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Movin’ On Up

I am considering closing this site, once my hosted installation is up and running.  I’ve already exported the meager content from here and have a much better setup under a real hosting service, including a Web Application Firewall, a fair amount of spam filtering, a true webmaster contact capability and (apparently) an integrated account with every cloud service platform on the planet.

So, keep your browser on this site for the next couple of weeks for my new URL, assuming my current progress continues.

 

My Apple iPod Classic and Digital Wrongs

Apple informed me today that their engineers have decided the Apple iPod Classic is obsolete and they won’t be reversing the changes they made to iTunes that prevents you from sync-ing your iPod Classic with iTunes.  This is a painful moment for me, since I have four iPod Classic 160GB units and I use them all the time.

So, why would Apple decide not to support the iPod Classic?  I believe it has everything to do with Apple’s perception they are the ones to decide what you are deserve for “digital rights”, and I think that’s wrong.  The newer iOS devices allow Apple to promote stronger encryption and “digital rights management”, or distribution control.  And, it plays into the idea that you should be dependent on “their cloud” for storing your music and the network for streaming it.

For those with very large libraries, this is painful.  When I purchased my Late-2013 Mac Pro in Spring 2017, I was unaware that the iPod Classic was “obsolete” to the engineers and I’ve still seen no posts that identify this.  Had I known it, I might have decided to stay on software releases that supported the device, rather than get the latest and greatest release that removed support.

The current iPod Touch has less capacity than the iPod Classic and costs US$400.  Certainly, it’s a more sophisticated device, and I do know they still work, but the question is “until Apple decides they won’t”, not until they can’t.  I have two decent iPod Touch units that no longer get iOS updates.  When will Apple decide iOS 9 wont’ sync?  Only they know.  All these devices are more than sufficient for music, but not sufficient for what Apple decides should be their (not your) infrastructure.  So, the consumer pays the price for Apple’s Digital Wrongs.

I love the UNIX foundation of the Sierra-based Mac Pro, and now I’m off to assess alternatives to iTunes, like Swinsian, so I can continue to leverage a true classic device, the iPod Classic, for a few more years.

Benchmarking Storage for The 2013 Mac Pro

In early 2017, Apple admitted what everyone already knew, that the “innovative” late-2013 Mac Pro platform has some pretty severe limitations.  As some reviewers noted when it was first released, the internal bus design of the system had technical throughput limitations that caused Apple to design for only a single internal solid-state drive.  From Apple.com, your options were 256GB, 512GB and 1TB of space, and the upgraded capacities weren’t very affordable.  Being different can be expensive and being inside the Mac Pro was the most expensive place to live.

After studying my storage options for awhile, I opted for the entry-level 256GB SSD.  Going with the base level of storage allowed me to justify upgrades to the CPU and GPU, opting for the 8-core CPU and the twin-D-700 GPUs.  But knowing I had the 256GB limitation was good because it will force me to keep the clutter out of the drive reserved for “system” purposes.

I’ve always been a big fan of RAID as a storage mechanism whether it is the speed of RAID-0 Striping or the durability of RAID-5, it’s rare I feel comfortable using a system for anything I care about without RAID.  You can see my impressions of the OWC ThunderBay 4 unit in a previous post.  It’s a nice expansion chassis for Thunderbolt 2 systems.

So, back to the Mac Pro. When you realize how limiting the internal storage is on the Mac Pro you become painfully familiar with issues around connectivity.

The Mac Pro has a single USB-3 Controller with four (4) USB3 ports.  These are USB 3.0 ports, while the world has moved on to USB 3.1 Gen-2, a significant upgrade.  But, using USB 3 ports on a single controller means one port can impact the other, so the sustained throughput on the Mac Pro ports is combined across all ports.  You can see this by connecting two drives, each with their own cable, and watching throughput on each be cut in half. Oh, and you need to be sure the USB3 device was the first thing connected to that port, or it is further degraded to USB2 speeds, which cuts the speed to 480Mbps.  In summary, the USB3 story on the Mac Pro is not a good one.

The Mac Pro has three (3) Thunderbolt 2 Controllers.  This sounds better, right? They are configured with 2, 2 and 3 ports, the third including an HDMI port.  Again, with ports sharing a Controller you want to avoid having more than one big bandwidth consumer on a controller, so you might have a large storage array on one, a monitor on another and so on. As with the USB situation, this is Thunderbolt 2, which is now legacy with the release of Thunderbolt 3 to the marketplace. But, for most consumers, Thunderbolt 2 bandwidth should be fine. For those with larger storage arrays and multiple high-resolution displays, maybe not so great.

And, finally, knowing there are consumers who use Thunderbolt 2 laptops, there are Thunderbolt 2 “docks” that promise to allow you to detach a single cable and grab your laptop.  These can also be useful for those who want a second USB3 Controller to be available on their Mac Pro.  I grabbed a used Elgato unit for the purposes of this test to see if a second USB Controller was worth the clutter and expense.

So, this was about Benchmarking, right?  I decided to test some commonly-available consumer devices.  I paid for these myself and have never had an offer of equipment to write some positive reviews.  So, I don’t need flames and seldom, if ever, post comments.  I do read the comments, however, and do respond.

First, I wanted to establish some kind of USB3 performance baseline. What throughput would you expect to be ideal under the various USB3 options the platform provides, in this case the Mac Pro USB3 Controller versus the Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock USB3 Controller.  For this test, I selected the StarTech USB312SAT3CB, a USB 3.1 (10Gbps) SATA 3 adapter cable.  This is a simple, unpowered cable and is perfect for temporary use of your favorite 2.5″ SATA-SSD.  I decided to use the Samsung 850 Pro 256GB SSD because it sits at a performance-price sweet spot, even though it isn’t the fastest nor the cheapest.  It was good to see this affordable combination read 367MB/s WRITe and 361MB/s READ sustained throughput when connected directly to the Mac Pro ports.  This became the gold standard for USB3 testing on the Mac Pro.

I wanted to include a range of products you might find at reasonable prices.  I also conducted multi-day 3-pass certifications on the storage media to make certain it was “perfect” before I conducted any benchmarking tests on the media itself.  For this I used the SoftRAID.com Certify component of their SoftRAID product.  I used the free Blackmagic Disk Speed Test software to conduct the benchmarks.  This product produces a nice table of what kinds of video editing work the drive under test might effectively support, so even if you aren’t a video editor you can get an idea of relative performance against an admittedly-challenging real-world use.

I tested the following storage devices are part of these tests:

  1. Samsung 850 Pro 256GB SSD
  2. Seagate Constellation ES.3 7200RPM 3TB HDD
  3. Seagate Green 5900 RPM 2TB HDD
  4. Seagate Green 5400 RPM 2TB HDD

For my purposes, I really wanted to find an affordable two-drive enclosure that gave me the option of hardware-based RAID, or no RAID at all.  Because all the Thunderbolt 2 devices were priced at some multiple of the same cabinet with USB3.1, I decided to wait for Thunderbolt 2 prices to fall and leverage USB3.1 devices if possible.  Most analysts agree that USB3 is sufficient for 1-2 drive purposes.

I tested the following storage configurations as part of these tests:

  1. StarTech USB312SAT3CB, USB 3.1 (10Gbps) SATA 3 adapter
  2. StarTech SDOCKU313E USB 3.1 (10Gbps) & eSATA dock for SATA drives
  3. IcyDOCK IcyRAID MB662U32SR1 USB3.1 Enclosure.

Knowing the Mac Pro has a single USB3 Controller makes you wonder how limiting a factor that will be.  On a Mac Pro equipped with a USB2 keyboard, mouse and (Bluetooth) Magic Trackpad 2, I wondered if the USB 2 work or potential temporary connections would cause instability in performance.  I wondered if isolating my storage to an external dock (or my USB2 devices to that dock) would be a more predictable hardware architecture.

I tested the following connectivity as part of these test:

  1. Mac Pro USB3 Port
  2. Elgato Thunderbolt 2 Dock USB3 port

The purpose of these tests was to determine where the sweet-spot is in terms of sustained throughput and storage capacity.  After achieving disappointing results with other forms of RAID, this test was limited to RAID-0 Striping of two (2) storage units with the hope of achieving both high capacity and high sustained throughput at an affordable price.

I tested the following RAID combinations as part of these tests:

  1. No RAID, just a disk
  2. RAID-0, Hardware-based
  3. RAID-0, Software-based

The following are the results of the baseline SSD tests, withe an observation that for SSDs they are as fast as USB can go, so a RAID-0 SSD is a waste, and the Elgato dock performs consistently at 98-99% of the Mac Pro USB port on READ and 93% of the Mac Pro USB port on WRITE.  This seemed to hold true throughout the tests.:

TEST WRITE READ USB DOCK Bay RAID DRIVE

  1. 367 361 Mac Pro StarTech None None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  2. 366 361 Mac Pro StarTech Dock None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  3. 346 341 Mac Pro IcyRAID JBOD None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  4. 346 341 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (2)
  5. 342 325 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (2)
  6. 335 354 Elgato StarTech None None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  7. 336 354 Elgato StarTech Dock None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  8. 320 336 Elgato IcyRAID JBOD None Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (1)
  9. 320 337 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (2)
  10. 315 318 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Samsung 850 Pro 256GB (2)

Because SSD technology is still relatively expensive for consumers when purchased in higher capacities (a 4TB OWC SSD is $2,000+ today), the hope was to find an affordable hard drive that could come close under USB3 platforms. I selected the Seagate ES.3 drive because I had very good previous experience with it, and it is now on the market for $80-85 for a 3TB unit, a fraction of its price just a couple of years ago.  These are “New, Surplus” stock, so they are probably soon to be unavailable.  But for me, it seemed like the ideal drive to test.  What we see here is that hard drive speeds, under RAID-0 Streaming, are 98-99% of an SSD on WRITE, with Software RAID READ speeds falling behind at 85% READ.  For a US$70 Enclosure, this feels pretty good.  A 6TD RAID-0 Enclosure for under US$250 seems like a pretty good deal yielding these speeds.  Here are the same tests, using the Seagate ES.3 7200RPM drive:

TEST WRITE READ USB DOCK Bay RAID DRIVE

  1. N/A N.A Mac Pro StarTech None None HDD not supported
  2. 175 180 Mac Pro StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (1)
  3. 175 180 Mac Pro IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (1)
  4. 342 319 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (2)
  5. 340 275 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (2)
  6. N/A N/A Elgato StarTech None None HDD not supported
  7. 180 181 Elgato StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (1)
  8. 179 180 Elgato IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (1)
  9. 315 315 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (2)
  10. 311 265 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD ES.3 7200 3TB (2)

For completeness, I will include the 5900RPM and 5400RPM drive test results, because these are cheap today and run cooler and quieter than non-Green counterparts.  I would consider these if the performance levels meet your needs, and you can put together a 4TB RAID-0 Enclosure for under US$130.

TEST WRITE READ USB DOCK Bay RAID DRIVE

  1. N/A N/A Mac Pro StarTech None None HDD not supported
  2. 135 140 Mac Pro StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (1)
  3. 140 140 Mac Pro IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (1)
  4. 275 280 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (2)
  5. 270 270 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (2)
  6. N/A N/A Elgato StarTech None None HDD not supported
  7. 135 140 Elgato StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (1)
  8. 135 140 Elgato IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (1)
  9. 265 280 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (2)
  10. 268 268 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD Green 5900 2TB (2)

TEST WRITE READ USB DOCK Bay RAID DRIVE

  1. N/A N/A Mac Pro StarTech None None HDD not supported
  2. 140 145 Mac Pro StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (1)
  3. 140 145 Mac Pro IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (1)
  4. 255 260 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (2)
  5. 198 216 Mac Pro IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (2)
  6. N/A N/A Elgato StarTech None None HDD not supported
  7. 140 145 Elgato StarTech Dock None Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (1)
  8. 140 145 Elgato IcyRAID JBOD None Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (1)
  9. 275 290 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 HW Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (2)
  10. 197 215 Elgato IcyRAID RAID-0 SoftRAID Seagate HDD Green 5400 2TB (2)

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

A couple of comments on product selected.  I didn’t use some other brands, which others might challenge.

I have never had good luck with Western Digital products and I could not get two drives with WD labels to pass the certification step.  This might be the luck of the draw, but my experience with their failure rate and long-disappointing support limited me to one attempt, buying a single drive from eBay, at which ppoint my other working WD drive failed. This entire project started becaue my WD MyBook Studio Edition II went belly-up, silently failing the Drive A bay on random occasions and reporting it as a drive failure.  In spite of what the box says about user-upgradability, you can only use the same (now obsolete) exact model drives that came with the unit, so these really do have an end-of-life.  As a result of my product and support experiences with WD, I don’t intend to go near their products in the future.

I considered the OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock because of excellent reviews, now a couplw of years old. The issue for me is I don’t really need the full dock, and the OWC unit is pricey considering the imminent demise of Thunderbolt 2 in favor of Thunderbolt 3.  If I was to invest in that unit, it would be at lower legacy technology pricing.

The IcyDOCK R1 was interesting because it was affordable and had an interesting data sheet. I found it on B&H Photo for US$104 before a US$35 rebate so I thought I’d give it a try.  After I finished the last benchmark and was going to reinsert the Seagate ES.3 drives and create my ultimate RAID-0 Enclosure, the door latch broke and the door wouldn’t latch.  The hinge in these units is so wobbly that it is easy to misalign the latch and it’s unclear exactly why it wouldn’t latch.  At this point, the fact that I filed for my rebate locked me in to getting a replacement unit, but I would caution anyone about two things here:  (1) don’t consider this a swappable dock unless you are really careful with the door hinges and lathes, and (2) never ever consider a rebate a done-deal.  I received an email saying my postmark was five days earlier than I mailed it and I haven’t heard from the rebate company since.

Finally, a word about SoftRAID, the OWC Holdings offering.  I used this to certify all my disks and the exercise really raised my confidence in the drives.  It is a tedious process, but for the user it’s the waiting that drives you crazy.  You could tell a lot about how a disk was going to perform by how long it took to certify.  If it’s going to take 72 hours to certify, you might not want to consider that as your RAID-0 drive.  And, while software-based RAID is competitive, if you really want that last MB/s of throughput, low-cost hardware-based RAID (without a software-license cost) still wins.

For me, I am now using the Seagate Constellation ES.3 drives in a 6TB HW-based RAID-0 Stripe that performs at close to SSD speeds for US$230, assuming I one day get my IcyDOCK rebate.

 

OWC ThunderBay 4: First Impressions

I recently began using the Other World Computing (OWC) ThunderBay 4 unit to add external RAID storage to my 2013 Mac Pro. As you may know, the 2013-2017 Mac Pro has limited internal storage due to its “innovative” design and the limitations presented by the computer bus itself (no second SSD possible). So, adding external Thunderbolt 2 storage is almost a requirement if you do anything interesting with your Mac Pro.

My ThunderBay 4 was acquired as a New-Demo unit and it came equipped with four (4) 3TB Toshiba drives and a SoftRAID software-RAID license. Because this chassis doesn’t include hardware RAID support, it’s a little more flexible and cost-effective than full-hardware-RAID versions.

The unit arrived quickly and came pre-configured with RAID 5, which allows the 12TB unit to have 9TB of usable space. I removed and reseated each drive and powered up the unit. While the Toshiba drives have a wide-range of online ratings and comments, I found them reasonably quiet, but the ThunderBay front panel had an occasional vibration that stopped when I touched it. The use of a self-adhesive pad to inhibit vibration would make sense there.

The SoftRAID product needs to be installed on your Mac, and there are trial versions on the SoftRAID.com website. I experimented with the Trial version while I waited for my delivery, and input the serial number from the ThunderBay 4 case sticker once that arrived. A new download then installed a ThunderBay-limited non-trial version of SoftRAID, and that will be fine for most people. I opted to upgrade to the full version, not ThunderBay-limited, and that was an additional US$99 for the upgrade, and involved an additional download and install.

I did a fair amount of research on different RAID levels because it had been some time since I considered which RAID level to use, and disk space has expanded significantly in that time. After a fair amount of reading (lots of opinions), I opted to reconfigure the TB4 as RAID 1+0, often quotes as the safest RAID if you worry about data loss. After running storage benchmarks using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, I decided that RAID 1+0 was not providing the performance levels I expected. Further reading pointed out that RAID 1+0 does not use a Write cache. My Write throughput was 350MBps, which was far below the advertised 550MBps of the hardware. At this point it was obvious I needed to go back to RAID 5. The advantages of more space (9TB versus 6TB) and better performance ( +40% ) more than offset the perceived risk of data loss in a power failure event. I am on UPS, anyway, and have seen the switch-over go flawlessly. What really impressed me was how little time it took to make the switch.

Switching from one RAID level to another means wiping out your data, usually. There are Conversions you can do, from RAID 0 to RAID 1+0, without data loss, but a switch from RAID 1+0 to RAID 5 wipes out your data. So you need to backup and restore your data. I used Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) to do this to an ancient WD MyBook over Firewire 800 (using an Apple TB-FW adapter) and things went flawlessly. The RAID change itself took very little time, and the restore of the backup with CCC was flawless.

So, what do I think? As a person who has used Network Area Storage (Netgear ReadyNAS) and hardware-RAID for years, I’m impressed. I can launch large virtual machines from the TB4 and not feel like I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. The difference between a 20Gbps TB4 and a 1Gbps Ethernet connection is obvious, and you can certainly feel it. With Thunderbolt 3 emerging, you can imagine six-bay units are about to roll out, too.

Some math for Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt 1 was two (2) 10Gbps channels. Thunderbolt 2 combined those two channels into a single 20Gbps channel. Four (2) SATA drives, each of 6Gbps, would have theoretical throughput of 4×6 or 24Gbps, so having a 20Gbps interface to four drives makes a lot of sense.

SoftRAID payments are through OWC Holdings, so you can imagine there is some relationship there. I was disappointed to find the TB4-included license limited to ThunderBay units, but upgrading that limited license to a full license was a financial wash. I just think OWC should highlight that the included license is limited to better manage your expectations.

One side note: the SoftRAID “Certify” command is outstanding, and you should run this on any drive you intend to use for long-term storage. It will make two painfully slow passes through your disk writing random patterns to the storage and reading them back to make sure they are correct. Then a third-pass is written as zeroes. I have a 50% pass rate on the discks I have in my spares and I label them SoftRAID Certified and know to use the others as scratch temporary disks. Nice feature, but it can take days to do a large disk. Be patient.

I will provide updates as I gain more experience with the OWC ThunderBay 4 and SoftRAID, but it seems to “just work”. Pretty simple.

Elecraft K3S Transceiver: First Impressions

I’ve played with the new K3S for a little over a week now.
I’m still gainfully employed, so my hours of operation have been limited.
But, I think it’s probably the proper time for “initial impressions”.
First, the Elecraft people are beyond impressive.  Whether it was pre-sale advice, the offer of extra support when the radio arrived, or the way they approach continuous improvement, these folks are tops.  They would need to make a pretty crappy product to not have a loyal following just based on their own attitudes, and the products are well, awesome, too.I thought this was my first Elecraft, but I used a K2 briefly about ten years ago.  It was used, not functioning perfectly and for some reason I sold it before the magic took hold.  Instead, I’ve been using Kenwood, Yaesu and TenTec top-line rigs that I’ve found used from local hams.  Each of those righs served me well, and each change was an upgrade in technology and performance.The Elecraft K3S is a significant advance for me.  Over the years I had grown quite accustomed to use of the Orion II features, and in contests and DXing it was the best radio I’d ever owned.  But as the TenTec aged, and future service options seemed to be dimming, I shipped it off to the TenTec folks for service and ordered the K3S.  I went on vacation so the lack of a radio didn’t cause a nervous breakdown.  Hello, Disney.

I’m a DXer and a single-op contester.  I haven’t been the srious contester I was at one time, but I still value those skills in both operators and equipment.  So, I made sure to try the K3S in one or two contests, even if only for a few contacts.  The North American QSO Party wasn’t much of a challenge for the radio. Since *most* operators run without their amplifier, the signals tend to be better spread out, and since it’s mostly a domestic contest, it seems there’s a more casual element operating.  The Elecraft almost made HF seem “channelized” in that I’d tune in a signal and that’s all I’d hear.  One signal.  Tune again, one signal.  Tune again.  And so on.  I was starting to think it needed buttons like the car radio.  I experimented with the CW reader, without much luck.  I’ve seen videos of others using it, but never got it to work as well as my brain (no comments, please) so I quickly gave up.  Yes, I did the CWT and SPOT and all that. I will try that again some slow night.

I later tried the Worked All Europe.  While I operating the NAQP on 40m QRP, I did WAE on 40m at 100W.  I worked everyone I heard in one call. and although the bands were more crowded, there were no times when I had any trouble squeezing out the noise for the signal I wanted.  The filtering is pretty intuitive when you realize how it works, a usability improvement over the Orion. So, two contests of far different style, but in both cases I felt the receiver, the audio and the filtering were a vast improvement.

I started working to get my headset mic working.  Initially the audio was much too low for people to hear me, and I played with TEST mode and MONitoring to get that improved.  That made QRP possible again, and also made any call under power a one-call contact.  Pileup, what pileup? Very nice.  Audio from the recevier also excellent.

It too 15 minutes to get my computer software properly configured after the Windows 10 upgrade and the change of radios.  But everything that worked before the change works at least as good afterwards.  It took some time to get the K3 Utility on the proper port (USB), but once I had that up and running, things were better.  Loading CW memories and (rotating) Macros was easy, and once I realized what the button numbers were for the macros I was reprogramming the PF keys at an irrational pace. HI

I’ve only used the K3S on CW and SSB.  I never did get a decent DATA station going with my previous radios, but this one seems worth a try.  So, that’s my next challenge: getting on RTTY/PSK and getting my first DX.

So, this is a very solid transceiver.  This one (10072) is configured with both receivers having 2.8, 2.1, 1.0, 0.5 and 0.25 filters.  It includes the ATU and the 100W option.  It works really well.

There is a lot of talk about how expensive it is.  I hesitated because of that factor, but I don’t have one ounce of regret. And now you know why I’m still gainfully employed.  This is one of those rewards!

Wi-Fi Portable Storage Devices: First Impressions

As the cost of Solid-State storage continues to drop and the popularity of smartphone and tablet technolgies continue to climb, the need for portable storage has begun to emerge.  While Seagate and other suppliers have been offering devices in this marketsince at least 2009, the devices are just beginning to emerge as serious contenders for consumer dolalrs, and potential platforms for commercial Information Technology (IT) integration shops.

I purchased two leaders devices in an effort to better understand their potential and what challenges they might offer for IT professions.  I was also interested in how they might meed my consumer needs, including the challenge of hosting my 30,000 track iTunes library or my ever-expanding library of high-definition video files, including on-line training videos, conference proceedings and the occasional home movie.  Being able to take some or all of this along on a trip might go a long way towards reducing the stress of travel delays, assuming you have the access to power you will need at some point.  (You do have that power-pack, too, right?)

So, I’ve spent a week with an unmodified Seagate GoFlex Satellite.  I was impressed with storage capacity and ease of use.  The legacy Seagate, the GFS, offers 500MB of storage in a 2.5″ laptop disk drive.  In spite of the real drive, it claims to offer 5-8 of active streaming time on a charge.  I believe them.  I did many demo’s for friends and family over several days on the initial charge.  I only recharged it when I was expecting to do a formal presentation where I expected to have several in the audience accessing it at the same time.

Ease of use with the Seagate GFS is easiest at the playback.  You simply take your wireless smartphone or tablet (or desktop) and select the wireless access offered by the GFS.  Once you’ve completed that, you open your browser and type something like goflex/ in the address bar and you’ll see the very basic Seagate standard content-browsing webpage. Nothing fancy, and not effective when you have large collections copied over, but it’s there and you can use it.  It’s all based on Javascript and JQuery, so, well, software developers won’t look at the default screen for very long.  There is one group in Singapore offering a replacement firmware for US$35 that cleans this up a lot, and that represents about 15 minutes of a developer’s time, so you pick your priority.

The entire Seagate system is based upon an open source project, so if you are comfortable with cross-compilers and toolchains, you definately have an interesting platform to take along on your next trip – either to code a better interface or to stream the conference videos that explain how to do it.  Or both.

The Kingston I’ve had less time with, since it just arrived today.  The first thing about it is the size.  It is about 1/5 the volume of the Seagate GFS and smaller than an iPhone 5 (not that I’ve ever seen an iPhone outside a massive protective case).  The Kingston Wi-Drive is small, light and almost stealth.  When I connect this to a Linux computer, I immediate mount two filesystems:  KINGSTON and CDROM.  The Seagate GFS only mounted one, and you reached the second through telnet.

The challenge for the Kingston Wi-Drive is capacity.  The SSD promises better life for a given battery capacity, but Kingston make the battery smaller, and possibly too small.  The SSD is obviously smaller capacity than the current laptop drives, so my media files won’t all fit and I’d have to decide what not to take.  I’m not good at those decisions, so the Seagate might get more use.  I did find good references to the open source licenses on the Kingston, and there are posts that will point you to the source code for the device, so both of these choices allow the software hacker a chance to customize the device to how they want it.

Security is fast becoming an early question in the mobile space.  The Seagate doesn’t offer much in that area.  The Kingston says it offers WPA2 for the wireless connection.  For the consumer, this probably doesn’t matter.  For the commercial users, I definitely does.  Most professionals will also be interested in disk encryption so they can put Private and Secure information on the device and not worry too much when they do lose it in the seat of the train, plane or automobile.  I’ll be experimenting with these to see how easy they are to modify and how hard they are to enhance security.

Seagate is due for a product refresh to 1TB of storage, and that was announced at 2013 CES.  A tear-down suggests the interior construction is much better than the legacy model.  It’s been four years since the last model was designed, so this one should be better, faster and cheaper.  The Kingson, on the other hand, seems to be hard to improve near-term since it sports a 128GB SSD, and it will take time for 256GB and 512GB to drop to where they make sense here.

So, if you have more than 128GB to take along the Seagate GFS may be your best option.  If the Kingston works for you, maybe you just need a bigger iPad or smartphone to get the media on the device itself.  If you want to share with those around you, like the family watching movies int he back of the car, either one will meet that need rather nicely.  And each person can watch a different movie!  Now, that’s a vacation!!

 

Netgear ReadyNAS Ultra-6 Network Storage: First Impressions

I recently had one of those moments of illumination where you realize that something you were doing had gone beyond making sense.  Sure, I experience these moments pretty often.  This time it happened when I was adding yet-another Network-Attached-Storage (NAS) unit to my home network.  That would be Number Four.  Hey, when there was “one”, it made a heck of a lot of sense.  When there were two, I could easily rationalize it.  The third unit, well, that was borderline.  And the fourth was just crazy.  I spent the required number of hours setting it up, trying to keep track of what to copy where.  Making sure the right disks were in the correct NAS.  And then I realized I was out of power outlets and network connections and copying things from there to here just took forever anyway.  It’s time to refactor my network storage.

I’ve been using the ReadyNAS platform since Infrant was in its hay-day.  I’ve been very pleased with so many aspects of the ReadyNAS NV+ that it was natural for me to consider the Netgear ReadyNAS product line.  When a friend pointed out the NewEgg.COM special on the ReadyNAS Ultra line, I just caved in and decided to repalce all my existing units with a single Ultra 6 component.  In doing so, I could possibly resell all the existing units and pocket a nice piece of change.  But knowing that someday I might need to select Restore Factory Defaults and wipe everything out, it seems like I’ll hold onto at least one of the older units as my backup to my backups.

The ReadyNAS Ultra6, which I’ll call RU6 to avoid typing errors, arrived within 24 hours from the time I ordered it.  It is nicely double-boxed in brown cardboard in true OEM style, not the shiny retail packaging I was used to seeing with the ReadyNAS NV+ units.  There wasn’t much inside the box: the RU6, a power cord, a massively fat yellow ethernet cord, a CDROM with the RAIDar software and a sheet of paper that told you almost nothing.  I unpacked everything and rushed to my workshop to begin the migration.

On the bench, my first impression is the look of the unit is very stylish.  WHile the older NV+ is chrome and has a solid mass to it, the RU6 is black with thinner body panels and more plastic on the front panel.  I suspect this won’t hold up to rough handling as well as the NV+ units could, and that might be one reason the RU6 no longer has a carrying handle on the back.  “Use two hands and be careful” might be somewhere on that sheet of paper they included – look for yourself.

The hot-swappable disk caddy has a much improved release.  Netgear has abandoned the problematic sticky-pushbuttons with a slider switch.  It seems lighter-duty than the old buttons, but seems less prone to sticking and banging than the old design.  (I found a light but sharp tab on the old buttons always releases them, so that was never an issue for me, anyway.)  I swapped the new caddy into an old system and vice-versa and they seem to be swappable.

While the caddy can be swapped between the older NV+ “Sparc” systems and the newer RU6 “x86” hardware, the actual hard disk surface formats are different.  As a result, you can’t just take your existing RAID disks from the old unit and place them in the new.  So, that’s exactly what I did.  To my existing four (4) 2TB drives I added two new 2TB drives and populated all six slots.  What happens next frustrates a lot of new users, but didn’t surprise me at all.  Upon boot, the RU6 reported “Corrupted Root” and would go no further.  And, at the time, the ReadyNAS support site was down.  Thank goodness there are search engines and on-line product reviews.

I was able to power-up the RU6 while pressing the back-panel Reset button (just above the dual ethernet ports) and brought up the Boot Menu.  Pressing the front panel Backup button moved through the menu until I reached the “Test Disk” option.  One more press of Reset and the RU6 began to test my disk media to see if it would work.  It took about one hour per terabyte to test the drives, and all tested fine.  I then repeated the Boot Menu sequence to select Factory Defaults.  Most experienced users know this means “Abandon Ship! All is Lost!” – I think that’s on the paper, too.  Anyway, what this does is rewrite the firmware to disk and recreates the entire RAID volume. Which means it wipes out all your data.  You backed that up, right?  I hope you did.  I did.  The rebuld took all night and much of the next day, but it was uneventful.

The next step was to Register the unit.  When you attempt to do a System Update Firmware, you get this Register button every time until you register for support.  Well, it seems that many people get that button even after they register.  I was one of those folks.  I clicked through “Later” to proceed with a firmware upgrade (after I registered) but the Remote Update failed with an unspecified error.  So, I went over to Netgear and downloaded the firmware and began a Local Update.  This update, from RAIDiator 4.2.15 to 4.2.19 included a change in disk layouts to support 3TB drives.  Although I don’t have 3TB drives, I did want some of the listed bug fixes, so I upgraded the firmware.  But when drives are changed, you can expect a long wait, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Well, actually, I was disappointed.  It took a long time.  And there isn’t a lot of staus from the browser interface or RAIDar.  If you have the unit next to you, maybe you see more.  I didn’t.  Mine was two floors away so I didn’t bother going to look.  When the update compelted, the <dot>19 was ther after reboot and the Register buttons were gone.  Great.

So, let’s assume you have an RU6 with less than six drives.  For example, an RU6 with 5 2TB drives will have 7.2TB of available space.  That means the various RAID options have a 28% space overhead by default.  When you add a sixth 2TB drive, an auto-magic expansion will take place.  Again, not much browser or RAIDar staus on this, but if you visit the unit you wills ee it display things like “Restriping 2.7%”.  That’s another long, slow process.  But it sends you an email when it’s finished. An email.  Not a text message.  An email.  Can’t these things Tweet?  Nope.

At this point you get an email that says there is a new firmware version, <dot>21, but you can’t interrupt the volume expansion so you wait to do that another time.  Have lunch, watch a sporting event, have dinner and come back and do the update.  Things should be fine.

Bottom line: It’s a great little unit, but active event status could be better reported.  The overhead of RAID is still pretty high at 28%.  But that isn’t new with this RU6.  That’s always true.  I think it’s very attractive and at 68W idle it’s much more energy efficient than running four NV+ units at 23W each.  Yes, I would do this again.

Now, I’m anxious to get those rsync copies going for the weekend.  And put those NV+ units on eBay.

16-JULY-2012 UPDATE:  The Ten Minute ReadyNAS Ultra 6 Memory Upgrade

I just returned from a relaxing vacation and figured it was time to upgrade the memory on my Ultra6 unit.  I just know the Factory Default of 1GB of RAM isn’t going to be satisfactory when I add things like the LAMP stack and the various add-ons I’ve learned to love.  So, I found a ten minute process to make the upgrade work for me.  Your mileage may vary and don’t blame me for things that might not work for you.  Once you take the screwdriver in hand, you agree to hold me free from liability for your problems.

1. Acquire DDR2 240-pin PC2-5300 Dual Channel memory.  You can make sure you have the correct memory by checking the /proc/cpuinfo file for the CPU and checking online references for what memory works with that CPU.  It is likely the proprietary motherboard in your NAS also supports that memory specification.  Mine does.  I selected two (2) 2GB G.Skill memory cards, a matched set from eBay that cost me US$35.  The G.Skill cards were DDR2 240-pin PC2-5300 2GB 1.8-1.9v with 4-4-4-12 timings. They might be overkill for an Atom machine, but they work.

2. Power off the Netgear ReadyNAS Ultra6.  Unplug doesn’t hurt, either.

3. Remove the two (2) rear panel screws that hold the side panel on the motherboard side. This is the side where the Ethernet ports are located.  I used an undersized Phillips screwdriver to protect against over-torquing the screws and they wre not heavily torqued to begin.  Just apply enough pressure to keep the screwdriver from slipping.  Slide the panel slightly rearward and pull it away from the chassis.  Place it in a safe place to avoid scratching it.

4. Remove five (5) or six (6) screws from the bottom of the now-exposed motherboard.  If you can remove the right-most screws only, that would be great, but the memory is on the right end and it was very difficult to align it without pulling that end out a reasonable amount.  So, I took off all six screws and had to carefully realign the board afterwards.

5. Carefully carefully carefully pull the right edge of the motherboard away from the chassis.  Do NOT disconnect any wires or plugs.  Try to keep the left edge close to the chassis and aligned.  Pop open the memory card end-tabs and remove the existing memory card. Make note of where the alignment slot is located so you are inserting the new cards in the same way.  (For me this meant labels down and to the right.)

6. Carefully carefully carefully align the new memory cards (you got two, right?), doing the left-most card first and snapping the locking tabs back into place.  Do not force the tabs, since the need to force them indicates you don’t have them properly aligned.  Make sure the cards are aligned as the original card was and are properly seated.

7. Carefully (did I overuse this term?) align the motherboard and reinsert and don’t overtighten the six (6) screws.

8. Reinstall the side cover and two screws.

9. Power-up holding the Reset button to run a memory test.  Everyone says do this a zillion times.  I skipped it.  What system actually runs with bad memory?  Don’t skip it.

RESULTS:

RAIDisk:/proc# cat meminfo | grep Mem
MemTotal:        4044844 kB
MemFree:         3654408 kB

2012-12-03 Update: The Five-Minute Netgear ReadyNAS Ultra 6 Plus Memory Upgrade

I found two nice 2GB sticks of PC2-6400 4-4-4-12 DDR2 on Newegg for a reasonable (for DDR2) price, and can tell you the installation was trivial. You simply remove two screws that hold the side panel and the memory sockets are staring at you. The fit is snug, with one front-panel connector making for the only installation complication, but it didn’t take five minutes from the first touch of a screw to the last touch of a screw.

There is a lot written about whether this upgrade improves performance and whether it is supported by Netgear.  My experience with the first upgrade was Netgear Support asked me if it worked and thanked me for the information.  All the caveats about testing memory ten times seems like folklore, too, but don’t take my word for it.  I now have two ReadyNAS Ultra units running 4GB of RAM, using the memory and they both run great.  I think a 32-bit operating system should have 4GB of RAM, but that’s just me.  I still get a little chuckle out of the forum “helpers” who eventually come-out after giving scads of advice and admit they don’t actually own the unit themselves.  But they are trying to help.