Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hackintosh! (Or What To Do With All My Spare Monitors)

I got to thinking that after the office's transition to Macs, I would be left with a number of unused computer monitors.  I plan to keep at least a PC or two running, so that I could refer back to Softdent for Windows, but that would leave me with a number of mothballed displays.  Sure, I could give them away or e-recyle them.  But, as I stated before, it got me thinking . . . I know of a potentially fun way that I could make use of a retired monitor.

Hackintosh: A little side project that came to fruition this past weekend. For awhile, I've been a bit intrigued with the concept of running the Mac OS on a PC. You see, before I was a "Mac Guy", I was one of those who enjoyed building my own PC piecemeal, using the latest and greatest parts. Although I wasn't much into gaming, I'd still would desire the top shelf video card or largest capacity hard drive of the day. Likewise with the CPU. Of course, six months would pass by, and my system was no longer state-of-the-art.  Time to upgrade (again).  I can't recall when this "hobby" began to fade, but it probably coincided with the time that I purchased my first Dell.  

A few weeks back, I put together I list of parts in which to create my first Hackintosh. If you haven't gathered by now, a Hackintosh is simply a PC that is made to run a Mac OS. In my case, I chose Mac OS X Lion.  I must say that much of the credit goes to someone known as tonymac86x, who has a blog and forum dedicated to everything Hackintosh.  After a bit of lurking, I found a sub-forum named "Golden Builds", which had a number of working examples, along with the ingredients to create your own Hackintosh. One of Tonymac86x's blog entries is essentially a Buyer's Guide, listing recommended parts to purchase in order to build your own compatible Hackintosh. In the end, I pieced together components from this guide, assuring me that I'd end-up with a working Hackintosh. Here is my parts list:
When choosing the case, I really liked the simplicity and clean lines of the SilverStone FT03 case.  It has a bit of a Mac-like aesthetic,especially if you go with the silver finish, and although smaller than your typical tower, it is surprisingly roomy. The side, front and top panels come apart easily, and without tools, making the innards very accessible.  I really love the hot-swappable 3.5" drive bay, along with the small footprint.  Cases have come a long way since the days when I was building PCs!  Note that this case will only accommodate a trayless optical drive.

SilverStone FT03S case

On With The Build . . 

Tonymac86x has a couple of pieces of free software that greatly assist in the installation of the Mac OS onto a PC.  I elected to build a PC the runs Lion, Apple's latest and (some say "not so") greatest OS.  I'll spare you the fine details, as there are a number of YouTube videos and other website tutorials that detail the installation process ad nauseum. But to summarize, I first created a USB Lion Install thumb drive using Unibeast. I also downloaded another tool (to be used later) called MultiBeast 4.2.0, which I also placed on the thumb drive. After changing a handful of settings in the Gigabyte's BIOS, I used this newly-created USB installation tool to boot to the Lion installer. I first formatted the internal hard drive using Disk Utility, as a Mac OS Extended (Journaled) partition.  I then proceeded with the Lion install.  After the install was completed, I rebooted, again using the USB thumb drive.  Once booted into Lion, it was time to run MultiBeast. This smart tool installs a boot loader, allowing the machine to boot directly into Lion without having to use the USB thumb drive. It also installs various drivers or "kexts" (kernel extensions) that are user-selected according to what specifications your particular motherboard comes with. In fact, there is a constantly-updated database of motherboards specification "files" known as the DSDT. I used MultiBeast to install a DSDT specific to my motherboard, almost guaranteeing that I'd be able to run Lion, albeit with a bit of effort.  By the wee hours Sunday morning, I was greeted by this fine sight:

Lion! (Yes, that's a Dell monitor)
If anyone wants to join the "Hackintosh Club", feel free to contact me for any assistance.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Backup I: My External RAID

The other day, I installed the NewerTech MAXPower eSATA 6G PCIe 2.0 RAID Capable Controller Card (repeat that three times fast) in the Mac Pro.  Although NewerTech also makes a similar driverless PCIe controller card without the RAID capabilities (at a lower price point), I had read anecdotal reports that if an external drive is connected via eSATA, which I plan to do, you cannot hot-swap the drive without having to power down and reboot the computer.  Probably not an issue for most, but for about $25 more, I elected to go with the RAID version. 

NewerTech MAXPower eSATA RAID controller card

The install went without a hitch.  I tested it by attaching a 1TB quad-interface G-Technology G-DRIVE, and everything functioned as expected.  Note that because this controller card does have RAID capabilities, there are OS X drivers that should be installed.  I do not plan to use the card's RAID features, but it does have a decent web browser interface for configuration.  It supports RAID level 0, 1, 5, 10 and JBOD modes.  Again, it also features eSATA Hot Plug Support.  

I like to second-guess myself, a theme that will probably become commonplace in future blog entries.  I decided to return the 3TB version of the G-DRIVE and go with an external RAID for my attached backup protocol.  Although hard drive prices are inflated at the time of this writing, I needed . . . okay wanted . . . something NOW.  For the past few weeks, I had my eyes on this NewerTech Guardian MAXimus 2TB Quad-Interface RAID storage solution, again from OWC.  Well, that is what I ended up ordering.  I'm thinking that two 2TB drives in a mirror should suffice.  

Next up . . . the Time Capsule.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's Here!

During my lunch break, I picked-up my Mac Pro, along with my 27" Apple Cinema Display and hurried home to catch a peek of what would be my new office server.  Unlike the retail versions, these refurbs shipped in very plain boxes.  The Mac Pro came in a white box with only a small label detailing its contents.  

After opening the box, the contents were wrapped in the typical Apple aesthetic, so much so that you almost don't want to remove the clear protection surrounding the monitor.  After unwrapping its thin foam sheeting, I was pleasantly surprised with the condition of the Mac Pro.  I had read about the overwhelmingly positive experiences of others in terms of the refurbs that were purchased from the Apple Refurbished Store, and mine was no different.  This Mac Pro, for all intents and purposes, looked brand-spanking new! What a beauty!  

I still had a few minutes to spare before I had to return to work, so I decided to remove the 1TB HDD that shipped with the computer and install the two 2TB Seagate Barracuda XT drives that I had purchased prior.  An aside: I was mildly curious to see what brand drive that Apple spec'd with my Mac Pro.  I turned to be an Apple-labeled Western Digital, probably akin to a Caviar Black.  Back to the install . . . I had previously watched a step-by-step instructional video at OWC depicting how to change a hard drive in a Mac Pro, and it seemed a very simple and quick job.  After opening the Mac Pro, I must say that I was extremely impressed with the interior's layout and engineering.  Everything that the end-user may want to get to is exposed for easy access or removal.  It literally took me about 5 minutes to swap and install the drives.  Heck, I even had time for a bite to eat. 

Drive Bay 1 removed

Memory and RAID Setup

Not much beats returning home from a hard day's work to entertain the joys of setting up a RAID array.  (Insert winking emoticon here).  After another quick peek at the Mac Pro Memory Installation Video, again from OWC, and I proceeded to install the 24GB of OWC RAM.  Both the processors and the memory slots are located on a removable tray, which easily slides out with the flick of two levers. Because my Mac Pro is a 8-Core dual processor model, each CPU has its own bank of four memory slots. Placing this tray on a table top, I was able to install the memory modules in no time flat. Theoretically, this Mac could accept 8 sticks of 8GB RAM, totaling a whopping 64GB!  

Removing the processor tray

On the MacRumors forum, a person much smarter than I suggested that the easiest way to setup the RAID was to install the two "blank" drives into the Mac Pro (done) and then download and use the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant (installed onto a USB thumb drive) to both format and setup the RAID drives and install OS X Lion.  I attached the Cinema Display to the Mac Pro, and fired her up for the first time. Note that the Apple Cinema Display lacks a power button. Instead, it automatically turns on when the attached computer powers up. Clever. 

Attaching the thumb drive to a USB port, I was able to boot into the Lion Recovery assistant and enter Disk Utility.  From there, I basically followed the steps that I outlined in a previous blog to format the two drives and create a RAID 1 mirror set.  Piece of cake.  All that was left was to install Lion.  I should point out that the Lion Recovery Disk Assistant does not contain all the files for installing the OS. Instead, you must have internet access, as the majority of the installation files are downloaded from the cloud.  It took another half hour or so to complete the installation of the OS, which proceeded without a hiccup.  An evening's work, and this:

My Mac Pro Desktop

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Arguments For An Enterprise-Level Hard Drive

After a late night bit or investigation on the net, I decided to consider changing the hard drives that I was planning to install in the Mac Pro.  To recap, I purchased two Seagate Barracuda XT 2TB HDDs that were going to be incorporated into a RAID 1 mirror set.  While lurking in various internet forums, namely MacRumors, I caught a "buzz" about issues with current Seagate drives. It may be hearsay, but a few seem to believe that Seagate drives have been prone to a higher rate of failure of late.  I realize that the vast majority of computer users simply do not post their thoughts or experiences for others to read, and are probably chugging along just fine with their Seagate drives, than you.  But it got me thinking . . . perhaps I should consider an enterprise-level hard drive.

Seagate Constellation ES                  

Enterprise-level drives typically are described as more robust and in many cases, a bit more thrifty in the power consumption department than their consumer counterparts.  Some examples are Hitachi's Ultrastar 7K3000 line, along with Seagate's Constellation offerings.  When comparing the 2TB Seagate Constellation ES to the 2TB Seagate Barracuda XT, both sport 7200RPM spin speeds, along with 64MB of cache.  According to this Tom's Hardware review, performance is pretty similar; understandable given the similar specs.  For me, the main drawing point was the difference in MTBF rating.  MTBF stands for Mean Time Between Failure, and is quite simply a measure of reliability of a system or component.  Compared to the Barracuda XT's MTBF of 75,000 hours, the Constellation ES is 62.5% greater at a whopping 1.2 million hours!  Take this with a grain of salt . . . there's no telling if you ultimately end-up with a lemon of a drive.  But with a price difference between the two models at about $50-75, I'd feel just a wee bit better with the Constellation ES.

Now after all this pontification, it seems that I cannot find a single Seagate Constellation ES 2TB drive, either locally or on the net.  The Hitachi drive seems to be available, but with a price tag north of $425, the cost of two of these wouldn't be easy on the wallet.  It seems that the hard drive crisis caused by the flooding in Thailand has really hit this home.  Because my Mac Pro must be ready to install MacPractice by week's end, it looks like I'll be taking my chances with the Barracudas.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

As The Mamas And The Papas Once Harmonized . .

"Monday Monday, so good to me,
Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be
Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn't guarantee
That Monday evening you would still be here with me."

It's early Saturday afternoon. I'm thinking about Monday, a big day. It's the next step in our transition, as the Mac Pro and the Apple Cinema Display are scheduled to be delivered. I can honestly say that I haven't been this excited to be receiving a new computer in over a decade. Here at home, the 24GB of new OWC memory, the eSATA controller card and the two Seagate Barracuda XT drives await their new aluminum quarters.

Over the weekend, I had some time to figure out how to set-up the internal RAID "set" in my Mac Pro. My Mac Pro ships with a single 1TB internal HDD and I was planning on creating a RAID array as a measure of safekeeping.  For those of you who do not know the acronym, RAID stands for "Redundant Array of Inexpensive / Independent Disks". Specifically, I am planning to implement a RAID 1 Mirror, where data will be written to both drives simultaneously,creating a favorable redundancy. Simply put, if either drive fails, the other will continue to function as a single drive until the failed drive is replaced. I have heard decent comments about an aftermarket software product called SoftRAID, but thought that I'd investigate Mac OS X Lion's "built-in" (software) RAID creator, which can be accessed by using Disk Utility.

Before I move on, I should emphasize that RAID 1 is NOT a backup. It's commonly used as a strategy for data redundancy, but by itself, is not effective as a backup. One major reason is that any data written to the RAID is immediately copied to the mirrored set. If you then go and erase a file, it essentially disappears from the mirrored set of disks. Therefore, you cannot access an older version of the file, such as version created a day ago. Understand this concept so that you'll have a "real" backup strategy in place!

The Steps for a two-disc RAID 1 Mirror Set in OS X Lion (mostly plagiarized from the Apple Support website):
  1. In Disk Utility, select one of the disks in the list that you want to use in the set and click the "RAID" tab.
  2. Type a name for the RAID set (RAID Set Name) and choose a format from the Format drop-down menu. The default, "Mac OS Extended (Journaled)" should suffice.
  3. Choose a RAID Type, in this case "Mirrored RAID Set"
  4. From your list of disks in the left-most window, drag the first disk that you want to use in the RAID to the set list window on the right.
  5. Click on the disk that you just added to the set. For "Disk Type", select "RAID Slice".
  6. Click the "Options" button to specify an optimal block size for the data stored on the set. This block size is dependent on the type of data that you will be storing on the mirrored set. Unless you are storing very large files, for general use, 32K should suffice. Also select "RAID Mirror AutoRebuild". Click OK when you are finished.
  7. Drag the second disk to be utilized into the RAID Set window and repeat steps 5 and 6.
  8. Finally, click the "Create" button.
After you create the RAID set, the operating system manages storing files on the disks in the set for you.

Please note that after you click the Create button, a warning will remind you that all data on the drives that make up the new RAID array will be erased.

Disk utility will then create the RAID 1 mirror set, renaming the individual volumes that make-up the RAID set to RAID Slice. It will then create the actual RAID 1 mirror set which will ultimately mount on your Mac's desktop as a normal hard drive.

At this point, I haven't decided if I want to retain the single 1TB HDD that ships with my Mac Pro along. If I do, I would then have a total of three drives spanning the Mac Pro's drive bays.  Contrarily, I could ditch the 1TB drive and employ only the pair of 2TB drives in the RAID set.  A third option is to keep the 1TB drive and utilize it as a Windows partition, so that I could load and refer to Sofdent's historical data.  I like to keep things simple, so I'm leaning towards just the two drives.  

To be continued . . . 

The "A" is for Apple List

(As I sit at the keyboard, many of the items that make-up this blog entry are coursing their way to me on the UPS line, seemingly at a snail's pace. The Mac Pro and a 27" Apple Cinema Display were ordered on Black Friday. So much for God Speed . . .)

Here is how I ultimately outfitted my server. If you have been following this blog, you'll know that the platform I chose was the Mac Pro, specifically the Mac Pro (Mid-2010) 8-Core (Two 2.4GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon Processors) iteration. I found a refurbished unit at Apple's Refurbished Mac Store for a nice discount. From what I've heard from others, Apple's refurbished units are, except for their price, as good as new. Apple also allows you to purchase their AppleCare Protection Plan for refurbished Macs, a policy that probably isn't available if you purchase from another vendor. I strongly recommend purchasing Apple's extended warranty for any work-based computer.

I decided to upgrade the Mac Pro's internal drives and memory myself. You can save a substantial amount if you purchase aftermarket compatible memory. I decided to play it safe and purchase memory preconfigured and certified by Other World Computing (OWC) for my particular MacPro: 24GB PC8500 DDR3 OWC Memory. This is an ample amount of memory that should serve well for any future needs. OWC memory has a 30-Day Money-Back Guarantee and a Lifetime Advance Replacement Warranty. It costs a bit more than other vendors, but when it comes to memory, I don't want to mess around. I should note that OWC caters to the Mac crowd, and has a good reputation and great customer service and support.

The internal storage that will adorn my Mac Pro consists of two Seagate Barracuda XT 2 TB 7200RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDDs, which will be implemented as a RAID 1 mirror configuration. I'm planning to use OS X Lion's "built-in" software RAID using Disk Utility, and will outline the steps in a future blog entry. Note that another very worthy candidate for an internal drive is the Western Digital Caviar Black, another 7200RPM/64MB cached drive. The flooding conditions in Thailand are currently having an adverse effect on the hard disk drive industry, and prices have risen dramatically. Nidec, which supplies nearly 100% of the drive motors to HDD manufacturers like Hitachi, Seagate, Western Digital, Samsung and Toshiba, is located in the region of the flooding, as is Western Digital itself. In my situation, I already had a 2TB Seagate Barracuda, and it was luckily a matter of purchasing one additional drive. The floods did not effect solid state drives (SSD)s.

Some may get the impression that I have been dissin' solid state drives in previous entries. Don't get me wrong . . . I'd be the first to adopt the technology if I was certain they were as hardy as your traditional HDD. Heck, I have one in my primary home computer, my 27" iMac. In anticipation of this day, I did go and order this cool 2.5" Drive Sled for 2009-2010 Apple Mac Pro. It will sit in a drawer, waiting for its day to shine. Dig the blue color!


For my backup needs, I purchased a NewerTech MAXPower eSATA 6G PCIe 2.0 RAID Capable Controller Card, which will sit in one of the Mac Pro's internal PCI Express 2.0 slots. This card provides two external eSATA ports that I can attach an external drive or RAID array. I probably could not go wrong with the very capable Sonnet Technology Tempo SATA E2P Serial ATA Host Adapter Card, but in the end, chose the NewerTech product because of its additional RAID capabilities.

Which leads me to my 'External Backup Device #1': a G-Technology G-DRIVE 3TB External Hard Drive w/ eSATA, USB 2.0, Firewire 400, Firewire 800 Interfaces, which I'll attach directly to the Mac Pro via the aforementioned eSATA controller card interface. (I plan to discuss the software that will handle my backups in the near future). As an alternative, I am also considering an external RAID array, but haven't come to a final decision. Keeping our mantra about backup redundancy in mind, my 'External Backup Device #2' is the Apple Time Capsule 3TB and its Time Machine software counterpart. I must admit that 'External Backup Device #3' is a bit more hazy. For now, I'm thinking of simply copying the data to a USB thumb drive for off-site safekeeping. Between these three methods, I'm hoping that my MacPractice backup data will be remain safe and readily accessible in a pinch.

Please stay tuned . . .

Friday, December 2, 2011

Gathering The Parts: The Prequel

The Software: An Easy Decision

When it comes to Mac-based DPM software, only one came to mind: MacPractice DDS. With an install base of 25,000 users across their inventory of healthcare practice management software (45% of which are dental), MacPractice is *the* major player, with MacDent Pro a distant second. After scheduling an in-office demo, we entertained the sales person's presentation, where the software's strong points were emphasized while the shortcomings are tucked away. In the end, what choice did I have? If I wanted to go Mac, then the choice was MacPractice DDS. As one member of my staff commented, "It won't be easy at first, but we will learn whatever you end up with."

An aside. I did briefly consider Curve Dental. Because it was cloud-based, this DPM could be accessed on a Mac (or PC). In fact, because the various Mac workstations would not have to access a server, the office network would function mainly to provide internet access to each station, along with access to network printers. You'd obviously want your "bulletproof" internet access as best as you could, but, my gosh, you could get by with extremely rudimentary hardware who's main mission was solely to access the net. I must admit that our office has had more than a handful of days where the internet was down for one reason or another. Because our DPM software was in-house, the brief lack of internet access was more of a nuisance, but it would be much more than that if it occurred with a cloud-based DPM like Curve! However, what really steered me clear from Curve . . and again I use the caveat "at the time of this writing" . . is whether or not your data "somewhere up in the cloud" would be retrievable if you decide to cancel service with Curve. The service is so new that this data issue remains a gray area.  

The Hardware: Give Me A Mac Pro

This is the fun part. I get to rekindle the joy of building a computer to my liking. Initially, I was planning on using a 27" iMac outfitted with an internal solid-state drive (SSD) along with a secondary conventional hard drive for additional storage. I surmised that the SSD's superior data access speeds would work wonders for a program like MacPractice. However, after doing my due diligence (which consisted of perusing the various forums), I quickly decided that, in terms of reliability, the SSD isn't ready for prime time. There seemed to be a troubling propensity for drive failures amongst some various makes, and the last thing you'd want to happen to your server is a hard drive failure. This was more or less confirmed by the local IT consultant who contracts with MacPractice; none of the installations in the region contained any SSDs. In fact, knowing that I was leaning towards a Mac Pro, the consultant recommended that I install two internal 2TB hard drives in a RAID 1 mirror. Absolutely not a problem with the Mac Pro's easily-accessible drive bays. Contrarily, it would have been darn near impossible to install a RAID mirror amongst two internal drives in an iMac.

There is another troubling issue with Apple's latest iMacs.  An OWC blog entitled "Apple Further Restricts Upgrade Options on New iMacs" in my opinion, absolutely rules out the use of the iMac as the practice's mission-critical server. 

Mac Pro
I am a strong believer in redundant backups. We'd be hard-pressed to recall by memory a day's worth of procedures and appointments. Imagine losing an entire year or years' worth of data! That would be catastrophic. Hence, multiple backup strategies. Because of a Mac Pro's internal expansion capabilities, I was planning on installing an eSATA controller card, so that I could back-up to an attached external drive. You certainly do not need to have eSATA, but I already own a couple of external drives with this interface, and thought that I'd make use of the greater speed.

Finally, a MacPro would allow me the flexibility of change. Say that a SSD is proven more reliable than a HDD. I could easily swap the internal HDDs for their solid-state counterparts. I should note that there is some talk amongst some Apple "insiders" that the Mac Pro line may ultimately be discontinued. As it stands, the Mac Pro in its current iteration has not been updated since November 2010. Apple typically is much quicker at refreshing its product line. For instance, according to the Mac Buyer's Guide at MacRumors.com, the iMac is refreshed every 273 days, while a MacBook Pro averages 267 days. This contrasts dramatically with the last time the MacPro changed model designations: 495 days and counting. If you're a betting person, then the next refresh is due any time. However, if the rumor mill is running rampant that there may not be a refresh . . ever, and if you need to accelerate a bit of spending (think Section 179) come year end, then the time is now to jump on the Mac Pro.

Next up: The Parts List