Macintosh

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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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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Keep Your Computers In Sync with DropBox

All computer users that routinely accesses more than one computer in the course of their normal routine share the same pain.  Keeping all of the files we need available to us at all times is nothing short of maddening.  I might have a spreadsheet I was working on all afternoon on my desktop computer, but when I grab my laptop and run out the door to meet a client I only have access to a version that is 2 days old.  Or I might have a series of files on my laptop that I need to work on.  But when I left my laptop at the office, there is no way I can access them from home.

A great solution called DropBox plans to make these craze inducing nightmares a thing of the past.  The user just installs DropBox on each individual system and links that computer to the DropBox account.  DropBox then uses the internet (often referred to as “the cloud”) to keep all of the data in sync.

As long as all of the data is stored in the DropBox directory on my Mac, and as long as I have an internet connection, DropBox does all of the work.  Say I have a spreadsheet that I updated on my workstation.  As soon as I save the update, that file is instantly transmitted to each of my other computers.  So, if I grab my laptop and run out to meet with a client, I can be confident that the most recent copy of that spreadsheet will also be sitting on my MacBook.  As long as all of my computers are connected to the internet, I’ll have up to date access to all of the data in my DropBox directory.
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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

OS X 10.5 Leopard: Instant Screen Sharing from the Finder

As the countdown to Leopard’s release continues, I continue to flip through the documentation recently released by Apple Inc.  In an interesting step forward in the evolution of the Mac OS, Apple engineers have added screen sharing to the list of features introduced in 10.5.

An extension of the Apple Remote Desktop software package and the VNC compatibility contained therein, the Mac OS will now be able to share screens as easily as it can share files.  The sidebar of each window in the Finder contains a list of shared computers on the network.  Clicking on the computer in that list makes it easy to mount any associated file share.  But when that computer name is clicked on, in the corner of the Finder window, there is a new button called Share Screen.  Just click that and a login prompt requests the username and password to be used when accessing the screen of the remote computer.
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File Sharing Returns to the Mac in 10.5 Leopard

It has taken a long, long time, but folder sharing has returned to the Mac OS.  Back in the olden days, OS 9 and before, it was possible to share just about any folder in the filesystem.  That sharing functionality simply made a folders data available to network users and allowed them permission based access to the date remotely.  When Apple transitioned to the much more “robust” OS X, this feature was left by the wayside.

For years, the lack of such a basic level feature left the Mac community scratching their heads.  It stood out as a glaring exclusion from Apple’s supposedly modern operating system.  But with the release of OS X 10.5, Leopard, Apple will finally put this long standing inconsistency right.  It will once again be possible to share nearly any folder on the computers drive with network users both on the LAN and over the internet.

Sharing a file is as easy as it once was, for those that can remember that far back.  Simply get info on the directory that is to be shared and specify the users and groups that are to have access to the directory.  Any user that has an account on the system can be selected to access the share.  But what if a user needs access that doesn’t have an account on the system?

This is where Apple had to step up other parts of the OS to accommodate the sharing feature.  Right from the sharing window where users can be granted permission, its possible to add a new user entirely.  Simply specify the user name and password for the new user.  Once this is done, the account displays under the Accounts pane in the System Preferences panel.  The new account has a new permission type attached to it.  The new account displays as a “Sharing Only” account.  This means the user has access to the share but does not have login rights to the entire system.  Simple and logical, just how we expect the latest and greatest OS from Apple Inc.

Prior to 10.5, it had been possible to accomplish similar folder sharing using a shareware product called SharePoints.  The UI was fairly confusing but it was functional and it was the only way to share a folder without resorting to the even more daunting command line.

With the release of OS X 10.5 Leopard, we welcome the addition of many new and powerful features.  And in at least one point, we welcome back a feature that has been missing for quite some time.


The MacHatter

Mac & Windows Firewalls

Last month we posted a story explaining how to share files between Macs and Windows based PCs.  Since that time, we’ve received a lot of mail from users who would like to know how to either disable their computer’s firewall, or add a rule to it so they can allow specific types of traffic.  Since different people have different needs when it comes to allowing traffic through the firewall, we’ll take a look at the rules necessary to allow file sharing between Macs and PCs.

The Importance of a Firewall
Before we begin, its important to understand how important a firewall is to a computers wellbeing.  If a computer is connected directly to a broadband internet connection (or any “always on” internet connection for that matter), it is inherently exposed to the world.  In most situations is preferable to have a router between a computer and its internet connection.  In most cases the router is running a NAT (network address translation) service that helps filter out unwanted incoming traffic.  Many people consider the routers NAT service to be a very effective firewall.  It does a good job of keeping the evildoers on the internet from accessing files without permission.  Unfortunately a NAT firewall doesn’t protect a computer from security concerns on the local network.  That’s where OS level software firewalls come it.

Many Mac users don’t even bother to activate the computer’s built-in firewall.  Since the Mac has a much lower attack surface on the internet, this rarely causes an issue.  That being said, there will come a day when Macs will be under attack in much the same way that we see Windows based PCs.  Thankfully, Apple has already added a software firewall to the Mac OS.  And whether needed today, or even active right now, it is good to know this form of powerful protection is there when we need it.
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Mac and Windows File Sharing: How to Connect

Macs and PCs play remarkably well on the same networks these days.  Both support the necessary interoperability right out of the box.  But when it comes to the details of the connectivity, that’s where people sometimes get lost.  After all we’re talking about two very different platforms in terms of connectivity and security.  For all of their similarities, the two platforms are still really quite different.

We’re about to detail the ins and outs of inter-platform connectivity.  In this case we’ll be connection to a Mac running OS X 10.4 from a Windows XP box, and conversely we’ll connect a Windows XP machine to a Mac.  While this post details Windows XP, Windows Vista will operate in much the same way.

Connecting a Windows XP Box to a Mac Share

We start on the Macintosh.  First pull down the Apple menu, select System Preferences, and click on Sharing.  Be sure to enable the Windows Sharing service.  Once it is activated, the accounts allowed access to the service must be selected.  If not promoted to specify the permissive account instantly, just click the Accounts button and select one or more usernames that will be allowed access to file shares hosted on the Mac.
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