Permanent data storage

We need to focus our efforts on finding more permanent ways to store data. What we have now is inadequate. Hard drives are susceptible to failure, data corruption and data erasure (see effects of EM pulses for example). CDs and DVDs become unreadable after several years and archival-quality optical media also stops working after 10-15 years, not to mention that the hardware itself that reads and writes to media changes so fast that media written in the past may become unreadable in the future simply because there’s nothing to read it anymore. I don’t think digital bits and codecs are a future-proof solution, but I do think imagery (stills or sequences of stills) and text are the way to go. It’s the way past cultures and civilizations have passed on their knowledge. However, we need to move past pictographs on cave walls and cuneiform writing on stone tablets. Our data storage needs are quite large and we need systems that can accommodate these requirements.

We need to be able to read/write data to permanent media that stores it for hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of years, so that we don’t lose our collective knowledge, so that future generations can benefit from all our discoveries, study us, find out what worked and what didn’t.

We need to find ways to store our knowledge permanently in ways that can be easily accessed and read in the future. We need to start thinking long-term when it comes to inventing and marketing data storage devices. I hope this post spurs you on to do some thinking of your own about this topic. Who knows what you might invent?

A comparison of CrashPlan and Backblaze

I’ve been a paying CrashPlan customer since 2012 and my initial backup still hasn’t finished. I’ve been a paying Backblaze customer for less than a month and my initial backup is already complete. 

I’m not a typical customer for backup companies. Most people back up about 1 TB of data or less. The size of my minimum backup set is about 9 TB. If I count all the stuff I want to back up, it’s about 12 TB. And that’s a problem with most backup services.

First, let me say this: I didn’t write this post to trash CrashPlan. Their backup service works and it’s worked well for other members of my family. It just hasn’t worked for me. This is because they only offer a certain amount of bandwidth to each user. It’s called bandwidth throttling and it saves them money in two ways: (1) they end up paying less for their monthly bandwidth (which adds up to a lot for a company offering backup services) and (2) they filter out heavy users like me, who tend to fill up a lot of their drives with unprofitable data. My guess (from my experience with them) is that they throttle heavy users with large backup sets much more than they throttle regular users. The end result of this bandwidth throttling is that, even though I’ve been a customer since 2012 — at first, I was on the individual backup plan, then I switched to the family plan — my initial backup never completed and I was well on track to never completing it.

When I stopped using CrashPlan’s backup services, out of the almost 9 TB of data that I need to back up constantly, I had only managed to upload 0.9 TB in FOUR YEARS. Take a moment and think about that, and then you’ll realize how much bandwidth throttling CrashPlan does on heavy users like me.

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After four years of continuous use, I backed up a grand total of 905.7 GB to CrashPlan

To be exact, counting the various versions of my data that had accummulated on the CrashPlan servers in these four years, I had a total of 2.8 TB stored on their servers, but even if you count that as the total, 2.8 TB in FOUR YEARS is still an awfully small amount.

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Space used on CrashPlan’s servers: 2.8 TB

Tell me honestly, which one of you wants this kind of service from a backup company? You pay them for years in a row and your initial backup never finishes? If a data loss event occurs and your local backup is gone (say a fire, flood or burglary), you’re pretty much screwed and you’ll only be able to recover a small portion of your data from their servers, even though you’ve been a faithful, paying customer for years… That just isn’t right.

I talked with CrashPlan techs twice in these fours years about this very problematic data throttling. Given that they advertise their service as “unlimited backup”, this is also an ethical issue. The backup isn’t truly unlimited if it’s heavily throttled and you can never back up all of your data. The answer was the same both times, even the wording was the same, making me think it was scripted: they said that in an effort to keep costs affordable, they have to limit the upload speeds of every user. The first time I asked them, they suggested their Business plan has higher upload speeds, so in other words, they tried to upsell me. During both times, they advertised their “seed drive service”, which was a paid product (they stopped offering it this summer). The gist of their paid service was that they shipped asking customers a 1 TB drive so you could back up to it locally, then send it to them to jumpstart the backup. Again, given my needs of backing up at least 9 TB of data, this wasn’t a userful option.

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This is false advertising
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This is also false advertising

Some of you might perhaps suggest that I didn’t optimize my CrashPlan settings so that I could get the most out of it. I did. I tried everything they suggested in their online support notes. In addition to tricking out my Crashplan install, my computer has been on for virtually all of the last four years, in an effort to help the Crashplan app finish the initial backup, to no avail.

Another thing that bothered me about CrashPlan is that it would go into “maintenance mode” very often, and given the size of my backup set, this would take days, sometimes weeks, during which it wouldn’t back up. It would endlessly churn through its backup versions and compare them to my data, pruning out stuff, doing its own thing and eating up processor cycles with those activities instead of backing up my data.

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Synchronizing block information…
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Compacting data… for 22.8 days…
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Maintaining backup files…

I understand why maintenance of the backups is important. But what I don’t understand is why it took so long. I can’t help thinking that maybe the cause is the Java-based backup engine that CrashPlan uses. It’s not a Mac-native app or a Windows-native app. It’s a Java app wrapped in Mac and Windows app versions. And most Java apps aren’t known for their speed. It’s true, Java apps could be fast, but the developers often get lazy and don’t optimize the code — or that’s the claim made by some experts in online forums.

Another way to look at this situation is that CrashPlan has a “freemium” business model. In other words, their app is free to use for local (DAS or NAS) backup or offsite backup (such as to a friend’s computer). And one thing I know is that you can’t complain about something that’s given freely to you. If it’s free, you either offer constructive criticism or you shut up about it. It’s free and the developers are under no obligation to heed your feedback or to make changes because you say so. As a matter of fact, I used CrashPlan as a free service for local backup for a couple of years before I started paying for their cloud backup service. But it was only after I started paying that I had certain expectations of performance. And in spite of those unmet expectations, I stuck with them for four years, patiently waiting for them to deliver on their promise of “no storage limits, bandwidth throttling or well-engineered excuses”… and they didn’t deliver.

Here I should also say that CrashPlan support is responsive. Even when I was using their free backup service, I could file support tickets and get answers. They always tried to resolve my issues. That’s a good thing. It’s important to point this out, because customer service is an important aspect of a business in the services industry — and online backups are a service.

About three weeks ago, I was talking with Mark Fuccio from Drobo about my issues with CrashPlan and he suggested I try Backblaze, because they truly have no throttling. So I downloaded the Backblaze app (which is a native Mac app, not a Java app), created an account and started to use their service. Lo and behold, the 15-day trial period wasn’t yet over and my backup to their servers was almost complete! I couldn’t believe it! Thank you Mark! 🙂

I optimized the Backblaze settings by allowing it to use as much of my ISP bandwidth as it needed (I have a 100 Mbps connection), and I also bumped the number of backup threads to 10, meaning the Backblaze app could initiate 10 separate instances of itself and upload all 10 instances simultaneously to their servers. I did have to put up with a slightly sluggish computer during the initial backup, but for the first time in many years, I was able to back up all of my critical data to the cloud. I find that truly amazing in and of itself.

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This is what I did to optimize my Backblaze installation

As you can see from the image above, I got upload speeds over 100 Mbps when I optimized the backup settings. During most of the days of the initial upload, I actually got speeds in excess of 130 Mbps, which I think is pretty amazing given my situation: I live in Romania and the Backblaze servers are in California, so my data had to go through a lot of internet backbones and through the trans-Atlantic cables.

The short of it is that I signed up for a paid plan with Backblaze and my initial backup completed in about 20 days. Let me state that again: I backed up about 9 TB of data to Backblaze in about 20 days, and I managed to back up only about 1 TB of data to CrashPlan in about 4 years (1420 days). The difference is striking and speaks volumes about the ridiculous amount of throttling that CrashPlan puts in place for heavy users like me.

I also use CrashPlan for local network backup to my Drobo 5N, but I may switch to another app for this as well, for two reasons: it’s slow and it does a lot of maintenance on the backup set and because it doesn’t let me use Drobo shares mapped through the Drobo Dashboard app, which is a more stable way of mapping a Drobo’s network shares. CrashPlan refuses to see those shares and requires me to manually map network shares, which isn’t as stable a connection and leads to share disconnects and multiple mounts, which is something that screws up CrashPlan. I’m trying out Mac Backup Guru, which is a Mac-native app, is pretty fast and does allow me to back up to Drobo Dashboard-mapped shares. If this paragraph doesn’t make sense to you, it’s okay. You probably haven’t run into this issue. If you have, you know what I’m talking about.

Now, none of this stuff matters if you’re a typical user of cloud backup services. If you only have about 1 TB of data or less, any cloud backup service will likely work for you. You’ll be happy with CrashPlan and you’ll be happy with their customer service. But if you’re like me and you have a lot of data to back up, then a service like Backblaze that is truly throttle-free is exactly what you’ll need.

The value of a good backup

While working on the fifth episode of RTTE, I learned first hand the value of a good backup. The hard drive on my editing computer (my MacBook Pro) died suddenly and without warning. Thankfully, my data was backed up in two geographically different locations.

The day my hard drive died, I’d just gotten done with some file cleanups, and was getting ready to leave for a trip abroad. I shut down my computer, then realized I needed to check on a couple things, and booted it up again, only this time, it wouldn’t start. I kept getting a grey screen, meaning video was working, but it refused to boot into the OS. And I kept hearing the “click of death” as the hard drive churned. I tried booting off the Snow Leopard DVD, but that didn’t work either. I’d tested the hard drive’s SMART status just a couple of weeks before, and the utility had told me the drive had no problems whatsoever.

I had reason to worry for a couple of reasons:

  1. The laptop refused to boot up from the OS X DVD, potentially indicating other problems than a dead hard drive. I do push my laptop quite a bit as I edit photos and video, and I’d already replaced its motherboard once. I was worried I might have to spend more than I wanted to on repairs.
  2. All of the footage for the fifth episode of RTTE was on my laptop. Thankfully, it was also backed up in a couple of other places, but still, I hadn’t had reason to test those backups until now. What if I couldn’t recover it?

I had no time for further troubleshooting. I had to leave, and my laptop was useless to me. I left it home, and drove away, worried about what would happen when I returned.

A week later, I got home and tried to boot off the DVD again. No luck. I had to send it in, to make sure nothing else was wrong. In Romania, there’s only one Apple-authorized repair shop. They’re in Bucharest, and they’re called Noumax. I sent it to them for a diagnosis, and a couple of days later, I heard back from them: only the hard drive was defective, from what they could tell.

I was pressed for time. I had to edit and release the fifth episode of RTTE, and I also had to shoot some more footage for it. I didn’t have time to wait for the store to fix the laptop, so I asked them to get it back to me, while I ordered a replacement hard drive from an online store with fast, next-day delivery (eMag).

The hard drive and the laptop arrived the next day. I replaced the hard drive, using this guide, and also cleaned the motherboard and CPU fans of dust, then restored the whole system from the latest Time Machine backup. This meant that I got back everything that was on my laptop a few hours before it died.

I’d have preferred to do a clean OS install, then install the apps I needed one by one, then restore my files, especially since I hadn’t reformatted my laptop since I bought it a few years ago, but that would have been a 2-3 day job, and I just didn’t have the time. Thankfully, OS X is so stable that even a 3-year old install, during which I installed and removed many apps, still works fairly fast and doesn’t crash.

Some might say, what’s the big deal? The laptop was backed up, and you restored it… whoopee… Not so fast, grasshopper! The gravity of the situation doesn’t sink in until you realize it’s your work — YEARS of hard work — that you might have just lost because of a hardware failure. That’s when your hands begin to tremble and your throat gets dry, and a few white hairs appear instantly on your head. Even if the data’s backed up (or so you think) until your data’s restored and it’s all there, you just don’t know if you can get it back.

I’ve worked in IT for about 15 years. I’ve restored plenty of machines, desktops and servers alike. I’ve done plenty of backups. But my own computer has never gone down. I’ve never had a catastrophic hardware failure like this one until now. So even though I’ve been exposed to this kind of thing before, I just didn’t realize how painful it is until now. And I didn’t appreciate the value of a good backup until now.

So, here’s my advice to you, as if you didn’t hear it plenty of times in the past… BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER!

If you have a Mac, definitely use Time Machine. It just works. It’s beautifully simple. I’ve been backing up my laptop with Time Machine to the same reliable drive for years. It’s this little LaCie hard drive.

But the LaCie drive might fail at some point, which is why I also back up my data with CrashPlan. For this second backup, I also send my data to a geographically-different location. Since we live in Romania these days, I back up to my parents’ house in the US, where the backup gets stored on a Drobo. And the backup is also encrypted automatically by CrashPlan, which means it can’t be intercepted along the way.

It’s because of my obsessive-compulsive backup strategy that I was able to recover so quickly from the hardware failure. Thankfully, these days backups are made so easy by software like Time Machine and CrashPlan that anyone can keep their work safe. So please, back up your data, and do it often!

One more thing. You know the old saying, every cloud has a silver lining? It was true in my case. When I ordered the new drive for my laptop, I was able to upgrade from its existing 250GB SATA hard drive with an 8MB buffer and 5400 rpm to a spacious 750GB SATA hard drive with a 32MB buffer and 7200 rpm, which means my laptop now churns along a little faster, and has a lot more room for the 1080p footage of my shows. 🙂

Save the data!

Some of the most important technology programs that keep Washington accountable are in danger of being eliminated. Data.gov, USASpending.gov, the IT Dashboard and other federal data transparency and government accountability programs are facing a massive budget cut, despite only being a tiny fraction of the national budget.

Help save the data and make sure that Congress doesn’t leave the American people in the dark.

What’s next in data storage?

My recent musings on high definition and the state of the technology behind it have spurred me to think about data storage (not that it’s a new subject for me). But so far, I’ve commented only on what’s already been developed, and didn’t take the time to think about what’s next.

What’s the motivation behind this post? It’s simple. For Ligia’s Kitchen, it costs me about 10.5 GB for 5 minutes of final, edited footage of show, with a one-camera setup. What goes into the 10.5GB? There’s the raw footage (and sound files, if I use a standalone mic), the edits, and the final, published footage. When I use two cameras, the space needed can easily go up by 1.5-2.5x, depending on the shots I need to get. I shoot and edit in 1080p, and output to 720p.

My storage needs are okay for now. I’ve got plenty of space, and if I keep going at this rate, I should be fine. But… and there’s always a but, isn’t there… I have more show ideas in mind. And there’s the hypothetical possibility of shooting with a RED camera at some point in the future, if certain factors come together to allow it. So I’m thinking ahead.

Current hard drive technology (bits of data on disks) has certainly come a long way. Those of us who’ve been in the business long enough know what prices used to be like for capacities that are laughable by today’s standards. Back in 1999, I paid $275 for a 27GB hard drive. My laptop’s drive in college could store a grand total of 120MB. And when I began to learn programming, I’d load the code into memory from tape…

I remember being really excited about Hitachi’s new Perpendicular Magnetic Recording Technology, which came out in early 2006. They even had an animation on their website, which they’ve taken down since. That technology is behind all of the new hard drives that are on the market today, by the way. Hitachi came up with a way to get the bits of data to stand up (hence the term perpendicular) instead of lying down on hard drive platters, thus doubling the amount of data that could be stored onto them.

There are two roads ahead when it comes to data storage, of which one is more likely to succeed:

  • Optical storage (this is probably the future of storage)
  • Biological storage

Let’s first look at biological storage. One particular article made the rounds lately: researchers at the Chinese University in Hong Kong have managed to store 90GB of data in 1g of bacteria. While it sounds exciting, the idea of storing my data in petri dishes on my desk doesn’t readily appeal to me, and certain complications come up:

  • 1g of bacteria is about 10 million cells (that’s a LOT); one must start thinking about the potential for bio hazards when you work with bacteria.
  • The data is stored in a bacteria’s DNA, which means it’s encrypted (a good thing), but it’s also subject to significant mutation (a bad thing) and it takes a long time to retrieve it because you need a gene sequencer, which is tedious and expensive (a bad thing).

I’m not against this. Hey, if they can make it safe and fast, okay. But I believe this is going to be relegated to special applications. The article suggests the technique is currently used to store copyright information for newly created organisms (I wonder how many new bacteria researchers as a whole have created, and is it any wonder antibiotics have such a hard time working against them when we keep playing God). I also see this sort of data storage as a way for spies to operate, or for governments to keep certain secrets.

Okay, onto more cheery stuff, like optical storage. I’ve always thought there was massive potential here, and am glad to see significant work has already been done to make this a reality. There are two technologies which are feasible, according to research that’s already been done:

  • HDSS (Holographic Data Storage Systems), which so far can store up to 1TB of data in a crystal the size of a sugar cube, but doesn’t yet allow rewrites
  • 3D optical data storage, which so far can store up to 1TB of data onto a 1.2mm thick optical disc

These developments are very encouraging. Optical storage is safe, and its potential capacities are huge, possibly endless. And when you think about computer hardware, and how manufacturers are looking at using optical technology in the bridges and buses and wires inside the hardware, because it’s incredibly fast, you start to see how optical makes sense. Let’s also not forget fiber optic cabling, and its incredible capacity to carry data. It certainly looks like optical is the future!

So what’s going to happen to the standard 3.5″ form factor of today’s hard drives? Well, it’s likely that it will stay the same, even though it the storage technology inside it might change. We’ll have crystals and lasers instead of platters and heads, but they’ll likely be able to fit them in there somehow. I don’t think we’ll need to start keeping crystal libraries on our desks, like in Superman’s Crystal Cave, and sticking various-sized crystals into our computers any time soon, although it did look pretty cool when Christopher Reeve did it in the movie.

It really all depends on how soon this new technology will come to market. Right now, there’s clearly enough vested interest in the 3.5″ and 2.5″ form factors to motivate drive manufacturers to shoehorn the new technologies into those shapes, but if optical hard drives won’t be here for the next 5-10 years, then it’s possible that the form factor will change as well. We are after all moving to smaller, sleeker shapes for most computers, notebooks and desktops alike.

CrashPlan works for transatlantic backups

Updated 11/01/16: I’ve revised my opinion of CrashPlan. See here for the details.

Last week, I wrote an article called “What’s On Your Drobo“, and in it, I mentioned that I was going to try to use an app called CrashPlan to do backups from my photo library in Romania to my backup location in the US. I’m happy to say that it works as expected, and no, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke. Here’s a screenshot of an active backup. At the time, I was getting 2.7 Mbps throughput.

There is a bandwidth bottleneck somewhere, though I’m not sure where it is. My broadband connection in Romania sits at 30 Mbps up and down, as I mentioned here, and my parents’ broadband connection clocks in around 16 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up. Theoretically, since I’m uploading and they’re downloading, I should be getting at least 15 Mbps, but I’m not. So it looks like there’s either a bottleneck as my data exits Romania, or as it goes through the transatlantic fiber optic cables. If someone can chime in on this, I’d love to find out more. I do know that I hit that same 2.5 Mbps ceiling as I upload to SmugMug, YouTube and blip.tv.

Bottlenecks aside, I’m just happy I can do off-site backups, and at least given my current setup, it’s free! CrashPlan works as advertised! I have to admit I was a skeptic when I downloaded it and installed it. I figured it would work on the local network, which is where I did the initial backups, but it would surely run into some firewall issues when I tried it from another location. Nightmares of re-configuring my parents’ firewall remotely flashed before my eyes… Amazingly enough, I didn’t have to do any of that! It just works!

So, if you’re interested in doing this sort of thing, download CrashPlan (it’s multi-platform), install it on both computers where you want to use it, configure it (use the help section), test it, then let it do its thing!

One thing I need to mention is that if one of the computers falls asleep, the backup will be paused until it wakes up. Even though I set my parents’ iMac to wake up for network traffic, CrashPlan doesn’t seem to be able to wake it up when I try to start the backup from my end. Keep that in mind and plan your backups accordingly.

What’s on your Drobo?

The folks at Data Robotics put together a short video that showcases Drobo owners talking about what they store on their Drobos, and asked their Twitter followers what’s on their units.

That got me thinking about what I store on my Drobos. I have four Drobos in total: three 1st Gen Drobo units (USB 2.0 only) and one 2nd Gen Drobo (Firewire 800 + USB 2.0). Perhaps that makes me a bit unusual. Most people have one or two units, not four. But there’s reason to the seeming excess.

For one thing, I have a huge photo library. (You can find the photos I edited and published here.) For another, my wife and I have a huge video library. These are movies and cartoons we had on VHS tapes, which we digitized, or on DVDs, which we archived for easy viewing, or TV shows and movies that we recorded from TV. We’re big fans of classic movies and cartoons from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and we collect all the ones we like. We also digitized most of our old paperwork. My medical records are all digital. So are my dental records. So are a bunch of our other documents. I scanned all the stuff I could scan, and now when I need to look something up, it’s right there at my fingertips. I’ve also started shooting video more intensively this past year, in SD and HD. (You can find my published videos here or here.) All that stuff takes a fair amount of space — terabytes to be more precise. And to top off this whole list, we live our life on two continents (North America and Europe).

Here’s what I do to make sure I don’t lose my data:

  1. I keep a Drobo with my parents, at their place. On it, I store a backup of my photo library and our video library, along with their files. I back up my live photo library to it using CrashPlan, a piece of software that will let you back up your data to a friend’s machine. I’ve actually just started using it, and while I’ve been able to back up just fine with both machines on the same network, being able to do it from thousands of miles away will be a litmus test of the software’s capabilities. I’ll be sure to write about it if it proves workable. The video library gets backed up every once in a while in a pretty simple manner: I carry movies and videos to them on a hard drive and copy them onto the Drobo. Updated 4/21/10: CrashPlan does indeed work as advertised!
  2. I keep two Drobo units at our home. On one of them, I keep our video library, and an extensive, historical file archive. On another, I keep a mirror copy of my live photo library, which is currently stored on a WD Studio drive, because it’s smaller and easier to transport than a Drobo, and I do a fair bit of traveling. I mirror my photo library with an app called Synkron, which works great. I switched to the WD Studio when I started traveling extensively and realized the Drobo couldn’t always fit safely into my luggage. (Where oh where is that Drobo carrying case I wrote about last year?)
  3. I gave the fourth Drobo to my brother, who needed a solid data storage device to begin to archive his ever-growing library of ethnological videos. He’s a documentary filmmaker who travels around Romania studying and recording religious and secular customs, which are being forgotten and buried along with the old folks. He wants to preserve these things for posterity. You can learn more about what he does at his website, called ORMA.

So that’s how I use my Drobos. However, I’ll have another logistical issue to deal with in the near future. I’m running out of space on the WD Studio drive, which has 2 x 1 TB drives in it. I run it in RAID 1, and in another month or two, it’ll be completely full. I’ll need to start using one of my Drobo units as my primary photo editing/storage device again. This means I’ll shuffle all my data around once more. A possible new arrangement will see me using the 2nd Gen Drobo for the storage and editing of my photos and videos, and the other for the storage and retrieval of our video library and historical file archive, while the WD Studio drive will see some backup duty or be relegated for travel-only purposes.

The current drive distribution among the three Drobos I use actively is as follows:

  • 2 x 2 TB drives + 2 x 1 TB drives in the Drobo that stays with my parents
  • 4 x 1 TB drives and 4 x 500 GB drives, respectively, in the two Drobos that are with us
  • I can’t speak for my brother, but I believe he’s using 4 x 1 TB drives in his Drobo

I’d love to hear how you are using your Drobo. Perhaps you have some ideas for me?

Image and video used courtesy of Data Robotics. The 2nd Gen Drobo is available for purchase from Amazon or B&H Photo. The 1st Gen Drobo has been discontinued as of 2009. Be sure to also check out my reviews of the Drobo S, DroboPro and DroboElite.

Hardware review: ioSafe Solo, the fireproof and waterproof drive

The folks from ioSafe gave me a 500 GB ioSafe Solo drive and asked if I could write about it. The short summary is this: it’s quite different from a regular external drive, and yes, it does exactly what it says it’s supposed to do — it is fireproof and waterproof.

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How is it different? For one thing, it’s big — much bigger than a regular external drive, much bigger than even a Drobo. Keep in mind this is a single-drive enclosure, while the Drobo is a four-drive enclosure. It’s also much heavier than a regular external hard drive. The discrepancy is explained solely by its unique purpose, which is to withstand fires and floods. I’ll explain below.

iosafe-solo-and-drobo-1

The ioSafe drive is made with technologies like the FloSafe air cooled vent, HydroSafe water barrier and DataCast fire safe — patented technologies which the folks at ioSafe invented.

One of my concerns with the drive, given its watertight and fireproof seals, was how it cools itself. Could it withstand regular use? Wouldn’t the drive overheat during extended use? The answer is no, thanks to the FloSafe vents, which stay open and allow air to circulate through the enclosure as long as the room temperature stays under 200° F. Once the ambient heat passes over that threshold, the vents close and seal automatically, protecting the drive inside. The closing mechanism doesn’t rely on electricity — it’s mechanically triggered, which means it’ll work whether or not the drive is plugged in.

The drive and circuits are packed inside a foam enclosure called the DataCast fire insulation. The DataCast formulation forms a chemical bond with water molecules that, at temperatures above 160° F, releases water vapor to limit the internal temperature of the hard drive. This enables the ioSafe data storage product to protect your data from heat damage while the unit is engulfed in fire. Typical fires last about 30 minutes and have temperatures of approximately 800° F to 1000° F. The ioSafe fire resistant data storage product has been tested up to UL 72 one-hour standards at 1700° F and the ASTM E119 fire curve standard. While the strength and duration of a fire cannot be predicted, the ioSafe drive has been over-engineered to withstand even the toughest fires, and that’s good news for your data.

When it comes to flood protection, the HydroSafe barrier blocks fresh or saltwater damage, including full immersion, while still allowing for the heat dissipation necessary for normal functioning. All ioSafe products are inherently flood resistant, whether or not the vents are open or closed, which is as it should be, since a flood isn’t normally associated with a temperature rise above 200° F.

The official specs of the ioSafe Solo drive which I reviewed say that it’s fireproof to 1550° F up to ½ hour and waterproof to 10 feet of fresh or saltwater up to 3 full days. They also say the drive comes with a 3-year warranty and a $1,000 Data Recovery Service, which works as follows (quoting from ioSafe website):

  1. The Company or its contracted partner will provide phone or email based support to assist in recovering the data, or
  2. The Company will pay for the disaster exposed product to be shipped back to the Company’s headquarters for data recovery. If data recovery is successful, a replacement product will be loaded with the original data and shipped back to the original user, or
  3. At the discretion of the Company, if the data recovery by the Company is not successful, the Company will pay up to the amount shown in the table below for the specific product to a third-party disk recovery service of the Company’s choice to extract the data. Any data extracted will be loaded on a replacement product and shipped back to the original user. The Company has the right to use a factory refurbished product as the replacement product.
Product Line U.S. Dollars per Disk
S2, R4 $5,000
3.5 Pilot, 3.5 Squadron $2,500
Solo External HDD $1,000

I know of no other company that offers a free data recovery service, particularly after a damaging incident such as a fire or a flood. ioSafe does it, proving their commitment to the safety of your data.

Now let’s talk about the other aspects of the drive, such as its looks, performance and noise levels.

The enclosure of the ioSafe Solo is made of solid sheet metal, particularly the front, top and bottom, which is made of a single piece of 1 mm thick steel. It’s built like a tank — as hard drives go, anyway — and is made to withstand hits and dents. The simplicity of the design — two leaves of sheet metal bent into simple curves that fit together like a dovetail joint — makes it appealing to someone who likes good, solid design.

ioSafe-Solo-front

Other than its size, the enclosure’s exterior isn’t fancy or flashy. The real beauty lies inside, in the fireproof and waterproof padding and seals. Other than a bit of branding and the blue LEDs on the front, the sides, top and bottom feature no adornments at all.

ioSafe-Solo-side

The back side features a lip with a punch hole that can be used to secure the drive physically to a flat surface, or with a security cable. The back of the drive has a power switch, the USB connector, the air grille through which the drive cools itself, the DC power port, and a metal plate with the drive’s serial number etched onto it.

ioSafe-Solo-rear

Hardware noise is something I’m always concerned with. I prefer my hardware to be as quiet as possible. I compared the ioSafe drive with other external devices that I own, like the 1st generation Drobo, the 2nd generation Drobo, the WD My Book Studio Edition II, and the LaCie Mini. On an approximate loudness scale, it ranks below a 1st gen Drobo but above all the other devices, like the 2nd gen Drobo, the My Book Studio and the LaCie Mini. It’s the fan that’s the cause of the noise, not the hard drive itself. Given how much padding and sealing there is inside the enclosure, the fan has to work extra in order to cool it, so you’ll always hear its hum. The good thing is that it’s constant, so you tend to get used to it after a while.

The drive has a USB 2.0 interface, so you can expect typical USB 2.0 transfer speeds from it (it tops out at 480 Mbps). For example, I was able to copy 122.25 GB to the ioSafe Solo in 1 hour and 50 minutes, which is par, or perhaps even a little faster, than my prior experiences with USB 2.0 transfers.

Beside the size of the drive, which is considerable but appropriate given its specifications and purpose (5.0″W x 7.1″H x 11.0″L), there’s also its weight to consider (15 lbs). This is a heavy drive. It’s not something you can lug around in a backpack. It’s something that’s meant to be stationary and to withstand fires and floods. It is serious business. I wouldn’t even call the ioSafe Solo a drive you can keep on your desktop. Yes, you can do that, but it’s probably better to keep it bolted to the floor or to your wall, or even better, plug it into a USB to Ethernet device and keep it away from your desk, somewhere in the basement, in the attic, or in a closet. Turn it on every once in a while, copy your vital data to it, then turn it off and forget about it, until you have a disaster. Then dig it out, retrieve your data, and pat yourself on the back for having bought it.

The ioSafe Solo isn’t the only device made by ioSafe. They have a whole range of drives that cater to consumers and businesses alike. They have internal drives, made to fit inside existing computers, that use the same fire and water-resistant technology. They’re 2.5″ drives fitted inside custom 3.5″ enclosures with SATA interfaces. They also have rack-mountable RAID systems configured as RAID 1 (mirrors) and NAS devices that can be configured as RAID 0/1/5.

I initially planned to put the review unit through fire and water in order to test it, but I honestly don’t know what new things I could add to what people have already done to it in order to prove its capabilities. Take this video from the Wall Street Journal for example, where ioSafe’s CEO dunked the drive in a pool, then baked it in an oven to show the data stays safe.

Another reviewer barbecued the ioSafe Solo, only to find out the data stayed safe, as expected. On a local TV station in California, where ioSafe is headquartered, Robb Moore, ioSafe’s CEO, went on camera to torch yet another product — their 3.5″ internal drive that uses the same technology. The result, once more, was the expected one. The data stayed safe even though the drive was put through 30 minutes of 1200° F fire.

Finally, Gear Diary ran the ultimate fire test on the ioSafe Solo. They put it inside a burning car, left it in there for 10-15 minutes, hosed it down with professional fire equipment, then disassembled it to see if the data stayed safe. It did.

Like I said, I don’t know what I could add by torching and dunking my review unit, when it’s already been done much better by others. Gear Diary’s test in a burning car was the ultimate proof for me. That was a real test under real life conditions, and the drive proved that it could withstand it.

If you’d like to buy the Solo, you can do so directly from ioSafe or from Amazon.

After the 49 Fire that destroyed 63 homes in Auburn, CA on 8/30, ioSafe CEO Robb Moore offered free ioSafe Solo drives to the fire victims.

If you’d like to win your very own ioSafe Solo drive, then join ioSafe’s Facebook page. As soon as they have 5,000 fans, they’ll hold a drawing and award one of them the drive.

Images used courtesy of ioSafe.

Hardware preview: DroboPro

Updated 11/23/09: The new DroboElite is now available. It differs from the DroboPro because it offers two Gigabit Ethernet ports instead of one, multi-host support, and up to 255 Smart Volumes.

Today, April 7, 2009, Data Robotics launches a new product aimed at professionals and SMBs: the DroboPro. I got a preview of it yesterday. Let me share what I learned with you.

Drobo Pro top

The DroboPro has some really cool features, some of which I, along with others, anticipated and looked forward to seeing. As I wrote in my review of the Firewire Drobo, Data Robotics was looking at making an 8-drive Drobo, possibly rack-mounted. I also thought they might introduce the capability to safeguard against two drive failures. And, as I wrote in this comment on that same review, in response to a reader’s wishlist for the Drobo, I thought they might at some point build networking capabilities right inside the Drobo.

Well, the new DroboPro does all those things and more!

  • 8 (eight) drives
  • 2 form factors: desktop and rackmount
  • Dual drive redundancy
  • Gigabit ethernet
  • iSCSI
  • Smart volumes: create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB
  • Price is $1,299 for entry level DroboPro or $3,999 for a loaded model with eight 2TB drives
  • Instant $200 rebate with customer loyalty program

Let’s dive into those new features a bit. Keep in mind my knowledge is as yet limited, since I haven’t seen the full specs; I only had a phone briefing.

8 drives

You know how the drives are arranged horizontally in the regular Drobo? They’re arranged vertically in the new DroboPro, which is about the same height, and a little less than twice the width of the original.

Drobo Pro cover off

Two form factors

The DroboPro comes in a desktop form factor which is 12.17″ wide, 5.46″ high and 14.1″ long. The length is about 3″ more than that of the original Drobo. I think the extra space houses the additional circuitry for the network, power supply and other features.

The other form factor is a rackmount with a 3U height. If I understood correctly, the rackmount kit can be attached and detached as needed, so you can interconvert between the two form factors if you like.

DroboPro dimensions

Drobo Pro rackmount kit

Built-in power supply

One thing that’s easy to miss if you look at the back of the DroboPro is that it no longer has a DC adaptor port, but a regular 120-240V connector. Have a look and see. This means the power brick which converts 120-240V AC to 12V DC has been eliminated. You’ll also notice a power switch on the back. That’s new too.

Drobo Pro back

Dual drive redundancy

As it was explained to me, the DroboPro comes standard with single drive redundancy, and the dual drive redundancy is an option that can be turned on at any time. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, this means two of the drives inside the Drobo can fail, and your data will still be safe.

Gigabit ethernet

Business-class networking is now built right into the DroboPro, along with enterprise-class features, like iSCSI with automatic configuration. The ethernet port on the DroboPro does not replicate the functionality of the DroboShare, as I initially thought. It only works through the iSCSI protocol, which means it needs to be mapped directly to a host, like a server or workstation, which can then share it among multiple servers or workstations. In that sense the DroboPro is not a NAS (Network Attached Storage), but a SAN (Storage Area Network).

iSCSI

If you’ve set up iSCSI volumes in the past, then you know how much of a headache they can be, and how bad the performance can be if it’s not set up correctly or if the hardware isn’t working as it should. I know firsthand about this. With the new DroboPro, the iSCSI setup is automatic. It’s as easy as plugging it into the network. The Drobo Dashboard software then finds it and mounts it as a volume on your machine via iSCSI. The work is done behind the scenes so you don’t have to worry.

For Windows, the DroboPro uses the Microsoft iSCSI initiator, and for the Mac, the folks at Data Robotics wrote their own iSCSI initiator. Those of you who work with Xserve and Xsan use Fibre Channel technology to connect to the network volumes, and you may wonder why Data Robotics went with iSCSI. It’s because iSCSI is more utilitarian. It doesn’t require special network hardware to work; it can use the existing ethernet network infrastructure, so there’s a lower cost of entry and maintenance.

I was assured that iSCSI throughput on the DroboPro is very fast. I guess it’s up to us to do some testing once the DroboPro starts to ship, so we can see just how fast it is. See the iSCSI guide on Drobo’s website for more details.

Smart Volumes

With the DroboPro, you can create up to 16 different virtual volumes, each of which can grow to 16TB. This is very important for the enterprise market, where companies want to be able to separate the data onto separate volumes and assign separate access privileges to each. Those of you who are network admins can readily appreciate how useful this is. Those of you who are creatives can also appreciate being able to assign a volume for Time Machine backups, one for videos, one for photos, and so on. Furthermore, each volume can be resized as needed, which is a huge leap forward compared to the difficulty of resizing LUNs set up over RAID volumes.

Price

The entry level DroboPro (enclosure-only) costs $1,299. The high end DroboPro, which includes the rackmount kit, two drive redundancy and is pre-loaded with eight 2TB hard drives for a total of 16TB of space, costs $3,999. There’s also a handy customer loyalty program which will give you an instant $200 rebate if you’ve purchased a Drobo in the past.

Those of you who might balk at the price should compare the features and ease of use of the DroboPro with other comparable products on the market. I’m going to walk you through a different kind of comparison, one that looks at the cost of the original Drobo and the cost of the new DroboPro.

Think of the DroboPro as two regular Drobos in one. The original Drobo is $499 for the enclosure, so that brings the price to $998. The difference between $998 and $1,299 is made up by the additional networking features and the complexity of the circuitry and auto-management algorithms of an 8-drive array. Keep in mind the DroboPro has enterprise-class features like dual drive redundancy, iSCSI and smart virtual volumes. Those features alone warrant charging several hundred dollars to thousands more for it, as other companies who make similar products have already been doing.

Drobo Pro side

Summary

The DroboPro is a fantastic addition to the Drobo line. Its enterprise-class features, its incredible ease of use, and its unmatched storage flexibility make it the perfect external storage solution for busy professionals with serious storage needs or business server rooms. Users will appreciate all of the space it makes available for their work, and system admins will appreciate how easy it is to set up and maintain. From a design point of view, it’s a drool-worthy beauty. Having been a Drobo user for almost 1½ years, I can tell you it is my storage solution of choice, and I look forward to upgrading to a DroboPro some day.

Images used courtesy of Data Robotics.

Mozy advertising versus user experience

A few months ago, I was interested in offsite backup, and thought I’d give Mozy a try. Their Home Backup plan intrigued me. It was only $4.95, and was billed as unlimited. Could it actually work as advertised?

Short answer is no, not by a long shot. Sure, it only costs $4.95/month. That much is accurate. The unlimited part is where Mozy starts to stretch the truth. The problem lies with bandwidth, and I’ll give them this much: uplink speeds on US broadband connections, particularly on DSL lines, are horribly inadequate in order to perform any sort of decent backups.

But Mozy also does something I dislike, something that isn’t readily advertised on their site when users sign up: they cap the bandwidth for Home users at 1 Mbps. Even if you should be blessed with faster uplink speeds (like a fiber connection), you won’t be able to take advantage of it with Mozy. You’ll still only upload to the Mozy servers at 1 Mbps or less (usually around 600-800 kbps from my experience).

I had around 150GB of data I wanted to back up on my laptop at the time. It would have taken me several weeks (I think up to 13 weeks) to back up that data from my home DSL connection (860 kbps uplink). I had to reduce that amount to about 96GB, took my laptop into work, where the uplink pipe was much fatter, and still, it would have taken over 12 days to get that data backed up, because they were capping the uplink speed.

I then reduced my backup set even more, down to 59 GB (see below), hoping this would speed things up. It would have still taken a ridiculous amount of time to back up my data, and I only ended up getting frustrated with Mozy’s software in general, because of its poor design. Every time I wanted to configure the backup set, I needed to wait for the software to finish calculating the aggregate size for all file types, and that could take half an hour or more every time I opened that panel. Couldn’t they have cached this data when the operation was performed the first time?

Isn’t it ironic how they say the “Account storage limit” is “None”, yet you can never really quite test that None unless you leave your computer on and connected to the Internet for a month or more, which is clearly not feasible in the case of a laptop? Let’s not even consider the possibility that your Internet connection might go down, in which case the backup job would fail, and you’d need to start over…

In the end, in order to get any sort of progress with the Mozy backups, I reduced my backup set to 1GB. That’s right, 1GB, which allowed me to back up my Address Book, iCal, and Application Preferences, plus some documents. Then, and only then, did Mozy manage to complete the backup jobs in time.

I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pay $5/month so I can back up my contacts, calendar, and a few docs. That’s not acceptable to me. I canceled the service.

I did write to them to complain about this, and that’s how I found out about the 1 Mbps cap on uplink bandwidth. They also offered to give me a free month, but what good would that have been? I’d have only ended up more frustrated.

Some might say I should have tried the Mozy Business plan, which doesn’t cap uplink speeds and offers more options. For one thing, I don’t care for those extra options. For another, it would have cost me roughly $80/month ($3.95 for the license and $75 for the storage at $0.50 per 150GB). That’s not counting what it’d have cost me to back up my photos offline, which is what I really wanted to do. I have roughly 500 GB of photos, and according to Mozy’s pricing, that would be $250/month in addition to the $80/month I’d already be paying to back up my laptop.

Clearly, at those prices, Mozy is no longer the cheap, easy to use $4.95/month service that they advertise so widely, and instead of paying $330/month to them, I’d rather pay it to buy hard drives, copy my data, and ship them to my parents once every few months. It’d cost me a lot less.

I suppose they’re not entirely to blame. For some reason, $4.95 has become the price point for online home backup plans. Carbonite offers a similar plan for the same amount and other competitors are crowding around the same amount, although with different offerings. The thing is, you can’t really give people unlimited backup for $4.95 a month. Your costs as a business are higher. So what do you do? You fudge. You get truthy. Well, I don’t like it. I’d much rather see them offer a $15/month Home plan where they don’t cap the bandwidth but cap the amount I can back up — say, up to 75GB or something like that. I’ll let them work out the numbers, but the point is, I appreciate honesty a lot more than some cheesy pricing gimmick.

Updated 7/2/09: A reader (M.J. from Denmark) wrote to say the upload bandwidth cap at Mozy has been raised from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps. It’s an interesting move on Mozy’s part, but I still have questions about their customer service and the ability to properly restore customers’ data, as other people have indicated in the comments below.