Nuke and Pave

I recently reinstalled MacOS on my work and home laptops and then brough back my working state using Time Machine on both. I’m always impressed by how much faster and better a computer is after you do this. My friend Matt Zagaja: calls this a “Nuke and Pave” from here: and I love the term. In my opinion, one of the bad side effects of MacOS’ success is that you don’t have to *Nuke and Pave* very often. I think I’d been carrying my working environment forward for better than 10 years without a refresh and moving from High Sierra to Catalina added a bunch of unwanted quirkiness. This was probably because Apple is deprecating a bunch of the tools that I used in 2012 and while I don’t use them today, they were still installing kernel extensions and other stuff that was making my machine a little unstable. If you want to do your own *Nuke and Pave* on mac, you’ll need the following:

  1. The operating system you want to install. I used Big Sur 11.6. I find that for MacOS you want to download the OS and then use instructions like these: to create usb install media.
  2. If you use MacPorts see the notes at the end to save a list of the ports that your run. You’ll need it when you rebuild.
  3. Backup media: If it’s important you should have one or two backups of it . In this case you want a Time Machine backup. Disk Clone style backups would normally be quicker but don’t give you the granularity you need here. I use a USB-C to NVMe drive enclosure for speed here. My second backup is on rotating rust.

The operation is pretty simple. You want to:

  1. Boot your Mac from the USB installer by shutting down completely and then booting and pressing *Option* and holding it until your Mac presents you with a choice of boot media. It’s handy that newer Macs will boot on a keypress so you can start this process by simply pressing and holding *Option* If you are on Catalina or later you have to boot to _recovery mode_ first by shutting down your mac completely and using the utilities menu to enable booting from other media. If you have a firmware password on your Mac, you’ll need that to change this setting.
  2. Once you’ve booted from your install media, you need to erase and repartition the hard drive on your Mac. This is the point of no return so don’t take this step unless you trust your backups.
  3. Follow the install media instructions to reinstall MacOS on your computer. It will pause and ask you how to build users. What’s going on behind the scenes is the mac is using Migration Assistant to populate your home directory. Choose Time Machine backup and go into the menus and trim all of Applications, Settings, etc. You really only want to carry over data at this point. If you don’t migrate enough information, you can use Migration Assistant or Time Machine to catch anything that you missed.
  4. Reinstall your apps using the App Store, and whatever other sources you have. As a developer I have a bunch of software installed that requires me to Control-Click on the Application and then give permission to run one time.
  5. Restore security permissions as needed. App Store packages generally won’t have this problem. Other packages will. I use Emacs as my main editor because I’ve been doing this for a while. That requires me to go into the System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> Privacy pane and grant Emacs permission to read files from my specified locations.

That’s most of what you need. I did the operation overnight. I handled steps 1 ~ 3 and then went to sleep. When I woke up I finished up 4 and 5.

A side note here for MacPorts or Homebrew users. You’ll want to restore your MacPorts/Homebrew environment also. For MacPorts this isn’t hard. Basically run sudo port list requested > ~/Desktop/ports-requested.txt This will leave a copy of the ports you installed by hand in a text file. When you are rebuilding your machine, you’ll need to perform the prerequisites needed to run MacPorts. Then you can use this output to install the packages that you used. I don’t use HomeBrew but I’ imagine that there must be something similar to this in HomeBrew.