Disaster struck my home a little over a week ago. You know you're screwed when you see this error message from a Mac. “You are unable to log into the user account [username] at this time. Logging into the account failed because an error occurred.”
Bad Things Happen In The Middle Of The Night
It seemed innocent enough. I noticed that some of the movies I purchased on iTunes hadn't yet downloaded to my RAID array. Since I had 5 TB free, I clicked them all to let them start downloading while I went off for a good night's sleep.
The next morning, I had a screen full of errors telling me that I ran out of disk space.
That just doesn't make any sense. I had terabytes of free space. All the movies combined wouldn't come close to filling up one terabyte of space.
Sure enough, I couldn't do a thing that required a kilobyte of disk space. No downloads or anything that required a write operation would work. Like so many people before me, I figured the best thing to do was reboot.
When that was over and I entered my password to login, I saw this error message.
Say it with me. You know you're screwed when you see this error.
I've worked in IT for most of my life. I don't panic when things go wrong. That's because I know there is usually a simple resolution to most problems. It may take a lot of research. There may be multiple steps. The resolution is usually pretty simple, though.
The first thing I did was log into my Administrator account. Thankfully, that worked fine. Even better, I had access to all the data on my RAID volume. The photos, the music, and even those stinking iTunes movies were all safely stored on the disk.
I haven't lost anything. On the other hand, I can't access it through my primary account. That's extremely inconvenient, but it could have been worse.
This is when the research began. I found others with the same error message on Mac computers, some going back to 2006. What I didn't find was agreement of the cause or the resolution.
There were people who got this error with different causes. For some, it was FileVault – a feature that I don't use. For others, it was because their home profile path was on a network server that denied permission.
My case was similar to the network issue. Since I have over 6 TB over photos, music and video, I keep my home path on the RAID system. A few things made me think this was a permission problem.
When I entered my password, the cursor would spin for a while and then I received the error message. If I typed the wrong password, it was rejected immediately.
That's good. It tells me that my account is fine. I just can't complete the login because I couldn't access the home profile path. Permissions at fault.
When I changed my home profile path to another drive, it worked. I created a new user to test. When I put its home profile path on the RAID volume, I saw the same error. Definitely something with the RAID volume and not the user accounts.
Throw Me A Fricken' Bone Here!
I spent hours scouring web sites for information on this error. There were plenty of suggestions. None of them worked. It was clear I needed help from someone with more experience in the underbelly of Mac OS X errors.
That's when I set an appointment to call Apple for support.
No, not the Genius Bar. I had no faith that some guy working in the mall wearing a blue t-shirt was going to fix this problem. No doubt they know a lot of tricks, but this problem wasn't going to find a resolution with their bag of entry-level tricks.
That was clear when I spoke with the first guy at Apple Support. Nice guy. He had me do everything I'd already tried. Reboot into Recovery mode. Run the Disk Utility program. Blah, blah, blah.
I'd already done everything he asked me to do, but I repeated it without complaint simply because that's how you get kicked up to the next tier of support.
Another really nice guy on Tier 2 answered. We reviewed the actions taken and he checked with his management. Next thing I know, I'm being routed over to Apple Enterprise Support.
One of the things that I found both frightening and interesting is that the support staff had no knowledge of this error message. It's maddeningly unhelpful. Most error messages have a number associated with them so the support people know what caused the problem. Not this one.
Bad Apple, bad!
Eventually, Apple Enterprise Support told me that they could not help me. They said it was due to non-standard hardware, referring to my 3rd party RAID system. I thought that was a bit disingenuous, because this is an OS X error message, not a hardware fault.
The simple fact is they had no idea what was going on here and wanted a way to get out of any responsibility for it.
That brings me to my main point here.
You Can't Pin This On Anyone Else
You are responsible for your own data integrity. Not Apple. Not the vendor who made the RAID system. It's all your responsibility.
How many times have you heard people tell you to backup your system? More than a few, I'm sure.
I have drives dedicated to backups, including two other RAID systems. However, those aren't going to help me unless I wipe out everything and do a complete restore. This problem isn't due to a loss of data, but because of some wacky corruption in permissions.
I've worked with multiple vendors on this issue and it still isn't resolved. It'll get fixed sooner or later, but that's the problem.
Business needs to continue even when your main computer is down.
Just before my crash occurred, I was negotiating a print sale to a management company in Washington, D.C. Without a working computer and access to my photos, I could have lost a few thousand dollars in sales.
Fortunately, I have my MacBook Pro and some portable hard drives with my photos safely stored on them. Think of these drives as backups for my backups.
I made the sale for two large prints and earned several thousand dollars because I was prepared in case of a failure. I had a backup for my computer and backups of my most valuable data.
It's important to have your backup system ready to go, just as if it were your main computer. My client liked one of my black & white photos, but requested that I provide it in sepia. No problem. I had Photoshop and my plugins ready to go on the laptop.
Years ago, I recall Joe McNally saying something similar when asked why he carries so many cameras to a job even if he only uses one. It's because things can go wrong. If you bring one camera to a job and it breaks, you're no longer a photographer.
The same is true for your post processing and business operations. If you have one computer and it breaks, you're no longer in a position to do business.
Dealing with this issue is not fun, but I'm not letting it stop me from doing the things that are important. Take stock of your equipment and ask yourself what you would do if your main system was unusable for a week or two.
It's happening to me, so it can happen to you.
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