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Apple Time Capsule Long Term Review
Backups are one of those things that
every computer user knows they should make. Yet many never do, and
then comes the day that their system won't start, a virus chews on
their files, or their hard drive just finally decides it has had
Whatever the cause, whenever data loss
happens, the typical response from the user (after the realization
that a lot of data has been lost) is a backup regimen that starts out
religiously by backing up whatever data happened to survive and
promising themselves from that point onward they will back things up
on a regular basis.
Which is fine, until life starts
getting in the way again, and the job of backing up the computer
sinks to the bottom of a long list of things to do. And then another
disastrous to data event takes place, starting the whole vicious
cycle over again.
Now, it's not news that Apple Computer
has come up with a concept that is supposed to stop this from
happening. Apple's Time Machine backup tool has been out for a while
now. The idea behind Time Machine is that you plug a backup disk into
your computer and then let it
worry about the need to make regular backups.
Unfortunately, this is only available to users of Macintosh OS X 10.5. and later. If you're one of those holdouts who feels that Mac OS X 10.4 is a better operating system (something I can say that you are not alone in believing), Time Machine is not available to you. Nor is it available when and if you run Windows on your Macintosh by way of Apple's Boot Camp tool.
You can, however,
use something along the lines of rsync
to back up your Macintosh on a regular basis if you happen to be
using an older version of Mac OS X. (There are a few builds of rsync
for Windows as well, and they work fine. This is "nice to know" if you
have some Windows computers on hand, or if you are using Windows on
your Macintosh by way of Boot Camp and want a good way to back up your
data there as well. Of course, rsync is also available on most *ix
platforms as well. But I'm getting off the subject here.)
multiple external disks for your herd of Macintosh systems can be
That said, Time
Machine with a locally attached disk does work pretty reliably and
quickly. While the first few releases of Mac OS X 10.5 (up until
about 10.5.3) exhibited some flaky behavior, you could generally
count on being able to get your files back from a Time Machine
Fortunately, Apple has a solution to the multiple-Macintosh backup problem. This solution is known as Time Capsule. Time Capsule aims to be several things—an Airport (802.11a/b/g) wireless access point, an Internet router/firewall device and a network attached disk that just so happens to support being used as a Time Machine backup destination.
You may not need
all of these functions, and fortunately it is possible to set up a
Time Capsule so that it only acts as a network attached storage
device. Apple doesn't recommend that you do this, but you can. In the
network environment upon which I tested, the wireless and routing
functionality was not required, so it was turned off.
What You Get With Time Capsule
You get three
wired ports for the attachment of PC and Macintosh computers. These
support gigabit communication speeds, a nice touch in a piece of
equipment like this, and one that still isn't seen very often in
competing products. It is somewhat curious that Apple only provides
three Ethernet connections for computers, as almost every other
wireless/wired router on the market has four. A fourth port, used for
connecting your high-speed Internet connection is also present.
Curiously, this is a gigabit capable port as well. However, that can
be handy if you're not using this port to connect to a high speed
Internet connection. (More on this later.)
I can only imagine
that Apple supplies only three Ethernet ports for computers with
wired network links because it saves them the cost of having to
implement a standalone Ethernet port for the Internet connection side
of things. This is an odd move, given the premium cost of the device.
You also get a USB
port to which a printer or external hard disk can be connected. If
you connect a printer, other computers on the network may be able to
print to it, if the software that comes with the printer will allow
you to do so. If you choose to connect an external hard drive, you
can copy the contents of the internal hard drive to it (great for
offsite backups) or use it as additional storage.
Apple claims that
the hard disk inside the Time Capsule is a server grade drive. This
is a moderate exaggeration on their part. The drive used is a Hitachi
GST Deskstar model. So it's not really a “server-class”
drive, but it is a good quality drive that should last a long time.
(Other drives have been spotted within the Time Capsule product. Some
were supplied by Seagate.)
Time Capsule is
supposed to be an easy to use device that you set up and forget about
until the day comes that you need your backups. This is a good
theory, and I'm sure it's what Apple had in mind, but it just doesn't
You read that
right: Time Capsule just doesn't work. When I first set it up,
shortly after it was introduced to the market, I found that getting
computers to conduct their initial backups was much more difficult
that it should be. With an even mix of Intel Macintosh computers and
PowerPC systems from 2001 and later, the initial backup took at least
a night over a gigabit link (Intel systems) or even a day or two
(PowerPC systems, some with gigabit links).
Some systems never
would complete their initial backup, complaining that the network
resource had disappeared.
The long time
taken by the initial backup also brought to light one other issue. It
wasn't possible to deny the users of these systems access to their
computer for that long of a period of time. So, what I did was to set
up Time Capsule under their limited day-to-day user account and go
from there. Mac OS X doesn't normally allow users to perform
administrative functions, but if they need to, an administratively
privileged user can come along and authenticate to unlock protected
This works fine
with everything else, so it stands to reason that it should work fine
with Time Machine settings as well, right? Wrong. For whatever
reason, Time Machine would start working through its intial backup.
Later, when that was done, the user would suddenly be prompted for
credentials to access the Time Capsule. Why this was I don't know. I
can only guess that perhaps even after authentication, the process by
which valid Time Capsule credentials were written to the system
keychain was not allowed to complete. However, this was a minor
annoyance at best, as turning off Time Machine and setting it up from
within an administrator's account was sufficient to clear up the
What really broke
the deal, though, is how Time Capsule just didn't work well after (or
if) the initial backup was completed. The computers, especially the
older PowerPC systems, would sit there and grind away for ages. Some
systems managed to get through their backups, while it seemed like
others just ground away endlessly.
Eventually, many of the systems that spent their time grinding away at the Time Machine backup process would usually corrupt the sparse disk image file stored on the Time Capsule device. When that happened, the only real recourse was to simply start over again. Whatever damage had taken place was usually extensive enough that no Mac OS X disk utility I had access to could pick up the pieces and patch things together.
I'd hope that Time
Capsule is a better Internet router and wireless access point than it
is a network attached storage/backup device. I've not tried those
functions (and I doubt that I ever will) so I cannot say.
Time Capsule has a
few other interesting issues. When in use, the unit itself becomes
very hot, almost to the point where you'd start wondering if the
drive inside is going to live a very long time at all. The firmware
in the Time Capsule tries to counter this by spinning the hard disk
down after a few minutes of inactivity. I question the wisdom of this
move. It seems to me that if you have any appreciable number of
computers backing up regularly to this device, that the hard drive
will be spinning up and down very often. This could shorten its
useful life considerably.
Inside the Time
Capsule, you'll find that it's pretty tightly packed. A Flextronics
power supply, main board and mini PCI wireless card with several
antenna connections are what you will find inside. The main board has
a Marvell processor, some memory and a fairly large Maxell clock
battery hidden under RF shielding that can simply be lifted off after
releasing an edge. The mini PCI card also has a Marvell wireless
chipset on it.
There's also a
blower fan sandwiched in there and pointed at the hard disk drive.
I'm not sure what the effect of this is. With the way things are put
together, the blower fan really can't do much other than shuffle
already hot air around the interior. And there's not room enough to
really even do that. Still, I guess you could say that Apple tried to
keep the internal parts from overheating.
It seems that Time Capsule does not utilize SMART data from the hard drive at all. The value of SMART data can be debated, but it can be better than nothing and I have seen cases where a SMART warning ended up saving someone's day and data. I assume that SMART data is either totally or somewhat ignored, as there is a temperature sensitive resistor attached to the body of the hard disk with adhesive. All modern hard drives are capable of reporting their operating temperature. The Apple firmware could simply request this information from the drive.
If you elect to
take your Time Capsule apart, beware of the grey “Apple pad” on
the bottom. It's quite easy to tear it while removing it. Go slow and
consider doing it only after the device has been running for a while.
The heat will soften the adhesive considerably.
As it happens, one
of the two Time Capsule units I'd been using hung it up one day by
simply dropping off the network. That one unit died with a yellow
flashing light, and Apple's AirPort Utility was unable to find it
even after a hard reset.
I took the failed
unit apart and found that the heat spreader pads connecting the ICs
to the metal surfaces within the unit had leaked some kind of oil all
over the board. I can't imagine that this did anything that happened
to be powered up at the time any kind of good. In fact, I'm sure
that's why this particular unit failed.
lasted two months
past the Apple warranty.
called Apple support to see if they'd do anything
at all. I didn't expect them to hand me a new unit, but a pro-rated
price on a new one would have been more than agreeable. After several
calls, I came to the conclusion that Apple did not care about the
problem and that they would not be replacing the device in any way.
Maybe it was a
fluke. Its twin, purchased at the same time, continues to run. (Edit: this one also eventually died, and in the exact same way.)
So, in light of
this and all of the other bad experiences related above, I decided to
see what other options there were. Time Capsule as a whole just
doesn't work. Maybe I could find something that did.
Other Options ("functional equivalents" to Time Capsule)
One of the things
that I've been threatening to do for some time is to set up an old
computer as a network attached storage device. There are a number of
pre-packaged operating systems out there, some of them free, that can
turn a computer into a network attached storage device quickly and
easily. You can also buy devices from many well known computer
networking companies, such as Linksys and Netgear, that do the same
thing after being plugged in and set up.
Two of the most
well known are Windows Home Server and FreeNAS. I've seen claims that
Windows Home Server can support Macintosh systems looking for a place
to store Time Machine backups, but I couldn't actually get an
evaluation copy of Windows Home Server to run for more than thirty
days as Microsoft would never send me an evaluation product key. That
isn't long enough for a good long term review.
Home Server may work, but it lacks a lot of polish and Microsoft
admonishes you not
to use the Windows desktop that a WHS computer will boot into, as you
can break things. And you need a fairly powerful system to run
WHS—bottom of the barrel hardware or an old computer that is
moldering away in the corner is not going to cut it.
I gave up on Windows Home Server after installing the evaluation
version on a Dell Dimension 4700 and finding that I had no evaluation
product key or a way to get one.
That left FreeNAS.
(Yes, I suppose there are prepackaged Linux distributions that will
do what FreeNAS does, and yes, I suppose that you could set
something up along those lines using almost any Linux distribution. I
find myself getting into screaming matches with Linux almost every
time I get into it, so I'm not going there and I don't feel bad about
FreeNAS is a prepackaged network attached storage operating system
based on FreeBSD and m0n0wall. It provides a great many file transfer
services, and Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) is on that list. It also
provides many other useful services, such as Network UPS Tools and
SMART monitoring for many hard drives.
The current stable release of FreeNAS (as of this writing in
September/October 2009) is 0.69B. A release candidate version is
I chose the release candidate version of FreeNAS 0.7 and it's pretty
stable. However, there are differences between it and the
documentation (covering version 0.684) that make setup a little
confusing at times. You might have to do some web searching to
understand how to set things up—getting AFP to run was a little bit
on the entertaining side but definitely doable with some studying.
You will have to have some experience with computers, and being
comfortable with them is definitely a plus. Some *ix experience will
also be helpful but is not a requirement. In other words, this isn't
something for someone who only knows where the power button is on
Once AFP is enabled and working on FreeNAS, you should be able to
connect to it from a Macintosh, where reading and writing files
should not be a problem. (If it is, you probably need to study your
file permissions in more detail, and make sure that the user you have
created has sufficient rights to the share you have made over on the
Of course, Mac OS X 10.5 won't actually recognize your new FreeNAS
server as a valid Time Capsule, because it really isn't one—and
therefore it has no support for advertising such capabilities over
Bonjour. Never mind that, FreeNAS has all the services needed to make
this work with Mac OS X 10.5. You can force the FreeNAS system to
show up as a backup destination with a little diddling in Terminal on
Mac OS X 10.5, all you have to do is enter the following command:
defaults write com.apple.systempreferences TMShowUnsupportedNetworkVolumes 1
Case is important in the example above. If the line wraps around in
Terminal, that's OK. Just watch for spaces around the wrapping point, if there is one on your screen.
You also have to be connected to the FreeNAS device over AFP first.
At this point you could go into System Preferences while you're
connected to the FreeNAS box, and you'd see it in the list of backup
destinations. You can also select it, wait two minutes and discover
that you get a wonderful error message when it comes time to create
the disk image and nothing works.
Fortunately, on Mac OS X 10.5, you can create the disk image
yourself. What you need to do is create a Sparse Bundle Disk Image,
which you can do from the command line or disk utility. You don't
want to encrypt it or anything like that, all you really need to be
sure of is that the disk image is big enough. Make it almost as big
as the disk you have in your FreeNAS computer, leaving some space
(maybe within 20GB) for “breathing room”.
disk image needs to be named in a certain way. It will usually bear
the name of your computer as well as the MAC address of the network
adapter (wired or wireless) that you used when first setting up Time
Machine. You can read more about this here.
Anyway, when you've got your disk image set up and copied to the
FreeNAS server, you can turn Time Machine off by selecting “none”
as your storage device. Turn it back on, provide the needed
credentials and in two minutes, everything should start backing up.
What you really probably want to know at this point, however, is how
long it took to run the initial backups.
Frankly, it's almost embarrassing to say.
from an aluminum 24” Intel iMac with a gigabit link, the initial
31GB backup was done in one
A PowerPC Macintosh (also with a gigabit link and more data on its
hard drive) took a little bit longer to do the initial backup.
way, going to FreeNAS running on a Dell Dimension 4700 (with a
Pentium 4 processor operating at 2.8 GHz and a PCIe gigabit network
card) was absolutely beating
the pants off of the Time Capsule.
Later backups, which usually caused the Time Capsule and Time Machine
software to do a lot of disk grinding, suddenly did not do so.
you think that this wasn't exactly a fair fight, you are correct.
Even the lowly 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor can surely stomp the
low-power embedded 500MHz Marvell processor used by the Time Capsule
into the ground. Where the Pentium 4 is hyperthreaded and clocked a
great deal faster than the Marvell CPU, it's just not fair to compare
the two at all directly. They both have very different goals in life.
The capability of a Pentium 4 is largely ignored in a role such as
this. A good comparison in layman's terms would be using a one ton
pickup truck to travel across the country with yourself as the
only passenger and a few necessities. You can do it, sure, but it's
There's a fair amount of hacking involved to make this
work at all, which some would argue (and not unjustifiably so) is not
acceptable in a data backup solution that will need to be relied upon
at some point. All of this is a very good starting point, with a lot
of promise and a feature list that Time Capsule can't hope to compare
to. (Not that this is a bad thing—there is something to be said for
doing only one thing. However, that usually also means “doing it
well” and the Time Capsule just doesn't measure up.)
Oh, and due to changes in the way Time Machine works on Mac OS X
10.6, this doesn't work at all.
Let's see if maybe we can do a little better.
FreeNAS Nightly Builds (and older hardware for a fairer fight!)
For those who like to live on the bleeding edge of disaster, nightly
builds of software are a good way to do it. You get the latest
features to be added to a software package, but at the same time,
even features that have been there for a while may go bang in all
sorts of fun ways. Alpha and beta releases of software usually run
without too many dramatic effects while nightly builds can do
everything short of setting fire to your computer (usually).
recently published some documentation explaining how Time Capsule and
Time Machine work.
This explains what is required of a file server before it can be used
as a “supported” Time Capsule. It's nice that they released this.
It's not so nice that it seemingly took them until just after the
relase of Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard” to do it.
FreeNas, with its 0.7RC2 nightly builds, now supports these
requirements, at least as far as service advertisement via “Bonjour”
(more correctly known as mDNS or “zeroconf” device discovery) is
So, suddenly, after you've set up FreeNAS and made sure it is advertising its services over Bonjour, you're ready to go. To borrow an office-supply company's trademark saying, “that was easy”. You have to hit a few different web pages from the FreeNAS administration web server to do all that needs to be done, but even if you go slowly, it should be possible to have it running in about 30 minutes.
Again: There are no expectations or
standards to which nightly builds are held. However, the
FreeNAS nightly builds I've used easily meet the expecations you'd
have from stable software, or at least it has in my experiences. I'm
getting a little ahead of myself, though.
This time around, however I decided to revisit the hardware side of things, just to make it a fairer fight. I decided to use an older computer.
make that a much
older computer. (You can click the picture above to see a larger version.)
This old HP Vectra VA Series 6/200 doesn't leave you with many
expecations today. (Other than maybe being able to turn it on and
find that it still operates as it did back then.) This was actually
my younger brother's computer until Windows 98SE fell far
enough out of favor that it wasn't capable of doing what he wanted it
to any longer. I parked it in a forgotten corner of the basement
sometime in 2006.
nice thing about old computers, though, is that they're dirt
You can often get systems much more powerful than this one for
you're persuasive enough. Usually offering to remove the system
and assure that the data will be removed is enough. It's getting
harder to throw an old computer away. That's bad news if you'd much
rather pick up a computer from the privacy of the trash placed at
someone's curb as opposed to asking for one. (A lot of discarded
computers are fine
outside of software problems, which you won't care about anyway if
you plan to use another operating system.)
Did I ever mention that I was cheap? I'm sure it's come up a few
I decided to give the Time Capsule an advantage here, if it could
possibly have one. I remember when a 200MHz Pentium Pro was
to get excited about. It was something you'd spend several thousand
dollars on, minimum. Heck, I remember when it seemed like
a real challenge to reach 233MHz and not have a system that radiated
more RF than the average broadcast TV station. There were people
around who thought it couldn't be done at the time. I remember
Gateway  advertising 233MHz systems with the disclaimer that
they would only be sold after FCC approval had been granted. (Gosh,
that makes me feel old.)
The Time Capsule's lowly 500MHz low power CPU ought to be able to
keep pace with a 200MHz Pentium Pro, right? Well, let's see.
of the first things I had to do long before I could ever consider
using this system as a good FreeNAS box was to see if it was still
alive. And it was, which didn't come as a complete surprise. Even the
installed clock battery was still ticking away, within a few minutes
of the correct time. Compared to a modern system, this thing is built
like a brick outhouse. Even so, it can't hold a candle to the original makers of computers that can double as furniture or sawhorses.
Here's a little history lesson for all you kids that think all the
hardware you could ever want to use comes with your motherboard these
days. Back in 1996, a lot of hardware was integrated, such as the
serial and parallel ports. Only a few systems still had I/O cards. We didn't usually have integrated sound systems, integrated
video, integrated network cards and only a few people had ever seen a
USB port at that time.
we also had a lot of expansion slots back then, whether we really
needed them or not. Back then, it still mattered how many expansion
slots you had, and some computers had as many as eight.
Very few computers have that many today. Some don't have any
expansion slots. And most of the hardware that anyone could ever want
in their computer (the only major exception being the video card) is
right there on the motheboard in a modern computer.
With a computer like this, however, you need to use expansion slots
to get the things that we take for granted today, like USB 2.0 ports,
SATA and a network interface.
Fortunately, these kinds of cards exist today and are readily
available for pennies on the dollar. You can even buy a load of used
cards, in good working order, at a very good price, on eBay. (That's
a money saving tip right there. Don't go to Best Buy and drop $40 on
a USB, network or SATA card that's no better than one you can buy on
eBay for $5 or $10 delivered. If you need a lot, search for a lot.)
gave us four PCI slots to work with in this system, as well as some
ISA slots that you probably won't want to use for anything outside of
the slowest expansion cards, assuming you have any. (I doubt there
has been an
ISA card manufactured much beyond the early 2000s outside of some
very specialized needs.)
For this system, I started out with the intention of building a
system where the large capacity disk storage would be attached via
USB 2.0. USB 2.0 is a bottleneck as compared to SATA, but this system
is probably going to hit a bottleneck on the PCI bus and processor
before it ever “maxes out” a USB 2.0 connection's data transfer
I also decided to make use of the other features that FreeNAS offers,
such as UPS monitoring support.
In preparation, I gathered up some hardware: an ALi (Acer Labs) USB 2.0 adapter
and an Intel 10/100 PCI network card. Later, I decided to give this
setup a better chance at competing with the Time Capsule, so I put a
Realtek-based gigabit network card into the system instead of the
Intel one. A Seagate ST32132A hard disk was selected as the boot
device, mainly because it fell under the 8GB BIOS capacity limit that
this system has.
At this point, a little bit of trouble came up. The system wouldn't
boot completely from the FreeNAS live CD. It crashed in strange ways,
and I finally figured out that this had to do with a lack of memory.
Researching the cause of this proved unhelpful, most people that
encountered the errors I saw came to the conclusion that their
system's BIOS was somehow flawed. When the live CD tried to create a
RAM disk, it ran out of room and setup fell all over itself.
Fortunately, I have a lot of 32MB SIMMs around, so I grabbed a few
and brought the system up to its maximum of 192MB of installed RAM.
That got the installer working. (128MB didn't work for the
installation, but it is sufficient for actually running
FreeNAS if you install the “full” OS using the hard disk
When FreeNAS was running, the only things left to do were to set the
IP address information, configure DNS servers, and set up the disks
and file sharing services. All of this took about a half hour, but I
hit another snag. The ALi M5273 USB 2.0 card I'd chosen—which I
knew to work fine under Windows 2000—was flaky. It caused the
system to display all kinds of interesting disk errors before finally
locking it up. I could format an attached USB hard drive but actually
using it caused problems.
I switched it out to a VIA VT6202-based USB card and that got things
working for the time being.
At this point, I could set up Time Machine so it would back up files
from Macintosh computers and it did so immediately, without any
hacking or configuration file twiddling required.
That left the exploration of some of the other capabilities of
FreeNAS. One of the many features offered is the ability to monitor
an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) over the serial or USB ports.
In this way, it's possible for your FreeNAS system to shut itself
down safely when the UPS battery power gets low. (Time Capsule has no
comparable feature, although I'll admit that I haven't plugged a UPS
data connector into its USB port. I'd expect that doing so would
cause the Time Capsule's software to Freak Out and tell you that you
have been Bad.)
I configured the included version of “Network UPS Tools” (abbreviated to “NUT”, or more correctly, "nut" for most intents and purposes) to communicate with an attached APC Back-UPS RS1500 LCD. Once I understood how to set it up, and what values to put into the communication fields, NUT was off and running. And another problem came up. Every now and again, the old Vectra was beeping through its speaker. Looking at the console revealed that NUT was periodically losing communication with the UPS for some reason. I took a guess and placed the blame on the VIA USB chipset, as perhaps it was having trouble maintaining a USB 2.0 and 1.1 connection—on different ports—at the same time.
into place went the ALi M5273 alongside the VIA USB card. The ALi
card seemed to work fine at the USB 1.0 communication rate of the
Everyone was happy, backups were running on schedule and nothing
could have been better.
Well, actually it could have been. Even when I should, I'm not famous for leaving anything alone. The same thing was true of this project—I wanted to see where else I could go with it. I wanted to try adding a SATA controller expansion card and an internal SATA hard disk. Well, the first card I tried, a card based on the Silicon Image 3114 chipset did not work. At its best, it didn't show up as even being installed in the Vectra's expansion slot. (HP provided a nice summary screen during POST if you press the Escape key once, and it came in handy more than once.)
The card itself was good, and worked fine in a newer Dell Pentium II
system. It just didn't work in the Vectra, and depending upon which
slot I put it in, caused problems sufficient to keep the Vectra from
starting up or produce strange behavior after startup. Of course, he
who admits to installing a SATA card in a computer this old probably
deserves whatever he gets as a result.
I finally settled on a VIA VT6421A based PCI SATA controller card.
VIA's VT6421 was not the chipset I wanted to use, because all of their south
bridges and standalone SATA controller chips have a hardware bug that
prevents them from seeing devices that are capable of communication
at the SATA 3.0 gigabit rate. From prior experiences on other VIA
based controller cards, it seemed that the VT6421 controller had this
problem as well. And only the newest VIA VT8237 south bridges
resolved the issue.
If you had this problem, the only way to fix it was to force the SATA
device in question back to the 1.5 gigabit data rate. Western Digital
is the only drive maker to make this easy, with a physical jumper on
the back of the drive where the cables connect. Seagate, Hitachi and
everyone else require you to put the drive in a computer whose SATA
controller can see it and use invariably DOS-based software to force
the drive down to the 1.5 gigabit data rate.
When you don't have such a computer handy, this issue with the VIA
SATA controller is more than a little annoying. I've been known to
say swear words whenever this problem came up. Sometimes I've even
said such words loudly enough for others to hear.
As I was shopping for a SATA controller that was known to work in
FreeNAS AND hopefully work in the Vectra, I came across the VT6421A.
Word around the web is that the VT6421 and VT6421A ICs are identical.
When I hooked up a SATA 3.0 gigabit capable Seagate Barracuda 7200.11
1TB hard disk to the controller, I was pleasantly surprised to see
that there actually is a difference in the VT6421 and VT6421A
controllers. While the VT6421A does not support the 3.0 gigabit data
rate any more than the original VT6421, it does correctly
detect such devices attached to it, and will successfully negotiate
the 1.5 gigabit data rate between it and the SATA device.
Although it doesn't matter here, both variants of the VT6421
controller also give you a single PATA channel that can support up to
two PATA devices.
And so far as I can tell, the VT6421 works perfectly well in FreeNAS.
It also works perfectly well in the old Vectra PC.
Of course, there was another problem. If you've been paying close
attention, you'll notice that I've mentioned five PCI devices
being used in a system with four PCI expansion slots. Putting
the SATA controller into place meant somehow freeing up a PCI slot.
The only method I could see to get this done was to pull one of the
USB cards. Unfortunately, that would probably mean putting up with
the beeping as NUT periodically lost communication with the UPS or
using the ALi USB card and finding that it was less stable than a
unicycle with a warped wheel teetering on the edge of a cliff.
I don't know who is to blame for this, but the conclusion that I've
reached here is that an awful lot of this kind of hardware is
absolutely awful in some way or another. It might not be so bad if
these expansion cards were held to some kind of quality standard, but
that isn't likely to happen as nearly all of them come from no-name
manufacturers in China or Taiwan to which you have no recourse other
than the vendor who sold you the card to start with. And the vendor's
course of action is likely to be along the lines of simply giving
your money back, which solves one problem but leaves you without
hardware that you need.
On the other hand, I'm not sure if you can always blame the hardware
and chipset makers either. As I mentioned earlier, I tested the ALi
(and many other) USB cards on a Windows 2000 Professional system, and
they all worked fine. I tested mixed USB 2.0/1.1
connections—no problems. You can bash Microsoft all you want (and
they certainly do deserve it on several fronts) but why is it that
this hardware works on Windows and doesn't really work properly
elsewhere? Maybe it's because Microsoft managed to get more
cooperation from chipset and board makers? I don't know.
I finally pilfered a “six port” NEC USB 2.0 controller out of
another computer and slapped the VIA card into the other system. It's
actually a “five port” controller as the fifth external port and
the lone internal port are connected together.
I'm pleased to report that the NEC USB controller actually works with a mixed series of USB 1.1 and 2.0 devices. There was a little hiccup that came up when I attached a USB 2.0 disk to the topmost connector on the card, which is actually internally “ganged” to a USB connector on the inside of the card (in other words, you can't use both the topmost external USB port and the internal one at the same time). At USB 2.0 data rates, this caused a problem and FreeNAS Did Not Like It. However, the APC UPS seems to be fine on the top connector with its lower data rate. The other four connectors on the rear of the card work fine with USB 2.0 devices. I might even be able to get the fifth one working by cutting the traces going to the internal port, but I'm not that worried about it. That port can be used for a slow USB device, such as the UPS.
By the time I got done putting the computer together, it looked like this inside:
Speaking of the UPS, I'm pleased to say that the bundled Network UPS
Tools software works very well once it's set up. I plugged the Vectra
into an APC Back UPS ES 350 and pulled the plug on the UPS. When the
battery became low, an orderly shut down took place. Upon my
reinserting the plug, the Vectra powered right up again and came
online within minutes.
Time Capsule might be able to stand an abrupt power down (although I
doubt that Apple is in possession of significant magic to prevent any
data being written at that very instant from becoming corrupted).
That doesn't mean I like or recommend doing that. Reliable
electricity is an important thing to have when computing.
I'd like to try a combination Firewire/USB PCI card for no particularly good reason. (Outside of my being a glutton for punishment?) However, the one I found with an NEC chipset for both interfaces was one I couldn't buy on moral grounds, due to the seller's outright rudeness when asked to provide detailed information on the card. Therefore, in the name of doing this seller a favor, I recommend that you don't do any business at all with rebootcanadafunraiser, even if they do support charities with all of their proceeds.
To help assure that outcome, I've borrowed a page from the Book of Dan's Data
and have put some helpful words here to 'improve' the results of anyone
searching for them: rebootcanadafunraiser rude impolite don't deal with
or buy from extortionate shipping fees. So there*.
is worth noting that during all of my experimentation with FreeNAS
and the times that something went wrong enough to confuse the FreeNAS
computer or cause it to panic outright, it never
lost any data or corrupted any files. I had to use fsck (in both senses) a few times
from the console to put a disk back into “mountable” status once
or twice, but beyond that, no
data was lost or damaged.
That is more than I can say for the Apple Time Capsule, as it had a
certain desire to suddenly corrupt the sparse disk image. Unlike
FreeNAS, where the cause was obvious (my own stupidity or flaky
hardware), I never did figure out how Time Capsule went wrong.
no question that FreeNAS—even in its nightly build form—is
much more reliable and robust than Time Capsule. Time Capsule is
supposed to be a finished product that people pay real money
a proof of concept or preview release. That a clunky old computer with
prerelease software that didn't cost a dime can so outclass the Time
Capsule in terms of performance and reliability is sad.
This “review” has now run for at least fourteen printed pages
excluding all the pictures. I think it's about time that I brought
you to the conclusion, or at least something that would pass for one.
If you're unfamiliar with computers, you probably found yourself saying “huh?” fairly often throughout the latter portion of this review. And if that's the case, you'd probably be better off with the Apple Time Capsule hardware—if it worked. In my experience, it “kinda sorta” works and it is definitely slow. If this is you, I'd get someone to build you a FreeNAS system using something like the Intel D945GCLF or D201GLY2/2A low power motherboards and set it up for you. Once they do, it will sit and run without your having to worry about it. Or maybe you should save your money and buy standalone external disks when you can do so.
On the other hand, if you're reasonably savvy with a computer,
setting up FreeNAS and using it as a “Time Capsule” for your
Macintosh systems is not a difficult job. Maybe you even have an old
computer that you haven't gotten around to recycling or stripping
yet. It wouldn't have to be much—even the old Pentium Pro system I
used was more than up to the task with a little bit of upgrading and
a few expansion cards. Something like a Pentium II or III system
should work a lot faster. 256MB RAM is a good starting point and
gives you some breathing room over the 128/192MB that I could use.
I didn't do any hard and fast benchmarks on the HP Vectra as it ran
FreeNAS, but I did try copying some really large files to the system,
going to both the SATA hard disk and a multitude of USB attached
storage devices. The average transfer rate from a computer with a 100
megabit link to the gigabit link going to the Vectra was 1.9-2.7
megabytes per second, giving us a data transfer rate of right around
20 megabits per second. Time Capsule and the Dimension 4700 both
managed to double that, but for whatever reason, Time Capsule is
nowhere near that fast when doing backups from a Macintosh.
Don't assign a whole lot of weight to those numbers. Both FreeNAS and
the Time Capsule offer a “Windows Sharing” (more correctly known
as Server Message Block protocol, and implemented by the SAMBA
software package on FreeNAS) service, so that's what I used coming
from Windows XP running on an NCR Pentium 4 1.5GHz PC and a ~3GB test
I put together the following pricing table to see how the costs stack
up. The HP Vectra PC was free when I collected it in 2001. A 1TB Time
Capsule was priced at $499 when I first started working with them,
but the price has now dropped to $299.
$499 (now $299 for 1TB model), one price buys everything
One HP Vectra VA Series 6/200 Pentium Pro PC – free
Seagate ST32132A hard disk – 50 cents
Seagate 1TB Internal SATA hard disk – $99
Vantec NexStar 3 USB enclosure – $40
Realtek Gigabit Ethernet PCI card – $24.95
NEC PCI USB 2.0 Card – $13
VIA VT6421A SATA controller – $25
Total Price: $499 then /$299 now
Total Price: $202.45
think the decision here is a no-brainer. If you shop around, you can
revitalize an old computer for this a lot more cheaply than I did. I
bought retail at times and paid the price. Even if you buy newer
hardware, I'll bet you can still come in below the price of the 1TB
Time Capsule as it is sold today. Let's see how it works out with
some modern hardware, assuming you wanted to go that route instead of
reusing an old and crusty PC.
Intel D201GLY2 and FreeNas
Intel D201GLY2 Motherboard $65
Seagate ST31000528AS Bare Drive $89
Crucial 1GB PC2-5300 RAM $23 (no shipping)
Case with Power Supply $67
In the end, you'll end up with a much nicer, faster, reliable and more capable
backup system for your Macintosh than Time Capsule ever could be. You
can also do quite a bit more with the FreeNAS setup than you can with the Time Capsule device.
Therefore, I would summarize and say that Time Capsule is not worth your time or money. FreeNAS and a purpose built computer very definitely can be worthwhile.
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