How I Saved a Mac Using Ubuntu

Strange but true: a Mac meltdown was prevented using a Linux desktop.
Posted September 25, 2012

Matt Hartley

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As a general rule, OS X is not really best buddies with its Linux distribution cousins.

The reasons vary, depending on who you ask. But at the end of the day, the division is a solid one. Still, it is worth mentioning that since today's Mac runs with an Intel CPU, most Linux distributions run great on it.

As luck would have it, the Mac's compatibility with Linux recently saved my bacon after my wife's iMac went into a bit of a meltdown.

This is a walk-through detailing how Ubuntu 12.04 saved my wife's Mac (data).

Recovery is easy—data recovery is another matter

Anyone with a third grade education can drop in an OS X CD and follow along with the prompts. And those with more knowledge are able to use the bounty of recovery options that come with an OS X installation. Yet sadly, even with Time Machine setup to do faithful backups, disaster can still strike.

Apparently, the installation of OS X my wife was running had become corrupted. After trying a multitude of recovery solutions, we finally decided it was time to revert back to an earlier state with Time Machine. Oddly, something had messed up her instance of Time Machine and it wasn't cooperating.

After running a battery of OS X friendly hardware tests, I decided that it was time to simply prep the disk for a clean installation. Only one thing prevented me from making this a smooth re-install – the lack of a functioning backup thanks to a Time Machine crash.

Now to be fair, we've had good luck with Time Machine in the past. However because I got caught up with other stuff, I failed to have my wife's Mac setup on a plan B backup solution. And now, we were paying a price for it.

Home recovery with Ubuntu

After determining that the memory and hard drive were not failing, I was ready to grab my Ubuntu CD and get to work. The first step was to boot up the CD. After inserting the Ubuntu CD, I found that holding down the Alt button provided me with the option of choosing the CD to boot from.

Comically, the Mac referred to this CD as Windows. Apparently in OS X world, anything not OS X is Windows if it's an OS.

After Ubuntu was booted up and the LiveCD presented me with the desktop, I immediately prepped an external hard drive that I had laying around in my home office.

On this hard drive, I had already setup a NTFS partition that was large enough to accommodate anything that might be in my wife's home directory. However, using a simple drag and drop method led to a number of permission issues.

Realizing this would be a problem, I instead opted to use the terminal under sudo credentials to copy my wife's home directory over to the other hard drive. I figured, get it copied and sort out the damage later on.

For those of you wondering, the reason I opted to use an NTFS file system for the backup is because it would read/write nicely between both OS X and Ubuntu. OS X's native file system support under Linux is fine for reading. However, for writing, things can be a little messy and I needed results.

Now I know what many of you are thinking - there are half a dozen methods of copying over data from one drive to another, from rsync to a bare metal backup. For my needs, however, I wanted to keep it simple. Before booting to the LiveCD, I had concerns about data corruption. Unfortunately, these concerns turned out to be accurate. But for the time being, I simply needed to copy a home directory to an NTFS directory.

So I ran the following command to get the ball rolling:

cp -r OSX/Home-Directory External-hard-drive/directory

I let this data copy over for what must have been about an hour. Once the copying process was completed, I was able to look through the verbose information in the terminal. At this point, I was surprised by a few files that had been turned into alias files.

This basically meant the files weren't there anymore, only a remnant of them remained. Since the few missing files weren't ever made into alias files, I decided to research the issue. After doing a bit of digging, it seems that this isn't uncommon on Snow Leopard.

Worse, no one seems to have pointed to an exact cause, either. And since it happened to unrelated file formats, I was unable to point to Adobe or another third party vendor as the culprit.

Accepting that the files that were missing weren't critical, and that the needed home directory content had been backed up safely, we were ready to re-install OS X on my wife's Mac.

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Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Apple, Mac

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