Apple’s Home Server: A Mini-Review of the Time Capsule 500GB.

I call this a mini-review not due to length, but because I’m documenting my experiences with the TC in implementing it at home.

I did not set it up in multiple ways, or perform extensive benchmarking, etc. I bought it to create a new wireless network in my home, and I’m reviewing it based on my experience in doing just that.

What I want from the Time Capsule.

As I alluded to in an article I wrote a few days ago, my plan for the TC was as follows:

  • Create a new wireless “n” network to replace my “g” network. Aside from the speed bump, the new network would use WAP2 security instead of the older WEP.
  • Use it as a router for my broadband connection (cable modem) and share that connection between two Macs and two iPhones.
  • Use it to share my HP 5850 printer. The printer is a wireless device, but my intent was to share it via Ethernet.
  • And, of course, wirelessly backup both machines via Time Machine to the TC’s internal hard drive.

My old router (a Linksys “g” unit that has performed flawlessly for three years), will be retired.

Installation and Implementation.

Out of the box, I first installed the AirPort Utility onto my iMac. Reading the small booklet that came with the TC I then did the following:

  1. Plugged cable modem into WAN port.
  2. Plugged HP printer into Ethernet port.
  3. Plugged TC into wall outlet.

I watched it boot up and the light go green, then launched the AirPort Utility (APU). It found the Airport fine and I initially used the option to create a new wireless network and just stepped through the prompts (use WPA2, set passwords, name the TC and the TC’s disk, specify DHCP for my Internet, etc.). It rebooted and both Macs see each other, but there was no Internet.

So I chose Manual Setup and manually added the DNS servers from my ISP, but that made no difference. Then it occurred to me that I likely just needed to recycle the cable modem. I did so and, voila!, I have Internet.

For printer sharing I had some concerns because the doc always discusses sharing USB printers, not about sharing printers via Ethernet. It can, but you have to enable it. In Manual Settings mode click the Printers icon and then select the option to share printers over Ethernet WAN port all you have to do is plug it in. It was that simple. Both Macs already had the driver for the printer and found it just as easily over Ethernet as WiFi.

Finally, I verified that the TC’s drive was visible to both Macs by opening up Time Machine and seeing it there. However, I didn’t crank up a TM backup right away for reasons I’ll get to presently.

At this point I had established a new, faster, more secure wireless network, have my Macs and iPhones sharing the Internet connect, am sharing a printer via Ethernet, and have access to the wireless hard drive. Not bad for 40 minutes.

An issue, and the first Time Machine backups.

I’m thrilled, but then I open up the MacBook and, upon waking from sleep, there’s no Internet. The iMac and TC drive are visible, so it’s connected, but the Internet connection is not re-established.

My first inclination was to compare the settings for the TC to those from the Linksys I’d printed before-hand. Only real difference I saw was that the internal DHCP addresses on the Linksys were 192.168, whereas the TC used 10.0. Seemed pretty shaky to me, but I changed it to 192.168 (see below), let the TC reboot, and the issue went away.

dhcp.png

In the two days since then the MacBook (and iMac) have slept and woken up many many times and the Internet connection always resumes within 10 seconds. I don’t know why the internal IPs would make a difference, unless the older 192.168’s were cached somewhere. To be honest, for all I know simply rebooting the TC at that point even without the IP change might have fixed the issue, but I’ll never know now.

OK, on to backups. Following the advice I’d read in several places, I wanted to do the first TM backups via Ethernet instead of wireless.

I plugged the MacBook into the TC and started a backup. It was going slowly, and I concluded it was using the AirPort even though Ethernet was available. I killed the backup, turned Airport OFF, then started it again. Much better. Backed up 42GB in under 2.5 hours. Then I turned AirPort back on, unplugged Ethernet, did a Backup Now from TM’s menu and it worked fine.

I followed the same process for my iMac; it backed up 162GB in less than eight hours. Since then I get hourly backups on the iMac just as I had been doing with an external USB drive. The MacBook, however, is not quite working like that, as we’ll see.

Finally, the “bad” news…

Quirks:

As I frequently opened and closed APU and “played” with settings, one thing I noticed is that if you so much as breathe on them the TC needs to reboot. It’s just a bit of an annoyance. I know after a few days you never mess with the settings again (when I printed out my old router’s setting I realized I hadn’t even looked at them in years), so I probably shouldn’t mention this, but it’s my blog, so there.

Twice during the first few hours of using the TC, when it rebooted it came up fine but the APU didn’t see it. It kept spinning even though the device was up and lit green. In both cases I force quit APU and then it was fine. Since those two examples I’ve used the APU many more times (with reboot) with no issues.

Egads! A Bug:

At this early date I have only one bona-fide bug to report. After it sleeps, the MacBook wakes up and can access everything, yet TM does not resume backups. If I select Backup Now from the menu it does so, and then backs up every hour as long as the machine stays awake. But once it goes to sleep TM needs to be “kick started” again. Also, if I fast switch to another user on this machine the same thing occurs.

I suspect this is actually a TM bug, and not related to the TC. My iMac does not experience the issue. It seems TM doesn’t fully “wake up” along with everything else on the MacBook.

Summary.

Right now I’m quite pleased with the TC. Setup was easy, it’s working as designed, and I’m now backing up my MacBook regularly. Further, I’ve been able to get rid of the crappy external USB drive I had on my iMac for backups.

Today I read a nice article from PC Mag about wireless peripherals for use with a MacBook Air. One of their recommendations is to use the Linksys “n” router ($250) and a Maxtor 500GB drive ($200) for a great wireless network with wireless backups. That’s $450. The 500GB Time Capsule is $299, and takes up less space and one less power outlet. Seems pretty obvious to me which makes the most sense.

Obviously, with only two days’ experience with this thing I’m going to want to get a couple weeks under my belt to be completely confident in it. Frankly, the Linksys is a hard act to follow in terms of reliability, so if the TC drops connections, etc, then I’m going to have big problems with it. But in two days, so far so good.

If the thing gives me any grief, I’ll be sure to post it here.

[UPDATE 5/10/08:] It’s been over two months since I wrote the above, and I’m just as happy with the TC as I was when I first got it. The single bug I reported (MacBook not resuming backups upon wakening) went away with the 5.3.1 update to Airport Utility — and subsequent firmware upgrade to the TC. Backupsnow  typically resume within 15 minutes of waking the MacBook.

I have not had a single instance of the network connection failing. Further, while I did lose my Internet connection once, the TC light was green and I needed to re-cycle the cable modem to address it. Therefore the issue seemed unrelated to the TC.

All in all I couldn’t be happier with this device.

Does Time Capsule Contain Server-Grade Drives? I’d Say Yes.

It seems the minute Time Capsule began shipping some were quick to find fault with a claim made for the device. I guess when Steve Jobs used a fairly vague description like “server-grade” to describe the hard drive, such fault can always be found.

The problem for doubters is that the vagueness works both ways. Establishing a definition for “server-grade” based on a Google search, and then claiming Apple didn’t meet it, is easy but hardly conclusive.

Here’s my take on it. I’ll look at the drive in my iMac as an example of a “regular” hard drive, and then look at the 500GB and 1TB drives identified in Time Capsules so far.

iMac 2.8GHz Extreme (750GB)

Drive: Seagate 3750640AS

Marketing spiel: “Barracuda 7200.10 hard drives deliver superb performance, efficiency, speed and durability for all your application needs.”

MTBF: 700,000 hours

Unrecoverable errors: not listed

From the marketing talk it seems clear this is designed as a high-capacity general performer.

Time Capsule 500GB

Drive: Seagate 3500630NS

Marketing spiel: The Seagate® Barracuda® ES enterprise hard drive is the industry’s most reliable, highest capacity 7200-RPM hard drive for 24 x 7, multidrive, business-critical applications.

MTBF: 1,200,000 hours

Unrecoverable errors: 1 in 10^14

Well, their marketing group would say it’s the “industry’s most reliable”, which of course is questionable, but the point is they’re claiming 24/7, business-critical apps. Clearly this drive is a step up from the more general purpose one in my iMac.

While I cannot compare the error rate between the drives, the MTBF speaks volumes (pun intended), with a figure over 70% higher than the drive in the iMac.

Time Capsule 1TB

Drive: Hitachi DeskStar 721010KLA330

Marketing spiel: Suggested Applications: Internal and external storage for consumer computers * Networked storage servers * Extreme gaming machines * Video editing arrays

MTBF: not listed

Unrecoverable errors: 1 per 1.0 E15 bits transferred

While the first suggested application applies to every drive ever built, I’d say the second one (and even the final two) imply more rugged duty than the average desktop drive. Further, if you go to Compare Hitachi Products and select this drive you’ll see one Application listed is “Entry server” — I consider the Time Capsule a very “entry server”.

As for stats, there’s no MTBF listed, but the unrecoverable errors compare favorably to the second Seagate.

It should also be noted that this drive is the current “jewel” in the DeskStar line, and the only 1TB model. There is a higher series of Hitachi drives (Ultrastar), but the application listed on comparison is “Enterprise server”. A bit overkill, and I’d say the expense (remember we’re talking about a 1TB drive) simply didn’t make it cost-effective for TC’s primary purpose. After all, Apple didn’t state they’d use the “best” server-grade drive money could buy.

For those interested, here’s a review I found on the TC’s Hitachi drive. They give it a 9 out of 10 and Editors Choice.

Finally, Apple responded to the above article questioning the server-grade drives, saying:

[Senior product manager Jai] Chulani clarified that the “server-grade” drives in a Time Capsule are the same 7200 rpm drives used for Apple’s Xserve servers, and that they have a higher mean time between failure (MTBF) rating than consumer drives. The MTBF for server-grade drives is often 1 million hours (114 years), which is a measure of probability; in this case, that out of a set of drives with similar properties, an extremely high percentage will still be fully functional after several years.

This makes perfect sense to me, and the fact that these are the drives Apple uses for their Xserves shows they put their money where their mouth is.

I believe these drives are, by any reasonable definition, server-grade as used in a consumer server like Time Capsule.

Apple Home Server: My Time Capsule Prepared For Shipment.

Order status is as follows:

tc_status.png

Right now in my home I have a Linksys WRT54GS wireless router and backup my iMac (via Time Machine) to an external USB 320GB drive. For printing I have an HP DeskJet 5850, which is a true wireless device. This setup works well, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Linksys or HP printer to anyone interested.

However, I now have have two machines with wireless “N” networking — one of them my new MacBook currently not backing up to anything — so Time Capsule should be an excellent upgrade for me.

I realize that “N” networking won’t change my internet (cable modem) speeds, but between what I want now and in the future TC provides the following:

  • The two Macs should communicate faster between them, useful since I like iChat’s screen sharing function, and also swap/share files quite a bit.
  • “N” will help with wireless backups, which I intend to do. I plan to backup both machines to TC, so my external drive can go, and be one less power cord and USB device on my floor.
  • I’ll have a more secure WAP2 wireless network to replace my 64-bit WEP.
  • My printer has maybe a year left in it; I don’t want to have to seek a wireless printer to replace it. With TC I can get any printer(s) I want and share easily, especially nice since I’m thinking of having both a color inkjet and B/W laser.
  • I have the expandability of plugging in USB hard drive(s) for file sharing.
  • There’s MAC address filtering and NAT firewall (the latter I’ll definitely use).
  • Oh, and it’s a three-port GB Ethernet switch.

Put all the above together and it means TC is a “home server” done easy, done small, and done affordably. In other words, done right. Meanwhile, Microsoft thinks a home server must be yet another PC running a variation of Windows. Just one more example of the clear and distinct difference in the philosophy of these two companies.

I ordered a 500GB TC on 1/29, and from the above status it looks like it may be shipping soon. I’ll be sure to post my thoughts on if it meets my expectations.