The Emergency Boot Drive, Your New Best Friend

Several times a year I find myself on the road editing on-location with clients. These travel jobs are usually a convention, corporate conference or incentive trip. The locations can be as close as Chicago (20 miles away) or as far as Thailand and Hong Kong. I have a travel system that’s in cases and ready to go at a moments notice, and each year this part of our business at Edit Creations has grown.

One concern I always have when doing these jobs is having a system go down while being far away from the office. Part of my safety net is having a second laptop with me on every trip. I learned my lesson the hard way when a few years ago one of our editors was doing a job in California and the a AJA IO box stopped working. It was a Saturday so I couldn’t get in touch with tech support at AJA and no amount of google searching helped find a solution. By Monday the job was going to be all over, videos laid off or not. So in that case, after troubleshooting all night on the phone and realizing it was not going to be fixed, with only a 4 hour window I had to shower, head to the office and make a second system from one of our edit bays, stop and Home Depot and buy a hand truck and head to the airport. I made it in time to save the day, but it burned though all of the profits for the job.

While having 2 systems is great security, I always want to have the ability to troubleshoot, test or rebuild a machine with all of the needed software on site, should the need arise. In my worst case scenario that I play back in my head (rehearsing it like a fire drill) I imagine running to a local Apple Store, buying a new machine on the spot and reinstalling everything I need to get the job done.

Up until recently I’ve always brought with me a small selection of DVD’s. Everything from all of the original FCP and Adobe install disks, to Disk Warrior and a system restore disk. While this would obviously work, there is a better way. Why not buy a new, small portable FW drive (or even better, use one of those old drives that you have laying around) and created a multi-partition boot drive that contains everything? Then, not only do you have everything you need in one place, booting and running off of the FW drive will be much faster then working off your DVD drive.

The rest of this post will show you how to create your own emergency boot drive that is the perfect companion to your travel system.

Check List
Before you get started, here’s what you’re going to need.

  • A hard drive. FireWire is my personal preference, but a bootable USB 2.0 drive will work as well. I don’t care what anybody says, FireWire is still faster then USB so I prefer to never buy a drive that is only USB.
  • Hard drive space on your computer – lots of it if you’re going to be putting a lot of software on your new boot drive.
  • Original CD’s/DVD’s that you want to make copies of.
  • Apple Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder of your hard drive).

Pick Your Drive

The first step is to get yourself a drive. For me, I used a 500 gig G-Raid Mini that has not been getting a lot of use.

I had several other options as well, but all were too small for what I wanted to do here. Funny how 60 gigs is now considered “small”. However any one of these would make a great DiskWarrior/OSX Install disk.

If you are buying a new drive, I would recommend one of the Western Digital Passport drives. You can get a 500 Gig USB drive for less then $120, or a 400 gig version with both USB and FW800 for $115. If you’re not as concerned about the size of the drive or having an external HD, you can get an even better deal on a 1TB Quad Interface drive for about $150, also from Western Digital.

Select Your Software
Before you do anything with the drive itself, decide what you want to use it for. In my case, I decided to make partitions for the following.

  • Disk Warrior Emergency Boot Disk
  • OSX 10.5 Leopard Install Disk
  • OSX 10.5 Server Install Disk
  • OSX 10.4 Tiger Install Disk
  • “Additional Software” partition for Adobe and FCP disk images

Make Disk Images

It’s time to make disk images of each disk. If you have not done this before, it’s a way to create an exact byte by byte copy of a disk (even a hard drive) to a single file on a your hard drive. Later you’ll use these files to create the hard drive versions.

Insert the disk into the disk drive and open Apple’s Disk Utility program. Towards the bottom of the list on the left you should see your DVD drive listed, and the CD that you have inserted. In my case the Leopard install disk is inserted in the machine. Click once to highlight the mounted disk as shown here.

Now click on the button along the top that says “New Image”. You will be asked for a place to save the new disk image. If you’re doing this for several DVD’s, you’re going to want to make sure you have plenty of space since each disk can be multiple gigs in size. Name the disk something meaningful and hit save. The default options of “compressed” and “none” will work fine.

Disk Utility will now create a single file that is an exact copy of your CD or DVD.

Repeat these steps for each disk you want to put on your boot drive. Even if it’s not going to be a bootable disk (for example, the Final Cut Pro suite of disks). Later you’ll see the benefit of doing so.

Get Organized
Once you’ve created a disk image for every optical disk you need, it’s a good idea to organize them into two main categories. Boot drives, and non-boot drives.

As seen here, I’ve not only put my bootable disks into their own folder, but in the additional software folder I’ve created sub-folders to keep programs grouped. Doing this is going to help you figure out how many partitions you need, and how large to make each partition.

Looking at the list I have, I can tell I need 5 partitions. There are 4 boot volumes, and the rest will go onto a 5th partition called “Additional Software”.

Before we move on we need to know how big each of the bootable volumes need to be. The best way to do that is to double click on each Disk Image so that it mounts on the desktop, and do a “get info” on the mounted volume. You may be tempted to just look at the size of the disk image, but since it’s compressed it will not give you an accurate final size.

I went through each of my drives and just made note of the final sizes. I don’t really care about the extra non-bootable images since they’re all going on whatever is left and there should be plenty of extra space. If you think you’re cutting it close you may want to get their sizes as well just to be sure everything will fit.

Splitting Up Your Disk
We now have everything we need to create the boot disk. Again, open Disk Utility and select the drive that you’re going to use. Make sure to select the drive itself, and not the current volume that’s right below it.

With the drive selected, click on the Partition tab. Currently there is just one partition for the entire drive. Let’s change that. Under “volume scheme” change it from “current” to “5-Partitions” (or however many you need for what you’re creating). We know we need 5 from the previous work we’ve already done.

Initially you’ll see 5 equal sized partition boxes. To optimize the use of space we’re going to create each partition to match the disk image so that we don’t waste space. To do this, starting from the top box click on each partition box and type in a name and size based on the sizes you recorded earlier. I usually make the partition size a little bit bigger then the size I recorded, just to be sure it all fits and there’s some working space. it’s really not necessary, but that’s what I do for my own neurotic reasons. I usually add half a gig to each recorded size.

Repeat this step for each of the new partitions, working your way down the list. When you’re done, name the final partition “Additional Software” and leave the size as is. It will automatically be whatever space is left.

The Partition Table Scheme
I will come right out and tell you the first time I went through all of this trouble I ended up with a disk that would not boot. I was baffled. I knew I did everything right. It took some digging to realize what I had done wrong.

This part is very important. Before you create the partitions, click on the option button at the bottom of the screen and you’ll see this dialog.

The type of partition scheme you use effects what machines can boot from the drive. By default, it’s setup so that it can boot from non-intel machines only (G4, G5). My problem was I was using a MacBookPro which is Intel based.

Nearly all of my machines are now Intel based, so I don’t need to have a dual booting drive that does both. But if that’s what you need, there is a way to do it. I’m not gong to bother showing you since I didn’t do it myself, but I found a good step-by-step description on how to do it on Mac OSX Hints. Feel free to follow their instructions. If it were super easy I may have done it just to say I did it, but it’s more of a pain then it’s worth to me personally.

So in my case, I chose GUID partition table and clicked OK. This will create partitions that all boot on any Intel based Macintosh.

With everything ready, click on the “apply” button and you’ll receive the standard warning letting you know you’re about to destroy the disk as you know it.

Click Partition and let it do it’s thing. It shouldn’t take more then a few seconds to a minute. When it’s done you’ll have 5 new volumes created under the main hard drive on the left side of the screen. You will also have 5 new hard drives mounted on your desktop representing each of the new partitions.

Makin’ Copies
We’re almost done. You now need to take each disk image that you created, and restore it to the matching volume that you created for it. This is pretty straight forward.

Inside of disk utility, click on the first partition that you want to work on, and click the “restore” tab. From that window, you can select your disk image file, and then drag and drop the HD from the desktop that you want to copy that image to.

Click the “restore” button, click OK on the warning dialog and enter your user password and away it goes. This part can take awhile, especially if like me you’re restoring form a network server drive that’s also busy doing other things.

Repeat this for each of the boot volumes.

If by chance you get an error like this one…

…don’t freak out. At least not yet anyway. Chances are pretty good you have that disk image mounted on your desktop. Just unmount the disk image by and try again.

The Rest of the Software
The disk images that were not intended to be boot disks (all of the Adobe/FCP images) can just be copied using the finder to the volume called “Additional Software”.

Once all of the drives are restored from their perspective disk images and all of the extra software is copied over to the extra drive, it’s time to take it for a test drive.

Restart, Reboot, Relax
Plug in your drive and choose restart. As soon as your Mac chimes on, hold down the option key on your keyboard. (I should mention that this needs to be a wired keyboard for this to work). In a few seconds you’ll see a list of all of the bootable disks. Use the arrows on the keyboard to make a choice and hit return.

A Few Usage Notes
A few things I wanted to mention.

Installing OSX
When you use the OSX install DVD, normally you put the DVD in and click on the “Install” icon, and away it goes – rebooting the machine and starting up from the DVD. If you try to do this from the boot drive you just created, it will not work. It can tell that it’s not the original DVD and gives you an error. So the way to get around it is how I described above, restarting and holding down the option key to choose your drive. After that it all goes as normally.

Installing FCP
One of the great benefits of having a program like FCP Studio as disk images, is that the installation goes a LOT faster, and you can install everything unattended. No more switching of the DVD’s as it needs them. The trick is to just open up all of the images and have them mounted on the desktop. Once you start the install, it will appear that you have multiple DVD’s all mounted. So as it finishes with one, it just moves onto the next one.

Quick System Restores
Creating disk images can be a great way to keep a backup of your current edit system. Once a month we create a disk image of the boot drive of each edit system in the office. Why? This way if a system crashes or goes down due to a hard drive problem, we can use the image to create a new identical drive and be up and running with all of our software, plugins and system settings as we had them. This was put to the test once already when a system just didn’t boot one morning and we were on deadline. By noon we had a new drive installed and imaged from the backup and were up and running again. Try rebuilding an entire system from all of the original software disks in just 3 hours. Our usual rebuild from scratch time is about 8-10 hours, and usually several days of finding little things that we forgot and fixing system settings and preferences.

Adding or Changing Partition Size
Let’s say that you create 5 partitions as I did in this example, and later on want to add a 6th because a) you have enough space on the drive and b) you now decided you wanted to add Snow Leopard as an additional boot disk. Can you do this? Yes, and no. Mostly yes.

Apple’s Disk Utility does allow you to resize the partitions, but in doing so you will destroy everything on that partition. After going through all of this work, it’s clearly not the best option. However, there is a great and reasonably priced program called iPartition from Coriolis.

This nifty program makes it possible to non-destructively and intuitively adjust the size of each partition. You can create new partitions and a whole lot more. In my limited testing, iPartition performed as promised and made short work of what would have otherwise been impossible using Disk Utility. At the low price of $45, this was a no brainer purchase for me.

Duplicate Your Work
And finally, after doing all of this work, wouldn’t it be nice if you could make a disk image of your new boot drive? Well, you can! Just follow the same procedure and you can have a backup disk image on your system to either create another drive from, or to just have as a backup in case your new boot drive goes down or gets lost.

The SuiteTake?
With a little bit of work you can not only put some old unused drives to work, but be better prepared for a unplanned emergency. At the very least, you will have a more efficient way to install your standard production software and have a great troubleshooting disk. If you ask me, being prepared like this is underrated. It’s little things like this that allow me sleep just a little bit better at night.

5 thoughts on “The Emergency Boot Drive, Your New Best Friend

  1. Really great article. Thorough and step by step. Wish i had discovered it years ago when i was starting out rather than having to figure it out for myself! Hopefully this will help many people in the same position as I was back then.

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