The ten-minute 1TB backup RAID installation

October 6th, 2008 — Wordman

The Mac Pro contains four accessible hard-drive bays. Mac OS X comes with easy to use RAID software. Put these together, and you can quickly build a backup system using redundant disks, so that if one drive fails, another takes its place.

Building a RAID (meaning “redundant array of independent disks”) like this may be ideal for backups, but isn’t as useful for other applications of RAID technology (such as striping for great video encoding performance, and so on). This because the RAID is controlled by software, so is on the slower side. It’s possible to put an optional hardware-based RAID controller into the Mac Pro, but it is pricey and complete overkill for backups. The speed doesn’t really matter for backup use, especially when using Time Machine, since it is all done unnoticed in the background anyway.


The key thing about making a RAID is that you need to use multiple identical disks. As mentioned, speed doesn’t really matter for backups. In fact, you are usually better off buying the slowest disks you can find because they a) will still be fast enough, b) are cheaper, c) are usually quieter and d) usually draw less power. The Mac Pro uses Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (Serial ATA or SATA) disks. The drives used in this post are a pair of 1.0TB Western Digital Caviar Geen drives, due to their lower power consumption and sound output. These drives use a variable number of rotations per minute, but are rated at between 5400 and 7200 rpm. So, these are not speed demons, but they don’t need to be. At the time of writing, Other World Computing had the best deal on this particular drive.

In addition to the drives, you will need a Mac Pro, one functional hand, and a standard phillips screwdriver. You might also want a grounding strap to prevent electrical damage to the components, particularly in dry climates or if you tend to get shocked by light switches a lot where you live.

To start the installation, shutdown your Mac Pro.

Hardware installation

Pull out the tab on the back of the Mac Pro, pull the top of the side panel out, then remove the side panel (click on any of the images in this post to see a larger version):

Open Remove side

About a third of the way down, find the four numbered drive caddies. If this is a new machine, chances are that drive bay #1 holds the primary disk and the other three caddies are empty. These instructions assume that this is the case, and that you’ll put your RAID drives into bays #2 and #3. Adjust this to match your machine accordingly. It doesn’t matter which of the bays the RAID drives are in. Give a tug to caddy #2 (or whatever) and slide it out. It should come out without much effort; it is not secured with screws or anything:

Remove caddy #2 Caddy

Before unwrapping your drive from its anti-static bag, hold the bag and touch a metal part on the frame of the Pro. This should lessen the chance of a spark that could damage the drive. Unwrap the first drive and find the four silver holes at the edge of the side with the visible circuit board. Note that these are in the same orientation as the screws on the caddy. Line the caddy up with these holes and connect with a phillips screwdriver. Note that the “open” end of the caddy should point towards the back of the drive (where the copper pins are).

Drive and caddy Attached caddy

Put the caddy with the mounted drive back into the machine by locating the tab-like rails into which the caddy slides. These should fit very naturally. Once in place, slowly but firmly push the caddy all the way back in. It should be flush with the rest of the caddies.

View from below Sliding drive back in

Repeat the process with the second drive, using bay #3. Once done, replace the side panel by lining up the bottom of it with the space in the machine, then tilting the top back in place. Once flush, close the tab on the back of the machine to lock the side in place. Boot the Mac Pro.

Software setup

If all goes well, once you boot up, you will see messages asking you if you want to format the new drives. Say no to (or cancel) these messages. You’ll need to reformat these drives as a RAID, so no point in formatting them just now. Instead, launch the “Disk Utility” application (usually found in Applications/Utilities).

When it comes up, you should see the new drives listed on the left, along with your primary drive and your DVD drive. From the tab selections at the top of the right-hand section of the window, click “RAID”. Enter a name for your new RAID, such as “Backup”. Make sure “Raid Type:” is set to “Mirrored RAID set”.

RAID panel Mirrored RAID

Now select one of the new drives from the list at the left. Holding down the shift key, click on the other new drive, to add it to the selection as well. Drag the two selected drives into the large white space on the right-side section of the window. This will add two entries to this list, saying something like “New member: ‘disk 0′”. Below this list, click “Options”. Make sure “Automatically rebuild RAID mirror sets” is checked, and click “OK”. (This setting will correct problems in the RAID if one of the drives has an error.)

Dragging the drives RAID options

Click “Create”. A confirmation screen will come up, warning you that creating this RAID will completely erase the drives. This is a good time to make doubly sure that you have selected your new drives into the RAID, and not any other drives. When satisfied this is so, click “Create”. A progress bar will appear as the RAID is being created. When finished, you should see the new RAID show up in both the left side list, and in the right side section. While the Disk Utility will still show you the individual disks, everything else will see the RAID as if it is a single drive.

Confirmation screen Ready RAID

Note that the capacity of the RAID as a whole matches that of one of the drives, not their sum. This should be as you would expect. The whole point of the RAID is to act as a “virtual disk” and when a byte is written to that disk, the RAID software writes that byte to the same spot on both of the drives, making sure they each have a copy of the same data. Thus, either one can fail, and you still have a working copy of the data.

A short digression

Before setting up this RAID for use with Time Machine, a quick digression. For troubleshooting purposes, it is sometimes useful to get more information about the drives you are using. Six months down the road, for example, you might have forgotten which drive you put into which bay. The System Profiler application can provide a bunch of information about your system, including the drives. You can launch this app either directly from Applications/Utilities or by selecting “About This Mac” from the Apple menu, then clicking “More Info…”.

Once the System Profiler launches, clicking the “Serial-ATA” section will show a list of the drives in the machine. If you click on one of your new drives, the bottom right section will display all sorts of information about the drive. Two more useful bits of information are the “Bay Name” setting, which tells you in which drive bay the drive is physically installed, and the “BSD Name” field, usually set to something like “disk1s3”. This code is needed for a number of command line disk manipulation tools, so is good to know when troubleshooting problems.

About This Mac System Profiler

Time Machine

Setting up Time Machine to use this RAID is the same as using any other drive. Just “Open Time Machine Preferences” from the Time Machine menu icon (by the clock in the menu bar), or by selecting “System Preferences…” from the Apple menu, then going to the Time Machine section. Once there, turn Time Machine on and select the RAID.

Time Machine

GeForce 8800 GT and Leopard

October 5th, 2008 — Wordman

Upgrading the primary hard drive in my Mac Pro exposed an annoying hurdle that might not be very obvious: if you have upgraded your video card to an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT, you might not be able to boot from your Leopard Install DVD any more.

I ran across this because, after installing my new drive, I decided to try a “full restore” from Time Machine. In theory, this would result in a clone of my old primary drive, just on a new, larger disk. It appears, however, the only way to use this feature is to boot from the Leopard Install DVD, and then select “Restore System from Backup” from the “Utilities” menu. The problem I had was that when booting from the DVD, I kept getting the dreaded grey screen telling me that “You must reboot your Mac” in several languages.

The DVD booted other machines just fine. The Pro booted from other sources just fine, at which point a dialog telling me that my machine crashed and would I like to submit a report to Apple? It didn’t even occur to me that the video card might be the culprit until I read the crash log attached to this report and noticed the stack contained a bunch of video initialization calls. From there it occurred to me that the GeForce 8800 GT to which I upgraded several months ago didn’t even exist when the install DVD I was using was created, so the DVD probably lacked the correct drivers.

Fortunately, I still had my old video card, so I swapped it in and the rest went as planned.

Looking on the net, I discovered that some others had my problem, but that there is a newer version of the install DVD (10.5.2) which does not have this problem. Most people reported that attempts to get the Apple store to exchange a 15.0 DVD for a 10.5.2 DVD failed, but since this seemed so stupid, I decided to try it anyway. I didn’t have much trouble (though I may have been helped by a) having once been a paying Apple developer and/or b) the long list of hardware I’ve purchased from the Apple store, including the Pro and the video card) and supposedly I will be getting mailed this newer DVD soon.

Sadly, even with all this, this was still probably my easiest primary drive upgrade ever.

Update: My (sparsely labelled) 10.5.2 DVD arrived.


March 22nd, 2008 — Wordman

Although I’ve used Duover for backups until now, I’ve decided to stop using it for two reasons. The first is that it seems to be floundering with the release of Leopard, making backups incredibly slowly, and generally flaking out. As an example, a daily backup from my kitchen machine took about 20 minutes under Tiger but, even with the latest Duover update, was taking over four days under Leopard. Not at all useful. Secondly, Time Machine is just really useful and cool.

So, I’ve just installed a 1TB Time Capsule backup device into my home network. It’s been a real breeze to setup, even for an Apple product. Simply just works. Even though I was pretty sure it would do what I wanted it to, I had a nagging suspicion that my network setup might trip it up, but this turned out to be groundless. My home uses two different wireless networks, one using 802.11g, to serve the older machines, and one using 802.11n to serve the newer machines at the best speed. (Hardware that runs 802.11n can also support 802.11g simultaneously, but doing so really slows down the 802.11n portion.) The additional speed on the 802.11n network makes a huge difference when streaming HD video to the Apple TV (though the g network can handle DVD level video just fine). My setup works basically like this:

Network diagram

I wasn’t 100% sure the kitchen machine (“Nexus”) would be able to see the backup service, but it works fine, just as a good network service should. As long as the machine and the device are on the same LAN, it appears to make no difference how it actually gets there, just as you’d expect. (That initial backup sure is slow, though.)

Necklace question

May 2nd, 2005 — Wordman

The film Timerider featured a motorcyclist who accidentally goes back in time to the old west. Being hunky, he naturally beds a local babe and while basking in the afterglow, she asks him about his necklace, which is this misshappen hunk of metal. He informs her that his grandmother stole it from his grandfather and it was passed down to him. Later, in the dramatic finale, the motorcyclist is hanging from a helicopter, dangling a few feet from the babe. She reaches out and takes his necklace, just before the time portal closes and he is returned to his present. So, the big reveal is that the babe is the motorcyclist’s grandmother, implying that he is is own grandfather. Roll credits.

Since seeing this movie when I was 14 or so, my question has always been: who made the necklace?

Looks like I’ll miss my chance to ask those who might know how to resolve such a time paradox, as I’ll not be in Boston this Saturday. Thus, I’ll miss the time-traveller’s convention (of which, there need be only one). Perhaps I can travel back to it someday, necklace and all.