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#724: Tech Tails TV: Take Two!, Backup of Your Backup: RAIDs, Activity Monitor, Browser History Mystery


Happy Tuesday,

Following what seemed like an interminable heat wave, I’m thrilled by the refreshing low humidity and mild temperatures in the seventies. A very powerful storm rolled through the area a few nights ago with violent winds and thunder, and some friends of mine in Northfield reported downed trees, flash flooding, and some very scared dogs.

I took Owen to the Mad River Path by Small Dog’s headquarters, and noticed the high grass in the field had been matted down all in one direction, sumac leaves still turned upside down on branches, and a tree down across the path.

After a month-long hiatus, Rebecca and I will resume our bi-weekly broadcasts of Tech Tails TV. The first incarnation on Ustream did not go as well as we’d hoped, so we’re moving to a site called, and we also have a new studio set up that’s dedicated to the task. Once all of the details are finalized, I’ll let you know in next week’s Tech Tails just how to tune in.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Tech Tails TV: Take Two!  

Here’s some entertainment news you won’t read in Variety Magazine. A few months ago, we experimented with hosting our bi-weekly Tech Tails TV web show on Tech Tails TV is our live web show where we repair and troubleshoot Macs, gossip about industry news, and answer all of your Apple-related questions.

While this was a fairly successful endeavor, we struggled a little with broadcast quality (particularly audio) as well as timing issues. Because of that, Tech Tails TV is moving to a different network and a different broadcast time.

Forget same bat-time, same bat-location: Tech Tails TV will now broadcast every other Monday at 2:00 PM ET, starting Monday, August 2.

The brilliant and captivating Apple technician Rebecca Kraemer will be hosting most episodes of Tech Tails TV. She’ll be joined by other techs from Small Dog Electronics, as well as a rotating roster of special guests.

To watch the all-new version of Tech Tails TV, visit our channel at on Monday, August 2 at 2:00 PM ET. Click here to subscribe to the Tech Tails TV broadcast calendar in your iCal calendar.

  Backup of Your Backup: RAIDs  

Continuing on the the theme of redundant backups, nothing is more fitting than discussing RAIDS: Redundant Array of Independent Disks. RAIDs are commonly used by businesses and pro-users but they can also provide solutions for home users as well depending on one’s needs. While there are several types of RAID options, today we will be discussing mirrored software RAIDs and hardware RAIDs. This does move towards the more advanced application of backups so I don’t recommend RAIDs for basic computer users.

The simplest RAID backup solution is RAID 1, or a “mirrored RAID.” This type of RAID allows you to use at least two hard drives of equal size and it simultaneously backs up information to the drives. You can do this with at least two same-sized external drives or two same-sized internal drives if you have a computer that supports multiple internal drives. The obvious benefit here is that if one of the drives fails, you have a second identical drive to fall back on. While this is a great solution for a backup volume (Time Machine, clone, etc.) it can also be a great primary boot volume solution if you have a machine that supports multiple internal hard drives.

The only real drawback of a mirrored RAID is that the drives will perform slightly slower than usual since data is being written to two drives at once. While this won’t affect most users, if you’re a graphic designer or if you’re creating video or music, drive speed is an integral part of your workflow. While a mirrored RAID would still be a good backup option, I wouldn’t recommend it for your primary volume or scratch disk.

The easiest way to set up a mirrored RAID is by using Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities). When you have both external or internal drives mounted and formatted as ‘Mac OS Extended (Journaled),’ click on the RAID tab. Drag both volumes that you’d like to RAID into the RAID window. Name the RAID and set the ‘RAID Type’ as ‘Mirrored RAID Set.’ I also recommend pressing the ‘Options…’ button at the lower left of the window and checking the box to ‘automatically rebuild RAID.’ Now press the Create button on the lower right; the drives will be reformatted and you’ll be good to go. If you’d like to use the mirrored RAID as your Time Machine backup destination you can now go to System Preferences > Time Machine and select the RAID as your backup destination.

One thing to keep in mind is that Disk Utility will always need to erase the drives that you’d like to RAID when it creates the new RAID set. There are a few third party RAID software utilities that are able to create RAID sets without erasing the volumes (though I suggest backing up the data just to be safe). The most popular of these is SoftRAID, who just released an updated version of their fully-featured software RAID utility in May. Along with being able to create RAIDs on the fly, SoftRAID features accelerated mirror rebuilds, email notifications of degraded RAIDs, an optional command line interface and several other great features. If you feel you’ll be using software RAIDs regularly, I highly recommend investing in their software.

The second type of RAID I’d like to discuss is a RAID 5 which performs block-level striping with double distributed parity. This RAID is really the best of both worlds and it’s what I recommend for most pro-sumers and professionals who are serious about their data backup; it’s also a great solution for creative professionals. It mixes the speed of a striped RAID, which writes data across two or more volumes at a time, and the redundancy of a mirrored RAID. I only recommend using RAID 5 in a hardware RAID situation, and most software RAIDs don’t support RAID 5 anyway.

To create a RAID 5 you will need at least three hard drives of equal size and RAID hardware. If you’re on a Mac Pro or Xserve it’s possible to purchase an internal RAID card which would be controlled using Apple’s RAID Utility (/Applications/Utilities). As with Disk Utility, the initial creation of this RAID will destroy the contents of the drives so be sure the drives are blank or that you’ve saved the data from them. The RAID Utility uses a similar format to Disk Utility but includes many of the features of SoftRAID and is overall much more useful.

The other option is to purchase an external RAID system that supports RAID 5. This is often the easiest solution and I see it implemented more often in the businesses I consult with. There are several external RAID solutions that range from very basic to quite robust. I’m personally a fan of Promise RAIDs and the new LaCie RAID offerings (with the caveat that Glyph Technologies is the standard for audio production). Both offer models that range from low-end or just enclosures to high-end enterprise solutions.

LaCie offers a few very basic RAID solutions like the 2TB and 3TB 2big Quadra Quad models. While these both support RAID 0 and RAID 1, they do not support RAID 5. If you’re interested in a LaCie RAID solution that supports RAID 5 I’d suggest checking out the 4TB 4big Quadra Quad Interface or larger. These models support hot-swappable drives for most RAID sets and I personally like their sleek design.

Promise offers several RAIDs and even their most basic model, the SmartStor DS4600, offers the RAID 5 capability (note: you have to buy drives separately). Promise is a company close to my heart as they are an offshoot that was started by Apple in the XServe RAID days. They’re known for having phenomenal Mac support and sturdy, easy-to-use products. If you want an external solution with an “Apple-feel” this is where I’d steer you.

Now that I’ve filled your head with even more ways to create redundant backups, do keep in mind that there is no one right solution out there for back up. There will be a couple more articles in this series to give you even more ideas and if you have a creative and reliable backup solution of your own, please feel free to drop me a line and share; I’ve gotten some great reader responses so far! Thanks for reading!

  Activity Monitor and Computer Temperature  

My MacBook Pro was acting strangely last week: slow application launch times, incessant beach-balling, fans at full speed all the time, hot to the touch, and miserable battery life. The battery gave out on me in the middle of a Keynote presentation, after which I set aside all else that needed doing so I could figure out what was ailing my workhorse machine.

This group of symptoms screams software, not hardware. Excessive heat generation and fan activity can be a symptom of hardware abnormality, but it is most often caused by a runaway process. The additional symptom of abysmal battery life is the real clue. When a program on your computer encounters a situation it doesn’t know how to deal with, it can often consume a huge percentage of the computer’s processing power (and battery) to figure it out. This turned out the be the case in my situation.

If you find yourself with these symptoms, instead of fretting or just dealing with it, fire up Activity Monitor from your Utilities folder. You’ll see a list of all the processes running on your machine. This will show you not only the programs you use every day (like Safari and iPhoto), but also the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps Mac OS X running. There are several columns in the window, but this first installment of the Activity Monitor focuses on the CPU column. By clicking on the CPU column header you can view the processes by the amount of processor capacity they’re using, in ascending or descending order.

I sorted this column and noticed that SystemUIServer was pegged at 91%. This accounted for all the problems I was having. By clicking on SystemUIServer in this window, and then clicking on the big red Quit Process button on the top left of the window, this process is forced to restart itself. With this completed, and SystemUIServer hovering at a very reasonable 0.1%, the fans spun down, the laptop cooled off and the estimated battery life remaining jumped up almost an hour.

  What Does Your History Contain?  

Every internet browser I have seen or used includes a feature known generally as “history,” which is essentially a map of where you have been surfing (over the last session, few days or even months or longer if your settings allow it).

This history list is something you can go back to and search if necessary—usually by day, week, etc. Perhaps to point someone to reference material you browsed by, or if you have to get back to that specific online auction listing you wanted to check on. Browser history is often a feature we take for granted or seldom use, but can be a needed tool to get back to where you were should the occasion arise.

There are always limitations to what the history feature can reveal; however, I came across just such a case last week while researching some genealogy info online with an associate of mine. We had finished our previous session the week before, late at night, and simply closed the lid on the sweet MacBook Pro 17-inch refurb purchased specifically for this project.

Upon reopening the computer the following session, and after checking on email etc., we tried to get back to where we had been using the History menu. It seems that the pay site we were subscribed to caches some of the information and documents that can be viewed, and that only certain pages were actually saved in the browser history.

As frustrating as it was to search the cached history that was saved the day we were researching, we could not get back to the pivotal document about the person we were looking up. We had already closed and reopened new browser windows and could not simply hit the back button at that point.

Needless to say, we learned a hard lesson about what the browser application can and cannot do for URL history. If the site(s) being visited have their own framework and cache their documents on their servers within your browser window, then your URL doesn’t change and new history isn’t being recorded. The pay site being subscribed to does have a “shoebox” feature which will be utilized much more frequently moving forward, and I expect to never lose out on an opportunity because of wrongly trusting the history feature.

While we have yet to get back to the document for the 1890’s Haverford College registry listing H. W. B. Wood’s attendance, we know the file exists, and we’ll find it again eventually. In the meantime, we’ll be adding other important documents to the “shoebox” of documents since the browser history will not save the exact content being viewed. Lesson learned!

Image source: The History Channel

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