Technology

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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Watch MKV Files on the Xbox 360 the Easy Way

I was talking with my neighbor the other day and he was going on about his disappointment that while it was easy to watch Divx and Xvid movies over the network on his Xbox 360, there is no support for MKV files he had downloaded.  Each video he had was a 720p or 1080p high definition download.  And if he wanted to watch the video on his 360, he had to transcode the video to Xvid before he could watch it in his living room.  This was taking him 8-12 hours to transcode even on his high end Mac.

I did some digging and found an obscure reference in a forum indicating that the transcoding wasn’t really necessary after all as long as you had QuickTime Pro and used the correct settings.  It turns out that the QuickTime export for MP4 has an option in its video settings to allow “Video Passthrough”.  This lets us open a MKV file in QuickTime Player 7 and export the video out to MP4 (Xvid really) in a fraction of the time it takes to transcode the video.

There is something unusual in the newly released Mac OS X 10.6 that users will need to keep in mind.  The new version of the OS replaces (kinda) QuickTime 7 with a new version called QuickTime X.  The new version is the beginning of a “from the ground up” rewrite of QuickTime.  The problem is, as of 10.6, the new version only has basic functionality and lacks the support for many of the legacy video codecs and codecs that are new and not yet mainstream.
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Windows 7 and the Rootkit

I have to say that I have been very impressed with Windows 7.  I downloaded the RC 1 build the morning it was released to the masses.  I installed it on my MacBook Pro using Boot Camp the following day.  It was fast, visually very impressive, and really put a smile on my face.  Since that time, I have been working full time on my Mac but I roll over to Windows whenever possible to see how things are working on the other side of the street.

I installed Office 2007, Hamachi, Firefox, and Dropbox.  The usual core applications I like to keep handy.  Prior to all of this, of course, I installed Kaspersky Antivirus.  It was the first antivirus to catch my eye offering actual support (though preliminary as it is listed as a technical preview) for Windows 7.  I was impressed that the system didn’t seem unduly bogged down by the AV solution and off I went.

This morning I was listening to a podcast and thinking about Windows 7.  I thought I would try another antivirus just for the heck of it.  I have been wanting to install Eeye’s Blink, but its not working with 7 yet.  It simply fails to install.  Still, I want something free so I decided to give Avast’s free edition a shot.  I uninstalled Kaspersky and installed Avast.  I rebooted, updated the virus definitions, and let Avast start its scan.
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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

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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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

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