Sunday, April 13, 2014

Bitcasa Adds Chromecast

Tonight, I launched the Bitcasa app on my Android tablet to look at some photos that I uploaded earlier in the day. I noticed that the Bitcasa app has the iconic Chromecast button in the upper right hand corner. Out of curiosity, I tried it and, surprise, surprise! Bitcasa now displays to the Chromecast, which evidently is not news. But, it's news to me!

My results, while exciting, given that I have cast my lot with storing my files in Bitcasa, are a bit disappointing. I think they could improve the experience, and probably will. Perhaps they got caught up with throwing something together quickly and fixing the kinks later.

Previously, I had to use another app named Aria, which required downloading a file locally to my tablet so that it could cast to the TV. But, with Bitcasa taking over, it is much less troublesome.

All is not smooth, however. Some of the movie types had trouble loading, and others loaded quickly, without a hitch. I could now say why some worked and others did not. I have a 50 Mbps Internet connection, so it's not bandwidth on my end.

Photos have a lag between showing the photo on your tablet and showing it on the TV. I'm not talking about a one or two second delay. There is a several second delay between changing photo on your tablet and the Chromecast mirror of your action.

I tested the ability to cast music from Bitcasa to Chromecast. Playing one item at a time seems to work OK. Using the Play Album option crashes the app on Chromecast, requiring you to reconnect. I have not worked out how to make a playlist on Bitcasa. Using the shuffle feature freaked the app out, it just jumped from song to song instantly before even having a chance to play.

Of particular use to me are the photo and video casting. The former works well enough, the latter needs a little work; but, may serve its purpose. The music casting definitely needs work. However, I did not see myself using Bitcasa to stream music. Most likely, I'll save podcasts there and stream those. I use Google Play Music and am satisfied with that; but, don't wish to clutter that up with podcasts.

Overall, I'm excited that Bitcasa took the leap. Bitcasa on Chromecast will definitely serve me well. I do expect that the feature will improve in time, I hope.

Can we take pictures?

My younger daughter, Io, is not at all shy in front of a camera. She is always asking me to take her picture. As time permits, I agree to take her picture. Sometimes, like today, it works out where I want to experiment with a lighting setup and she is also in the mood to pose.

Of course, Io's willingness to take pictures does not make it any easier. She is, after all, in Kindergarten, with all that it entails regarding energy and attention.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Contemplating Pogoplug as alternative to Bitcasa

Pogoplug may be a possible alternative to Bitcasa when considering unlimited storage of your personal digital files. Pogoplug currently offers unlimited storage for $4.95/mo or $49.95/yr. Pogoplug can run exclusively on your desktop with cloud backups, or you can purchase one of their Pogoplug devices, which allow you to connect external drives via USB port for local storage and sharing of personal files.

Compare this with Bitcasa, to which I currently subscribe. Bitcasa launched into Beta with the promise of unlimited backup for only $10/mo or $100/yr. This was a very exciting prospect at the time, given the alternatives. Late in 2013, after some user statistics, they figured out that they should limit the unlimited and added tiers to the service. They were respectful enough to existing subscribers to grandfather in old pricing.

On the surface, Bitcasa's honoring their old plan is great for me; I like the old pricing. However, they rescinded Linux support for the unlimited plan under the old pricing. If I want a Linux client, I would need to convert to a special case subscription where they charge the old price, but limit storage to 5 TB. This is still generous given that my current storage is barely over 100GB. I am nowhere near 5 TB; however, I don't want to cap myself. So, my Linux computer is out of luck when it comes to an unlimited network drive. Shucks.

Just a quick distinction between these types of services and other services such as Crashplan, which offers unlimited file backup. Bitcasa and Pogoplug are both backup and file sync services. This means that they immediately update any files that change. Furthermore, Bitcasa and Pogoplug are meant to make files available on multiple devices, emphasizing cloud storage and access, whereas backup services are meant to simply ensure the safety of your files in case the worst happens. They do not concern themselves with sharing and collaboration.

Evaluating Pogoplug as an alternative to Bitcasa

Going on price, Pogoplug wins out, even with Bitcasa's old pricing. Pogoplug offers unlimited backup and storage for half the price. But, they also do not have a Linux client. Their backup software is only for Windows and Mac. Pogoplug does also offer clients for iPhone, Android, and iPad. No clear advantage for mobile.

One benefit of Pogoplug where it clearly stands out is the option for local storage via one of their network devices. To accomplish the same thing with Bitcasa, you would need to have a dedicated Windows/Mac machine with a shared folder that is synced to the Bitcasa cloud. Local storage is definitely a plus for Pogoplug.

So, what else matters beyond price and network storage? There is sharing. Both services allow you to share a folder or individual file with others via a private link to your content. In my personal experience, this is not something you use every day unless you have some sort of business need.

Security as the Sole Differentiator

The one difference that comes to mind in terms of security of your files is that Bitcasa offers client side encryption. This means that your files are encrypted on your end before they are stored on Bitcasa files. This means that they have no idea what files you have; and should they develop a curiosity, could not snoop. This was a key selling point when Bitcasa launched. There is one vulnerability which involves the snooper already having a copy of your file to compare with yours. Any difference in the files would render the vulnerability rather useless. And, if they already have a copy of your file for comparison, what's the point?

The best details I can find regarding encryption on Pogoplug is that your files are encrypted during transport, via SSL, between your computer and their servers, which are actually Amazon servers. I've seen it suggested that you can encrypt your files locally prior to storage, which means that on the server side, your files are not encrypted; they rely on standard user authentication to restrict file access.

The key difference is that if you hack into Bitcasa servers, you would find encrypted files. If you hack into Pogoplug's storage, you'd have immediately readable files. Assuming anybody had the ability to hack either service, Bitcasa offers that little extra bit of security via client side encryption. However, it is more likely that you would download malware to your PC and leave the front door wide open to either service. In other words, you, the user, are more likely to be the origin of a security breach than the two service providers.

So, which will I use?

I very much like the price of Pogoplug. Bitcasa's backpedaling on their initial pricing annoys me. I like Bitcasa's added encryption, which would at least deflect secret warrants to access my files. As an side, if I'm going to be required to give access to my files, I'd rather know about it than have it done without my knowledge. In terms of local storage, I've been down that road. Unless, I have a NAS with RAID, I would be hard pressed to trust local backups; or at least I would not be lulled into a false sense of security against loss. That sort of defeats the purpose.

Ultimately, I'm going to stay with Bitcasa for two reasons. The encryption is one reason. Both services are very similar. Other than the encryption, there is hardly any differentiation. The other reason is I don't want to bother with migrating files.

For the average user, I think I could recommend Pogoplug. The subscription price for Pogoplug is a great value, there is no denying. Family photos and videos aren't really that sensitive as to require extra security. If, on the other hand, you have nudie photos and videos; you might sleep a little easier with Bitcasa's encryption, though as mentioned previously, you might be the cause of the leak rather than the provider.

So, as a moonlighting computer tech, I would first recommend Pogoplug. If my client requires a little more security, then I would recommend Bitcasa. For commercial use, I would take a different tack and use something dedicated like Crashplan with both local and cloud backups. But, that's a subject for another blog post.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Solid State Drive: So far, so good

It has been nearly a week since upgrading the old laptop to a solid state drive. The laptop is running Ubuntu 13.10, which was previously lagging using a standard hard drive.

Admittedly, the old drive was a 5400 rpm drive. There would be some improvement with a 7200 rpm drive; but, for about a similar cost, why not go for SSD?

If you are thinking about switching to SSD to speed up your computer a bit, especially for a version of Linux, there are modifications you can do to minimize wear and tear on the drive. In addition to increasing the longevity of the drive, the modifications also improve the performance of your drive by eliminating unnecessary reads and writes. Each version of Linux has recommendations you might want to Google.

I'll be eschewing unnecessary updates too. The performance is a little better than my Chromebook. I think I can keep it that way by not allowing updates to make it crufty. My usage mainly consists of using web services for work.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I Moved Into Ubuntu 13.10 On A SSD

I picked up a Chromebook some time ago, which my family learned to enjoy. Unfortunately, my son has taken it for his own, leaving me without a "computer". I can do plenty on my tablet; but, for some things you need an actual computer. Sometimes you need to run software that would make Android cry; sometimes you just need a real keyboard.

So, I put Ubuntu 13.10 on an old Vostro 1000 laptop. The laptop has seen better days. My first installation was on a standard HDD. It was a bit laggy. So today I picked up a 250 GB Samsung 840 EVO solid state drive that was at a good price locally. There were other drives available with better performance; but, I don't think I would be putting the extra speed to good use given that the laptop itself is pretty old.

The result is a noticable increase in performance. I also read up on optimizing Ubuntu for solid state drives, and followed the instructions.

Why It's Overkill

I was trucking along rather well on the Chromebook with only 16 GB of storage. I put all my information in the cloud, with some items stored locally on thumb drives and SSD cards. Consequently, most of the 16 GB is free. 250 GB for a Linux laptop is way more than I need to store I see myself continuing to store files in Google Drive or in other cloud storage services. After installing Ubuntu and the all important Google Chrome, I have more than 220 GB available, which will mostly remain empty. 

Minimizing writes to an SSD increases the device's longevity. That is my aim by minimally using all the extra space. The SSD controllers will spread out the writes throughout the entire available space to wear it out evenly, 

What I Expect Will Happen

My expectation with having a larger than necessary drive is that, barring any manufacturer defect, the drive will outlast the other components on the laptop. In fact, I expect that at some point Ubuntu will grow crufty and require re-installation a few times. Articles I have read have calculated a drive could last an average user between 20 and 50 years. No way the rest of my computer will last that long. At some point, I'll have to recycle the machine and move the drive to another. 

Ultimately, what I expect to get out of all this is worry free access to the web. I could have spent some money to buy another Chromebook; but, I already have a laptop that could be converted to a webtop, which is what I have, in effect, done. I expect to get another few years out of this old machine without additional investments.

UPDATE: When I wrote this, I was not aware of the specs for the drive. The standard Samsung 840 EVO only has 1,000 writes per cell. The Samsung 840 EVO Pro offers 3,000 to 5,000 writes per cell. There are some drives that cost way more and offer even more writes, up near 20,000. So, the 20 to 50 year estimate is for the Pro version. My version would rank somewhere near 7 years, which I still think is likely longer than the remainder of my laptop will last. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Just Can't Commit to Hybrid Drives

As the moonlighting computer tech that I am, I've both helped clients and personally experienced hard drive failures. It is a fact of life that within 5 years, a drive will likely die. In my experience, a small chunk fail right away and the rest fail within the 5 years. Beyond that 5 year period, your drive is living on borrowed time.

Enter Solid State Drives, aka SSDs. The current market for SSDs is a bit more expensive than your standard platter drives. For the same price as one TB SSD, you can buy several hard disk drives, or HDDs. The price of a 240 GB SSD is comparable to a 2 TB HDD.

Solid State Drives have an additional limitation, other than price, in that they have a finite number of writes per cell. You can only store a bit in an SSD cell so many times before it wears out. The drives are smart enough to spread the wear around evenly to avoid burning holes in your storage. But, they also inevitably fail, although for the average user this will take many years. For this reason, you are better off buying the largest SSD storage you can afford. This way you can spread the wear over more area, which adds up to a longer lifespan for the drive.

For some time, we have had hybrid drives that offer the best of both worlds. You get solid state chunks of your most frequently accessed files, which improves the speed of your computer. I forgot to mention earlier that SSDs can speed up your computer. So, after running your computer a few times with a hybrid drive in place, the drive will cache your most popular files for quicker access. Everything else lives on the HDD portion of the drive.

The problem that hybrids have, in my opinion, is that they offer the worst of both worlds. The SSD portion is too small, which all but guarantees you'll wear out the NAND cells that much faster. And, the HDD portion will either fail soon after installation, mostly within 5 years, or very soon after the fifth year, leaving the SSD portion wholly inadequate for your needs.

If I'm going to go SSD, I would need cloud storage to overcome the space limitations and leave tons of local storage available to reduce wear on the SSD. I think in this way I would extend the life of the drive significantly.

I think a hybrid drive would be used for a quick boost in speed; but, not necessarily for drive longevity. I would install an SSD on an old computer to extend its life, through faster booting and operation, a few more years. I would not want to sabotage those gains with a hybrid drive that would definitely fail again soon.