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Troubleshooting Time Machine backups…

Time Machine is a excellent technology and Apple has greatly simplified taking a backup of your Mac. But what do you do if it stops working?

I recently had a call from a client in Bristol needing Mac Technical Support, who found that their Time Machine backups had suddenly stopped completing successfully. Their MacBook Pro contained a great deal of business critical information and they were very nervous now the data was not getting protected. So what to do?

TIme Machine doesn’t provide much in the way of feedback, so to find out why it’s failing try the following:

  1. Open /Applications/Utilities/Console.app
  2. Click “All Messages” in the left hand column
  3. Type “backupd” in the Filter window top right.

You should now be seeing a small subset of the the log files showing just those errors associated with the backupd process that powers Time Machine. Amongst those messages are some that you’ll be able to use to pinpoint which file or folder is causing the backup to fail. For example:


Apr 27 16:00:46 powerbook com.apple.backupd[50125]: Stopping backup.
Apr 27 16:00:46 powerbook com.apple.backupd[50125]: Error: (-41) SrcErr:NO Copying /Volumes/Macintosh HD/Users/xxxxx/webwork/freelancewebsitejob.co.uk/site/library/.svn/entries to /Volumes/SweetApple TimeMachine Mackup/Backups.backupdb/Sweet-Apple-MacBook/2011-02-27-140323.inProgress/xxxxxxxxx/Macintosh HD/Users/xxxxx/webwork/

It might look like gibberish, but actually that’s quite useful. It tells me that Time Machine is failing when it tries to backup a specific folder and gives me the path to that folder.

So now what should you do? The first thing is to run a check on your hard drive to make sure there are no problems with it. Disk Utility is free and does a reasonable job, so use that. If you find problems, repair them and try to backup once more. Check the logs in Console.app if it fails once again.

The other approach that sometimes works is forcing a rebuild of your Spotlight Indexes. There are a plethora of apps that can do this, but they often cost money. So I use the Terminal.app to run “sudo mdutil -E /” to rebuild the boot drive’s indexes (if your hard disk is partitioned, replace the / with the path to the drive – for example “sudo mdutil -E /Volumes/My Other Volume”). In some instances I’ve found that Time Machine will miraculously begin working correctly after Spotlight has been given a chance to rebuild.

If that fails, you’re rapidly running out of options! You can try erasing the existing Time Machine backup and starting from scratch. However be aware that this will destroy all of your Time Machine history, so have a careful think before doing this.

If that fails, life’s going to get very complicated. I would suggest using Carbon Copy Cloner to take backups until such time as you can pinpoint the cause of failure.

Looking for friendly, fast, efficient and cost-effective Mac support? In Bath, Bristol, Swindon, Devizes, or Wiltshire, Somerset or Gloucestershire? Sweet-Apple provides on-site, telephone and remote support for Macs. Give us a call on 01380 830224, We’d love to help.

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