Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Don’t Get a Drobo (Build a Server)

(image via wired - note, not a drobo.)

Maybe you don’t keep all your paintings on the computer, but as a photo (and more and more often, other digital media) based artist, I eat up hard drive space. It became apparent to me pretty quickly that if I was going to keep creating, and valued what I created at all, I’d need to find a way to handle long term storage.

As a side note, Burnable DVDs or CDs are NOT a backup system. Neither are external hard drives. They are both one level systems with extremely high failure rates. All it takes is one small drop, scratch, power surge, or relatively “minor” failure and you have no data. USB drives fail especially often. Every one. Even yours. Period. This used to be a PS at the end of this post, but it’s super important so I moved it up. Educate yo self!

The first point of this post is that a Drobo is not the way.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve also recommended the Drobo product in the past. After lengthy use, I’m revoking my recommendation entirely.

Make some kind of home server out of an old shell or buy something that doesn’t use a proprietary data format. Yes, the little “storage robot” is easy, but it is also practically impossible to troubleshoot on your own. The Drobo worked (on and off), but once the warranty is out (and you can only renew – with paying – for three years), all they will tell you to do is buy a new one if your unit fails. Even if the failing unit hasn’t accidentally destroyed your data, the hard drives and all your data are useless until you give in and buy a new unit.

In the time before this final issue, it had a huge failure once that shut me down for 3 weeks while they got around to eventually sending me a new unit. Does that sound frustrating? Here’s a rant I just sent to my father about my most recent problems.

I’ve spent the past 29 hours (literally, ugh) working to restore my backups from my external backup unit, which is on the fritz. I’m having to use my old tower case to build a server (basically) to take all the data (all my art work and information [including my accounting backups, which is why I haven't gotten to that yet, bleh]) which I have to then transfer it to – however, I thought I could use the existing hardware infrastructure (at least the motherboard, power supply, case, dvd, proc, memory and hard drives, don’t really need the video card or sound, which I removed) but it turns out after this long process including trying 4 separate operating systems (fedora linux, puppy linux, windows xp, and windows home server) the motherboard is shot and won’t recognize the sata drives.

Which means I can’t access my data, since I have nothing to move it to, and I can’t leave the old backup device on for too long without losing my data (Drobo – don’t ever buy one, it’s not worth the proprietary format it keeps data in, which makes it unreadable everywhere else. If you’re looking for a home backup server, I softly recommend one running Windows Home Server, which is what I now need to set up myself, since everyone in the house needs to be able to use it and beth doesn’t dig linux.)

So. Basically the only thing salvageable from the 6 year old PC are the case, dvd rom drive (which I have to open with a paper clip since the little motor is lagging), and the power supply. The memory and processor are fine, but are too old to work with any motherboards available on the market under warranty, and it would be stupid to buy a used one and open up a new bag of problems. One hard drive seems usable, but it’s over 6 years old and I’m sure it’s not trustworthy. Since it’s so small, it’s not really worth keeping except as on hand emergency replacement.

At 29 hours in, I’ve realized I have to drop around 350 dollars for a legal version of Windows Home Server, new motherboard, memory, processor, and hard drives (ide for operating system, and sata for backup – I don’t really need another one for long term, but I’ve got to have another during the original transfer process, since I can’t pull any from the drobo until most of the data is off. ugh)

I’ve opened up my case to try and jury rig a hard drive on the outside of the case (no more room in it, but some spare connectors on the mobo) and backup data to there, which will hopefully mean I have something to do my bookkeeping on in the next few days, but I can’t even order the newegg order for the new parts until friday when I get paid.

This computer thing has been a known issue for a while, but monday was the first day I’ve had off in around 15 in a row to even try and fix it. I was hoping the hardware I had would work (the old system has been sitting in our storage for a while so I could use it for something like this eventually) but the mobo just has too many problems. Building another server inside the case will take more time than buying one on the market, but their cases are smaller and functionality limited, plus they go for around 600 – which is stupid when I’ve already got a case, power-supply, and once I free them from the Drobo, a bunch of storage drives.

sorry for the rant, I’m kinda exhausted.

So yeah. If glancing at that block of text makes you feel tired and frustrated, then you don’t even have to read it. That’s the jist of it – computer issues and then frustration. Granted, a lot of the time spent there has nothing to do with the Drobo, but if the damn thing worked I wouldn’t be trying to scrounge up old motherboards to slap together a linux server.

Basically, it’s a lot less expensive and less of a headache in the long run (plus you get sweet features like network access, backup systems, and media serving to wireless devices) to just build a small tower server and set it up with Amahi, Ubuntu, or Windows Home Server. When the damn thing dies (and it will), you can figure out what part to replace or at least access your drives.

I guess you could buy one of those little Windows Home Server boxes that they sell everywhere, but I really think it’s worth it to spend a little extra time and a lot less money to end up with something a lot more expandable and customizable (mine is gonna have 6 sata slots and 1 IDE, and can totally be used as a desktop computer for office work, even play some games.) The easiest option, I think, is to drop 100 bucks on Windows Home Server (cheap for a windows OS! Try the free trial.) Here’s a good checklist for setting up the server or seeing if you have the parts to try one out. Here’s a rundown on a custom built server out of spare parts, over at Vidmar.

If a free operating system sounds better to you, there are a lot of good linux alternatives. Amahi, one I liked a lot, is free, slick, and runs in Fedora – requires some linux knowledge, but it’s all out there on the internet. Almost all these set ups can run headless, so you don’t necessarily need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

All those wires might look very intimidating to some of you less technical arty types, but I’m sure you know someone who can show you the basics. You could just follow the directions that come with your oem hardware (it’s how I learned) or have someone help you out. They could just build the basic system for you, then for hardrives (increasing your storage) it’s as easy as LEGO once you know what you’re doing. Well, with a little more screwdriver, but that’s just to secure ‘em in the case.

If you are a photographer who knows how to make platinotypes (looking at a couple of you), you can figure this shit out.

I’m not expert on this stuff (I only worked in a computer repair shop for one year, back in the 2001, so I’m dreadfully behind on a lot of knowledge), but I’ve had to put a lot of time and research into it and hopefully you can gain a little from my (often negative) experiences.

This is super important for any digital artist (and seriously, don’t kid yourself, you are a digital artist if you are a photographer). You may not have 4tb of information from numerous  sources, like data heavy video projects or huge ass film scans, but even your family photos and bookkeeping should have some data redundancy. It’s not that hard to add networked access and automatic backups to that idea, and it ends up being cheaper and less of a headache than going with one of those fancy proprietary external enclosures.

So that’s that.

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 6:27 pm