Office Mac 2011, Time Machine Troll

(Or Why Your Backup is Likely an Epic FAIL)

Time Machine on a MacBook Pro

Time Machine – Innocent Victim or Chump? You Decide!

UPDATE:  Apple now has a workaround which conforms to this observation.  Simply run your backups in Safe Boot mode (hold down the shift key after rebooting, as soon as the music starts, and keep it down until the “busy” graphic appears).  This prevents Microsoft’s Outlook daemons from running.)

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I thought I was getting a really great deal when I got Office Mac 2011 for a mere ten bucks, thanks to Microsoft’s very generous Home Use Program, a.k.a. HUP.  In fact, I still think it’s a great deal, and a great product.  But – as they say – caveat emptor.  Sure, it’s almost free.  Free as in your hot but psychotic girlfriend or boyfriend who offers to move in and pay half the rent.  Yeah – right.  There’s always a catch.

I’ve been having a LOT of trouble with Time Machine backups, and I scoured the net, looking for workarounds.  Apple’s official policy of silence on all things doesn’t exactly help.  You have to admit – Windows may have a lot of bugs, and it may get its real beta test in production, but the Microsoft MVPs are always on the case, and always admitting enough problems that you don’t waste a lot of time trying to fix what can’t be fixed.  Contrast that with the way that Apple users with any non-obvious issue are more like a 9/11 support group, comforting each other in their unfixable tragedy.  Sure – Apple is great when it’s something big enough to take to the geniuses for surgery, and you lose your box for a week or two, but it’s all paid for under socialized AppleCare, so no worries.  But if it’s the computer equivalent of a mystery migraine, then you’re likely going to be dealing with it on your own, and for a LONG time.

But occasionally those semi-abandoned Apple users discover the truth – such as loose wires that have to be taped down to make keyboards work – and all of a sudden there’s actual progress.

Well – I got me some progress, and maybe it will help you.

Have your Time Machine backups been grinding to a halt?  Have they just “hung” in the middle of things for no apparent reason?  Have you felt like the Time Machine process – acting very Applish in saying that it was still “hard at work”, really just up and quit on you?

Well, if you have Office Mac 2011 installed, and it was running while you were doing your backup, then Time Machine may very well have just up and quit on you.

It turns out that Office Mac 2011 – and particularly the Outlook component, is actually ready, willing, and quite capable of killing a Mac file copy process – and not very gracefully, either.  You see, I got so frustrated with a backup that wasn’t working, that I tried the obvious workaround – copying my files directly to the same external hard disk.  The same hard disk which would, very suddenly, at a certain point in the backup, go dark, with the LED actually going out.  An LED which was going out, coincidentally, at the same point that the backup seemed to stall.

Well, when I copied the files manually, at about the same point, it did the same thing.  But this time, I got a very nasty-looking Apple error pop-up.  It said that it could not copy one of my little “OLK” files because it was “in use” by some sync process.  And that was it.  Over.  Finito.  The entire copy process ended.  And the actual copied files STOPPED right there, in the middle of my Microsoft User Data in my Documents folder.

Desperate for a backup, I quit Outlook and killed all Microsoft processes (the latter of which was probably overkill), and hand-copied the rest of my data in chunks.  Whew!  Backup complete!  I then repeated with Time Machine.  And it worked!!!  For the next few Time Machine backups, I remembered to do it *before* starting Outlook, and NO PROBLEM.  But then I let my backups slide for a while, and forgot my little “fix”.

Today?  Same old problem, twice in a row.  At that point, my memory came rushing back.  Sure enough – restarting my MacBook, making sure that Outlook didn’t start, and backing up with Time Machine, worked quickly and cleanly.

So – who’s to blame?

Is it Microsoft, for bringing its generally troublesome model of file-locking by applications into the Mac world?  Worse still, for applying that model to sweet, innocent FILE COPYING?  Good, grief!  SPARE ME, REDMOND!

Or is it Time Machine, for not catching these sorts of errors?  I mean, Java won’t even let you walk out the door to get the morning paper without a “catch”.  Shouldn’t a fatal file copy error in a GUI – an error which effectively just sank the Titanic – do more than just pretend that everything is wonderful?

Hey, Time Machine!  How about those deck chairs?

So anyway, I’m hoping to save some of you good folks some trouble.

Are you using Time Machine for your backups?  Well, if you are, stop reading your Outlook mail while you’re doing it.

Yup.  There’s a troll under the Time Machine bridge, and he wants ten bucks to let you cross.

Sure, it’s almost free.  But there’s a catch.

Or – maybe not.

Note Added In Proof – While I was finishing this post, with my Time Machine drive still connected, an incremental backup came on at the same time that an Outlook reminder for a teleconference popped up.  Guess what happened?  EVERYTHING locked up.

Reproducibility with new predictions and utility!  Ain’t science grand?

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