This has been a banner day for computing.

So the webcast computer... it's a Mac Mini 1,1 (the first Intel model, I think) so it's a little pokey, but it mostly does the job... except that it's been crashing a lot lately. And of course it's the kind of crash where you have to press the power button, it doesn't have the decency to reboot on its own.

And, as I whined about previously, half the time when you reboot it, one or both of the external USB drives attached to it fail to mount unless you power cycle those as well.

So today's projects were: 1) just as a shot in the dark, put more RAM in it; and 2) do something about those drives.

I had braced myself for the nightmare that opening a Mac Mini was reported to be, and the people, they did not lie. Not having a fucking putty knife to open it, I just used a knife-knife, and only mangled the case a little bit. I have the world's most complete set of weirdo screwdriver tips, but of course Apple is always one step ahead, and puts some of the screws so deep that my bits didn't fit in the holes. But -- pro tip -- if you chew away most of the superfluous plastic around them with pliers, you can reach the screws.

Anyway, someone suggested that putting the drives on a powered USB hub, instead of directly attaching them to the Mac, might make them not lose their minds when the Mac reboots, so I tried that. Guess what? With that hub plugged into the Mac, the Mac won't boot at all. It just loops with USB errors. Sweet.

So Plan 2-b was "fuck USB", and I went and bought a couple of new drive enclosures that had Firewire on them: Nexstar 3, the only Firewire enclosures that Central had in stock.

So... when I plug these drives in to Firewire, the Mac doesn't realize they're drives at all. "Unknown device". Amazing. They work on USB, though. So I'm back to USB, and the same old "doesn't boot right" problem.

Then, it turns out that after about 30 minutes, one of these cases decides to just go away. The Mac complains about an unclean dismount, and I have to power cycle it to make it come back. This happens again. So apparently one of these enclosures is flaky, even though they're the same model and presumably the same batch. Awesome.

I go digging around in the box and find that I have another Nexstar case lying around, that looks the same but the board is "Rev 0" instead of "Rev 1.something". Just for laughs, I try that on Firewire -- and it works fine.

I don't actually have any questions for the Lazyweb here, just a bunch of generalized rage.

(Also I got a really bad paper cut under my fingernail opening the Nexstar box. Fuck you, Nexstar.)

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25 Responses:

  1. Hagus says:

    Hard drive vendors and enclosure vendors are a constant source of frustration. A favorite of mine is their tendency to ignore demands to flush their cache, which inflates their benchmarks but frequently leads to data loss when cables are yanked. And that implies you've managed to buy a drive+enclosure that lasts long enough to have data stored on it.

    If anyone finds an enclosure actually worth storing precious data within, I want to know about it.

    Friends swear by ├╝ber-sized Drobos but I am skeptical. The fact their driver lies about the amount of available free space (you have to use their hokey 'dashboard' to find the truth) kinda worries me. But my information may be stale.

    • Lun Esex says:

      People who live on the edge and frequently actually fill their hard drives up to the last free block probably shouldn't get a Drobo. People who fill their disk space only gradually and/or occasionally check how much real free space they have would be perfectly fine with a Drobo. Also, a Drobo *can* be partitioned, so you can have volumes whose blocks are all mapped to physical locations. Those volumes are no longer "dynamic," obviously, and cannot be expanded past their initial size by simply adding drives. I'm not sure if Drobos support re-sizing of multiple partitions without losing their data. Even though partitioning like this loses the dynamic volume sizing (mostly--see below), you still keep the hot swap data protection in case of a single drive failure, without requiring an exactly matched drive for the replacement.

      I've got a Drobo myself, initially setup as a single 4TB volume. I gradually filled it with two, then three, and finally four 1.5TB drives. All of its reported available storage space is now matched to physical disk storage. There's a bit left over now, and every time I reboot I keep getting asked whether I want to initialize the free space as an additional partition. I just say no, because I don't really need an extra little 78GB volume hanging around (I still have almost 1TB free on the main volume). At some point I could start swapping in 2TB or 3TB drives, and that extra free 78 GB would grow and I could format it into a volume of usable size. I'm not sure, but I'd guess that the total size of that volume will always be reported to the OS as 4TB, as well, to match the original setup volume size. I think once I filled the unit up to three 3TB drives and one 2TB drive that I'd have two 4TB partitions on it where all the reported blocks on both partitions would be fully mapped to physical blocks on the drives. (Always subtract one of the largest drives from the total storage available, so 3x 3TB + 1x 2TB becomes 2x 3TB + 1x 2TB = ~8TB. And then it'd probably be bugging me after rebooting that I have 156GB of free storage available and would I like to format it?)

      I know at least two other people who have multiple Drobos, for much more intense data storage and backup, and they stand by them, as well.

      Just avoid using Drobos on their USB 2.0 interfaces, because for some reasons those are a dog. The newer models may have gotten better in that regard, but the newer ones also are available with eSATA, so it's a bit of a moot point.

      N.B. I know my use of the term "partition," above, is not strictly accurate in the physical sense on the drives. It's the appropriate conceptual term, however, and it's accurate for how the OS sees the filesystem on a Drobo.

  2. reeses says:

    I lived with the early Intel Mac Mini for years, with a long string (I think I was up to six or seven) of firewire drives connected to it as my storage needs grew (I.e., I ripped more DVDs). Then I upgraded to Leopard.

    After that, connecting more than one or two external drives resulted in exactly the same behavior you're seeing. Checking out the discussions showed that a number of people had the same problem, but most of the answers were of the terribly helpful,"I am doing something similar to you but only connecting one device, and it's fine!" sort that make me want to squick people.

    Mac OS X and/or Apple hardware has always been really finicky about external drive chipsets. Generally, it's some third party who gets loosey goosey with the spec, or worse, actually follows the spec, and OS X shits its pants.

    Because I am a dumbass, I solved the problem by buying a Mac Pro when they were "cheap" (i.e., the product line was undifferentiated enough that the cost difference between the low and high end was less than USD1k) and just went with internal storage and shoved the rest of the drives into an eSATA direct attached enclosure.

    For other people, I'd recommend getting a cheap NAS and just throwing the drives in there, or connecting them to the USB port if it has one. Only good for slow stuff, but if you're using USB, you're probably not booting from it anyway.

  3. zjs says:

    The newest mac mini is really easy to open, you just twist the bottom plate off like a giant flathead screw. Cheap firewire stuff is super shitty, I tried to make firewire raid work in Linux once and sent mail to the firewire driver mailing list. They said I needed new cables.

    I use the original (ancient) drobo for large storage and it works fine, it's just slowish.

  4. The worst part about Nexstar's random board revision games? All of their enclosures that have the same casing have exactly the same model number: little details like incompatible backplate cutouts, different chipsets, or different wiring for the front lights don't even get a revision. Good luck reliably getting an enclosure with a chipset you know works: you can't tell which BOM yours was built from without getting it out of the box and taking the back plate off, by which point you've presumably already paid for your booby prize.

    My experiences with Nexstar enclosures basically mirror yours: rev 0 is good, rev 1.anything is generally crap.

    When it's not technology sucking, it's the people around it.

  5. Eric TF Bat says:

    OK, I have a plan. Park the Mac Mini on a street corner anywhere in San Francisco. After ten or fifteen femtoseconds, a local resident will call the cops because it's making too much noise and keeping them awake at night. (Bonus points if they do this at five on a Saturday afternoon.) The local courts will demand that the computer spend six point seven godzillion dollars and eighteen months of its life filling out paperwork to pledge that it will never again cause any kind of sound of any sort detectable by a neurotic bloodhound with bionic ears stationed three inches away, even during an earthquake. In the process of damping all molecular vibration to comply with this law, the computer will freeze itself to below absolute zero, and fall entirely out of the fabric of spacetime. This eventuality is covered by Apple's warranty (they think of everything) so then you can buy a new computer. Problem solved!

  6. Oh God, not the first Intel Mac mini. I had one. Purchased April 2009. What a October 2010 it had 6 logic board failures and they just sent me a new current-gen Mini for all my troubles.

    And I haven't had a kernel panic, spontaneous reboot, or OpenGL blip since. It almost makes me not completely loathe the Intel Macintosh.

    That said, yeah, you are really out of luck with that old mini. The USB thng sounds odd and like it might be a system thing. What OS X is it running? Does it die if you try a LiveCD of a *nix (Freesbie / knoppix / whatever)? I used a WD My Book Studio FW800 disk for booting after the SATA channel on my old mini died and it worked pretty well. That is about the only advice I can give you. Sorry.

  7. You can have my Drobo. I don't think they're horrible, but everything can fail. If you fill all the bays of a drobo, and then pull a drive to upsize it, you're running without a net while the drobo upsizes. And if another drive dies while that lengthy rebuild is happening...

  8. phuzz says:

    Somewhere there is a venn diagram with a large circle marked "Fucking bloody Apple problems", next to it is a big(ger?) circle marked "Bloody fucking Micro$oft problems", and the overlapping area in the middle is simply marked "AVOID".

  9. NelC says:

    Paper cut under the fingernail? Ouch! Two really painful things that must combine to produce something that would give Pinhead the vapours. My fingers are reflexively curling as I type this.

  10. fantasygoat says:

    To solve my external drive issues, I just replaced the internal drive in my first-gen MacMini with a 1TB one. But then I own a putty knife so it wasn't so bad.

    It's a good thing you started selling beer because computers clearly hate you.

  11. Parasense says:

    Sounds line this is supposed to be a cheap trick, so I won't recomment you spend the cash on a Drobo like I did, or and kind of NAS.

    Still fuck all this.

    If you must be cheap use a low cost netbook, which has a battery, good for power outages, sorta built in ups. They run linux or whatever.

    Sucks you had all the pain and agro.

    If you were to consider a linux nas kit, I would sugest synology. You can hack the arm-linux to do whatever you like so you don't need a seperate computer. Same thing with drobo (hackable) but as an owner I could not in good conscience advise any hacker type to folow my poor decicion.

    • Bill Weiss says:

      Did you have a crappy experience hacking the thing up, or what? I ask as someone who has first gen Drobo that I'd like to do something stupid with :)

  12. Tim Lara says:

    I can completely confirm the Nexstar suckage. I don't know the revision, but I had one of those same enclosures that would cause multiple mobos not to post if plugged in at boot time.

    I've had much better luck with OWC enclosures, but then of course you have to wait for mail order...

  13. Liam says:

    I have a:
    Model Name: Mac mini
    Model Identifier: Macmini2,1
    Processor Name: Intel Core 2 Duo
    Processor Speed: 1.83 GHz
    Number Of Processors: 1
    Total Number Of Cores: 2
    L2 Cache: 2 MB
    Memory: 1.5 GB
    Bus Speed: 667 MHz
    Boot ROM Version: MM21.009A.B00
    SMC Version (system): 1.19f0

    I bought 2 FW400 enclosures (probably from OWC - I can check if it's helpful), put matching 250GB drives in them made a software mirrored volume and installed Leopard Server on them. They have not exhibited the behaviour you are seeing. I recall that when I was buying the enclosures I made sure to get something that claimed the right Oxford chipset after reading about booting issues. I still have the internal drive installed, but not used.

    1394/USB20 Drive:

    Manufacturer: PI-145
    Model: 0x201
    GUID: 0x101005407C4764
    Maximum Speed: Up to 400 Mb/sec
    Connection Speed: Up to 400 Mb/sec

    Cheers, Liam

    • jwz says:

      I don't even know how one would go about buying an enclosure with a particular chipset, since I have never seen a retailer who included that info on the product info page. Hell, I've never seen an enclosure that included that info on the *box*.

    • jwz says:

      If you can tell me the model number of the enclosures you're using successfully, I'll buy a pair and give those a try... Thanks!

  14. jwz says:

    Thanks! Unfortunately those are for 2.5" drives and I have 3.5". I did order some enclosures from the same manufacturer, though, so we'll see...

    • Liam says:

      I mostly have 2.5" on the theory they will use less power. Not that I really think I would save enough to matter mind you... Hope they work out more reliably for you.

      Cheers, Liam

    • Well, since I'm one of the Idiots who suggested trying a USB Hub, i feel like i owe it to you to make even more potentially useless suggestions....

      1. How is it setup to boot...?If it could it be trying to boot from on of the externals maybe that is a point of failure? Maybe a bootloader like REFIT can smooth out booting or may somehow skip the USB check?

      I only ask, since I get similar sounding failure results when trying to boot Linux from USB on My Mac

      2. Sorry the drives' enclosures are wacky . that just sucks. To WERE able to get one of the drives to show up while connected via Firewire? I have had USB to FIrewire drive complaints before so I'm asking.

      3. I'll send you my Buffalo NAS. It even has a bunch of trendy/kitch music on it for you to make fun of me for...but moreover, it sure as hell avoids USB and it runs Linux so you don't have any Microsoft qualms in your belly.

      • jwz says:

        Not trying to boot off either external drive. One of them ("rev 0" enclosure) works on FW, the other doesn't. I ordered some new enclosures that someone else said worked. Supposedly they arrive tomorrow...