Saturday, April 13, 2013

OEMs Aren't Always Right...

OK, the title is obvious. Who hasn't grumbled at the default system settings on a new computer, or immediately uninstalled all the clutter placed on a system by the manufacturer? To me, it's another argument for building (or at least designing) your own systems. But I digress... on to the post.

The dumbest thing I have done in a while is trust that the company that sold a server knew what was best when they set it up. By doing so, I decided to not make any changes to the overall system configuration before passing the "point of no return," where I would have to reinstall the entire system to change things.

I was helping a friend set up a server for his small business. Initially, I was thinking about getting a Windows 2008 server and setting it up as a Domain Controller and file server. When we were looking at systems, Microcenter had a server with SBS 2011 and decent specs for less than their basic Windows 2008 server system, so we decided to go with that. I won't get into the relative merits of SBS vs. other server options here, other than to say that I think that SBS can be a decent choice for a small business depending on their needs. But SBS isn't the problem. The problem is that the people at Microcenter seemed to feel that using RAID 5 was the best configuration for the HDD. After using the system for the better part of a year, I beg to differ.

As per Wikipedia (and everywhere else, but that is where I grabbed the short definition from), RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks, is a storage technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit. RAID has several different configurations, designated by numbers. At the most basic level (RAID 0), it means that you can have, say, two 500 GB disks and set it up so the system sees it as a single 1TB disk. RAID 1 would take those two disks and provide fault tolerance by setting them up so the system sees a single 500 GB disk, with the data being mirrored on both drives, so if one fails, the system keeps operating and nothing is lost.  RAID 5 requires at least 3 drives, and allows the system to see 2/3 of the space (or more, depending on number of drives) as a single entity while providing fault tolerance in the event of a single drive failure.

While RAID 5 sounds great on paper, in practice, it can be painfully slow. This is because writes can  require several operations to calculate the parity bits used for fault tolerance. For small writes, this can use significant amounts of disk activity, reducing system performance. In some instances, this is fine, but with SBS, this lag it can be really noticeable - especially when trying to do things like perform maintenance that involves a lot of writes to the disk.

So now I am stuck as the part-time IT guy for a company that has a server that performs OK for the mundane day-to-day stuff (DNS server, file server, etc.), but takes forever when I actually need to do maintenance. I should have done what I briefly thought about doing during setup  - pull one drive to keep as a replacement in case of failure, and set the other two up in a RAID 1 configuration. Instead I believed that the people at Microcenter knew what they were doing, and that the RAID 5 was the best. And I can't change it unless I want to rebuild the system or try to figure out the best way to clone, shrink, and restore partitions. Since the system works fine for day-to-day, instead I have decided to grin and bear it, with each maintenance period serving as a reminder to do my research and follow my instincts as I move forward.

Do you have any experiences where you trusted the OEM when you shouldn't have? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Most Important Thing You Probably Don't Do

First of all, I want to say sorry for the big break between posts... I've been busy with work and haven't had time to write. Now work has slowed down a little bit, and I'm feeling relaxed and ready for some blogging. And what better topic to write about but something that anyone who uses a computer should do, but way too many people ignore. Of course I am talking about backing up your data.

I was recently reminded of how important backing up is when a friend contacted me about PC issues. They had a laptop that, after running trouble-free for about 2 years, suddenly just stopped working. As in wouldn't even POST (Power On Self Test) or make it to the manufacturer splash screen. He brought it over and I took  look. When you hit the power button, the HDD would make a slight sound (like it was trying to spin up) then stop. Other than that, nothing at all happened. I asked if he had a backup because it looked like he would have to send the system for repairs (and/or his HDD had potentially failed). He hadn't. He mentioned that he had a lot of important data and hoped it wasn't lost. Luckily for him, the HDD turned out to be good, and I was able to pull the drive from the dead machine and make a copy of his data before he took it in for servicing. He ended up getting a new PC (the problem was too expensive to fix compared to costs for new machines), and now regularly backs up his important data.

 

Backup methods

There are several schemes you can use to prevent data loss. They range from simply copying important files to a second location (such as an external drive or cloud-based storage) to installing a dedicated backup solution that uses media such as tapes (or the cloud) to back up your entire hard drive (or specific files). Each method has it's pros and cons, and the best choice depends on a few factors, such as how much data you have to back up, how critical the data is, and how much you want to spend. Here are descriptions of a few of them, in no particular order:

Keeping your important files in the cloud. This isn't a back-up method per-se, but it does serve to protect important files. It simply involves using a cloud-based service such as Box.com, SkyDrive, or UbuntuOne as your main document repository, and accessing and saving the files to the service rather than your local hard drive. Many cloud services have a desktop application that will automatically sync the cloud data to local folders to allow offline access, so it even does technically keep a back-up copy (however the file syncs when connected, so restoring old versions of files is not necessarily possible without some additional work).

Copying Files. This entails physically copying your important files to a different PC, external drive, CD/DVD, or cloud-based storage on a regular basis. This is a labor-intensive way to backup data, as you need to decide what files to copy, actively copy them, potentially manage media, etc. It can work as a quick way to ensure important data doesn't get lost because you will always have a copy somewhere, but most of the other backup methods are simpler to use (once they are setup) and more robust.

Using local backup software. This can cover a large number of options from built-in OS solutions to enterprise-level software packages costing several thousand dollars. There are several things that most software backup solutions have in common, including compression to save space on your backup media, the ability to select what you want to backup and/or exclude from backup, backup scheduling, and support for different types of backup (full, incremental, differential, Copy, Daily - see http://www.symantec.com/connect/node/1592701 for descriptions). Generally, backups are made to some kind of external media such as portable hard drives, DVDs, a network location, or tape drives. This is one of the most common methods of backing up a system, and, once set up, can work with minimal user intervention if scheduling is turned on. Some software provides partition backups - copying an entire drive or partition rather than individual files (sometimes called a mirror image), which can be convenient for restoring systems that crash (however it may be harder to restore individual files). Software costs range from free to thousands of dollars for the software, and there also may be hardware/media costs (external drives, tapes, DVDs, etc.). I personally use backup software (EASEUS Todo Backup Free - I'm planning on writing a review of it soon), and find it works very well for me.

Cloud-based backup services. The past few years have seen the introduction of reasonably-priced cloud-based solutions for backing up files. These are basically a combination of dedicated backup software with cloud-based storage. Users purchase a plan that includes cloud-based storage and the software needed to perform backups and restores. The software automatically runs backups according to a pre-set schedule (in some cases monitoring Internet usage and uploading during down times. Files can be restored to a computer from any Internet connection, which is very convenient for laptop users. In some cases, space on the basic plans may be inadequate, and extra space can drive the costs up, but there are some companies that offer a per-computer home plan.

Scheduling

No matter what method you use for backups, you need to have a schedule (Unless you store and access all your important files in and from the cloud). If you don't keep to a regular schedule, you can still lose lots of data even if you have a backup depending on how often you add or change files. I back up my main systems at least once a month as part of my regular maintenance schedule - in general a month wouldn't be too big of a loss for me. My office backs up daily. You may only need to back up every couple of months. But, again, the important thing is ensuring you have a schedule and keeping to it.

The best way to adhere to your schedule is to use backup software or a cloud-based service that allows scheduling. Once you select your backup files, you can go ahead and "set-it-and-forget-it", letting your computer handle backing up. This allows you to get backups with minimal work - for local backups you may need to occasionally change media, but in general you don't need to be too aware of the process (this assumes a home system - business backups are a whole different world). If you simply copy files, or use software that doesn't allow scheduling, you'll need to be more involved, actually sitting down and making the copies or starting the backup (unless you're good at writing batch files, that is). Even if you don't set an automatic schedule, you should mark days to do your backups in your calendar to ensure that you have regular copies of your data. I choose to run my backups manually because I feel it gives me more control of storage space, but I make sure that I do it monthly.

Conclusion

However you choose to do it, backing up your data is a very important task.  However and how often you choose to do it is up to you and the type/amount of data on your system, but remember that if you don't backup, you're taking a chance. You may not even know what is vulnerable until your system crashes and you lose important files. Feel free to discuss further in the comments.