The OS Quest Trail Log #34: Week in Review

It’s been a couple of weeks since the last trail log so I figured I’d take this time to update some recent posts. My Windows Home Server fiasco is over. I did lose a couple of old movie files. They were old files that I had originally done for testing and pre-dated my backup regimen so they probably vanished long ago. The Windows Home Server is running fine with the external USB enclosure for two of it’s drives. I’ll have to send the eSATA enclosure back soon but I’m actually considering eating the restocking fee and just keep the USB drives. I’ll probably come to my senses and not waste the money that would be lost to the restocking fee.

The latest Drobo firmware has dramatically improved my Drobo performance. It’s not a speed demon but the performance has been acceptable for how I want to use it. I haven’t done any specific performance testing but I’ve been copying files to and from the Drobo as I sit at the computer. Since I’m using the computer while the copy is running this isn’t intended as a benchmark, but it does give me a good idea what to expect day-to-day. I’ve been getting read speeds of 27MB/s and and write speeds of 23MB/s. This is while copying 320GB of files of mixed sizes. There’s 33,500 files. More importantly, copying many small files doesn’t bring the entire drive to it’s knees. It’s not among the fastest drives around but it’s within my expectations. [Update: I’ve since experienced a drastic drop in speed, especially in read speeds. There’s no apparent reason for the drop and I’ll post more info in the future.]

Apples recent software updates were mostly painless for me despite the quantity and recent history. The only problem I’m still having is that the iTunes video window no longer stays on top of all other windows. The problem with Parallels seemed to be a one-time thing. iTunes doesn’t appear to have any additional bloat although I still have the Genius feature turned off. I’m still have to hunt for some of the settings that have been moved but I like some of the changes such as the ability to manage podcasts individually and the ability to do bulk changes on more metadata fields.

Microsoft released updates to their Windows Live applications. They’re calling the latest beta version Wave 3. I’m using the Live Writer beta now. I’ve also installed Mail and Photo Gallery but don’t use them. I like Live Writer enough, even before the update, to fire up Windows in order to use it.

This week will probably be slow on the quest as the day job will take up most of my time. But it’ll be worth since I’ll be on vacation the following week. I’m looking forward to some quality computer time.

1.5TB Drives at 1TB Drive Prices

I noticed that the Seagate 1.5TB Barracuda drives have hit NewEgg and are priced at $190 with free shipping. That’s less than 13¢/GB. The 1TB Seagate drive is priced at $140 which is 14¢/GB making the new 1.5TB drives a better per gigabyte value. I haven’t bought one but I as shocked to see the new technology at a reasonable price. I realize I have a problem, because while I don’t need the space I want one of these drives.

Drobo Firmware 1.2.4 Released

I’d recently written about my first impressions of the Drobo FW800 and was less than impressed with it’s performance. A comment from Tom at Drobo mentioned that a software update was pending that would resolve the issues. Tonight that update arrived. It’s method of announcing itself was a bit problematic though. I was playing a podcast from the Drobo and copying some files to it when all of a sudden everything froze and the Drobo rebooted itself. After the reboot the message that a new firmware update was available appeared. The reboot might have been coincidence but I don’t believe in them. Before applying the update I checked the release notes (ftp link to pdf) and sure enough, the first fix is listed as:

Fixed issue where performance is impacted when aggressively copying large amounts of data
to Drobo

So I went ahead and updated the firmware. As luck would have it I had just verified my recent backups since I applied OS patches so I knew if the firmware update blew away my data it would be annoying but not catastrophic. I’m not saying Drobo is any more susceptible to bad firmware upgrade, but the Drobo (and devices like it) only protect against HDD failure, not corrupt data or failure of the device itself.

After applying the firmware update and another Drobo reboot (this one expected) I was prompted that there was a new Drobo dashboard available so I installed that too.

I re-did the file copies that had been running when the Drobo did it’s first unexpected reboot and saw an immediate 50% increase in throughput. From about 20 MB/sec to about 30MB/sec. [Update: I’ve since experienced a drastic drop in performance, especially reads, for no obvious reason. I’ll post an update when I have more info]

I also ran my ChronoSync script that backs up my iPhoto library to my Windows Home Server. The analyze phase would typically bring the Drobo to it’s knees, causing other file copy streams to slow to a trickle and total disk throughput to drop. In this case the other copies in progress kept right on running and throughput didn’t drop.

I haven’t done any other testing or timings but it is encouraging.

All is not perfect though. When I restarted iTunes and it sat there with the pinwheel of death. While the iTunes database itself doesn’t reside on the Drobo, the video file I was playing during the reboot does. I was able to shut iTunes down normally when the Drobo rebooted iself out from under it so it is probably unrelated. Further complicating things is that I upgraded to iTunes 8 earlier tonight and iTunes was still on it’s first startup since the upgrade. Doing a force quit on iTunes and restarting it seems to be fine.

I also went in and turned of the automatic check for firmware updates as I suspect it was related to the unexpected Drobo reboot.

Apple Software Updates

I finally got around to applying to recent Apple updates to my iMac. I’ve been queueing them up starting with the iTunes 8 update. Part of the reason is I wanted to limit changes while I was recovering my Windows Home Server. But the main reason was I’ve come to expect problems when applying updates from Apple. So far the problems have been minor.

While waiting to apply the updates I’d read about people losing iTunes songs and album art after installing iTunes 8 A common thread for the missing files was that the files weren’t consolidated by iTunes which matches my configuration. I have files in three different locations, none of them the default. I keep most songs on an external hard drive and it happens to be the location specified in iTunes prefs. Videos, audio-books and some music in different shares on my Windows Home Server.

After the upgrade I did have some videos missing, but in going to the pre-upgrade backup they were missing there too so it probably wasn’t upgrade related, they just didn’t get flagged until the upgrade.

I also had some album art missing. I’m not big on album art, when I add music I have iTunes check for album art, if it’s there great, if not I move on. But some of the missing album art was from the free singles I’d downloaded from iTunes so it was there at one time but I can’t say they were there right before the upgrade.

The annoying problem I do have is that the option to “Keep Movie Window On Top Of All Other Windows” no longer works. It keeps the window on top of the main iTunes window but that;s all. Other windows appear on top of it. A visit to the user forums shows it’s a common problem.

I’ve had one other annoying problem. While I can’t say which update caused it I figure its OS X 10.5.5. Parallels has lost its menu bar (the one that appears on the OS X desktop, not in the VM) and it no longer hides when I tell it to hide. Selecting “Hide Others” from another app causes the apps in the Vista VM to minimize but the full Parallels vm stays front and center. This is annoying but not a real problem so I’m hoping it goes away on its own before I get annoyed enough to look into it.

So far there’s hasn’t been any problems, but it’s only been a couple of hours.

Backup Paranoia Pays Off

I’ve always been paranoid about backups, a file doesn’t exist unless it was in two places. And then there’s off-site backups which add a third place for important or expensive (time & money) files.  Things like RAID and file duplication (in WHS) don’t count as two places. If a RAID or disk controller failed the files could be lost. RAID and file duplication are good against drive failures and allow you to keep working, but they aren’t a replacement for backups.

This week I got a object lesson that proved the paranoia was justified. I have over 3 TB of files on my Windows Home Server. Due to their size I don’t use file duplication for most things, but I do back everything up. I was adding the external drives to get more space.

Long story short – that new external rack was bad, but not so bad it wouldn’t run, and I’m now restoring the entire server from backup. Even files that were duplicated were corrupted since both copies (probably) ended up on drives in that external rack. It appeared that files on the original 4 internal drives were OK but I decided to do a complete server rebuild anyway. I’d had so much corruption and other problems that I decided to flatten the server and restore the files. So, after about a day, I’m about 1/3 of the way through the restore. Luckily I had recently bought some cheap hardware to make the restore process a little faster than it would have been.

The irony of this was one reason I was adding the drives was to enable file duplication for more files and reduce the risk of having to do a full restore since it would be so time consuming. I was also replacing a dual USB drive since I was worried USB would be a little unreliable. So after trying to improve things I’m back to the USB which had been reliable for the month or so I was using it.

Now it’s time to get back to checking those file restores.

Microsoft Marketing Powerhouse to Marketing Has-Been

Microsoft announced that they’re cutting Seinfeld out of their ads. Planned it all along. I didn’t say anything about the ads at the time but I thought they were unfairly disparaged at first. I kind of liked them, I chuckled a bit, and figured they were recreating Seinfeld’s sitcom about nothing in an attempt to try to make people feel good about Microsoft. I didn’t expect Seinfeld to pitch Vista directly, but rather promote the Microsoft brand to consumers.

Now they say they always planned to dump Seinfeld after two ads. Not that I buy it, but assuming it’s true then those ads did suck and had no point. I had hoped to see the ads through to the end, figuring they were going somewhere. Now it’s aapparent Microsoft doesn’t have a clue about marketing anymore (too many committees?).

Word is they’re going for a John Hodgman look-alike. My prediction is those ads will get slammed even more than the Seinfeld ads as being woofully inferier to the Apple ads which they’ll be compared to directly.

OS X 10.5.5 Released

Apple has released OS X 10.5.5 today. Apple’s release notes were quite detailed this time. They also released a separate bulletin with the security related updates that are included.

I installed the update on my MacBook a little while ago without incident. It was a 136MB download through software update on my Intel MacBook. It’s also available a a standalone download from the Apple download page. The MacBook had already installed the iTunes 8, QuickTime and FronRow updates.

At this point I haven’t installed OS X 10.5.5 on any other Macs yet. I’ll wait and see what problems are reported and probably catch up with the updates this coming weekend.

Optimizing A Windows Vista Virtual Machine

The Team Fusion blog has an article about optimizing Vista on VMware Fusion 2. Since it’s from the VMware folks it’s titled as VMware specific, but it’s appropriate for any Vista virtual machine.

Suggestions include:

  • Disable System Restore
  • Disable Screen Saver
  • Optimize Power Management for Virtual Machine
  • Disable Windows Sidebar
  • Disable Remote Management
  • Run Windows Disk Defragmentation Utilities
  • OPTIONAL: Change to Classic UI

Disabling system restore is something I hadn’t considered although I do severely limit the disk space it’s given. I like the option of bein able to roll back patches and update, although vm snaptshots and backups would work too.

My Windows Vista vm on my MacBook is running under VMware Fusion and has 728MB of memory allocated to it, with 2GB of RAM on the MacBook. Performance is acceptable but I’m a light Vista users on the MacBook.

On my iMac I’ve got 1GB out of 3GB allocated to Vista. While I tend to run a little more software I wouldn’t say I stress the system.

The OS Quest Trail Log #33: Potpourri

It’s been a pretty dry couple of month for blog posts so far. But there’s still a few things worth mentioning and rather than a couple small posts I decided to put them all here to make them easier to ignore.

WordPress 2.6.2 was released and I upgraded this site. It’s a security release so considered required although the developer blog indicates it’s mainly a concern if open registration is allowed. I decided to upgrade anyway. I have to admit, I’m getting a a bit lazy with these minor upgrades. I just check that the latest backups were done and do the upgrade. No installation in a test environment or other testing. Eventually I’ll get burned and mend my lazy ways.

There’s been some web site updates on some of the static pages. I’ve updated the hardware list on the What I Use page and also updated it to include more information about the software I use from Wakoopa. I’ve used the widgets Wakoopa provides to pull the information in real-time (well, as real-time as they want it to be). I’ve also updated the Mac Software page – removed software that I no longer use and added some new software.

New & Updated Software

There’s been some new software joining the quest. DropBox went public and no longer requires an invite code. It’s still in beta, but it’s no longer a private beta. I’ve been using it a couple of days and found it easy to use and set up. It integrates better with OS X than SugarSync did, in my opinion. A 2 GB DropBox account is free while 50GB accounts are $10/mth or $100/yr. Unfortunately there’s nothing between 2GB and 50GB. The good news is it already supports Windows, OS X and Linux. So far I’ve only used it on OS X. Syncing between two macs was quick and clean.

IZarc became my new file archiving software of choice for Windows due to it’s ISO support. Of course, being Windows it doesn’t get much use, but IZarc2Go has now found a home on my utility flash drive.

While not exactly new, I’m back to using Jungle Disk. It’s been dormant for awhile so it seems new. I installed the latest version and have been archiving some files off to Amazon S3.

Google Chrome is also out. I’ve used it briefly and it felt fast. But since it’s Windows only I’m not going to be using it a lot or dive into the features.

I still haven’t installed iTunes 8 or the associated Quicktime update. I haven’t wanted to deal with the problems that seem to accompany every software update these days. The new features haven’t excited me either so I’m in no rush. I like iTunes but it seems to be entering the realm of bloatware.

Drobo

I’m still using the Drobo, performance hasn’t been great but it’s acceptable. In short, performance seems to suffer greatly if there’s a lot of file opens/closes in a short period of time. Total disk I/O drops if I copy a lot of small files. ChronoSync also seems abnormally slow when using the drive. I haven’t done much testing since writing about it. Once commentor recommended rolling the software back to the earlier version but I haven’t done that. There’s supposed to be a firmware update just around the corner so I’ve decided to wait for that.

Odds & Ends

Other things that have been occupying my Quest time is my continued education and testing to get WordPress running on my own server. It’s up and running but I’m still working on security and trying out different things.