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ATPM 14.07
July 2008


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

Live Well With a NAS Drive

Last month, I talked about some of the potential problems that I discovered while purchasing a network attached storage drive. Unfortunately, that drive is currently about to be returned to the manufacturer for repair or replacement, but that’s a story for another day. This month, I thought I would give you some idea where it fits in our current network, what my plans were for the drive, and some of the steps I had taken to integrate the drive into our network prior to its demise.

Our Current Network Setup

Our small home network currently consists primarily of a dual 2 GHz G5, quad core 2.66 GHz Mac Pro, Gateway desktop running Windows Vista, and a Series 2 TiVo. We also have two aging clamshell iBooks that need network access from time to time, but this is becoming a rare event. The TiVo and both iBooks access the network wirelessly courtesy of the Belkin router that ties everything together. Each desktop unit and the router support gigabit Ethernet, so moving files from one computer to another proceeds at a reasonable pace. Choosing compatible file formats is relatively easy because most of our Mac software has the corresponding piece of software installed on the PC.

Our present configuration meets our needs fairly well. It distributes our broadband connection to the devices that need it and handles file transfers well. We are not passing data between systems often enough to seriously stress bandwidth, so that is not an issue. I don’t spend much time doing network maintenance, but when I do I use one of the Macs. I try to touch my wife’s Windows machine as little as possible, and she likes it that way.

Everything Works, Why Purchase a Network Storage Device?

My main reason for purchasing network attached storage was to provide a central location for shared files. Keeping track of the most recent versions of a document was bad enough, but sharing media added another issue. My current iTunes music folder contains over 8,000 items and weighs in at just over 73 GB. Without centralized storage, keeping that folder up-to-date on all machines would require moving an external hard drive from one machine to another as needed, copying the folder to each machine via the network, or leaving one machine on with sharing enabled for iTunes music. I had set up an iTunes music server before—why not just continue that arrangement?

Continuing with my current iTunes server did not address several other needs for centralized storage. First of all, we had a number of cross-platform files such as Photoshop brushes and textures that were useless within iTunes. Secondly, an iTunes server would not have addressed the TiVo files archived until I have time to watch them, photos waiting to be restored, or files for a few other projects that I don’t need to access every day. Throw in temporary space needed for a few videos waiting to be converted from VHS to DVD, and things had really gotten out of hand.

In addition to the advantages of centralized storage, adding a NAS drive to our network had two additional benefits. If I needed to, I could set it up as an FTP server to provide access to files while traveling. Since the unit I chose also had a built-in print server, I could disconnect the AirPort base station. It was only on the network because our Belkin router didn’t provide print server capabilities.

How It All Works

Prior to purchasing, I knew that the unit I purchased supported the Samba protocol, which should make it possible for both platforms to see the drive and move files to and from it easily. Unfortunately, the initial setup procedure did not go as easily for me as I had hoped. The directions for setting up the device on a Mac were not 100 percent accurate. It took a while to solve this problem. You may be wondering by now why I didn’t just boot the Gateway and run the setup from Windows. First of all, my wife keeps the Windows box pretty busy, and second, it happens to be in an area of the house that can be difficult for me to access. Besides, there’s a reason she prefers that I not touch that machine. It has something to do with my breaking the DVD drive shortly after we got the previous machine. I still haven’t fully convinced her that happened by accident.

I had the option of setting up this particular drive as a RAID system but didn’t at the time. I have never set up a RAID before. It was going to take me some time to figure that out, and I had several projects that needed the space now. Besides, one of my hard drives was making a rather ominous noise. Once I got the Mac to see the device the setup procedure was pretty straightforward. I set up separate shares that appear as drives on the desktop. One share holds the iTunes collection and media files that are ready for playback, one share holds works in progress, and one holds some of my wife’s projects that I don’t need to access. The device is capable of handling storage for multiple users, each with their own passwords and public folders.

Each of our desktops have Windows file sharing enabled so they see the drive as a series of Windows shares that I can mount on the desktop using the “Connect to Server” command in the Finder. When prompted, I select the device in the dialog that appears. Next, I select the desired share. If you have set one, you will be prompted for the user name and password. Once the share is mounted, you can create an alias for it and place the alias somewhere convenient. From then on, mounting the share is as simple as double-clicking the alias. Using this method I wasn’t asked for the password each time.

Initially, I had the iTunes and “works in progress” shares set to mount automatically as part of my login items. The problem with this arrangement is that the Finder insists on opening the share with a window open whether you want it that way or not. I did not need the window on the iTunes share open. It just had to be available in order for me to play music. Fortunately, there is a simple workaround assuming that you are running either Tiger or Leopard. Create a simple workflow within Automator that mounts the share, and it will mount without opening a window. If you tend to always have the same shares mounted, one workflow can open all of them. Once it was working properly, I saved the workflow as an application and added that to my login items.

I did not have an opportunity to load the Photoshop textures and brushes before I started having problems with my drive. All of the programs that I normally use for media editing and playback see the drive as they would any other hard drive, so I didn’t have to make a lot of changes. I opened iTunes’ preferences and set the location for the music folder to the share that holds that folder. Of course, iTunes will not be able to find the music if I forget to mount that share. I could simply close iTunes, mount the music share, and relaunch iTunes, but there is a more permanent solution. Let’s solve that problem by mounting the share as part of my login items. I think I’m also going to create an Automator workflow that checks for the appropriate share before launching iTunes. I suspect that the entire process could be created in AppleScript if you don’t have Tiger or Leopard, but I am much more fluent in Automator then I am in AppleScript.

There are only two real changes I’ve had to make to use the drive successfully. First, I have to pay a bit more attention to filenames. Since I formatted the drive using the ext3 filesystem, there are certain characters the Mac supports in filenames that the drive apparently does not support. Second, I’ve noticed that saving directly to the drive is a bit slow. I often find it faster to save the file to my internal drive and then move the file over to the storage area. Although I have been doing this by hand until now, when I get the drive back I think I’ll set up a folder action that moves the files to the appropriate areas on the network drive. At this point, I am not sure whether these problems would be resolved by using a different drive format, and how much may be a function of that specific drive.

You may be wondering why I have not included the workflows in this article. At this point, I haven’t tested them enough to unleash them on an unsuspecting world. They don’t do anything harmful but haven’t been extensively tested for reliability. I also didn’t include steps to automate the mounting process in Windows. I’ll leave that to someone who enjoys that side of Windows a bit more than I do.

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