In praise of backups

PC Magazine has declared today as World Backup Day and is exhorting readers to backup everything, from important documents and digital photographs to E-mail and browser settings. I have long been a fan of both data file and system-wide backups, and every now and again such precautions pay off in spades.

Take for example a recent experience when my Linux box failed to boot – or at least ended up with a completely black display screen with no obvious way to proceed. The answer was to restore a prior backup of the Linux partition, complete with the master boot record, and I was back in business in under two minutes!

But, then the question became what caused the failure-to-boot scenario. Further use of the system identified that this occurred each time a set of automatic updates was installed. Now, I have to say that over several years I have always accepted all such updates and have almost never encountered any problems. The one exception to this was an occasion when the Linux kernel was updated and, once again, the machine refused to boot. In this case, my practice of retaining the previously-installed kernel proved helpful as I was able to boot using the associated Grub entry, and then simply wait for a further kernel update that didn’t produce a boot failure.

However, the current case was more troublesome. Neither the updated kernel, nor the previous kernel would allow the system to boot without producing the “black screen of death”. Sitting out on any updates that were offered for a few days had the machine working flawlessly, and proved that something in the list of updated software was producing the crash.

Now, it was time for a little selective updating in order to positively identify the culprit. First, I deselected all of the updates in the list except for those related to Firefox. Having installed the Firefox-related files, the machine rebooted normally. Now, I moved on to a set of updates for LibreOffice, then those for Thunderbird, and so forth. Eventually, I installed xserver-common and xserver-xorg-core and – bingo – the black screen of death!

So, now I have a culprit. The question now becomes what to do about it. For once, searching the Internet did not prove useful. It may be that the problem is specific to my hardware configuration (especially the video card and monitor) and this is a combination that few other users of Ubuntu Linux 10.04 LTS have available. Certainly, the same updates on another machine running the same Ubuntu release produce no similar problems.

Right now, I have no solution – only a workaround – always leave xserver-common and xserver-xorg-core unchecked for any update process. I have filed a bug report in Launchpad but, if this affects few users (perhaps one!), I suspect that a fix will not be forthcoming, given that the next long term release version will be available in less than a month. So, the solution may well be to update to Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (Precise Pangolin). I guess I should check out the current Beta 2 release to see if this will indeed solve my problem.

However, despite the small difficulty associated with managing the update process, the point is that PC Magazine have it right – “People, it’s time to back up your data!”


The Beginner’s Guide to PC Backup,2817,2363057,00.asp

Update to xserver files causes failure to boot

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