Thursday, May 17, 2007

plugging things in...

This last weekend, I wandered down to the local Fry's to get me some gadgety goodness. Specifically, I wanted to pick up a Buffalo TeraStation and some wireless gear so that I could hide the TeraStation away. I've been trying to figure out how to run ethernet through the walls for as long as I've lived in the house, and have decided to give up. Wireless speeds are good enough now to make it not worth the bother.

I spent a long while in the networking aisle, trying to figure out the best options. My ideal setup was a 802.11n router and then something 802.11n to plug the TeraStation into. Thus my first dilemma. Every major manufacturer seems to be selling some kind of 802.11n router, and many of them sell USB/PCCard/PCI adaptors. My problem is that my idea location for my new TeraStation is neither near the DSL modem, nor near a computer I want to leave running 24/7. Thus I need either a 802.11n 'extender' or a 'game' adaptor, at least that seems to be what manufacturers are calling any kind of 802.11n client that has an ethernet port. Thus began my first problem with plugging things in... namely that I had nothing into which to plug my TeraStation!

It came down to 3 options:

(1) I already have 802.11g in the house, and there were a few 'extender's on the shelf. Annoyingly, and 802.11g 'extender' costs more than a cheap 802.11n router! I also was worried that a backup would saturate the network and leave me no bandwidth for checking the latest on Reddit! I could buy a router and extender, but I'd just want to replace them in a year with 802.11n.

(2) The old AirPorts could act as extenders, but I had been unclear from reading Apple materials whether the new ones could as well. They are also expensive!

(3) I've heard negative things about Powerline ethernet before, but the new versions promised up to 200Mb/s. It is comparatively cheap, and avoids saturating the house with more radio noise. I thought I'd give D-Link's Powerline HD Ethernet a try. It's all about the plugs baby!

I get home and unpack everything. I plug in one Powerline HD adaptor in my office, and another downstairs. I run their little setup tool and sha-za! They see each other! I was hoping the tool would also provide something that told how good the connection was, or some indication of what kind of throughput I might expect. No such luck though. The easiest things to do seemed to be to plug in the TeraStation, and time a file-copy. That required actually plugging in the TeraStation.

The outlet where I wanted to plug in the TeraStation was full, so I pulled a power-strip out of the closet and plugged the Powerline adaptor and the TeraStation into the power-strip. Everything boots up... but now the Powerline adaptor can't find it's brethren upstairs. I figure that the power-spike protection circuit in the power-strip are at fault, so I plug the Powerline adaptor directly into the wall... only to do so means unplugging something. Yea... I unplugged the power-strip with the freshly booted TeraStation attached. Thus began my woes.

I immediately realized what I'd done, and re-arraigned things so that I could plug the Powerline adaptor into the wall directly, and still power the TeraStation. The TeraStation booted up and began blinking at me with wild abandon. I figured it was just doing a filesystem check, so I went back to making sure that the Powerline adaptor was working. 15 minutes later, I can down to check on the TeraStation... it was still blinking and flashing like mad. The normal way to administer the device is via a browser/http interface, but the device didn't seem to be responding. The manual was less than helpful. Supposedly if you count the number of times the 'diag' led blinks over a 4 second period, you can figure out what kind of error it is attempting to report. I'm not sure if you have ever tried counting LED flashes while also counting the seconds... but let me tell you, it ain't easy! I decided to leave it be for a bit more. In an hour, I came back and it was still going! I know that it was trying to check 1TB of disk, but these disks were empty. I had yet to actually even use the device when I inadvertently unplugged it. At least the Powerline adaptor seemed to be working.

By the next morning, the TeraStation had settled down and I was able to connect to it and verify that all appeared to be working fine. Time for some bandwidth tests. First I verified that a trivial file copy worked. I was using Robocopy which copy speed in bytes/sec. All appeared good. Now copy over a ~1MB file. hmm.. I was only getting <1mb style="font-style: italic;">really slow. So I powered down the TeraStation and moved it up to where I could plug it directly into the router.. no Powerline ethernet involved. Now my laptop was getting ~12Mb/s! down to the basement, to get as far away from the wireless router as possible, and was still getting ~11Mb/s! Time to pack up the Powerline Adaptors, they are going home. No plugging for them!

The moral of the story? Powerline ethernet didn't work for me. oh yea.. and don't unplug a running computer.

** edit ** The product is called TeraStation... not TerraStation. Tera = 1,000,000. Terra = earth.


Blogger RichB said...

I have one of the earliest Terastations [notice the single 'r']. I don't know about the later models, but this one is very slow. Apparently it's due to the measly 60Mhz powerpc CPU. I also have a wireless bridge (which is the correct name for a "game adapter"). I bought it quite cheaply many years ago and use it via a 4-port hub for my Linux box and my Ethernet printer. It makes it a lot cheaper than buying a wireless printer or messing about with ndiswrapper under Linux.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too many variables, Derek. How do you know the problem was with EoP and not the TerraStation, PC, or an interaction among them?

Before you go out and by anything else, I'd recommend that you measure transfer speeds between the Terrastation and the PC directly connected through wired ethernet (not USB/Firewire). There are lots of issues that can come into play, including sustained hard drive transfer rates and network configuration (jumbo frames, QoS, etc.). Ideally there would be some way to isolate the network transfer rate from disk bandwidth, as well.

Actually, ideally the hardware would just work and you would never have to worry about these things yourself. There would be clear indicators of common situations like "hey, I'm on a surge protector and my signals are blocked!". It's ridiculous that you have to count LED blinks per second and cross-reference with a manual translated from English to Chinese and back again just to get some faint glimmer of an idea as to why the product you just purchased isn't working as desired.

Manufacturers all too often stop at the 80% mark (w00t, we can read and write data, it's alive! And blinking!) and don't do that critical other 20% (which we all know is hard and expensive and time-consuming) to make their products work all the time in every configuration without user involvement.

12:18 PM  
Blogger derek said...

I did measure the wired speed, but didn't have the numbers available when posting, thus not including them. When the TeraStation was directly connected to the wireless, my laptop (via it's wireless) got >10x the throughput that it did when the TeraStation was plugged into the EoP. Desktop machine that was wired into the same router was even faster, although I don't remember how much faster.

9:02 PM  

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