Programmer Thoughts

By John Dickinson

Finding a good storage solution

January 27, 2009

I realized the other day that I have 110GB of stuff in my iTunes library. I don’t even think I have enough hard drive space left to get the last two seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I guess I should move everything to my 500GB external drive I bought last year.

Oh wait…it died. But I’ll get to that later.

And Karen is running out of space on her external drive, too. (How does she use up space so quickly? Why are Photoshop files so big?)

So it looks like it’s time to find a good solution for all of my home storage needs.

To tell the whole story, I need to go back a bit. Karen’s laptop has a 100GB internal drive. Not bad, but by no means sufficient when doing a lot of graphic design work. A few years ago, we got a Western Digital Passport drive. I really liked it. It has a great form factor–you could literally put it in your pocket. It was powered by the USB connection. It was relatively cheap. All-in-all, I thought we were getting a really good deal.

And then Karen’s files started getting corrupted. You know, the files that she uses to run her business? So much for Western Digital.

Shortly after that saga, Apple released OS 10.5. It included Time Machine, a truly elegant home backup solution that is seamlessly integrated into the desktop. It has saved me from accidental deletes on more than one occasion.

So to take advantage of Time Machine and to replace Karen’s failed Passport drive, we ordered two 500GB LaCie drives. Again, they were a pretty good deal: cheap, lots of connections on the back, lots of space. I used mine for backup and Karen used hers for backup and storage for work documents and the thousands of pictures we have of Ian.

I think you can guess where this is going.

LaCie drives have a problem with their power supplies. Wait, that’s not quite right. I think the LaCie representative on the phone said, “This is a rare problem, but since you have 2 drives, I’ll go ahead and send you the replacement power supply for the broken one and an extra so you will have a spare.” LaCie, you aren’t really giving me a lot of confidence in your product.

Karen is still using her LaCie drive (but running out of space), and it seems to be working just fine, but mine died. It seems like the power cable is fine, but some of the electronics in the case went bad. Now I don’t have any backups on my computer, and I’m running out of space.

So I’ve been in the market, as it were, for something that is a little more reliable. Since I’m looking at something new, I figured I could dream a little and think of what I would really like. What kind of things do I want in a home storage system?

  1. Lots of space
  2. Future proof. That is, I want to be able to grow my space.
  3. Reliable. It should not break if a hard drive breaks.
  4. Usable with Time Machine for backups
  5. In total, cost less than $1000. Preferably, much less
  6. Easy to use. I don’t want to have to be a full-time system admin at home every evening. I don’t have time for that, and I do it enough at work.
  7. Small and quiet would be nice
  8. Network accessible so Karen can get to her files when she is working in another room

Doing a lot of research online, I discovered that there aren’t a lot of good options out there. One product I looked at is Netgear’s ReadyNAS NV+. It looks like a good product, but I had two qualms about it. First, it is somewhat expensive. Without any disks, it is about $700. Second, it doesn’t have any official support for Time Machine. On the other hand, the ReadyNAS has some really nice features I like. There are a lot of people that use it and love it. It has built-in network support. People have been able to get it to work with Time Machine (although this use is unsupported). Overall, it seems like a good product; my main beef is the price.

I came across another product I liked: Drobo. Data Robotics makes a little toaster-sized box called Drobo that holds four hard drives, protects against disk failure, connects to a computer with USB or Firewire, and makes management about as complicated as using an iPod. It doesn’t have built in network support (but you can add a DroboShare for another $200), and it is a little pricey for what you get. Retail price for a Drobo without any drives is about $500. In my opinion, $300 to $400 would be a much better price for what you get. One thing that is not mentioned in the marketing material for the Drobo is the $50 annual licensing fee that lets you get firmware updates and tech support for the Drobo.

Not liking the price a whole lot, but liking the promise of hands-off storage, I ordered a Drobo and four 750GB hard drives. They were delivered, I took it home, and the tragedy of errors continued.

I spent quite a bit of time looking online about the best way to use the Drobo for Time Machine backups and storage. I connected the Drobo to my computer, thinking that I could set it as a shared drive so Karen could see it on her machine. That saves me the $200 for the DroboShare, right? Well, since Karen’s info is “mission critical” to her business, I figured I would risk my data before using her as a guinea pig. I set up a sparsebundle file on the Drobo to use for Time Machine backups. This lets me limit the amount of space used by Time Machine. I didn’t want to fill up the Drobo with backups and have no space for any media, and since the Drobo is reported to the OS as being bigger than it really is (a nice feature that allows for seamless future expansion), Time Machine, when left in an unlimited state, could try to save backups to hard drive space I don’t have. Everything seemed to be going very well. I started my initial backup of all my data (including my iTunes media), and let it churn. Hmmm….did that really just take the better part of a day to copy 180GB to the Drobo?

Finally, the backup is done. Mount the sparsebundle, browse the Time Machine backup, everything seems to be working well. Yay for the Drobo. So I moved my iTunes library over (another long wait to copy 110GB). Things are going well. I can see my data in iTunes. I can play the music. Well I guess I don’t need to keep using all the space on my hard drive, right? The data is on my Drobo, safe and secure. Move the iTunes folder to the Trash. Gulp.¬† Empty trash. That was kinda scary, but now I’m in the brave new world of redundant data storage. Even if something goes wrong, I have a Time Machine backup of my iTunes music. I can just restore it and go on with my life.

Unless the backup is corrupted.


The first sign of trouble was when Time Machine reported that it couldn’t save the backup because the target disk was read-only. “That’s weird,” I thought. Everything looks ok to me. So I eject the Drobo and plug it back in.

“This disk has errors that could not be recovered and has been made available to you with limited functionality. Please back up your data and reformat the drive.”

Errors? I looked down at the Drobo. Four soothing green lights stared back saying, “Everything’s ok here.”

A little more digging and the damage is worse than I feared. iTunes is listing all of my music, but dozens of files are reported as missing. I open the folders on the Drobo and searched for them. The folders were there, but they were all empty. Some are files that I ripped from CDs. Some are files I bought on iTunes.

A feeling of dread begins to set in.

Scared of making it worse, I didn’t touch the computer again for three days.

Having steeled myself to the task ahead, I started to look for the missing data. It’s nowhere to be found. I copied what files I had back to my internal hard drive and vowed to never, ever, delete it again. I tried to think back to what I had done with the Drobo that had caused me to loose data. Although little more than a guess, I think I have an explanation for the problem.

At some point in my first adventures with the Drobo, I restarted my computer. However, the Drobo (or something) seemed to hang and not let the computer shut down properly. Seeing that, I used the power button on my Mac to turn the computer off. Having done it many times before with no ill effects, I didn’t think anything of it. My actions seemed to offend the Drobo mightily, and the filesystem on it got corrupted. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst kinds of problems. I know immediately if a drive dies, because I can’t see it anymore. When the filesystem got corrupted, there was no warning. I didn’t know about the problem until it was too late. Although I don’t completely blame the Drobo for this error, it didn’t do anything good for our relationship. After all, isn’t the Drobo supposed to protect against data corruption errors? That’s why I bought the thing.

Several hours and $120 later, I had finished running Disk Warrior on the Drobo. Disk Warrior fixed the corruption of the Time Machine backup and I was able to restore all of my iTunes library. If your data is worth more than about $100 to you, get it. Disk Warrior is one of the best programs I have ever used.

As an aside, I want to write programs like Disk Warrior. I want to be a hero when my programs are run. Those developers have my gratitude and admiration. They have made a wonderful program, and, if they are ever in town, drinks are on me (that’s Dr Pepper for all my conservative family members reading this).

So now that I have my data back, I’m left looking at a little black box, and I can’t help but thinking of the phrase “black hole.” Do I really want to try this again, or was this just a $500 mistake? To say the least, my confidence was shaken.

I spent the rest of the week carefully reseting and using the Drobo. Things seemed to be working better the second time around, but I still wasn’t using it as any sort of primary storage. I copied (not moved) my iTunes files back over to the Drobo and found another problem. The Drobo is slow. I could not watch HD TV shows that were stored on the Drobo without any stuttering of the picture or sound.

The last strike against the Drobo was when one of my drives was reported as bad (it’s a week-old hard drive). I took out the drive, put it back in, and haven’t had any problems with it. Now I’m really unsure about what the Drobo tells me.

Overall, my opnion of the Drobo is that it is a great little box that would be good for backups, but I can’t recommend it as primary storage for data. And, unfortunately, there are other options that offer cheaper backups out there, if all you are looking for is lots of space and hard drive failure protection.

Unfortunately, with the Drobo having struck out, I’m back to square one. I have no backups for my computer. Karen is running out of space on her external drive. I’m running out of space on my hard drive.

I went back to my list of requirements and started dreaming. If I could have anything, what would I have? What I want is a Drobo that is faster and more reliable.

A few years ago, I started hearing about this wonderful new filesystem called ZFS. In a nutshell, it’s free, it offers tremendous file protection that is completely transparent to the user, and it can hold so much information that I could literally record every second of my life and not fill it up. There are several implementations of ZFS, but the official version is included in OpenSolaris, an open-source operating system made by Sun that is similar to Linux.

I’m fairly proficient at technical things, and although I don’t relish the thought of maintaining a file server at home, I know that I have the knowledge to do so. Plus, ZFS looks really easy to use. I should be able to set it up once and not worry about it. So I started looking for a computer that I could use as a home file server running ZFS. I decided that I wanted a little¬† more customization than I get just ordering something from Dell, so I started putting pieces together at to see what my costs would be. It turns out, you can get a really nice computer that does everything the Drobo + DroboShare does and more for about the same cost as the Drobo + DroboShare. Looking good so far.

Not wanting to order a computer without knowing for sure if ZFS would meet my needs, I decided to run a little test. Sun makes a great little (free) program called VirtualBox that lets you run different operating systems in a window on your current computer. I installed VirtualBox and made an OpenSolaris machine in it that is just like what I would put together myself. I started it up, followed some simple ZFS tutorials I found online, and quickly realized that I could do everything I want. I can have a large pool of storage for iTunes media and pictures. I can have a second large pool for Karen’s work files. I can set up volumes that look like blank hard drives to our current computers that we can use for Time Machine backups. And everything is protected from disk failure and corruption by ZFS. I think I found the greener pasture.

So this morning I mailed back my Drobo for a refund (minus a restocking fee, grrr), and placed my order for my new computer parts. Let’s hope this one works out.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

The thoughts expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.