Category Archive: com-pew-tars

Technical stuff

Nov 23

Crashplan and Self-Help

I’ve recently reviewed my backup plan. It turns out, I’ve been spending too much money.

 

I’ve been very happy with datastorageunit.com, and in principle, I love it. I love the owner, John Wooten, who gives great support. I love the fact that it’s a small business, which means that you can negotiate—John gave me a bunch of extra free weeks on my trial just so I could get my data uploaded.

 

The problem is, at $150 US a year (for 300 GB, of which I’m using about 270 GB), it’s getting overpriced. Not to say that it’s expensive: it isn’t. It’s a good deal. It’s a fraction of what I was paying to store the same data using Jungledisk on the Rackspace storage network. And it’s a DIY kind of solution: you use standard software (like rsync) to connect to it. I initially chose it over Crashplan, because Crashplan was only marginally cheaper, and forced me to constantly be running Hard_Disk_5973 (2)their client.

 

However, in the last 10 months, the cost of Crashplan has dropped. They now offer an unlimited subscription for less than $3 US a month (that’s less than $36 a year) per machine. That can save me a lot of money, so unfortunately, I will allow my datastorageunit plan to expire this coming March. I’ve installed the Crashplan client again.

 

I am paying for the unlimited plan for one machine. That one machine is my homebrew NAS, from which I will back up everything. With this new unlimited plan, I will not only be able to backup my photos to a remote server, but also all my videos (the ones I make myself).

 

I will be getting rid of my main documents backup set as well (the one I’ve been synchronizing via Jungledisk to Rackspace). My rackspace storage is only costing me $4.50 a month right now, but that’s more than the entire crashplan subscription. I’ve decided to synchronize my main documents folder using Windows Live Mesh, since 90% of my syncing happens on my LAN anyway, and back up that folder to a folder on my NAS (using a scheduled Beyond Compare script), which will— surprise!— be backed up remotely to Crashplan’s servers. I should be able to bring my Rackspace and Amazon S3 accounts down to minimal amounts (will probably leave my wife’s documents on them for the time being), and pay under $0.40 US per month (since payment is only based on usage), using them only when I need to post something publicly that’s too big for Dropbox or my webhosting company.

 

One frustrating issue, though, is Crashplan’s support.

 

After subscribing (I did my 30-day trial back in February when I was also evaluating datastorageunit), I found my upload speeds very slow. Something on the order of 200 – 300 kpbs. which might sound fast, but it meant that my photo backups would take more than three months to upload. After browsing the support forums on Crashplan, and trying all the tweaks, I came across several threads that suggested that while this was a widespread problem, it seemed to apply mostly to users assigned to a datacenter in Atlanta. I had already opened a support ticket after doing all the troubleshooting I could think of (not, as of yet, responded to), when I came across a forum thread that suggested resetting the backup machine’s ID.

 

This meant losing three days of backup, but at the speeds I was getting, that wasn’t a big loss. I did it. I checked my settings. This time, I was assigned a server in another datacenter. I started a backup. 7000 kbps!

 

The interesting thing is this: Crashplan seem to refuse to acknowledge in the forum that there is a problem. The issue seems widespread, and the fix is to switch datacenters– which suggests the problem is with them, and not their users. I do wonder what I’ve gotten myself into by signing up with them, but now that I’ve got decent speeds again (usually 1000 – 7000 kbps, seemingly more limited by my hardware than by bandwidth on their side), the low cost is encouraging me to continue with them.

 

However, as I mentioned before, I am starting a backup consulting business, and I am now considering taking crashplan off the menu for my clients due to this serious issue with support. I’m just waiting to see what happens with my support ticket.

Oct 03

Backups Are Important

It looks like the Ytheatre School won’t be properly gearing up until March 2012, so I’ve decided to start a 2316-1267349631i8vSsmall business in the meantime; something that can help make ends meet until I can move to doing Theatre full time.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about and experimenting with personal backup solutions for a while now. Maybe I can help people who don’t have time to think about that kind of thing with theirs, thought I.

 

So having pulled that idea out of thin air, I made a quickie website to advertise it, and presto:

 

http://squeeze-box.net –> my personal backup consulting business.

 

My target demographic is relatively affluent but busy expats, who simply don’t have the time and figure out how to protect their data on their own. They just want someone to come in to set things up, and then pass over the keys, which suits me fine.

 

I’m really only interested in working with people on personal data, not businesses, because businesses require more specialized and expensive solutions that demand ongoing and time consuming support, and I don’t really want to work in that world. There are already consulting businesses charging an arm and a leg for much more comprehensive service packages than I could offer. Helping individuals protect their documents and important memories at a more modest price is more my style. I envision completing most jobs within a day or two, depending on their complexity.

 

I’m not quite sure exactly how I’m going to get the word out yet, but I think I will need to make some paper flyers in order to get them into the right hands. Of course, if you know someone who fits my target demographic, has lots of personal data (photos, documents, etc), and wants to make sure that a housefire, virus, or earthquake doesn’t erase years of memories, then feel free to point him or her my way if you are so inclined.

 

(Why only people who live in Kanto? Because I need to work on the computers I’m backing up. Also, I want to meet with prospective clients to determine their backup needs so I can customize a solution for them.)

Aug 31

CoHuman vs. Manymoon

I’m having a hell of a time deciding on which task management web app to use. I have at least six YTG ensemble members coming to our first meeting tomorrow to set up their email accounts, scheduling web app (tungle.me), and task management web app.

The task management piece is critical. As the group’s only administrator and coordinator, I need to have a way of assigning tasks to people and checking task status without dozens of emails going back and forth.

 

COHUMANCohuman

Prior to July, I was using Cohuman, and had been for about five months. It’s an amazing social network-style task management web app, and I fell in love with it. Best of all, it was easy to get other people to use it. Then, near the end of July, Cohuman announced that they had been acquired and would be closing on August 31. This was a huge blow on many levels. First, I was losing a wonderful and free web app. Secondly, I was going to lose the trust of all those people I had brought onto it. How was I going to convince them to move to something less intuitive?

 

MANYMOONManyMoon

So began the hunt for a replacement. I latched onto ManyMoon. It didn’t have the great interface and social network feel of Cohuman, opting instead for a more businesslike approach. It was also lacking some features that I thought were very important (more on that in a moment). However, I spent a month getting used to it, and while I lamented the passing of Cohuman every day, I got used to Manymoon, and even began to appreciate it for what it was good at. Having been burned once, I decided not to invite anyone more than essential cooperators to Manymoon until I had been using it for a while. I had a lot of trouble getting other people to use it. The big thing, though, was going to be getting the Yokohama Theatre Ensemble members to all use it.

 

THE RETURN OF THE CURSE OF THE LIVING DEAD

So, everything was decided. On Thursday, I was going to introduce all the new company members to Manymoon. Then, the unthinkable happened. Yes, the very thing I would have given my eye teeth for a month ago: with barely two days to spare, Cohuman announced that they are no longer shutting down. And I’m glad. I really am. But now I have a big decision to make, and I thought that maybe writing this would help me work it out.

 

FEATURES

I’m going to start by talking about features of the two web apps. They each have the ability to create PROJECTS, and within those projects, TASKS. As many as you like. For free. In Manymoon, you also can create Milestones, which are apparently important to people who have been doing project management in the past. By contrast, in Cohuman, you can instead set task dependencies (called “blocks”). Manymoon apparently has a workaround using milestones to achieve the same effect as Cohuman’s “blocks”, but I couldn’t figure it out from a simple glance at the instructions, so I never tried it. Creating a block is Cohuman is much more intuitive, but there are still a fair number of clicks, and you have to wait for things like task lists to load, etc. (Although testing it right now shows that it’s faster than before—maybe because so many users have left the service due to the announced closure.)

 

Sometimes using the web interface isn’t an option. Both Cohuman and Manymoon let you manage tasks via email to a certain degree, and both of them appear to let you email back and forth with another project member, which then ends up in the comments section of the given task. This is useful for preserving the email chain on a particular topic.

 

Both solutions have a way of handling repeating tasks, although Cohuman’s feels a little more tacked on, I’m sure that will change in time. Both apps also offer time tracking, although, again, Cohuman’s is an add-on text box, while Manymoon’s is much more integrated in to the app.

 

Neither company, however, has an Android app yet. Cohuman has an okay iPhone app, but as an Android user, I care more about that platform. A 3rd party app, called TodoToday has a version that supposedly works with CoHuman, but I’ve never been able to get it to work (it’s frustratingly shoddy). There is nothing available for Manymoon… except…

 

Except what I consider to be Manymoon’s killer feature: Google Tasks integration. True, it has some bugs, and it can only be accessed from one screen, and the sync must be done manually, but it’s this feature that makes Manymoon much more usable on an Android Device. I installed a Google Tasks app and BINGO, I had a way to update my tasks from my phone. There are limitations, of course. New tasks go into a general pool, since G-tasks has no project tracking (it has separate lists for that, but Manymoon only syncs to the default list), but who cares? It’s easy to move them into the correct project the next time I use the web app.

 

Cohuman does have Google Tasks integration, but it doesn’t work with a Google Apps account (which is what I’m using). They claim that it’s a problem with Google’s API, but the fact is that Manymoon can get it working, why can’t they? I would even accept a manual sync, particularly if the button was available in the page header or something like that (meaning always available to be clicked). Cohuman does have Google Calendar integration, which Manymoon lacks, but since Google Tasks is integrated into the Google Calendar by default, that’s hardly a big problem for me.

 

In fact, the way tasks appear in the calendar is much nicer than how Cohuman’s calendar entries appear. Mainly, because they appear with little check boxes so you can mark them as complete (and then sync back to Manymoon). As far as I’m concerned this is the main feature that is missing in Cohuman. (Yes, it’s only missing for Google Apps for Domains users like me, but that is me, and so I care.)

 

On the other hand, in Manymoon, when you look at your entire task list, your tasks are sorted by the order in which they are do. This sounds logical, right? Well, one of the coolest things about Cohuman is that they didn’t take this logic for granted, and they actually have an algorithm that rates the importance of a task, taking into account factors like: when is it due (of course), how many people are members of the project or task, task dependencies, etc. I really liked this. You still get notifications of tasks that are due today or the next day in the daily email you can ask Cohuman to send, but when looking at the web interface, the algorithm-driven priority view is actually very useful.

 

The killer feature for Cohuman, though, is the tweetdeck-like interface. It means that you can have several views open at once (they scroll off your screen to the right). Click the first photo in this post to see what I’m talking about. In contrast, Manymoon only lets you see one view at a time (unless you multitab in your browser, I suppose). For me, it’s the ability to juggle different views that’s important.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive feature list, but I’ve touched upon the items that are most important to me. The features are summarized in the table below:

 

Features COHUMAN MANYMOON
     
Create Projects YES YES
Create Tasks YES YES
Task Dependencies YES Kludgy workaround
Tasks by Email YES YES
Multiple Task Owners NO (see next section) YES
Dynamic Prioritizing YES NO
Milestones NO (who cares?) YES
Sync with Google Calendar YES NO
Sync with Google Tasks Not for Google Apps Users YES (manual)
Working Android App NO NO
Working iPhone App YES NO
Repeating Tasks YES YES
Time Sheet Reporting NO YES
Basic Time Tracking YES YES
Google Docs Integration YES YES
Export Data YES (100 per export only) NO (platinum feature costing ~$50/month)

 

WAXING PHILOSOPHICAL

There are also organizational differences between Manymoon and Cohuman, and they bear talking about since, for me anyway, they play a big part in the decision I need to make.

 

OUTLOOK

Manymoon is more business in outlook, and it shows. The interface looks nice and respectable if you have a salaryman client reading over your shoulder. It’s obvious that Manymoon sees itself as a simplified web version of the big-boy project management tools (with many more collaboration features, of course—I’m not trying to sell them short here).

 

Cohuman is very heavily influenced by the world of social networking. As I mentioned before, their interface is more fun and lighthearted, and this makes it easier to get teams to use it (especially teams of artists, like I’m dealing with). The Cohuman “feel” may not be right for very serious business people, but it suits me.

 

PROJECT PHILOSOPHY

As mentioned in the feature table, Manymoon allows a task to have multiple owners. People frequently work on projects together so it makes sense that they should both be responsible for it.

 

Cohuman allows only one task owner to be assigned to each task. However, their system allows the task to change owners (when you comment on it, if you hit “reply”, it reassigns the project to the person you replied to). The philosophy here is that multiple people may be working on the same task, but one person is always responsible for it, or responsible for the next step. Personally, I like this “hot potato” approach, because when the new owner sees it in his or her task lists, then he or she will probably want to finish the task, or do their part and pass it on to someone else.  Not sure if I explained that well, but it’s a philosophy I agree with.

 

SUPPORT

Cohuman uses GetSatisfaction to handle its support. GetSatisfaction is a site that creates a support community for the companies who use it. It encourages open discussion about issues, questions, and feature requests, and quick responses to problems. Sometimes the system will refer you to a previous post that is the same question or problem that you had, and you can elect to “follow” that post and get any replies posted to it. The community is very active and the Cohuman team are also really good about replying in a timely manner, usually with useful advice, or the “er… we’re working on that feature”, which is a common response from startups. I’m not sure if the customer service is better than Manymoon’s, but it feels better. A variety of Cohuman staff respond to postings, which gives the impression that the company is very involved with its user community. (I also really like GetSatisfaction’s feeling icons that you can activate to show how you’re feeling about what you posted. There’s a little graph on the left that shows how many happy, sad, confused, neutral posts there are on a topic.)

 

Manymoon, on the other hand, has its own internal support page. As far as support pages go, it’s very well organized and contains a lot of useful information. However, it looks like only one employee responds to posts, and I get the impression that he prevaricates and stonewalls a lot. I don’t think he actually does this any more than the Cohuman guys do (frequently, both companies will not comment on timing of an upcoming/requested feature, or don’t report back on it for a long time), but the support setup does make it feel more like an adversarial relationship.

 

I guess what it is is that It feels like the Manymoon support guy is standing between the users and the rest of the company, whereas in the Cohuman GetSatisfaction community, the CEO and a variety of employees regularly respond to user praise, questions, problems, and feature requests.

 

 

VERDICT UNREACHED

So why can’t I decide?

 

Here’s what it really comes down to:

 

Manymoon’s ability to sync tasks to Google Tasks is a killer feature.

 

I like the Cohuman philosophy, style, and community more.

 

Which leaves me leaning  towards Cohuman, with a wistful eye cast back to Manymoon’s Google Tasks integration.

 

But, [insert GW Bush quote about being fooled]. I really feel put out by Cohuman’s flipflop on the shutdown. They’ve made me look bad in the eyes of the people I invited to their service, and now I would have the unenviable task of trying to bring some of those people who followed me to Manymoon back to Cohuman. Two changes in two months? I know what these people are going to ask me: “They’ve been acquired. How do you know they won’t do it again?”

 

And it’s a good question. It’s the one I would like to pose to Matt Work, the CEO (if he’s still the CEO, of course). If not him, then the new overlords. Aside from not cancelling the service again, how do we know you’re not going to make it a pay-only service, or limit the number of projects or collaborators in the near future?

 

Look, Manymoon could do it, too, I know. But the fact is, I have no special reason to think they will, but Cohuman, under new owners, is just such an unknown quantity. Plus, THEY JUST DID IT.

 

If the timing was different, I’d wait for some announcements out of Cohuman, and evaluate the new direction of the company, but the fact is that my ensemble will be joining one service tomorrow (unless the typhoon rains out our meeting), and I need to decide which it will be. Because moving them to another one after the fact, is going to be a pain.

 

What to do? I don’t know. Anyone who uses either of these services is welcome to leave a comment.

Mar 04

Backups and Data

I am no expert on this at all, but I felt like writing briefly about how I try to keep my data relatively safe.

 

There’s almost no such thing as a perfect backup strategy, but everyone should have one.

 

And each backup strategy should have three components:

 

  • Live data (this is the data where it lives when you work with it)
  • Offsite replica (this is a copy of the live data that is stored somewhere physically removed from the live data; in Japan, that means far enough away not to be destroyed in the same earthquake as the live data and offline replica)
  • Offline replica (this is a copy of the live data that is stored on a device that is only activated when data is being copied; this copy protects against something like a virus or other forms of data corruption.

 

Here is my solution.

 

All my data is copied incrementally, once a month, to an external 2TB hard disk, that I then unplug from the system.  This is my offline backup.

 

Documents: Live data is automatically synchronized via Jungledisk software to an encrypted location on a Rackspace server in the U.S.  The same program also creates a local copy on each of my three main computers.  Documents that require a high availability (instant replication across all PCs, like my password file) are synchronized using a free dropbox.com account.

 

Photos: The live data lives on a 2.5” encrypted USB HDD, which I can bring with me if I’m on the road.  I synchronize that data manually (using Beyond Compare) to my Nexenta server.  Nexenta is a variant of Open Solaris that is focused on being a NAS (Network Attached Storage) server.  Like Open Solaris, it uses the zfs filesystem (yes, I know that’s like saying “the HIV virus”) which, to put it simply, handles large amounts of data very well.  At the moment, I also synchronize these files manually to the Rackspace server as my offsite.

 

However, with 150GB of photos and around 50GB of video, the Rackspace charges ($0.15 USD/GB/Month) are starting to get high.  So I’ve decided to move my photos to datastorageunit in order to save money.  I currently am using 160GB of data on Rackspace, which is costing me about $24 USD a month ($288 USD) per year.  On the other hand, datastorageunit costs $150 USD per year ($12.50 per month) for 300 GB, which means that I can add video backups to that as well.

 

The advantages of Rackspace (via Jungledisk) are that it is easy to use and sync, and it is encrypted, both in transmission, and on the server.  Which is why I am leaving ~25GB of my live documents there.

 

Datastorageunit’s philosophy is more homebrew in that the user can (must) decide how to connect and transfer files.  This means that while transmission is encrypted, the remote filesystem is not.  However, there are options available to the user to encrypt that data, though I’ve decided not to in order to keep transfer times lower and avoid a massive headache.  When it comes down to it, though, my photos do not need encryption.

I will probably never move my main documents folder there, because I need the multiple-machine synchronization features that JungleDisk offers me.  It’s really nice turning on my laptop and having it automatically download all the recent changes to my files.

 

Once the data has been transferred over, I need to figure out how to automate my rsync job so the data gets mirrored to datastorageunit every night to preserve changes I’ve made throughout the day.

 

A quick Google search reveals that this may not be as straightforward as I originally thought…

Jun 05

cheap web cams

My coworker, at my request, picked up an inexpensive web cam for me in Akihabara, since my old standby only had XP drivers.  My only requirements: cheap and had to work with Vista (and therefore Windows 7, on which I will post further).

 

Well, it was cheap.  At 980 Yen, you can’t beat that for price.

 

And it does work with Windows 7… kind of.  I swear to god that I’ve seen better video quality on web cams from the mid-90s.  Seriously.

 

And the delay… even just using the camera locally, there was almost a second of delay.

 

Oh!  Oh!  Frame rate: basically a slide show.

 

This fucker was supposed to tide me over until I could do some proper research and get a decent cam.  Now I wish I’d just picked up a 2000 Yen one from Yodobashi Camera.  At least I could have returned it if it had been shit.

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