In the 1970 movie Little Big Man, the character Old Lodge Skins goes up a mountain to perform an ancient Cheyenne ritual, which fails. Without missing a beat, Old Lodge Skins turns to Dustin Hoffman’s character and says, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.” That’s exactly how I feel about computer networks—and when their magic doesn’t work, you’d better have a plan for what to do next.
The Need to Network
I recently expanded my solo practice to include a second full-time lawyer. As a result, my computing requirements changed dramatically. Previously, I kept all my files on my computer and backed them up on a daily basis to an online provider. Suddenly, I needed to share many of my files with Josh, my new colleague, and to establish a new procedure to protect all the firm’s data. What I really needed was a belt-and-suspenders approach that provided both off-site and on-site backup, one that would allow me to access my data whether or not my Internet connection was available.
In short, I needed to set up file sharing on my local area network.
I had already set up a simple network to allow two work computers to share printers and the same Internet connection. Both machines run the Windows XP operating system and are configured nearly identically. The major difference is that one is a Dell laptop and the other is a generic desktop PC. The Dell laptop has a 60GB hard disk, the desktop has a 40GB hard disk.
I prefer simple solutions to problems, so I decided to try Windows XP “simple file sharing” first.
Pros and Cons of Simple File Sharing
To enable simple file sharing, I opened the Control Panel, selected Folder Options and the View tab, then checked the “Use simple file sharing” box. This allowed me to set up a shared folder on my computer by right-clicking on the folder, selecting the Sharing tab and selecting the “Share this folder on the network” box. I also selected “Allow network users to change my files,” since both Josh and I would need to work on some of the same documents. The shared folder appears as a network volume under My Network Places.
For example, on the Dell laptop, which I’ve named BurntOrange, I have a shared folder called “erik.shared.” In My Network Places, the shared folder appears as the volume “erik.shared on burntorange.” When I take the laptop home and connect to my home network, I can also access the shared folder from the iMac in my house, which is running the Macintosh OS X operating system. Simple file sharing. Perfect. Sometimes the magic works.
This simple networking system had two main advantages: I didn’t have to purchase any new equipment, and I could continue to use my online backup provider to protect all our data, including the shared files. But four disadvantages rapidly became apparent.
- Portability. If I wanted to take my laptop home (which was now the “file server”), Josh would not be able to access the files on the server.
- Backup. With two of us producing data, I quickly exceeded the 4GB limit of my online backup provider, which meant that I either had to upgrade my backup account or select which of my data I didn’t want to back up. The shared folder included about 5,500 files and took up 2.5GB of disk space—but the total amount of data I wanted to back up included about 34,000 files and took up 7.5GB.
- Stability. Whenever my computer crashed (about twice per week) or needed to be rebooted (about twice per day), Josh would lose access to the shared files.
- Performance. The laptop’s performance was uncomfortably sluggish when both of us were accessing files.
The VNC Work-around for Portability
To solve the portability problem, Josh and I switched computers: The desktop PC became the “file server” (the computer with the shared folders) and the laptop became a client. But this introduced a new problem—which was that I could no longer haul the laptop home to do my work.
To rectify that, I installed a VNC server, RealVNC ( www.realvnc.com), on the PC at work and a VNC client, VNCViewer ( http://homepage.mac.com/kedoin/VNC/VNCViewer), on my iMac at home. VNC (which stands for Virtual Network Computing) is remote-control software similar to Timbuktu or PCAnywhere. Unlike those programs, RealVNC runs on multiple operating systems—including Windows, Macintosh and Linux—and it’s free.
With VNC, one computer can control another over a network—although I had to do a little extra work to make this happen. It included setting up port 5900, on which VNC traffic operates; enabling that port on both my home firewall and the office firewall; assigning static IP addresses to both computers so VNC would know which was the server and which the client; and then using the port-forwarding feature of both computers’ routers to forward VNC traffic appropriately. In all, getting VNC to work was a four-step process:
- Install the VNC server.
- Install the VNC client.
- Allow VNC traffic to pass through the computers’ firewalls.
- Configure each router to send VNC traffic to the correct IP addresses on each network.
Now, I can login to my Windows XP desktop computer on my work network from my iMac on my home network. VNC works great.
Network-Attached Storage to Solve the Backup Problem
The new VNC setup solved the portability problem. Next on the list was the backup problem, a critical area that needed immediate attention.
I have happily used Connected.com ( www.connected.com) as my online backup provider for years. But its plans are becoming needlessly complex and expensive for larger amounts of data. Now, in addition to protecting all my regular data, including the operating system, applications and data files, I wanted to have the backup available on my local network. Also, because I use multiple operating systems, I wanted my file server to work with all of them. It turns out that what I was looking for was network-attached storage (NAS).
A NAS device is basically a special purpose appliance with a hard disk and a network connection. Its major benefit is that it can be a less-expensive alternative to setting up a separate computer as a file server.
One NAS option is the Iomega NAS A205m ( www.iomega.com), which provides 160 gigabytes of storage in a rack-mounted unit for about $999. A second option is the Martian NetDrive ( www.martian.com), which is a $479 120GB wired/wireless disk server based on Linux. A third option is the Snap Server product line from Snap Appliance ( www.snapappliance.com).
I chose to go with a Snap Server because I didn’t have the need (or space) for rack-mounted storage and wanted something even smaller than the Martian NetDrive. You can purchase the 80GB Snap Server 1100 for about $499 and the 240GB Snap Server 2200 for about $1,599 (from www.pcconnection.com). I purchased a 240GB Snap Server 2000 for $1,299 (just over $5 per gig of storage).
The Snap Server just works. Out of the box, it acts as an NFS (UNIX), Windows and AppleShare (Macintosh) file server. It can also be an FTP and a Web server, supports SNMP for centralized management and can be administered via a Web-based interface. With the included PowerQuest DataKeeper software, each of our computers can be configured to automatically back up to the Snap Server in real time. Today, there’s a full backup of both computers on my local network and a partial backup offline. Hey, sometimes the magic works.
Stability and Performance: The Blue Screen of Death
The only remaining problems were the stability and performance of the shared folders on my desktop PC. I could actually live just fine with reduced stability and performance, but what I can’t live with is total system failure—otherwise know as the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) in Windows.
On many occasions, and for no apparent reason, when Josh was trying to create a new folder in a shared folder, my computer (the desktop) would instantly reboot. On other occasions, I got the BSOD accompanied by a physical dump of memory. There is nothing more joyous than having your computer suddenly reboot with multiple programs running and multiple files open.
I gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and assumed this was a Windows XP bug. Josh and I searched the Microsoft support site and elsewhere for clues but found none. So I decided to run Windows Update ( www.windowsupdate.com) for both computers and install all the critical updates for Windows XP. It turns out that Windows Update must be run from Internet Explorer (IE), which I had removed. Attempts to reinstall IE failed, and we ended up reinstalling Windows XP on both machines to get IE and Windows Update working. Once that was done, we found 38 critical updates (hmm) that needed installing.
This project took about six hours, and after all of that, the problem was still not fixed. Creating a new folder in a shared folder still crashed the desktop computer. Sometimes the magic doesn’t work….
Not Just a Backup Server
Until my BSOD issues, I had been using the Snap Server only as a backup server. To solve the stability and performance problems, I started using the Snap Server as a file server as well. I created a new network share on the server (a.k.a. a Microsoft share, Novell volume, Apple shared folder or UNIX exported file system) and moved all the formerly shared folders to the Snap Server.
But my Connected.com backup account does not allow me to back up from a network drive. So now I use the Windows XP suitcase feature (an admittedly clumsy solution) to keep a copy of the shared data on my desktop computer—which allows the shared data to be backed up to my Connected.com account.
Now that all my data lives primarily on the server and all of it is in standard cross-platform file formats, I’ve realized that I no longer have to use Windows on my client computer. I have freed my data and am now free to use Linux or Macintosh OS X on my client computer. I had to leave the office before I finished this article and was able to write this last paragraph from my home iMac, connected to my desktop computer via VNC. Sometimes the magic really works!
Erik J. Heels ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a patent attorney in Maynard, MA.
To learn more about going cross-platform and breaking the Windows ties that bind, check out www.ubergeek.tv/switchlinux (for Linux) and www .ubergeek.tv/switchback (for Macintosh). You’ll love the great animations.