Hardware

Solid State Hard Drives (SSD): You Have to See it to Believe It

I visited my local Apple retail store over the weekend and left with the crushing urge to spread the word about solid state hard drives (SSD from here on).  I went into the store to have the guys at the Genius Bar take a look at the battery on my MacBook Pro.  The battery had developed a bulge and was actually causing the back panel on my laptop to bend and twist.  The good news is that they guys at the Genius Bar took one look at the issue and promptly swapped out my battery with a brand new one at no charge.  I call that truly great customer service since my MacBook Pro was no longer under warranty.

But I digress.  While I was talking with two technicians at the Genius Bar, I mentioned that I had installed an SSD as my boot drive.  This really got their attention.  One of them politely asked if I would mind firing up the laptop so he could have a look.  Like many of us, he had read blurbs online indicating that an SSD could breath new life into an aging laptop.  Both gentlemen noted that they had each been considering the SSD option for their older MacBooks.  Obviously they both had the chance to play with the SSD powered MacBook Air’s, but they understood there was a big difference between the latest hardware and what they were running at home.
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Quality Time with the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2

drive_iconI recently had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2.  It’s a drive enclosure that supports up to 4 SATA drives in a variety of RAID configurations.  It is Mac and Windows compatible and offers a wide range of connectivity options including USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and eSATA.  Powerful functionality packed into a sexy brushed aluminum drive chassis.

The first thing I noticed about the OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Qx2 was the excess of care taken in packing the device for shipping.  The drive chassis was packed in a large heavy-duty cardboard box encased in layers of packing foam.  The foam layers protect the drive bay, but they also encased the 4 2TB SATA hard drives that were included in the version I tested.  The drives were shipped with insulating foam separating each mechanism from the other contents of the box.  All of this added up to a very large shipping container, but one that should easily stand up to the depraved hands at FedEx or UPS.  Clearly no expense was spared when it came to shipping material.  This is a bonus for the customer since the drive case and mechanisms are very well secured.
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QNAP TS-509 Pro Turbo NAS: iSCSI Disk Performance

I recently had the chance to evaluate a couple of iSCSI solutions for a pair of clients looking for a massive network based storage solution.  Rather than attach large external hard drives to several workstations on the network, we wanted to consider a SAN solution.  In this case, a single drive chassis with at least 4 RAIDed hard drives.  I had previously evaluated the Drobo Elite from Data Robotics Inc.  This time I took a look at the TS-509 Pro Turbo NAS from QNAP.

The TS-509 is a NAS/SAN solution that offers dual gigabit network ports that can be used for iSCSI connectivity.  The device is completely self-contained.  Simply supply it with power and attach it to the network and, once configured, it functions autonomously.  The chassis supports up to 5 SATA 3.5” hard drives.  For my testing, I installed 3 Hitachi Deskstar 2TB SATA drives stripped together in a level 5 RAID. The drives were 7200RPM with 32MB buffers.

My network centers on a 24 port gigabit D-Link switch.  But since this is an unmanaged (consumer quality) switch, I wanted to make sure the fairly low-end switch would not hinder test results.  When I tested the Drobo Elite, I attached each of the two test computers directly to each of the Drobo’s gigabit Ethernet ports.  I wasn’t able to do this with the TS-509, so each of the network ports was connected directly to the switch via a pair of Cat-5e network cables.

The first test computer was a first generation quad core 2.66GHz Mac Pro.  The other connection was to a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo based Unibody MacBook Pro.  Both have onboard gigabit networking.  Both were running OS X 10.6.3.  Both of their network settings were configured manually to 1000baseT, full duplex.  Since the TS-509 does not support jumbo frames, the default MTU was left at 1500.
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Review: QNAP TS-509 Pro Turbo NAS

The TS-509 Pro Turbo NAS is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device from QNAP.  It also functions as a SAN (Storage Area Network).  The appliance is a hard drive chassis that has bays that will support up to 5 hot-swappable SATA drives, has 5 USB 2.0 ports for expansion and printer sharing, and 2 gigabit network ports than can be load balance or offer failover support.  The TS-509 can function as a NAS offering conventional file sharing, or it can function as a SAN acting as an iSCSI target.

I recently had the chance to review the Drobo Elite, a solution from Data Robotics Inc., which functioned exclusively as an iSCSI SAN.  While a solid iSCSI solution, it also has a hefty price tag.  I took the opportunity to compare the Drobo Elite to the QNAP TS-509 Pro.  In a follow-up post I will evaluate the performance of the device.  But for now I want to take a closer look at the TS-509’s feature set.

The TS-509 is something of a jack-of-all-trades.  At its core it is a RAID solution with 5 hot-swappable SATA drive bays.  RAID 0, 1, 5, 5 with hot spare, 6, and JBOD are all supported offering a great deal of flexibility.  The box offers file server support for Macintosh, Windows, and Linux/UNIX based operating systems.  File services appear in a Windows based network via an internal Windows networking service, and are available to Macintosh based systems via the included Bonjour network service.  And the device is managed via a web-based interface that is both easy to use and powerful.
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Quality Time with the Amazon Kindle

Amazon.com jumpstarted the stagnated ebook market with the release of the Kindle.  Though at a glance the device comes off as a simple e-reader, it boasts a feature set that make the device as powerful as it is comfortable to read.  A built in QWERTY keyboard makes it easy to annotate text, highlight passages, and leave notes beyond what would have normally fit in the magian of a conventional book.  All without doing physical damage to the book in the process.

I really wanted to take my time with the Kindle before putting together a review.  To that end, I have spent that last 5 months reading.  In that time I have completed 21 Kindle based novels and 4 hard cover versions.  More than enough time, I believe, to evaluate the content consumption device.
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The Drobo Elite: iSCSI Disk Performance

I have had two clients ask me about the Drobo Elite, an 8 bay BeyondRAID SAN solution from Data Robotic Inc.  I’m already a fan of the 4 bay Drobo for USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 equipped machines, so I started reading up on the Drobo Elite.  My first interest was in the disk speeds.  I wanted to know what kind of data access speeds workstations could expect when connecting to the Drobo Elite via iSCSI.  To my surprise, no benchmarks were available online.  So when I had the chance to evaluate the Elite first hand, I ran some tests and put it through the paces.

My network centers around a 24 port gigabit D-Link switch.  But since this is an unmanaged (consumer quality) switch, I wanted to make sure the fairly low end switch would not hinder test results.  To remove the switch from the equation, I simply attached a Macintosh to each of the Drobo Elite’s gigabit network ports directly via the Cat-5e network cables included with the Drobo.  In the end, the tests I ran via a connection through the D-Link switch were directly comparable to the direct connection to the Drobo, but the following benchmarks were conducted via direct connection.

One Mac was a first generation quad core 2.66GHz Mac Pro.  The other connection was to a 2.53GHz Unibody MacBook Pro.  Both have onboard gigabit networking.  Both were running OS X 10.6.3.  Both of their network settings were configured manually  to 1000baseT, full-duplex, and with a Jumbo MTU of 9000.  Though directly connected, the machines were assigned static IP addresses on the same subnet as the Drobo.  Since some auto negotiating switches sometimes flip out in odd situations while trying to re-negotiate a connection in the fly, I wanted to make sure a similar situation would not sacrifice speed in the set situation.
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The Drobo Elite: An iSCSI SAN Made Easy

I recently had an opportunity to review the latest Drobo enterprise solution, the Drobo Elite.  It boasts 8 SATA drive bays and can be configured for either single or dual drive redundancy.  The Drobo Elite, like the rest of Drobo’s product line is RAID made easy.  In truth, its RAID maid drop dead easy.  And with the iSCSI support built into this product, the folks at Data Robotic Inc. (makers of Drobo) have made iSCSI equally easy.

Those familiar with Drobo know that the company has forsaken the traditional RAID paradigm for what it has branded BeyondRAID.  Its not just RAID with a clever little name for marketing reasons.  Its RAID done right.  Its RAID made simple.  While traditional RAID configurations technically allow the mixing of different capacity drives in the array, they do it by sacrificing disk space.  The smallest drive in the array becomes the usable capacity of every drive in the array.  So, with an array made up of one 1TB drive and three 2TB drives, the capacity of each drive becomes 1TB in the eyes of the RAID controller.

Drobo’s BeyondRAID is really RAID re-envisioned.  Its what happens when engineers start from scratch and remake the rules the right way.  BeyondRAID allows the use of mixed drive capacities but it doesn’t resort to the lowest common denominator in order to make the drives usable.  Mixing one 1TB drive with tree 2TB drives is no problem.  The Drobo knows how to access the full capacity of each and allocates space for redundancy to compensate.
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WD TV Live Network Media Player

Getting digital content from the computer to the TV has long been a challenge.  The fairly recent arrival of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s PS3 have brought a solution to the mainstream that put the capability in the hands of the technically sophisticated.  They both offer internal media players that will stream video, music, and photos across the network to the HD screen now found in the average living room.  But such multi-media integration should be in the hands of the average computer users, regardless of their technical awareness or skill.  The first product to do this, and do it well has arrived: Western Digital’s WD TV Live HD.

Its a name that won’t roll off the tongue, no matter how you practice.  But the device works, and it works well.  Where game consoles suck as the 360 and the PS3 make the computer based media available, accessing that content is still more difficult than it should be and still requires customers to shell out some big bucks to get the game console in the first place.  The WD TV Live is a box that is currently listing for about $119 on Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.  It is a small unit with its own remote control.  It plugs into a HD TV and connects to movies music and photos by either linking to a networked computer in the house, or an external hard drive connected to the box via USB.
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Proximity Locking With Bluetooth

Here’s one I’ve been wanting for a long time.  I think it would be great to pair my cell phone with my computer and have the computer screen lock each time my phone leaves Bluetooth range.  Seems like a great security feature given the prevalence of cell phones these days.

To the best of my knowledge there are no Mac applications to facilitate this right now.  Fee apps or otherwise.  I read about one possibility a while back that was a series of scripts.  But when I played with it, it just didn’t work correctly.  Over at phoenixfreeze.com, it looks we might have a solution on the way.  Right now their product only supports Windows XP and Vista.  But according to the FAQ section, Mac support is planned.

Its not world class security, but it could keep your workstation locked down should you forget to lock it before you head out of the office to lunch.  Its not even out yet, for that matter but it will be a release worth watching for.

A couple of gotchas come to mind.  Some cell phones will only pair with 1 device at a time.  This could be a big problem if you sit at your desk with your cell paired with a headset that is also in range.  It would mean that the phone could only be paired with the headset or the computer but not both.  I believe most of the modern phones support multiple Bluetooth profiles now.  To my understanding that would allow the device to be paired with more than one devices at a time.  But it does seem limiting to only pair a cell phone to one devices at a time.


Steve

Business Phone Service on a Budget

Every once in a while I run into a real gem on the internet.  A service that simply reevaluates the way business gets done.  For example, in the past, if you wanted to use a multi-line phone system that supported different extensions, and auto attendant, and voicemail, it meant spending thousands of dollars on phone system hardware and contracting a specialist to assemble and maintain the system.

With the internet revolution, voice over IP became a central technology.  And when that happened, businesses found new ways to work existing technologies.  Once powerful example is RingCentral.com.  RingCentral takes a new approach to complicated business phone systems and offers a service that puts the power of those multi-thousand dollar phone systems in the hands of small business owners and telecommuters.

RingCentral’s service is difficult to describe.  In fact, I suggest taking a look at the video tutorials on their site in order to really grok everything the service can accomplish.  I’ve been using the service for about a year now and I am very impressed.  Its not a one trick pony either.  It is flexible and it can fill a wide range of needs.
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