Thoughts on home data storage: Drobos and Time Capsules

November 16th, 2013

Drobo Right AngleI am fortunate to be the owner of three Drobos. One I bought, and two I have inherited from past companies etc, and they’ve served me very well. I have had many hard drives die over the years – and another goes every six months or so – but I’ve never lost any data if the drive was in a Drobo. And the flexibility just to plug in a new drive of any size at any time is great. They’re not perfect, but overall, they’ve been a very good place to put my music, photos and video-editing projects, without covering my desk with lots of different individual drives and their related cables and power supplies. The youngest one is more than four years old now, and they’re not particularly fast, but I’ve never had one fail.

Having said that, there is the problem of ‘How do you back up the Drobo’? If the unit should fail, I suspect getting the data off the drives would be very tricky, since they use their own custom filesystem – though, to be fair, that’s true of quite a lot of RAID systems. In some circumstances you can take the drive set out of one Drobo and plug it into another, so that’s probably the best route, unless you have the luxury, as I do, of backing your Drobo up to another Drobo! (A good use for older, slower Drobos). In any case, it’s worth remembering that however reliable the underlying hardware may be, filesystems can get corrupted, malware can attack, fire, burglary, or lightning strikes can take you by surprise, or users can accidentally delete things. Having a system which is resilient to hard drive failures isn’t the whole solution to the data storage problem. But it certainly helps!

None of my units, however, have network interfaces: they’re too old for that. And once you’ve dealt with the hard disk failure problem, most of those other threats are not going to be mitigated simply by backing up onto another Drobo sitting next to it on the shelf. In the past I’ve made Drobos available on the network by plugging them into various other machines: home-built Linux fileservers etc, but the Linux support for the Apple filesystems is not great, so it was never wholly satisfactory, especially for Time Machine backups.

timecapsuleThen, some months ago, I decided I needed a new wifi router which supported dual-band wireless, and so splashed out and got an Apple Time Capsule, which is essentially their Airport Extreme base station with an internal hard disk added, and it gave me both very good wifi and Time Machine backup space for every machine in the house. That’s really how it’s marketed, but you can also just use it as a generic file server, and in my experience, it’s a very good one.

I was nervous that I was being too much of an Apple fanboy in paying a premium price for a router plus disk, but I have never once regretted it. I don’t think I’ve ever used any networked storage which has been so simple and so reliable. I should mention that this is the previous generation of TC, not the latest, that I’m in an almost-all-Apple environment, and that I haven’t required it to do anything particularly unusual in the way of file-serving or router configuration, but for this scenario, it’s been quite superb.

And that’s not all. It has a USB port. So, as well as the internal disk, which I use for the Time Machine backups, I’ve plugged in a Drobo, and now have a few TB of nicely-redundant file storage for all my other backups humming away in a cupboard. Occasionally, I’ve opened the door and everything’s quiet, and after a moment of worry I realise that the Time Capsule is just very good about putting its disks into standby when not in use.

So this is really just a recommendation, both for the Time Capsule, and for Drobos (even elderly ones), and for the combination. If I were starting from scratch and looking for networked storage, I’d have to consider Synology, who also have a very loyal following, and whose devices can arguably do rather more than even the newer, networked Drobos.

But, for now, this arrangement is working well for me.

The invisible bicycle helmet

November 14th, 2013

My friend Hap sent me a link to this video.

A nice idea. But it didn’t really say much, so I presumed it was just a design concept, perhaps with a patent or two just in case.

However, if you go to this site, you can apparently buy one. As someone who detests wearing a helmet and feels guilty for not doing so, this is intriguing…

A partial convert speaks…

November 8th, 2013

Today I took my car in for a service, and, since the dealer is on the far side of town and I couldn’t face the hassle of loading and unloading a bike, I’d booked a courtesy car for the day. But as I walked into the showroom, there was a sign saying “Ask about our electric loan bikes.” So I did. And a little while later I was cruising home on a very nicely-built machine from A2B. Not sure of the exact model, but it was pretty similar to this:

a2bhybrid

Now, I’ve always been pretty skeptical about battery-boosted bicycles, thinking they were really for the elderly or lazy. But having done ten miles or so on one today, I’ve largely changed my mind. Here’s why:

  • It was a substantial bike: big tyres, good suspension, solidly made, with all the accessories. Because of its weight, you wouldn’t want to cycle it very far without the battery assistance. But with the power boost, it was an easy cycle, even up slopes, and gives you the benefits of more robust engineering: really good disk brakes, a solid carrier, a decent kickstand and large tyres which took kerbs, potholes and slippery patches in their stride. There was also plenty of battery power for some good lights, and a trip computer telling you various interesting bits of info as you went along.
  • You have to keep pedalling. Not very hard, I grant you, but this isn’t a motorbike: you do get some exercise – in fact, the battery only pushes you along when you are doing so. It’s not nearly the exercise you’d get from a regular bicycle, but remember, I had chosen to use this instead of a car, not instead of a bike. And a car would have given me no exercise at all. You can, of course, pedal harder if you want to, or turn down the level of assistance that the battery gives, if you feel the need to be more virtuous.
  • It was fast, even in the rain. What do I mean by that? Well, these things are normally limited to 15mph – not record-breaking by any means, but it’s a pretty good cycling speed when pottering around town. And the ease of getting up to that speed, and maintaining it, and resuming it when slowed down, meant that I actually moved from one place to another much faster than I would have done on my normal bike, unless I were really looking for a work-out. I was moving with the traffic, rather than having it whizz past me. And then, on the way back this evening, I was caught in a downpour. I realised that, had I been wearing full waterproofs, trousers and all, on my regular bike, I would have arrived at my destination sweating profusely. On this, I was really quite comfortable.

So, add all of that to that the fact that it was really rather fun, and I find myself looking at electric bikes in a new light. I genuinely believe I would use two wheels, rather than four, in many more situations if I had one of these. I would get less exercise than when I took my normal bike, but I’d get it much more often. And I’d be more willing to carry heavily-loaded panniers, and to cycle in inclement weather, than I am now.

All of which is good… but these things don’t come cheap. The one I used was somewhere in the £1500-2000 range, so I’m unlikely just to rush out and buy one. But I’m a lot more tempted now than I was before I tried it…

Bless you

October 17th, 2013

I was telling Rose about a small photographic accessory that plugged into the hotshoe.

“The what?”

“The hotshoe.”

“That’s what it’s called? I thought you sneezed.”

Fuji Fascination

October 10th, 2013

A few days ago I became the proud owner of a Fujifilm X-Pro1, which is one of the most interesting cameras I’ve owned for a while.

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It has a pleasingly retro look, is very nicely put together, and follows the old range-finder style, with an optical viewfinder offset from the lens. This design has a whole host of usability challenges to do with parallax and focussing, but it hasn’t stopped, say, Leica, from being rather successful with it – and in the past it was the only option if you didn’t want the bulk of an SLR.

But today we have digital mirrorless cameras for this – you can see through the lens using the digital sensor and a screen – so it is somewhat eccentric still to use a viewfinder in which, quite often, part of the image is actually obscured by the lens itself. But the separate viewfinder also has advantages of clarity and frame rate, and of giving you a field of view larger than the image you’re about to capture, so you can see, for example, whether someone is about to walk into the frame.

The clever thing about the X-Pro1, though, is that it does both. The optical viewfinder has some digital overlays on it showing extra information (framing, focus points and histograms, for example) but can also switch into a fully-digital mode, where you’re seeing exactly what the lens sees. And there’s the screen on the back if you prefer that. Plenty of choice, and exceedingly cunning. It even has some unexpected tricks up its sleeve: if you’re in optical viewfinder mode and focusing manually, you can click a button and it switches to a dramatically zoomed-in digital view, with focus peaking if wanted. Press again and you’re back to optical.

There are much easier cameras out there to use: the autofocus is not particularly sophisticated by modern standards, for example, even when you aren’t trying to do it through a separate viewfinder. Not only is this not just a point-and-shoot, if you pick it up expecting to use it as one, you’re likely to be disappointed. It keeps you thinking all the time, which is partly why I bought it: I thought I could learn a lot from this camera.

But the other reason was the image quality. The Fuji lenses are superb, and the sensor, which is an APS-C size, such as you’d find in most consumer-level DSLRs, is larger than in most cameras of this size and is generally agreed to be superior even to most other APS-C sensors thanks to some Fuji innovations. But the camera has been out for nearly a year and a half, so there are plenty of reviews out there you can read if you want to know more.

I’m still learning and making lots of mistakes, but I’m also loving it. For something that I can sling over my shoulder, and not notice when it’s in my bag, I’ve got a few very pleasing images even in my first couple of days. A few samples below – you can click through to Flickr and find ‘View all sizes’ in the bottom-right menu if you want to get a feel for the clarity.

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The Cambridge University Computer Lab

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Dr Richard Clayton

Bridge planks

Bridge planks

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The Roger Needham Building

Toq of the town

October 2nd, 2013

I was fortunate enough to get to play with one if these today – a Qualcomm Toq – one of the first to be publicly shown.

It’s very nicely put together, slightly bigger than my Pebble, with a colour e-ink touch screen, and wireless charging. But Qualcomm have created this more, they say, to seed the market and demonstrate their technology than because they intend to sell it directly; though the idea of making some available (at around $300) is being discussed.

I hope they do. That’s quite a lot for a watch, but it has a quality feel to it. The key question will be whether they can get good SDKs to developers early on, and whether they can make it play nicely with non-jailbroken iPhones… It’s not very easy to get past the restrictions that Apple (for some good reasons) imposes on developers, but at that price, they would probably be targeting the Apple-buying market.

From Falls to Autumn

September 16th, 2013

Well, one quick transatlantic flight, and I’ve lost even more degrees of centigrade than I have hours of sleep!

For my more geeky readers, I can report that I return with a Scottevest Transformer jacket, and a Google Chromecast.

But the highlight of the trip was definitely the hikes we did in Yellowstone and in Glacier National Park. I leave you with my favourite picture from the Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

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(Click for a larger version.)

Emailing while on the road

June 30th, 2013

My brother Simon, briefly homeless between moving out of his old house and moving into his new one, borrowed my iPad Mini to check some email while waiting in the street outside. (Recommendation: I manage most of our family’s email now through Fastmail, who have a very nice webmail system as well as standard IMAP – very useful if borrowing someone else’s machine.)

Simon emailing

Anyway, I use one of those Logitech Bluetooth keyboards that form a cover for the iPad when closed and a stand while in use. But when Simon had finished, we discovered another previously-unknown feature: the magnets in the hinges which attach it to the iPad, also attach it nice and firmly to the roof of a VW Golf! Actually quite handy…

Harmonious Control

May 27th, 2013

Logitech Harmony oneHere’s a quick and simple recommendation. About three years ago I decided I needed a new all-in-one remote control, since my (splendid and extravagant) old Marantz RC2000 mk II was struggling to keep up with the latest innovations in infrared.

So, after some pondering, I looked at the Logitech Harmony series – which I’d first seen at a CES show long ago, before they were even part of Logitech. The basic idea is that you use a special website and utility to put in details of the hardware you’ve got – which models of TV, Amp, DVD, etc – and how they’re connected together. It asks questions like “When you want to turn up the volume on the TV, do you use the TV or the amplifier?” Then you plug your remote in to a USB port and it gets programmed with all the appropriate codes and configuration. I went for a middle-of-the-range one, the Harmony One, and started thinking of all the ways I’d be able to customise it to make it do what I wanted.

And… I didn’t need to. After I’d set it up with something pretty close to the default configuration, it just did what I wanted out of the box. And has done so ever since. I haven’t gone back and fiddled with it once, which, knowing my propensity for such activities, is quite a recommendation.

iOS tip of the day

May 11th, 2013

In most places in iOS where you can edit text, you can tap with two fingers to select a whole line. This works, for example, in text editors like Notesy, Drafts and Byword, and can be quite a time saver. In fact, it selects the line up to the next line break; if you’re typing code, that’s probably one line, but if you’re writing prose, it’ll select the current paragraph. Very handy if you want to move paragraphs around using cut and paste.

Another place you can use it is in the URL field of a browser, where it will select the entire URL with fewer clicks than the usual tap-tap-select-all.

I use this, for example, if I’m looking at a page in Safari and want to open it in 1Password. As you probably know, apps can register particular URL schemes for their own use, and 1Password’s browser will recognise ophttp and ophttps, so you can just go to the beginning of the URL in Safari, insert an ‘op’, and you’ll be taken to the same page in 1Password (or ‘g’ for GoodReader, etc.)

The problem is that just ‘going to the beginning and inserting something’ can be a pain if the URL is long. You probably have to scroll slowly left, tap the correct insertion point, and so forth. Much easier is a two-finger tap, select ‘Cut’, type ‘op’ and then tap ‘Paste’.

If you’re doing this kind of thing regularly, you may want to set up a bookmarklet to make it even easier, but the two-finger tap is a handy thing to know in general.

Poster child

May 11th, 2013

I’m just testing Poster, an iOS app for posting to WordPress blogs. I’ve used Blogsy for some time, which is capable, but not beautiful, and at times decidedly quirky.

Poster is elegant, has Markdown support, and a URL scheme which means you can send posts to it from apps such as Drafts.