personal comments edit

It’s not my only problem by any means, but it’s a big one.

I’m a perfectionist. I admit that. I’m also an engineer, the side effect of which means I’m always trying to make stuff better in some unquantifiable fashion.

I’ve blogged before about my media center setup and some of the issues I’ve run into. I’ve also wondered aloud at how non-geeks survive and all the fiddly shit that comes along with getting all of these devices and things to work together.

Recently I’ve moved my DVD library off my Windows Home Server onto a Synology DS1010+. In doing that, I think I figured out some of the reliability issues my home server was running into, so I almost have the system nice and stable.

In the back of my mind, there’s a voice. It’s asking me, “What can you do to make it better?

I know, consciously, that I need to stop messing around with the damn thing because it’s working perfectly. Subconsciously, though, is the constant drive to enhance.

How can I make the network faster? This would involve getting gigabit adapters for devices that don’t have them, fiddling with jumbo frames, setting up dual-band wireless-N for the devices that need it… but the network, while it could be improved, is at least reasonably stable right now and doing some of those things is just going to upset equilibrium.

How can I improve the media center front end PC? I think it’s underpowered and some of the drivers are out of date because the devices don’t all have recent 64-bit drivers… but they do have 32-bit drivers, so do I step the OS down to 32-bit, get a different system, or…? But it does what it needs to just fine - play DVD images off the network.

How can I make the home theater easier to use? I have a reasonable remote control right now and it’s not that bad to switch on the various components, but it’d be nice to have something like a Harmony One to round out the functionality. Of course, that involves the setup and maintenance of an additional piece of equipment, plus training costs (if you know what I mean).

…and so on. Do any of these things really need to be dealt with? No. Does something inside me drive me to want to? Yes. And, of course, doing so will create work - work that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really wish I didn’t have to do. Like I’m punishing myself for something.

I really need to learn to just leave well enough alone.

I’m on a Blackberry Curve right now and I’d like to move to an Android-based phone. Since Android plays so nicely with Google apps (calendar, contacts, etc.) and as I’d like to have everything in a nice central location, I figured I needed to get my info Googlefied.

I need keep the following in sync:

  • Outlook: My current system of record. Meetings get scheduled here, I do most of my daily work here.
  • Blackberry Curve: My phone (for now).
  • Google: A centrally accessible place, plus my interface with the Android phone I want to get (not sure on model yet).

For the Blackberry, the Blackberry Desktop Manager software works fine to sync. It’s not awesome - actually, it feels very fragile - but it mostly works. For the calendar, there are some odd issues with recurring appointments, reminders, and meeting attendees that I’m not thrilled with, but no showstoppers. Contacts appear to sync perfectly.

That leaves getting Outlook synchronized with Google, which is not an uncommon problem.

Failure 1:Plaxo

I’ve had a Plaxo account for a long time and a year or two back I upgraded to the premium account because I had some Outlook profile issues that caused all of my contacts to be lost. Having the automated remote backup for contacts was a lifesaver and still gives me peace of mind.

Plaxo has the ability to synchronize with various places, which is cool. Unfortunately, Google used to be one of those places but is not anymore. Calendar sync was working great until a couple of months ago, but contact sync never worked. Odd since Plaxo is a contact-based product. Research in the forums tells me they’re aware of the issue but there’s no schedule for a fix.

Failure 2:SyncMyCal

SyncMyCal came recommended to me by a couple of different friends who have been using it successfully, though I’m not sure how. I didn’t find any problems during my trial period, so I purchased… and then instantly found four problems.

  • Some Outlook contact fields don’t sync right. I couldn’t figure out exactly what the pattern here was, but I noticed that some of my contacts were not synchronizing. SyncMyCal tries to synchronize some Outlook contact fields as “user defined fields” in Google (because Outlook has so many fields on a contact) but sometimes it only sends over the field value and forgets to send a key. In Google, each custom contact field has to be a key/value pair. You end up getting a Google API error if you don’t do it right… and SyncMyCal doesn’t always do it right.
  • Reminder information isn’t synchronized if you don’t set up your Google calendar with a default reminder. In order for meeting reminder information to be synchronized to Google, you have to go into your Google calendar settings and configure a default reminder value. If you don’t, none of the appointments that get synchronized will have the reminders attached. This was a hard one to figure out, but at least there’s a workaround.
  • Contacts with multiple mailing addresses don’t synchronize all addresses. Say you have a contact with a work address and a home address. SyncMyCal picks one (apparently arbitrarily) and that’s the one that gets synchronized with Google. The other address(es) don’t get synchronized or even acknowledged. (Multiple email addresses synchronize fine; it’s multiple physical mailing addresses that have problems.)
  • Recurrence exceptions don’t synchronize from Google to Outlook correctly. Set up a recurring appointment in Google that runs every weekday for two weeks. On the second week, delete the Tuesday and Thursday appointments. Move the Wednesday appointment to one hour later. Now sync back to Outlook - SyncMyCal will still show the deleted appointments and the moved appointment will still be in its original slot. It doesn’t properly bring those exceptions back from Google. (It does, however, send exceptions properly from Outlook to Google.)

Finally, support for SyncMyCal is horrendous. You file a ticket, you get back a copy/paste response about how they’re sorry for the inconvenience… but no real solution. A month later, they’ll send you a patch for the old version of their product and give you a bunch of steps to run through involving backing up your data, uninstalling/reinstalling SyncMyCal, etc. When you finally do it, the patch they send won’t even communicate with Google, let alone synchronize. You report that, rinse and repeat. It’s like they didn’t actually try any of the patches they’re sending you.

Why are they sending me patches for the old version of the product? That doesn’t even make sense. I asked about that, too, and got an unclear answer about design problems or something.

Anyway, I reported all of these issues over four months ago and have had no resolution on any of them. I can’t really turn on two-way synchronization if neither calendar nor contact sync actually works. There goes $25.

Failure 3:Google Calendar Sync

Google Calendar Sync wasn’t that bad, but I found that it didn’t actually sync all of my meetings properly. I couldn’t ascertain the pattern here, either, except that it would sync appointments (no attendees) and some meetings… just not all meetings. I’d get an error in my synchronization log saying “Participant is neither attendee  nor organizer.”

There are tons of forum posts about this with just as many different things that “fixed it” for people. I tried all of the fixes people recommended and none of them got all of my meetings synchronizing. (Though, interestingly enough, two-way sync didn’t delete the meetings, either. They just sort of got ignored.)

Success:gSyncit

gSyncit does calendar and contact sync… but also task and memo sync, too, which is more than the above products do. I’ve been running two-way sync on the calendar, tasks, and memos now for a couple of weeks and it correctly synchronizes everything - recurrence exceptions, reminders, everything.

The only problems I’ve had with calendar sync involve really crazy recurrence exceptions and time zones.

I’ve caught it a couple of times where I was messing around and created a recurrence exception on Google, synchronized to Outlook, updated it in Google, and it didn’t properly update back to Outlook… but I was intentionally testing the boundaries so I probably did something really edge case there. (Just be aware, is all.) I tried to set up a specific reproduction but haven’t figured out quite the exact set of steps.

Also, I’ve had a couple of weird issues involving time zones - like if a meeting organizer sets something up at 12:15 EST, that’s 9:15 PST… but somehow it gets interpreted as 9:15 EST - the local time, the remote time zone - and ends up appearing at the wrong local time (in this example, 6:15 PST). It’s only happened for two meetings (neither of which I was going to anyway…). I reported it this morning and got an answer from support within 15 minutes. (The SLA is 24 - 48 hours, but I won’t complain about a 15 minute turnaround!) This is apparently an issue with Google Calendar not handling time zone issues well. The author is working on a fix that may resolve the issue.

I have not yet run contact sync two-way, but one-way from Outlook to Google works perfectly. It caught the multiple mailing addresses without issue, correctly located the contacts I already had in Google and added to their profiles… just fine. Honestly, the only reason I haven’t done two-way sync is because I have to clean up my contacts in Google a bit - I’m afraid I’m going to get a ton of junk flooding into Outlook that I don’t want. I have full faith that the two-way sync will work fine.

UPDATE 5/25/2010 12:00P: I enabled two-way contact sync between Outlook and Google “My Contacts” folder after doing some cleanup and it worked very well. It did add some contacts to Outlook that were in my Google “My Contacts” group that I didn’t want, but after I moved them out of “My Contacts” into “All Contacts,” they were properly removed from Outlook. I also had a couple of duplicates appear where in Outlook I had one email address for a person and in Google I had a different address. A little manual merge action fixed that up without issue and now I’m two-way-syncing my way to freedom and leisure.

It’s pretty flexible - you can sync multiple Outlook calendars to Google calendars (and you choose the mappings). You can sync your contacts with specific groups (e.g., the “My Contacts” group in Google rather than the “All Contacts” group). Memos get synchronized as Google docs and you can put them in a specific GDocs folder to keep them separate.

The only weird thing is that tasks synchronize with a separate calendar and show up as events. The reason is, apparently, that there’s no Google API to interface with the actual task list. I’m OK with that.

Downside: You can’t really tell at a glance when the last time you synchronized was or the number of items synchronized. The best you can do is look at the debug/error log, but it’s not straightforward.

Anyway, if you’re looking for sync software, check out gSyncit. I really like it, and for $15 (at the time of this writing), you can’t really beat it.

I’ve been having some trouble with my Windows Home Server involving some potentially misbehaving hardware when put under load. This really only manifests itself when I run PerfectDisk to defrag it, but I’m gathering it’s really a hardware or driver issue and not PerfectDisk’s fault. When you defrag the server will entirely hang up until you reboot it. Occasionally I’ll get file conflicts or lose my backup database. Not great.

Anyway, I have a lot of data stored on that Windows Home Server - terabytes of DVD rips (from discs I own) - and with the problems I’m having, it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence, especially since I can’t turn on file duplication given the size of the data. I don’t have enough storage to handle keeping double copies of it. Not only that, but I’ve noticed that, on occasion, just streaming the DVD rips (not HD, just regular old DVD rips) can get a little slow. Again, not great.

Since the WHS works for music and backups and other videos reasonably well, I figured I’d find a solution to move the DVD rips to and get them off the WHS. Once they’re off, I can remove some of [what I believe to be] the problem drives and figure out what the real issue is. Either way, finding a different NAS solution for my DVDs is a must so if a hard drive goes out, I don’t have to re-rip a bunch of stuff.

I did some research on NAS solutions that support RAID of various levels and I ended up on the Synology DS1010+. Why?

  • Speed. Looking at various reviews for NAS devices, Synology devices seem to always be rated high for speed, and usually higher than others.
  • Expandability. Most consumer-grade NAS solutions come with a max of four drive bays. After that, you can expand with eSATA (like I did for my Windows Home Server) and be at the mercy of the compatibility of the NAS with the port replicator or whatever. The DS1010+ actually has a specific port replicator that Synology sells that ensures the fast performance you expect and gives you a total of 10 drives’ worth of storage.
  • Data protection. As mentioned earlier, I can’t duplicate my DVD rips because I don’t have the room to store everything twice. In a RAID 5 array, though, I have protection for my data if a drive dies but I don’t have to have double the storage capacity to do it.
  • Flexibility. This thing appears to be a reasonable answer to WHS as far as features are concerned. You can have it run FTP, iTunes library sharing, DLNA media serving, client PC backup, security camera monitoring/recording, or a ton of other stuff. (I’m not going to do that all immediately; right now, just storing the DVD images is enough.)
  • Confidence. This is more a psychological thing, but… after having so many troubles with this WHS and the disks in it, I’ve lost some of the confidence I once had with it. I’ve started compulsively checking the light on the front to see if there’s a “Network Health Critical” warning. I never know if the thing’s going to hang up or fail. I need to find something new I can have some confidence in and put my mind at ease. That’s not a new WHS.

I picked the diskless NAS up at Amazon for $980. Next, drives.

Synology has a compatibility list for the drives it supports in its various devices. For the DS1010+, drives basically fall into two categories: “We’ve tested it and it works” and “It should probably work.” Given my current hardware issues, I wanted drives that were in the “We’ve tested it and it works” category. I wanted 2TB drives, I wanted reasonable performance (it doesn’t have to be an SSD to store DVD rips), and I didn’t want to go broke on it.

I settled on Seagate Barracuda ST32000542AS 2TB 5900RPM drives for $120 each at Amazon. Why?

  • Reasonable reviews. I found that unless you get into really expensive drives, most hard drives have poor reviews. The general reason it appears is that sometimes folks will get a DOA drive and instantly go for the one-star rating rather than resolving the issue and then rating the drive proper. You’ll also get the folks who had to call support and had a bad time, which factors in some, but doesn’t really say anything about the drive. Excluding those, it looks like [assuming you get fully functional drives] they’re pretty good.
  • Reasonable speed. They’re not 7200 RPM drives, but they are faster than 5400 RPM drives and even appear to compare favorably with some older 7200 RPM drives.
  • Price. There’s a gap in 2TB drive pricing between some of the 5400 RPM drives and the faster 7200 RPM drives. Like, it jumps from around $150 drive up to $280 drive without anything in the middle. Price for supposed performance, I couldn’t really beat $120 each.

I picked up four of those drives, so my total cost was $980 + (4 * $120) = $1460. That’s not a cheap bit of kit up front, but if I consider the storage and what I’ve already put in, it’s not that bad.

Interesting side note on my Windows Home Server issue: While I was researching drives, I came across a note in the Synology forums talking about issues people have seen with WD Green drives - the drives I have! Even on the Synology compatibility list you’ll see that there are only a couple of sub-models that performed reasonably in testing. I went through my drives on my WHS and it turns out only about half of them are the decent/peformant models; the others are models that have tested as poor and degrading performance over time. That very well could explain my problems. After I get my DS1010+ set up with all the DVDs moved over, I’ll be removing the problem disks to see if that fixes things.

UPDATE 6/16/2010: Removing the problem drives appears to have stabilized my WHS.

I got the NAS and the disks today. Love that Amazon Prime. Here are the boxes and then the unbox:

Boxed up

Unboxed

I installed all of the drives following the instructions in the quick start guide (very easy), plugged it into my UPS, connected it to the network, and turned it on. Here’s the NAS under my desk. From left to right: Synology DS1010+, Tripp-Lite UPS, Rosewill RSV-S5 eSATA port replicator, and HP EX475 Windows Home Server. You’ll notice that the DS1010+ is about the same size as the Home Server, just laid out horizontally instead of vertically.

Plugged in under the desk

Once it was plugged in, it was time to install the firmware. To do that, you use a program called “Synology Assistant” that installs on your client computer. The Assistant detects your NAS and allows you to install the “DSM” or “DiskStation Manager” software/firmware over the network. It’s a lot like installing Windows Home Server in that respect

  • the NAS is headless and you install and configure it all over the net.

I downloaded the latest Synology Assistant and DSM patch from the Synology download site rather than using the ones that came on the included CD. I wanted to be sure I had the latest version of everything rather than installing an old version and upgrading later. I unzipped it all in a folder and away I went.

I installed the Synology Assistant and there was a second of panic when I couldn’t find the icon for it in my Start menu - the reason is that I was running as a non-admin user and the installer only installs a shortcut for the user it installs under. In this case, the local machine Administrator was the credential set I entered when the installer asked for better credentials so that’s who got the icon. Rather than log out and log back in, I just ran the DSAssistant.exe program found in the install folder.

After unblocking it from Windows Firewall, I got this screen showing the detection of the DS1010+ and that no firmware was installed.

I double clicked on the server and it took me to an installation screen. First, I selected the DSM “patch” I had downloaded.

Then I walked through setting up the name of the NAS, the admin password, network settings, etc. Note that I used the “Step By Step” setup rather than the “One-Click.” Seeing as how I left everything as defaults except the administrator password, the one-click setup probably would have been fine.

 

 

After finishing the install, I went back to the Synology Assistant management screen (using the icons at the top) and it sort of freaked me out because the server status appeared hung on “Starting services.” I did a manual refresh (using the not-so-intuitive “Search” button) and the status updated to “Ready.”

 

I selected the DiskStation and clicked the “Connect” button which brought up the web interface to log in. I could also have just gone to port 5000 on the DiskStation by manually entering a URL in a browser.

After logging in, I went into the “Management” section and then into Storage -> Volume Manager, which automatically started the Volume Creation Wizard. I used the web-based wizard to create a RAID 5 volume out of the installed disks. Two notes on this:

  1. I used the “Custom Volume” option rather than the “Standard Volume” option because I wasn’t clear on what would happen in a multi-disk volume in “Standard” mode. I wanted RAID 5, so I specified.
  2. I selected the option to check/remap all the bad sectors. There shouldn’t be any on the new drives, but I also wanted to do some burn-in/health checking and this appeared to be the way to do it. That said, it takes FOREVER. Click the “go” button and leave it overnight. Note that you don’t have to stay connected to the web-based manager - you can close it up and let it run. To give you an idea, I let it run for about a half hour and got to 7% before deciding to let it be.

 

 

 

 

 

Once the volume was created, I wanted to make sure the disks were running in good order, so I ran an extended SMART Test on them. Granted, it’s not like a major stress test or anything, but it’s good to check what the drive’s reported condition is.

I let that run because the extended test takes 255 minutes. In the end, the results came back “Normal.”

And here’s the detailed info for one of the drives:

So, the disks seem to be working.

I noticed is that these particular drives are not always quiet. When they “woke up” the next morning (I left volume creation running overnight and logged in the next day), there was a noticeable amount of disk noise coming from them. I’d read a little about this in some of the user reviews. During the SMART Test, and even during the volume creation, they were reasonably quiet, but I/O can sometimes be a little noisy. They appear to test out, though, so if it’s just noise, I can handle that. It’s under my desk in the office, not sitting next to my TV while I’m watching a movie.

With the disks tested and ready for content, I had to make sure Windows file sharing was enabled. I also ensured the NAS was in the “WORKGROUP” workgroup so we can use our Windows credentials. (All of my machines are in the default “WORKGROUP” workgroup so this was fine.) Easy enough through the web console:

I then went in and created a user account on the system for all the users in the workgroup. I made sure to give them the same usernames and passwords as on the local machines so the Windows pass-through auth will work.

Finally, I had to create a shared folder for my DVDs to be stored in - also easy:

Note that I left the permissions read/write for the default system group. Since all the users are in that group, it means everyone has read/write permissions, which, for my purposes, is perfect.

From a general user standpoint, the web-based management utility is really nice and clean. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were using a native application. It’s a little more confusing than the WHS console, but then, it also does a lot more right out of the box.

Last thing to do is a little [really rough] speed test. I decided to copy a DVD rip I had made to both the home server and the new NAS. I used the speed estimation thing that shows up in the Windows copy dialog box, so it’s not, like “a benchmark” so much as a general indicator. Also, my laptop only has a 100 Mbit card on it so even though I’m connected to a gigabit switch, it’s negotiating down. (I tried a wireless N connection where I was getting 135 Mbit but various network interference and such, which is horrible in my house, ended up making it slower than a wired 100 Mbit connection.)

Write speed: Copying to Windows Home Server went between 10.5MB/sec and 10.8MB/sec, usually sticking around 10.7MB/sec. Copying to the Synology DS1010+ went between 10.6MB/sec and 11.1MB/sec, usually sticking at 11.0MB/sec. Not the major performance increase I thought it would be, but it’s a little faster.

Read speed: Copying from the Windows Home Server went between 10.9MB/sec and 11.2MB/sec. Copying from the Synology DS1010+ stuck pretty consistently between 11.1MB/sec and 11.3MB/sec. Again, not the major performance increase I thought it would be, but, again, a little faster.

Considering that I’m actually getting some level of data protection and a slight boost in speed, I can’t really complain. With my WHS setup, if a disk goes, I’m re-ripping. With the NAS, I’ve got a little RAID 5 overhead but I’m protected if a disk goes.

Also, again, it’s 100Mbit connection, so ostensibly with an actual gigabit connection I could get 10x the speed. I’d be curious to see the results with that. Maybe I’ll have to get a different adapter or try a different computer.

This sort of helps me in diagnosing some of the issues I’ve been seeing with Windows Media Center and DVD file sharing. I wonder now if maybe my media center PC is potentially a little underpowered to be driving a 1080p display. Maybe. I digress.

All in all, with the benefits listed earlier, I think this is a good move. I think the peace of mind alone will probably make up for the cost. Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, I’m going to get my DVDs moved over to this and decommission some of the problem drives on my WHS and see how that goes.

UPDATE 5/6/2011: I had an opportunity to talk about my experience with the DS1010+ on the Hanselminutes podcast with Scott Hanselman.

windows comments edit

When you download a file from the internet and save it to your Windows computer, it “knows” where it came from and you have to right-click it and click an “Unblock” button to allow it to run. It’s a security thing, and generally it’s a good idea.

The "Unblock" button for downloaded
files.

What happens if you have 10, 100, or even 1000 different files you need to unblock?You don’t want to do that manually.

  1. Go download the SysInternals “Streams” utility.
  2. Run it on the files you want to unblock using the “-d” option and delete the alternate filestreams. It will look something like this if you’re unblocking a ton of help documents: streams -d *.chm

The reason this works is that the information about where you downloaded the file(s) from is stored in an alternate filestream. Nuking those alternate streams means Windows will think it’s a local file and will stop blocking it.

windows comments edit

I’m using Google Calendar Sync to keep my Outlook calendar and Google calendar synchronized and I’ve noticed a couple of meetings that don’t quite get synchronized right - the error message being “Participant is neither attendee  nor organizer.” (Yes, there are two spaces between “attendee” and “nor.”).

I haven’t figured out what the problem there is but I did find this interesting nugget to help you troubleshoot issues:

  1. Go to your Google Calendar log folder. On WinXP that’ll be like C:\Documents and Settings\YOURUSERNAME\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Google Calendar Sync\logs
  2. Put a text file in there called “level.txt” and put one word in it: VERBOSE
  3. Run a sync from Google Calendar Sync. The log will come out a lot larger and will have a ton more logging information in it.
  4. Delete the “level.txt” file. You don’t want verbose logging all the time.

Interestingly, for me the appointments that won’t sync are all meetings that my boss organized. Is Google Calendar trying to tell me something? :)

UPDATE 5/27/10: I switched to gSyncit to sync my calendar.