The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for February, 2011

Some thoughts on Western Digital My Book Essential 3TB USB 3.0 External Hard Drive

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

I recently found myself spending so much time juggling how I was storing my data in order to get it to fit on a combination of a 2 TB and a 1.5 TB external hard drive, that I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit getting a 3 TB external drive for backup. I decided against getting a 3 TB drive when they first came out, in part due to AnandTech’s unfavorable review of the only 3 TB drive on the market at the time, Seagate’s GoFlex Desk 3TB. The big turn offs for me were the poorly designed enclosure resulting in very high temperatures, high $/GB ratio and a host of compatibility issues. Since that time, both Western Digital and Hitachi have gotten in on the game as well with 3 TB offerings of their own. I opted for the My Book Essential 3TB, since it seemed to have the best designed enclosure of the bunch, offered the cheapest $/GB ratio of any of the 3 TB drives on the market at $165 via Newegg and gave me a chance to try out my USB 3.0 port on my Asus P6X58D motherboard.

Installation of this drive was decidedly NOT a breeze. I ended up having to update my motherboard’s bios, USB 3.0 controller sub-firmware and USB 3.0 drivers  just to get the drive to be recognized and then had to install and then update Western Digital’s included Smartware software in order to update the drive’s firmware in order to get it working properly. I wouldn’t recommend this to clients as a “just plug it in to gain 3 TB of storage” device, but once I got it working it has behaved like any other external hard disk drive and has stayed comfortably cool via strictly passive ventilation and worked reliably through multi Terabyte initial data copying and subsequent daily backups.

Western Digital doesn’t exactly go out of their way to advertise it, but this drive spins at something below 6000 RPM (hence the assorted eco-branding). Even with the fast USB 3.0 interface, this drive performs considerably below any 1.5 or 2 TB drive I’ve owned, even with those drives being in USB 2.0 enclosures. This drive is decidedly for bulk data storage purposes only.

One other thing Western Digital doesn’t advertise is that the drive used in the enclosure is the same WD30EZRS series drive which they sell for ~$35 MORE as a bare OEM drive sans enclosure. Popping the drive out of its enclosure is relatively straightforward, although you are likely to pop a couple plastic clips in the process, voiding your warranty. Still, if you are looking for a 3TB internal drive on the cheap and don’t mind potentially voiding your warranty coverage, this is about as cheap as you can get one.

I ended up picking up a second unit to use as an internal drive. I kept it in its enclosure long enough to update it to the most recent drive firmware and then popped it open. I am keeping the enclosure in case I ever need to apply another firmware update. It has functioned like any other non-boot drive in my system, save for that the performance characteristics are such that if you have more than a few apps contending for I/O attention from the drive, throughput drops enough that HD video streams start breaking up. This can be problematic if you are trying to watch a movie and a backup job starts in the background, for instance. To reiterate, this drive whether used externally or internally should be used for bulk data storage only.

Posted in General, Rants and Raves, Reviews, Storage, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on 25th February 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.


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Some thoughts on the forthcoming 520 bridge toll system

Posted by Deliverator on 16th February 2011

While I am normally in favor of tolls and other systems of taxation that generate revenues to pay for infrastructure where it is to be used and by those who use it, our state has a poor history of continuing to collect tolls after the cost of construction has been paid, even in cases where the original legislation authorizing the construction and tolls had specific sunset clauses. Government has a tendency to be very reluctant to give up a revenue stream once it has been established, even when such taxation is no longer (or never was) justifiable under any reasonable, expressible philosophy of taxation. With the recent, massive budget shortfall, we have seen seen increasingly desperate attempts by the government to stick their fingers in other people’s pies, with often little or no justification for why they are entitled to a slice in the first place.

It should be noted that the legislation establishing the toll does not have a sunset provision requiring the toll to be removed after the bridge is paid for, or be scaled back to maintenance levels after payment of the bonds are completed. It merely requires that “Revenue from tolling the bridge will only be used as authorized by the Legislature for bond payments, operations and maintenance within the SR 520 corridor.” This means that the toll revenue may be used to pay for anything in the 520 corridor, potentially freeing up funds to pay for budget shortfalls elsewhere. It also appears that tolls can be used to fund mass transit and not simply highway purposes, something some toll payers may disagree with strongly. Is there even a requirement to pay off the 30 YEAR bonds as quick as toll revenues allow? The original I-90 floating bridge’s tolls paid off its cost of construction in 9 years, decades ahead of projections. The current 520 bridge’s tolls were ended in 16 years. I have to wonder after all the accounting jiggery-pokery takes place, how much and for how long 520’s toll revenues will have been used to pay for highly controversial projects like Seattle’s Waterfront Tunnel?

I am also extremely opposed to electronic RFID or plate registration as the sole means of paying a toll. RFID systems have severe privacy implications that often go un-addressed or unacknowledged by implementers or are addressed dismissively. From WSDOT’s faq :

Will my privacy be protected?
Yes. Good To Go! electronic tolling Passes use radio frequency identity chips, which do not hold any personal information. For Pay By Mail, only photos of the vehicle are taken, not the driver or occupants. All personal data, including name, address and payment information, is kept confidential and privacy is protected by law. Under no circumstances is individual customer information disclosed for use by marketing firms.

This scant acknowledgment of the issues surrounding RFID systems answer falls into the dismissive category. There is essentially no anonymous way of paying this toll. You either have to register your plate and establish an account, or get an RFID badge/sticker and establish an account. Government entities have an even poorer reputation for keeping databases private (uh, Wikileaks anyone?) than commercial enterprise, who often at least have some financial/reputation impact rationale for keeping client data private and I am very loath to supply my billing information to a government agency. While they make assurances that the data stored in their databases will remain private, tolling data has been used in numerous criminal and civil cases.

Unless you deliberately shield the RFID tag in other areas, there is nothing to prevent the tag from being read at other locations by the state or by other individuals and most people are frankly not going to bother. There are countless examples of how tags can be abused (up to and including cloning of someone else’s card) by private individuals. For instance, an acquaintance of mine, Eric Butler, recently showed how a commonly available cell phone could be used to remotely read someone’s ORCA transit card and display their recent whereabouts.

WA state is one of only a few that has a law against skimming someone’s RFID data without their knowledge, but if the rewards of doing so are large enough and it can be done anonymously, with little chance of being caught, then I am doubtful that this law will have a deterrent effect.

Turning 520 into a toll bridge will undoubtedly shift a lot of traffic onto the region’s other, already crowded arterials. The particular implementation details of this toll system just give me one more reason not to use 520 and not to go into Seattle for non-essential needs.

Update: It does appear you can set up a quasi-anonymous “Unregistered Pass Account” account without deliberately disclosing identifying information by showing up in person at one of the customer service centers and paying for a pass in cash. Given that they already have equipment in place to take pictures of license plates for plate based billing, they have the technical ability to correlate a plate with an unregistered pass, effectively de-anonymizing it. This is a marginally better situation, as the government/company hired to run the system wouldn’t have your direct billing details, but you would still be carrying around an RFID tag that is chirping for all to hear/clone/whatever. They also warn that if the pass isn’t read correctly, one would be sent an inflated/surcharge bill by mail. In such a situation, you couldn’t really protest without revealing your identity.

A more desirable setup would be the ability to set up a cash only account for plate based billing. In such a situation, one wouldn’t have to carry around a chirping RFID tag and wouldn’t be disclosing more information than the state already has through a vehicle’s registration. This doesn’t appear to be possible, currently, and they are charging a $.25 extra surcharge per toll for plate based billing. How much is your privacy worth to you? One has to wonder at the rationale for this disincentive. This may be an indication that their plate image capture system functions poorly in some situations, such as gridlock traffic, when an overhead mounted camera may not have a clear shot of the plate. I wonder whether this will cause scofflaws to deliberately tailgate large trucks and the like?

Posted in Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | No Comments »