Tanha, Part 3

Here at 118 Henry Street, we are very accustomed to the regular interruption of amenities that most normal people assume invariant. Sometimes, these interruptions are planned, other times, they are a..ahem..surprise. Hot water (twice actually), electricity, A/C, these are all potentially impermanent in an old house, under restoration, in a old neighborhood, in a small town.

We debate “Which would you rather”. E.g., “Would you rather do without hot water for 3 days or electricity?” When it comes to our computers and the internet, ‘bout everyone in these parts would rather do without water for a day then our technology. In fact, we could go without a refrigerator for a long while if it meant keeping the internet up. Washer/dryer vs. internet might be a tougher choice…

Our computers, as we’ve mentioned before, are as much an integrated part of our family routine, history, and daily life as bathing every day. Today, this day, we have 1.79Tb (1 Terabyte = 1000 Gigabytes) of photos, movies, DeShawn swimming videos, music, documents, diagrams, blog posts, all of Carole’s grants and lesson plans for the last 12 years, etc. etc. etc. Our entire intellectual property is in digital form, and by design, on our server.

In this digital regard, I suspect, we are more like other modern families than it may first appear. The biggest difference may only be my sustained anxiety about the “hard drive failure” thingy.

With the imminent demise, earlier this year, of our home server and subsequent digital extinction, my obsession vision for a Tibetan server cabinet would be supplanted, attention, budget, and all, with the need for new server hardware. The desire for a piece of custom furniture was replaced with the purchase of several digit dollar’s worth of hard drives, disk controllers, motherboard, etc.

Thus, the genesis of HONNE.

We did splurge a little for a top-of-the-line chassis

Relevant to our discussion, the most notable feature of this server was 4 (count’em behind the red toggle slots) 2.5” 1Tb hard drives for data storage. One, very easy, way to decrease the potential bummer from the “hard drive failure” thingy is to spread your data across multiple hard drives, “spindles” as we call them in our biz. On HONNE, we used “RAID5” (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) to minimize the impact of any single hard drive failing.

Never could we tolerate the loss of digital information as important as:

The forever classic, “My Couch”

With a couple weekends of concerted effort, totally ignoring the sewing room project, and gutting the budget for my Tibetan server cabinet, our network was finally stable, our data safe for a while longer.

Still, the obsession vision persisted…

Tanha, Part 2

Subtitle: Maybe more than you wanted to know

For most of a year, I was gallivanting around, spending lunch hours at various stores, lusting after new furniture, scheming with sketchpads and spreadsheets to get a server cabinet design. Meanwhile, back at the house, our server at the time was far from healthy.  Backups weren’t happening, hardware was throwing errors, all of the 118 Henry Street photos, documents, records in danger of loss by disk drive failure.

Over the Xmas/New Year holiday just past, we spent several days getting things stable again. Yet, despite my aching desire to ignore the server function, so I could obsess about the server form, the computer that is the center of our digital life never really got better. In fact, 3 of the 5 hard drives were ready to fail at any time.

We had already had one server crash during my period of infatuation with Tibetan server cabinets, I was determined to not risk another. By February, 2011, all efforts were about a new piece of server hardware.

Hard drives are motorized, spinning mechanical “platters” of magnetic metal with sensor “heads”. On these magnetic platters is all of your data stored in a computer. The platters spin at about 7500RPM in most newer hard drives. The heads that read and write your data are suspended within 40 nanometers (that’s about 0.00000001 inch) of the spinning platters. The angular forces on the sensor arms can reach over 500G’s.

Hard drive internals showing platters and sensor arms, courtesy of Wikipedia

For those of you who didn’t know about hard drives, and, for sure, those of you already bored with this discussion, you must remember one thing:

 Hard drives are the single most common, most frequent failure of a computer.

They are subject to very high mechanical stresses that are magnified by wear, heat, and vibration.

It’s not a question of “if it will fail”, it’s simply a question of “when will it fail”.

Knowing, intellectually, professionally, and experientially, about the whole “hard drive failure” thingy scares the daylights out of me. So, we set about designing a server for maximum MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) of the hard drives.

Hard drives, you see, come in 2 popular flavors: the 3.5” flavor, found in almost all desktop computers. And, the 2.5” flavor, found in all portable and laptop computers.

The inches correspond to the diameter of the platters, courtesy of DigitalDingus.com

I say “flavors” instead of “sizes” because the two types are designed for very different working environments. The 3.5” drive is designed for maximum performance and storage capacity in a physically stable environment without regard to power consumption. The 2.5” drive is designed to be used in an unstable physical environment (think “rugged”) and to consume less power (think “battery) at the expense of speed and capacity.

If, as was mine, the goal is hard drive maximum MTBF, it makes sense to put cool running, rugged, low power consuming 2.5” drives in a stable physical environment. A stable environment found, conveniently enough, next to my desk at 118 Henry Street.

For those readers not asleep, and possibly even interested in this topic; most of the technical research that I did is very succinctly and simply summarized in this article at DigitalDingus.com concerning 2.5” vs. 3.5” hard drives.

I leave you, fair reader, to extrapolate from this discussion the importance of data backups on your individual computer.

By “backups”, I mean, 2 or more copies of your data, on different hard drives, regularly synchronized.

(Addendum:  Couple of good comments came in via email concerning solid state hard drives (SSD). I did purposefully leave those out of the hard drive technology discussion. Simply put, they are not quite mainstream yet. With prices about $2/Gb, compared to $0.25/Gb for mechanical drives, and the not-completely-solved issues related to defragmentation, storing large amounts of data on SSD is not happening at this time. For example, with my server project, we have 4Tb of storage, that would be something south of $8000 in SSD hard drives compared to about $550 for mechanical drives.)

Tanha, Part 1

In March of 2009, I saw a beautiful piece of furniture at a popular import store. A wildly colorful painted chest, the decoration included raised gesso lines, bold primary colors, and Tibetan inspired symbology. It immediately inspired for me the concept of a network server (computer) housed behind its vivid doors.

A mobile phone picture from the time

Alas, the price was too dear for me at the time, so I resolved to do some research and see what I could purchase online to fulfill my new obsession vision.

There was much, much wooden wonder available to feed my plans. Alas, alack, again…way too expensive for my humble project.

Upper 3 digit dollars

Several months later, the heats of my passion simmered a bit and I started looking at second hand stores, ReStore shops, and chain retailers for a more fiscally appropriate starting point. As I searched, my original concept of Tibetan theme receded further and further away.

Without much clamor, the server cabinet decoration would become a result of whatever stylistic tendencies were possessed of the chosen starting furniture. With this change in vision, a walnut cabinet in our living room started looking like a good candidate. We originally fell for the tiger burl veneer, purchasing it without knowing exactly what function the cabinet would serve.

Think “steampunk” server cabinet

So, with some measurements and sketches, the planning began.

Click the image for a larger version

Details, down to the type/number of decorative bolts, cooling fans, and disk drives were compiled; a Visio drawing created, a budget calculated.

Even a “steampunk” lamp to sit on the top

Without much effort, I was into 50 hours of work and over $2000 of materials. Have I already said “Alas, alack, etc.”?

With this heavy realization, my desire waned significantly. My obsession vision, not so much. For a year or more, I was always on the look out for suitable furniture. Several times, I would create and modify sketch plans. Even flirting, however briefly, with building something from scratch…