWWWD

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