There are few things as pleasant – to me at least – as arriving home with a new toy. In this case two new toys as I was bringing home a couple of 1.5 Terabyte capacity drives to be used as mirrored storage for my scanning project. Terabyte – the name sort of rolls off the tongue and speaks of unimaginable quantities of available storage, on tap at your command. Tens of thousands of photos, days of movies and copies of all the documents and email I’ll ever generate or send in a lifetime, and each of these terabyte capacity drives provides about 50,000 times the storage of a single Seagate ST 238 30 MB hard drive which cost about the same per unit 20 years ago – absolutely amazing. I was grinning so hard, my face was starting to ache ! There was of course one small catch – I just had to install them !

I had a spare quad-core machine available, so it was no bother at all to get the drives installed and connected up. They are both SATA drives, and much simpler to configure than the old IDE drives of yesteryear. I wanted them to be configured as mirrored drives, or RAID 1 which normally is easily set up either in software, or in the motherboard BIOS of most any of the newer machines – so far so good. And then, as often is the case, I ran into a small snag which I didn’t even see coming and has cost me the better part of three days sorting out ……… I was Ubuntu-ised !

Ubuntu is a Linux distribution which I run on most of the machines in the house – I have variants of it installed on different machines as determined by their capability: Xubuntu on an older Toshiba that is processor and memory constrained for example, and eeeBuntu on my eeePC as it includes the correct drivers for the hardware etc… For the desktops though its is generally just straight Ubuntu and I try to ensure they are all running the same version and patch levels – recently the new Karmic Koala (a ridiculous name, but I suppose it is catchier than most) 9.10 version was released and most of my in-house desktop hardware was running that with no issues at all. Although I would never call myself a Linux ‘software guru’ as I am really just a hardware guy, I was not expecting any problems. Of course, as someone once said to me, hope springs eternal in the woefully stupid.

In this case, all I needed to do was set up the mirrored (type RAID-1) terabyte drives in a fresh Karmic Koala 9.10 system. And that’s when I ran into the small snag. I usually build my own computers, and most modern home-use motherboards include a simple RAID configuration capability. RAID stands for ‘redundant array of inexpensive/independent disks’ which depending on which RAID version you select can be a way of spreading data across hard drives, such that if one (or possibly more) hard drives fails – which they all do eventually – your data is preserved. On enterprise grade servers, this is standard, but on home systems the systems are quite a bit simpler and really what you normally see called RAID is just a clever implementation of a BIOS enabled multi- channel disk drive controller using a special driver which gives the illusion of having a full-blown RAID capability. It isn’t foolproof, but its better than nothing and generally works quite well. However, since this is not actually ‘true’ RAID such as you would get in a multi-thousand dollar server from Dell, HP or IBM- the Linux folks disparagingly refer to it as ‘fake raid‘ and pat each other on the back and rejoice in doing things correctly in that annoying MAC sort of way that passionate advocates of whatever the current flavour of the month have – be they Microserfs, i-whatevers, tree huggers or ex-smokers. I on the other hand am just interested in getting things to work, and under Windows these ‘fake’ raid’ configurations work perfectly fine pretty much right out of the box – as I found to my dismay, under Ubuntu they do not.

The first day was spent trying to understand what exactly was going on – although I could set up the motherboard firmware to be RAID-1, the 9.10 OS installation would not boot. After several installs and some spirited discussion with the machine in question, this seemed to be mainly a GRUB issue as the nice folks at Canonical changed the boot loader with the 9.10 release from GRUB standard to GRUB 2 which, it turns out, currently will not live happily on this kind of mirrored drive. The second issue is closer to the hardware and has to do with how the controller software/driver gets confused when presented with two drives being used in this manner on this sort of low-end hardware. Note that you can configure a software emulation of RAID, however when I did try to set that up it didn’t work either. The standard OS install uses what is called a ‘live cd’ (which is a brilliant concept allowing you to run the OS off the CD with no changes to the computer and ‘take it for a test drive’ so to speak – most of the Linux distributions offer this),  but there were references to using what was called the ‘additional’ cd – this took over an hour to locate as it was not obvious where to actually find it.

The internet is normally what saves me when dealing with these sorts of problems. For example, the Toshiba laptop I was running Xubuntu had a video problem, but it took next to no time to find a simple patch to get it all working correctly. In contrast I spent many hours sorting through various suggestions and on-line advice to resolve this 9.10 mirror issue, and after trying multiple combinations, multiple configurations and multiple patches using hours of arcane command line entries via the system terminal, after three days of messing about, I did finally have it working. But I wasn’t happy.

The whole point of this exercise was to set up a server with mirrored drives to store the pictures, photos and negatives I’m about to scan in via my new Epson V700 scanner. For a non-commercial environment especially, a server needs to just ‘work’ – they can’t be a project, and although I did have a working server, with mirrored drives under Ubuntu 9.10, I just didn’t trust it at all. For one thing, my ability to see the health of the mirrored drives was limited as the disk drive manager (Palimpsest) gave me contradictory and confusing information showing the drives multiple times with different descriptions – none of them really correct. So I was in a position of not being able to tell for certain whether or not the RAID is working correctly, couldn’t easily get stats, and couldn’t easily set flags to warn me of impeding problems. All of this could be done via the command line, and of course all of this could be solved by someone with better Linux software skills, but I was not prepared to make a career out of this. For my requirements, this just was not ideal.

I had a spare copy of Vista Ultimate sitting unopened on the shelf, and I was able to get that up and running happily with mirrored drives in about three and a bit hours, if you include all the phaffing about doing updates. It seems quite happy serving files to Linux boxes, and otherwise seems to do pretty much what I want without a lot of drama, so it will do fine for the next year or so, or till I have the time to circle back and try this again.

Next on the agenda – the 1973 GT750 engine.

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