Sunday, February 20, 2011

The ups and downs of my Snow Leopard upgrade experience

Working in the IT industry, you learn to be nervous of software upgrades. Whether it’s a browser, a database, an application or the whole operating system, running bleeding edge software exposes you to bugs and misbehaving features.

And so it was on my Mac Mini. The Leopard version of the Mac OSX operating system had been installed for years. And when the next version, Snow Leopard, was released, I reckoned that the devil I knew was better than the devil I didn’t. All that risk for a predicted 10% speed increase and some new features like facial recognition in iPhoto. Why touch something that wasn’t broken?

So I waited. But with the next upgrade, Lion, only months away and a double upgrade bypassing Snow Leopard unlikely to be supported … and with the new App Store available, enough time had passed.

The operating system upgrade itself went smoothly. Put the DVD in, run the upgrade, reboot and there it was. Tried a few applications and they started up ok.

So what went wrong?

Old and now unsupported HP Business Injet 1100dtn

Turns out my trusty seven year old HP Business Inkjet is no longer being supported by HP. What’s the typical lifespan of a printer these days? The drivers for Leopard don’t work under Snow Leopard, and HP didn’t produce new ones.

I could have found this out 18 months ago if I’d jumped to Snow Leopard early, but instead I discovered 10 days ago that I’d be on the look out for a new printer. Lucky enough I was using the last of my supply of ink cartridges, and the duplex unit has been chewing paper recently.

HP Officejet 6500A Plus

At the moment I recommend the HP Officejet 6500A Plus ... particularly it’s ability to upgrade itself over the web in less than half the time it takes to load its drivers onto the Mac! While it has a USB port, it's much more flexible to use it plugged into your broadband router. Then it's accessible by any computer at home. Just don’t try to buy it from Amazon as they won’t deliver it to Northern Ireland despite the “Free SuperSaver Delivery across the UK” on the product webpage. You can add it to your shopping basket, but when you reach the checkout, it will refuse any Northern Ireland delivery address.

Old 4-drive Drobo sitting with its drive cover off exposing the drives inside

The Drobo NAS connected via USB seemed to be working ok until a period of sustained reading and writing (EyeTV recording programmes and then transcoding them into iTunes) when it would declare an Error -36 and promptly disconnect itself from the Mac. Under the same conditions, it worked perfectly under Leopard. But something’s changed: maybe the tolerance on the USB power. Reconnecting the Drobo via Firewire (of course, needing a FW800 to FW400 lead) has fixed the issue, though has the consequence of slowing down OSX startup.

Over the past few years I’ve been very impressed with the Drobo. For those not familiar with its brilliance, it houses a number of SATA hard drives (up to 4 in my model) and uses its proprietary BeyondRAID technology to offer storage across the pool of physical drives, building in enough redundancy for one drive to fail. (BeyondRAID can be thought of as a combination of RAID1 and RAID5.)

One of the main problems with RAID disk arrays is that while they can protect your data in the eventuality of a disk failure, they are often difficult for mere mortals to reconfigure when you want to add more capacity. The Drobo’s unique selling point is that it allows you to pull drives out (if they’re dead or too small) and replace them with larger ones. All this drive swapping happens while the unit is running and connected to your computer. The speed of light and hard drive technology means that it still takes a long time to mirror your existing storage onto a new drive and regain redundancy – from memory 1TB took about 13 hours to replicate – but you don’t lose the use of your storage while you’re waiting. Idiot proof.

Old 4-drive Drobo sitting on top of DroboShare

Older Drobos – like mine – only connect to one computer at a time. A thin DroboShare unit was bundled with my purchase that sat underneath the Drobo and allowed its storage to be shared over your home network. But the speed was slow, and the benefits of hosting an iTunes library on the directly-connected Drobo far outweighed the sharing of the storage across the LAN. (Newer Drobos model support protocols such as iSCSI over Gigabit Ethernet.)

The Error -36 errors somewhat dented my confidence in Drobo. Thankfully connecting by Firewire seems to have solved the problem, but I’m surprised not to find similar tales mentioning Drobo, EyeTV, USB and Error -36 on Google.

The next question will be how long to wait before installing Lion. 6 months? 18 months? Certainly I’ll know to check and wait for printer drivers to become available before upgrading!


Pepper said...

I'm late on this, to be fair, but I'd like to point out that the Amazon delivery problem isn't necessarily Amazon's fault (though I also haven't looked up the stuff to make sure). A lot of 'minor companies' will 'trade' through Amazon, and quite a few of them won't deliver to here, because I've had the issue before. Luckily I was able to phone the people direct, but I'm assuming it's just one of those things, NI doesn't exist to half the rest of the UK.

Alan in Belfast said...

Pepper - I've come across that too. Unfortunately, in this case, the provider was Amazon itself.