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Disclaimers: In this article I’m describing my own experience and thoughts as an opinion. In no way do I intend to show one particular product in a better light than another.

  • Windows® is registered trademark of the Microsoft Corporation.
  • Moodle™ is a registered trademark of ‘Martin Dougiamas’ – moodle.com/trademarks.

I am independent from the organisations listed above and am in no way writing for or endorsed by them.


Fear. Your mouth becomes dry. You sit like a rabbit looking at headlights pondering a decision. A decision that you’ve been considering for months. That button stares at you, pensively saying ‘click me’. But do you click it and instigate the upgrade that you’ve been worrying about for weeks? You have to make a decision. So now the risks of the upgrade are less than the risks connected with running out of date software. You press that button, things start to happen, downloads occur to fetch the new code, timers rotate, reboots are requested with ‘do not turn off’ messages. You sit staring at the screen in hope that there is not a power cut at this time. Waiting, oh the waiting. Reboot, reboot, then…. ‘oh no!’ there is an error message, it’s failed! Some odd error meaningless error code. You reboot in the hope that the system will revert back, but no, panic starts to set in. You reach for your smart phone and search on the error message. There are some results, you try different things again and again. Hours pass, food is eaten on the go but you must attempt to recover the situation. But no, nothing works. You sit in despair looking at the screen at the state of your computer wondering how on earth you’ll get your computer back. Then you remember, the backup! I’ll use the backup, that one I made recently. Hope. There is hope.

Fetching the portable hard drive and recovery USB pen you frantically connect everything, reboot, tap away at the keyboard to get into the BIOS and change the boot device order. You follow the instructions on screen. A message appears along the lines of ‘this will take some time’. A progress bar slowly oh so slowly moves along. You watch. You hope. You want it so much to succeed. But oh no! The backup has failed, another meaningless error message. So what now? What do you do? Going back to the mobile and searching gives some things to try. You try again just in case, another forty minutes pass and no, the same error message. What do you do now? You’re tired after hours of stress but you know you must get your computer back. Bleary eyed you try again, perhaps something else will work? But then panic, more panic and fear. You’ve pressed the wrong button and made things worse. You ponder, ‘Factory reset’, why did I click ‘Factory reset’? Booting again via the USB you find the partition table changed and everything gone! No, oh no! What do I do now? All I wanted to do was upgrade.

A couple of months ago this happened to me. I was updating my old six year old computer that had run Windows 7, then updated to Windows 10 during the time when there was the free upgrade offer, and was happily running build 1703 (having previously updated from past builds). Then the upgrade I attempted to go to was build 1709.


I had to make another decision. I needed a working computer and my existing one was old. So I used my smart phone, searched and looked at what was currently on offer. The next day I went out and bought a new computer. But that is just the start….

I then needed to reconnect to my router and all of the updates that are inevitable from the time the machine was made to the time I started to use it, get the applications back on and then put all my work back from the backups.

Then there was the matter of my Moodle development environments. First the WAMP to put on and configure, then Moodle 3.1 to 3.5 to download, install and configure, along with all my plugins.

After a few days I was really tired and they were the weekend!


I don’t really know the exact reason for the failure. It could have been the age of the computer or something I’d altered in the system settings. I might discover one day.


So the key factor here really is not the fact that I was creating anything from scratch, but rather time itself. Time that I really did not have to spare.

Luckily I had backups of my work that I had made recently and the availability of new hardware. My plugins are open source so I keep them on remote hosting sites – another backup and off-site too, which is good.


One thing I am relieved about is the fact that my Moodle installations are development and not live systems used by real users. Then can you imagine that added pressure?

This experience has made me wary, I had thought I was operating a good backup procedure. But clearly I’d not tested the ability to recover the system image backup I’d made using the standard tools. But then could I have actually done so? I did not at the time either have another machine or be in a position to try on the existing machine. And even if I did have another machine then it would have probably failed for different hardware reasons.

So, what does this mean? To me it means that there is a separation of operating system, application configuration and data. I’d been good with backup of the last, thought I had the first but not really considered the second. It is that which took the time to reconfigure my WAMP and Moodle installations with the database data. Now I backup more things and check that I can actually read the files.

The frequency of backups and amount of things you do backup comes down to risk. Risk of in the event of failure how long it will take to get back to the same state or a state that is reasonable again to proceed with. Understanding that risk then mitigating it to the extent that you need to is down to the amount of time and money (hardware) you’re willing to spend.

Moodle upgrades

What about Moodle upgrades? And even installing a new plugin? Do you have a test server that you can practice on with real world data and test users to confirm that updates and third-party code operates as it should? What is the ‘cost’ of such a system and how much would it mitigate the failure risk?

How do you perceive new functionality? Things like the removal of the number of sections setting in a course could cause frustration. This sort of scenario is almost like the denial of a service experienced here by the lack of a working operating system. Unless you have a backup of your system before you undertook the upgrade then going back is not an option. There is after all a warning to this effect during the Moodle upgrade process.


Thinking about your installation, could you recover Moodle in a reasonable time if the server failed? Would anything bar the most recent of recent be lost?

Is this something you’ve really thought about? Have you ever attempted to recover your Moodle installation?

Do you have a backup server that is operating a recent copy of your existing server? Then the users could temporarily use that.


Upgrades are necessary and so are backups. How often and how much you undertake them is down to the risk you’re willing to take.

Gareth Barnard
Latest posts by Gareth Barnard (see all)

Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

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