A Friend Asks About Safari

Last Saturday, I attended the annual winter luncheon in Marlborough, MA for New England owners of Airstream trailers.  These get-togethers are always a good time to share food and conversation with a very congenial bunch of folks who have their eye on the calendar for the next time they can "meet on down the road" at a weekend rally.  I sat at a table with a fellow Massachusetts Airstreamer, Earl, who, in the course of the lunch banter, happened to ask if I could help him with an issue where the version of Safari on his several year old MacBook was not compatible with his online banking website.

My quick advice at the lunch table was to start by checking what version of the operating system the MacBook was running.  Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to finish the conversation, so I'm writing this blog post in the hope that I can remotely troubleshoot his problem to a satisfactory outcome.  Here's the rest of what I would have advised Earl to do:  

1.  Go the the Apple menu, and choose "About This Mac" to see what version of the operating system is running.  If it's not the latest available ("El Capitan" or what is also known as OSX 10.11.3), Earl will want to upgrade his operating system to this version, or the latest version that can be installed on his MacBook.  At work, I am running El Capitan on a 2007 vintage Mac Pro, so he's got a good chance that his MacBook also can handle El Capitan.

2.  Updating the operating system is typically best accomplished by launching the App Store app from your dock.  Now, depending how old Earl's installed operating system is, the App Store may not be there, as the App Store wasn't released until January 2011, as part of OSX 10.6.6 "Snow Leopard".  If Earl's current operating system is older than this, he may need to manually install the latest operating system from the support section of Apple's website. 

3.  I always recommend performing a backup before doing an operating system upgrade, as this is one of those times where, if something goes wrong in the process, you could get "stuck in the middle" and not be able to easily recover your previous state of affairs.  So do a backup.  For tips on backing up, see my earlier post on this blog page about "Drobo". 

4.  With the latest operating system installed, the App Store app should appear in the dock (the round blue icon with the letter A inside) and launching it will allow you to install or update any Apple apps as well as any apps purchased through the App Store.  You will need to enter your Apple ID and password (the same one used for your iCloud account and your mobile devices if you have them) in order to download and install any updates or apps.

5.  The latest version of Safari as of the date of this posting (February 2, 2016) is version 9.0.3.  This should support any online banking website worth its salt.  

Earl (or anyone else in a similar fix), if this troubleshooting process doesn't get Safari to support your online bank site, try another browser (I'd recommend Chrome by Google).  Happy banking (or at least browsing). 


Drobo - A Storage Solution for Home Offices, Too

Get ready for a rather lengthy (and somewhat technical) blog post.  Hopefully, it will be worth the read, particularly for those interested in storage alternatives for home offices requiring more storage than the typical external hard drive.

I first heard of Drobo some years back on MacBreak Weekly, a tech podcast hosted by Leo LaPorte and his TWIT.TV network that I never miss.  Drobo has been a frequent sponsor of MacBreak Weekly, MacOSKen, and a few of the other podcasts I tune into regularly.  I never thought I would be a candidate for their storage products, but when I recently upgraded Huguette's desktop computer from a 2007 Mac Pro to a 2015 iMac, I realized that I needed to look into other approaches, as I would be losing the convenience of four internal drive bays that were on board the old Mac Pro.  An iMac has a single internal drive, so everything else would need to be external, unlike the Mac Pro. 

First, I should describe the backup system that was in place for her Mac Pro, which has been the repository of a collection of some 35,000 photos that comprise much of her life's work as an artist and photographer.  A multiple backup strategy is essential for something this irreplaceable, so I have been employing the "3-2-1 backup" strategy you may have read about elsewhere, which essentially means, "at least 3 copies of your data, stored on at least two devices, with one of them being offsite."

This was accomplished on her Mac Pro by having her primary (1TB) drive in Bay 1 being backed up to  1) a bootable SuperDuper-based (1TB) clone in Bay 2 for immediate recovery in case of failure of the Bay 1 drive, 2) a Time Machine backup to a 2TB drive in Bay 3 (2TB in size because Time Machine stores historical copies of previous versions of files with an ever-increasing need for space, unlike a clone that only has the latest version of each file and tends not to grow much in size), and 3) an off-site backup to Carbonite.com in case the house ever burnt down or whatever other calamity one can imagine might occur.

With the new iMac, I knew I didn't want multiple external drives hanging off the back of her iMac (somewhat unsightly as well as confusing).  I also decided that it was no longer necessary to be running a separate Time Machine backup.  The need for recovery of a specific historical file has yet to present itself in the many years of our individual use of our computers since Time Machine was rolled out by Apple.  I'd much rather have an up-to-date bootable clone to use in case I ever find myself in the dreaded "dead drive" scenario.  Also, access to "previous versions" of files is now being offered by other products, one of which I will mention shortly.

There was one more consideration affecting the ultimate choice of backup strategies for Huguette's new IMac, since we ended up choosing to have a 500GB solid state drive as her startup disk for her new computer to optimize performance of image handling for her photographic work.  This meant that we would need an external drive just to house additional primary data storage, since 500GB was not nearly enough to handle her existing storage needs.  So we bought a 3TB external Thunderbolt drive when we purchased the new iMac to handle whatever additional primary storage she needed. 

With all this said, what, you may ask, has turned out to be the "secret sauce" of the new backup approach?  Enter the Drobo 5N, a 5-bay "network-attached-storage" (NAS) device that accepts up to 5 internal hard drives that work in concert to act as one big drive, but with one very important difference from "one big drive".  The Drobo manages the storage in a way that provides data protection against any single drive failure.  As such, it provides the "2" of the "3-2-1" backup strategy, in that each data file of your backup is stored on two different physical devices within the Drobo.  It achieves this by setting aside a portion of the total storage capacity of the drives installed in the Drobo for "protection" in case one of the existing drives has a failure.  This makes it a considerably more robust backup storage device than a single external hard drive. 

I configured my Drobo 5N with three internal drives (2 1TB drives and 1 2TB drive) harvested from the old Mac Pro and purchased two new 4TB drives to round out the total storage capacity at 12TB.  This created a little over 7TB of usable backup space to house the total combined backup size for the three primary volumes on our two iMacs combined: my internal 3 TB drive and Huguette's 0.5TB internal SSD drive and external 3TB Thunderbolt drive.

The next step was to create "shares" for each of these volumes on the Drobo so that I could create a backup process for each of the three primary volumes to be contained discretely in each of these shares.  One of the very nice things about the Drobo shares is that, unlike fixed partitions on a hard drive, shares don't need to be predefined for a particular size (unless you are wanting to set up a Time Machine backup).  As a result, the full 7TB is available to house the collective backups of the three primary volumes and the shares will dynamically be resized as needed to accommodate any growth in the backups' needed storage space.  In fact, I can create additional shares if desired, subject to the total available space in the Drobo.  

The Drobo site makes some suggestions as to possible backup software and I adopted their recommendation to use Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC).  For years, I had been using SuperDuper with great success, but with the new approach of multiple shares on the Drobo, I felt that their recommendations carried a lot of weight so I went with CCC and I have been pleasantly surprised thus far. 

One thing I haven't mentioned yet is how the data makes its way from the primary volumes to the Drobo for backup purposes.  The answer is: a wired "home network" running gigabit Ethernet.  This connectivity is accomplished through my wired home network via an Apple AirPort Extreme router that also serves as our wireless router for our mobile devices, Apple TV's and other various wireless devices in the house.  The AirPort Extreme base station has wired Ethernet connectors, to which the Drobo is connected.  Our two iMacs are also connected to the router via gigabit Ethernet cabling through a switch connected to the router.

If all this is too much tech-speak, think of the Ethernet wiring as providing the "rails" on which the data packets ("trains") run to shuttle data via the router ("roundhouse") to and from the Macs and the Drobo at reasonably high speed.  And importantly, the connection to the Macs is a simple, unobtrusive cable that is out of sight.

With all the hardware, wiring and configuration in place, I set about creating the actual backups of each of the three volumes and also setting up a daily schedule for them to update automatically in the middle of the night.  I staggered the timing of the schedules so that the three backup routines would not be hitting the Drobo at the same time.  All is working very well thus far.  

My Carbon Copy Cloner backups are clones of my data files but are not bootable backups, as the Drobo does not support this. As a result, I decided to deploy two existing external hard drives to serve as bootable backups (again using CCC) so that I would have both the "belt" and the "suspenders" in the event of a failure.  This will make it easy to immediately restore or rebuild a new internal drive containing the operating system and applications in the configuration that we need, in the event of a catastrophic failure.

I will close by saying that the Drobo hardware has an "industrial strength" feel to it and uses an array of lights on the front to indicate the status of the disk in each drive bay, as well as additional lights to indicate the percentage of storage in use and when disk activity is occurring.  All in all, the Drobo 5N has met and exceeded my expectations and it gives us plenty of room to grow as our digital assets in the form of photos, videos, music, and documents continue their relentless expansion as the relics of a material world find themselves transformed into 1's and 0's.  


A New Mac in the House


This is the first blog entry for the Mac section of my website and it turns out that it's timely to report on the arrival of a new iMac into our household. The new iMac, a late-2015 27-inch retina display model, is an early Christmas present for my wife, Huguette, who has been using a now 8-year-old Mac Pro (which I affectionately call "the Beast"), and the time has arrived to upgrade.  The Beast has been a trusty workhorse since early 2008 when it first arrived to replace an earlier vintage Mac Pro (one of the Bondi Blue models that came out in the mid-90's when Apple first released its new candy-colored iMacs).

The Beast is so-called because it is a brushed-aluminum tower design (weighing in at over 40 pounds) that sits on the floor, sucking in dust and cat hair, while the 30-inch monitor sits on the desktop.  It is equipped with 4 drive bays and contains 4 1TB drives.  Bay 1 is the main production drive, Bay 2 is a SuperDuper (full volume bootable) drive backing up Bay 1, Bay 3 is a Time Machine drive backing up Bay 1, and Bay 4 was designated for video storage but not used due to some earlier reliability issues.

Eight years is a long time in computer terms, so this is a significant upgrade   on all fronts: much faster processor speed (more than double the performance as measured by a well-known benchmark), more memory (32 GB of RAM vs. 8GB in the current Mac Pro), improved hard drive capacity and performance (the new iMac has an internal 500GB solid state flash storage, which reportedly can deliver 10-30 times the read-write speed of a spinning disk hard drive).  A 3-terabyte (TB) external Thunderbolt hard drive provides much needed additional space beyond the internal solid state drive without sacrificing too much read-write speed. 

Most importantly for the artist/photographer who will be using this new iMac, it has a 5K retina display, which extends the high resolution screen technology originally available only on the iPhone and iPad, and later MacBooks, to the 27-inch desktop.  As a result, the clarity and color gamut (range) of photographs and video is nothing short of astounding.

The new iMac arrived on Thursday afternoon and that evening I set about the task of setting it up to replace the aging Mac Pro.  Things went quite smoothly, until midday Friday when I discovered that I had made an error in ordering the internal drive configuration for the iMac (I had used my Apple Store iPad app to place the order and didn't realize that I had inadvertently replaced the internal 3TB fusion drive I specified with a 500GB solid state flash drive - similar to what is used on iPhones and iPads - storage that uses no moving parts.  Flash storage is much faster - as I noted above - but it is also considerably more expensive per gigabyte of storage.

I discovered this error in the process of configuring the new machine during the day on Friday, when it gave me a "not enough disk space" message when I attempted to transfer 300GB of photos and other data files from her old computer, after having installed all the needed apps and some other data.  I initially thought the error message was incorrect, but I soon discovered that the internal drive was indeed not what I thought I had ordered.

Thus began a discussion with Applecare support to explore options for either returning or exchanging the computer via the online store or at a local Apple Store (in my case, the South Shore Plaza store in Braintree, MA).  While they had a unit at the local store that had a 2TB fusion drive, the 3TB version I initially wanted would need to be ordered and delivered later.  Even if I did purchase a replacement computer and return the one with the solid state flash drive, I would have had to transfer all the applications and data I had already installed on the solid state drive, which represented several hours of configuration work already invested.

After discussing the options with Huguette (settling for a 2TB fusion drive vs. 3TB had its own drawbacks), we decided one a two-drive solution.  Leaving the 500GB solid state drive installed as already configured, I headed off to the local Apple Store and found a 3TB LaCie external desktop drive to connect to the iMac via Thunderbolt.  Thunderbolt is the latest (and fastest) way to shuttle data to and from the RAM (working memory) on the computer.

Many other data transfer technologies have preceded Thunderbolt, including SCSI, Firewire, USB 1.0, 2.0, and now 3.0.  However, Thunderbolt can transfer data at up to 20GB per second, compared with a maximum of 5GB per second with USB 3.0, so the decision was an easy one, considering the long term speed benefit.  Since we would be depending on the external 3TB drive for a good part of Huguette's "production" storage, this was a worthwhile investment.

So, at this point on Saturday afternoon, everything has been configured and transferred to the new computer (and associated external drive) and we are officially "cooking with gas".  Huguette is already enjoying not having to wait for her old computer to do whatever it needed to do before allowing her to proceed to the next step.

The other driving factor for making the upgrade when we did it is that the subject matter for Huguette's next series of artwork is lichen, which requires a relatively new photographic technique called "image stacking" to make composite photos that have the full depth of field desired for macro views of such small specimens.  With her new iMac, she is now set to explore this new venture fully and without concern that her computer wouldn't be up to the task.