Apple Time Capsule Long Term Review

Introduction


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 enough.

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.)

Purchasing multiple external disks for your herd of Macintosh systems can be cost prohibitive.

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 backup.

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.


An Apple Time Capsule

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.)

Time Capsule ConnectionsI 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.

Experiences


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 work.

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 areas temporarily.

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 trouble.

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.

What's Inside


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.

Endgame


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.

It lasted two months past the Apple warranty.

I 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.

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.

Windows 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 it.)

FreeNAS


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 0.7RC1.

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 their computer.

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 FreeNAS computer.)

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”.

The 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.

Coming from an aluminum 24” Intel iMac with a gigabit link, the initial 31GB backup was done in one hour.

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.

Either 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.

If 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 firmly 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 wasteful.

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).

Apple 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 concerned.

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.


HP Vectra VA Series 6/200 PC

Okay, 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 David'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.

One nice thing about old computers, though, is that they're dirt cheap. You can often get systems much more powerful than this one for nothing if 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 times.

Anyway, I decided to give the Time Capsule an advantage here, if it could possibly have one. I remember when a 200MHz Pentium Pro was really something 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 [2000] 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.

One 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 original HP 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.

Fortunately, 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.)

HP 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 capacity.

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 installation option.)

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.

Back 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 APC UPS. 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:


Inside the Vectra VA Series 6/200 PC

Look carefully and you'll see the power connector that has been "adapted" to provide power for the rear case fan and a SATA power connector borrowed from a dead Antec power supply. (It just touches the outermost black ISA slot if you are still looking for it.) Also notice how the Intel 440 chipset is divided between three chips. The boot hard disk is in the bottom rear internal 3.5" bay, while the 1TB Seagate SATA drive sits in the bay above the boot drive.

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*.

Reliability


It 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.

There's 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 for—not 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.

Conclusion


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 file.

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.

Time Capsule

FreeNAS

$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

I 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

Total $244

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.

Go Back >


Copyright © 2009 William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Written 10/13/2009. Permission is granted to mirror this page in its unedited entirety as long as a link back to this site and credit for the material is provided. You may not charge a fee or exchange items of value to provide access to this page or its content, other than an amount reasonably necessary to cover the cost of connection time, data transfer or printing supplies. Content from this page may not be displayed alongside advertising content of any type. You may use portions of this page in other products only if you provide credit and a link back to this page and only if the finished product is freely accessible to anyone interested in having a copy. If you use this material in work of your own, you may not charge or exchange items of value to provide access (other than as reasonably necessary to cover connection time, data transfer fees, or to cover printing supply costs) nor may you display advertising materials alongside any content you use from this page. Images may not be edited other than to resize them or to provide for faster downloading.

* I readily admit that at times my moral compass behaves as though it has been inappropriately magnetized.