Yet Another Windows Home Server Disk Upgrade

Image of a hard drive platterJust last week I wrote that I’d just upgrade the drives in my Windows Home Server as I needed the space, and I really didn’t think I’d need the space for awhile. Well, I copied up a bunch of files and my free space dropped below 2TB which is where I start considering upgrading a disk. Now, 2 TB is a lot of space but it’s my threshold to consider upgrading a Windows Home Server disk because:

  • The smallest drive in the server is 1TB. In order to remove a drive I have to move all the files off of it, so I’ll lose 1TB of space during the upgrade.
  • The system drive is 1TB. I like to keep data files off the system drive if possible.
  • I use file duplication for all the data on the server. So that 2 TB of free space would only hold 1 TB of new files.

My server consists of 8 internal drives and 4 external drives. The external drives are in hot-swap bays and are a breeze to upgrade. Unfortunately I’d already upgraded all four of them. I’d have to shut down the server and open the case. Since the case is open I might as well plan to clean it out.

I use a Coolmaster 4-in-3 Drive Cage to hold 3 drives in the server’s 5.25” bays. I like it because it’s cheap and adds a fan for cooling the drives directly. But the part I don’t like is the need to pull it completely out of the server in order to clean the filter or replace any of the drives. The yearly cleaning was a good time to pull the cage and clean it out.

I decided to upgrade all three drives in the Coolmaster drive cage. I checked Newegg for drive prices and decided to stick with my Western Digital 2 TB Green Drives but I found them cheaper at Amazon than at Newegg. I also didn’t want to buy three new drives. Despite some predictions of drive shortages I figure drives will usually be cheaper, bigger and better in the future so waiting can only be good. I decided to spring for 2 new drives. For the third drive I’d move one of the external 2TB drives inside the server.

After I ordered the drives I began the upgrade process so I’d be ready when the drives arrived. With all this data it takes a bit of time.

  • First I made sure all my backups were up to date and I did a couple of test restore from each backup drive.
  • I turned off file duplication and let the server have the night to clean up the files. Having been saved once by file duplication I hate turning if off. But I didn’t want to replace the drives one at a time so I needed the space in order to replace 3 drives at once. If I was lucky the space would be freed up on the drives I wanted to remove, making the removal process that much quicker. The server stayed online during all this without any noticeable impact on performance.
  • The next day I went through the WHS disk removal process and removed one of the external drives. I replaced the drive with a spare 1TB drive I had so I could get some space back before shutting down the server.
  • I did get lucky and the three internal drives I wanted to remove were only 5 to 14% full after duplication was turned off. So over the next two days I ran the disk removal wizard and removed the three drives in the Coolmaster drive cage from the Windows Home Server storage pool.
  • Then it was simply a matter of waiting for the new drives to arrive.

The new drives arrived the next day so it was time to shut down and open up the server. This was straight-forward. Open the case up, remove the Coolmaster drive cage and go to work with the compressed air. It took longer to open up the drive cage itself so I could get to and clean the filter then reassemble it than it took to pull apart the server itself. I put the two new 2TB drives along with the 2 TB taken from the external cage as replacements for the three 1 TB drives in the Coolmaster drive cage.

Naturally this couldn’t be frustration free. I put the server back in its place and powered it up without a problem. I turned file duplication back on. So far so good. A couple hours later I check back and find some file conflict errors and that one of the drives had failed. Bad new drive biting me for not testing it first? Nope, the bad drive was the one that had been running just fine in the external drive cage. So I open up the server and check the cables. Everything seems fine but I shut it down anyway and reseat the cables, It’s just fine on power up and has been fine since. The problem drive has been busy as getting the duplicate files and it hasn’t had a problem.

It takes considerably longer to duplicate 6 TB of data than it took to remove the duplication. So it was a few days after re-enabling file duplication before it was finished. At least there wasn’t any noticeable impact on performance while it was going on.

I’m really hoping this gets me through the year without needing another upgrade. Should I need to upgrade I have the external hot swappable that I can upgrade without having to open up the server. At this point the server is up to 18 TB of disk based upon the manufacturers ratings. Although with overhead there’s only 931GB of usable space per terabyte so I have 16.7 TB of usable space. Considerably more than that floppy drive only PC I started with. (Yea, I’m old.)

Optimizing My Website – Low Hanging Fruit

Image a of red rocket shipIn my previous article I looked at five web performance tools to optimize my website. In this article I’ll cover the website optimizations they led me to make. These were all done over a weekend of off and on work and experimentation. The more in depth things were left for a later time but these got me off to a good start, cutting the size of some pages in half.

Image Optimization

The fist thing I looked at was image optimization. This isn’t an art or photo site so anything I could do to reduce image file size would be helpful. Google’s Page Speed tool found plenty of room for improvement in my images. The most obvious area for improvement were the site header and 3 images that appear on every page.

My site header was a GIF, Google Page Speed provided an optimized PNG file for replacement. So I just copied that to my server and changed the template to load the PNG instead of the GIF. This reduced my header by 62% and will save 3KB every time it loads. The other images were ads that weren’t served by me, more on these later.

While taking the optimized image created by Page Speed is fine for one or two images it isn’t viable for more than some testing. Google’s site recommended OptiPNG as one method of compressing images so I downloaded that.

I used OptiPNG in it’s simplest form, just passing the files to compress on the command line. Eventually I set up directory for the files and a batch files to optimize all the files in the directory. I’d copy down an entire directory of files from my site, optimize them and copy them back up to replace the original files (of course, I had a backup). While OptiPNG will convert GIFs to PNGs and I had a few GIFs I didn’t go into the pages and change the links unless I decided to optimize that entire page. Image size reduction would vary but was about 40% overall with larger files being around 55%.

Javascript Optimization

This fell into two categories – offsite javascript and onsite javascript.

For the offsite javascript the choice was simple. Keep it, and the feature it provided, or dump it. In one case it was an ad and the javascript was relatively slow and it also loaded an image, so I dumped it. In another case it was a plugin which I also dumped. More on this in plugin optimization.

As for compressing Javascript files I decided that using a utility to compress the actual files wouldn’t be beneficial to me. I’d have to redo it every time they changed and they were part of the theme and plugins. Since I had already enabled GZip compression on my server I added the configuration option to compress javascript. In my case I added application/javascript to the mod_deflate configuration. (My reading indicated some Apache servers may use a mime type off application/x-javascript for javascript). This was enough to make Page Speed happy.

CSS Optimization

I probably could have also compressed the css files through GZip compression and left it at that. But I also decided to minify the css files since they rarely change. Minifying is the process of removing whitespace from the css files.

Rather than find a tool to minify my css files I simply used the files created by Google’s Page Speed plugin for Firefox. This creates the files and names them cryptically randomly so I had to follow the link to each file and figure out which was which. I only had three files so this was quicker than searching for another tool and doing it myself.

I use the Thesis theme for WordPress and after I minified the css for the theme I would get a “upgrade Thesis” message whenever I went into the Thesis options in the WordPress dashboard. The theme works just fine but if I want to make any changes I need to restore the un-minified files. This is no big deal since I just rename the files on the server and name them back when I’m done. If the css actually changes I’ll need to minify the updated file.

Plugin Optimization

The final item I tackled to optimize my website is the one I spent the most time on. Taking a look at my plugins. The Share This plugin I used to allow my posts to be bookmarked called some external javascript which was a bit slow. I decided to look for a replacement. I wanted to find something that would be completely hosted on my server which eliminated a bunch of replacements. One I found loaded a 172kb image for every page, even ones where the plugin wasn’t used. I wasn’t willing to use an image this big. I finally found one called Social Bookmarks that fit the bill as long as I kept some options off.

The rest of my plugins either didn’t detract from performance or were worth the cost. There wasn’t a lot to review as I’ve always tried to limit the number of plugins I use.

Summary

Some other recommendations would have involved more than I was willing to do. Some of the recommendations were related to css and I wasn’t about to rewrite the css provided with the them.

Compressing the images gave me the biggest overall improvement in performance with minifying the css coming in second. The css compression helped because it loads for every page and there was a significant reduction in file size. (Of course, client side caching can also help the load times.)

While replacing the Share This plugin was only a minor improvement, experimenting with other plugins showed me how some plugins can significantly impact performance.  Some plugins I looked at really hurt perf0rmance.

Back when I started looking at performance Google Webmaster Tools told me my site was slower than 66% of all websites and took an average of 4.2 seconds. On December 31st the Webmaster Tools tell me the that only 49% of all websites are faster than this one and the average load time is 2.9 seconds. This is hardly a scientific analysis of my attempts to optimize my website, but at least it shows an improvement.

Domains Up For Auction At Bido

image of WWW on goldOver the past year or so I’ve been looking at domaining among other potential ways to turn my interest in websites and operating systems into income producers. At least enough income to make it a self-supporting hobby. One of the ways to make some money with domains is to put them up at a domain auction.

While there are several domain auction houses and brokers a relatively new service, Bido, caught my attention recently. I’ve bought a couple domains domains through Bido and now I’ve decided to try and sell a few through Bido.

More about Bido in a moment, let’s get the sales pitch out of the way first. The current list of domains I have scheduled for auction are listed in the right sidebar and are available for pre-bids. The following three are scheduled for auction this week – HairRestorationProduct.com and CareerInPhotography.com are both up for auction on January 6th shortly after 12:40 EST. PEIShores.com (short for Prince Edward Island in Canada) will be up for auction at 12:42 EST on January 7th.

The folks at Bido have made a lot of changes (for the better in my opinion) to their platform since launching it about a year ago but they’ve always had a bit of the Web 2.0 social aspect to domain auctions. So don’t be surprised if things are different a few months from now. Buying and selling on Bido is fairly straight-forward. In either case you’ll need a free Bido account. If you’re going to be selling you’ll also need to submit (online) a 1099 for the IRS if you’re in the US.

If you’re buying domains you can just browse through the active or upcoming auctions and place bids. If you bid on an upcoming auction it’s an “absolute” bid and that’s the bid that will be submitted when the auction starts. (There’s a rebate if the pre-bid is for over $100 and wins the auction.) If you submit a bid when the auction is live it can be a proxy bid and the system will bid up to the amount you specified as needed to top any other bids. Like most auctions, bids placed in the last moments extend the auction another 5 minutes.

All that is similar to other auction platforms. What makes Bido different is how the auctions get listed:

  • Domains are in live auctions that last for an hour (plus any extension forced by last minute bids).
  • There is a ticker that scrolls messages about auction opens and closes, bids, pre-bids and other information. The information displayed is configurable.
  • Domains offered for auction are screened by the community. If you have a Bido account you can vote on auctions you want to see offered for auction or that you think will sell. There’s a rewards system in place so that if an domain sells anyone who voted on it gets a kickback. This is intended to enhance the quality of the domains being auctioned.
  • It is possible to “accelerate” a domain and bypass voting by paying a few. The fee is refunded if the domain sells but is lost if the domain fails to sell which should keep the garbage out. Sellers also have the ability to set a “buy it now” price”. So with these features Bido is similar to other domain auction platforms.

For domains that actually sell Bido collects the money and facilitates the communication between the buyer and seller. Bido itself doesn’t handle the domain transfer.

Bido provides a unique domain auction platform thanks to its social aspect. In theory the voting on domains for auctions should lead to better quality domains. But the bottom line will be how well domains sell on the platform.

The OS Quest Trail Log #47: State of the Quest

Happy New Year 2010This isn’t one of those year in review or predictions for the year ahead posts. I hate those. But this is the time of year I look at my current computing situation and muse about where I want to go the next year. Not goals, not predictions, just some practical reviews – if I want to do anything big I’ll have to plan for it and possibly start putting money aside. I mainly go through this exercise to set up a budget and to take advantage of any sales or bargains that may come up during the year.

I had my Windows Home Server build this year and the server has grown to 14 1/2 TB of actual space across its dozen drives. The OS overhead really takes a bite as that 14 1/2 TB comes from drives the manufacturers say total 16 TB. My drive usage has slowed since I now have my DVD collection ripped and stored on the server. I buy very few new DVDs these days but if I buy one these days it will probably be Blu-ray. So if I do rip those they’ll use a lot more space. I’ll just be upgrading the internal 1TB drives to 2TB as I need space. This works well for me since I then recycle the old 1TB drive as a backup drive (a drive for my backups, not a spare drive). The problem here is that the so-called analysts are predicting a shortage of 3.5” desktop drives. So on the home server front I don’t expect more than a couple hard drive upgrades.

The desktop front will be more interesting. My iMac just turned three. I’ve no complaints so far but the new iMacs sure are sweet. Still, I think I’ll be putting my money elsewhere this year and keep my white iMac another year. Probably worth starting to save up in case this one dies mid-year or I change my mind. The good part it the longer I wait the more iMac I’ll get for the money.

On the Windows side my desktop was newly built this year. Not much to do there. Maybe a memory upgrade in the price of 4GB chips drops. Unless I start doing a lot of virtual machines or add some unexpected software my current 8GB will last the year so I’m in no rush. A nice fast SSD drive would be nice but I’d want a quality drive and those are still over $500 for 160GB. I’ll watch prices but justifying the expense may be tough.

I suspect much of my disposable income this year will go toward upgrading my entertainment systems. I still have an old style tube TV and it’s finally time for me to replace it since prices are nice and low. This fits into my Windows Home Server as I’ll want to be able to stream. Still to be decided is whether I’ll use my current Apple TV or go with something else along the lines of a media extender. I need to explore what options are available in the Microsoft world for this type of thing.

I suspect I’ll end up with a computer directly attached to the TV and dedicated to entertainment. It might be a Mac Mini or a Windows computer. But first I need to get the TV and then start upgrading the stuff around it. Once the TV is in place I’ll have to decide if I want to keep my Apple TV as the primary way of getting video to the TV or instead upgrade to a full PC or Mac connected to the TV. But that’s all down the road.

As for software, I’m spending most of my extra time learning about web servers and web software so I don’t see much in the way of software purchases. I’ll also explore the options available for integrating my Windows Home Server further into my home entertainment systems.

That’s about if for this years plans. Have a good year on your own quest.