I've been considering some sort of network storage solution for some time now.  We have three PC's in the house and our family pictures, videos, documents, and music are spread among them.  Worse, we have only taken one backup of the pictures, and the rest are squirreled away in unknown folder levels of each of the machines.  I wanted to change that.  I had a couple of options in mind: a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, a Windows Home Server (WHS), or setting up a share on my main PC.  I came into a little luck and found myself with four 320GB hard drives, which significantly helped matters.

One option I was considering is the Drobo, which is a USB / Firewire storage device from Data Robotics.  The Drobo is a box that can attach to your PC via USB or Firewire, and has slots for up to four hard drives.  You can add hard drives in any pattern that you like, and as the system gets full you are prompted to add more storage.  It uses a proprietary RAID format, offering some data security (if a drive fails, you won't lose everything).  As far as simple solutions, this is tops.  Just plug it in and insert your drives.  The first generation unit is $350 and the current generation is $450.  There is also an add-on piece for $200 that allows you to connect the Drobo directly to the network without any need for a PC to host it.  In that form, it can truly be called a NAS.
I also investigated other NAS products, including those from ASUS, IOGear, and Western Digital.  Those targeted to the home and small office offered two drive slots and a reasonable price, while those targeted at businesses offered four or more slots but at a premium price.

Windows Home Server is an interesting product that also had my eye.  I've known a few people to have them and all have had positive experiences.  One of the biggest benefits of a WHS over a simple NAS is that ability to take complete backups of all of the PC's on your network in an automated fashion.  Once scheduled, you can competely forget about this operation that will take periodic snapshots of your PC's.  If one of those machines should fail, just replace the busted drive and restore it from WHS.  The hardware for a WHS machine is fairly cheap (can be built for around $300).  Unfortunately, at that price point you are still looking at just a two drive setup.

In the end, I decided to setup a RAID on my existing PC and share the drive to the network.  I chose to use a RAID-5 configuration.  There are several flavors of RAID, and each has it's own nuances.  There is RAID-0, which alternates the usage of two drives in "stripes".  The advantage here is that rather than pulling your files from just one drive, it uses both drives equally, improving performance.  It provides no data protection though, so if one of those drives fails, you are toast.  Next is RAID-1, also called mirroring.  In RAID-1, two drives are used and are perfect copies of each other.  As with RAID-0, both drives can be used when reading files, leading to better read performance (writing is slower though), with the advantage that if one drive fails, you don't lose anything.  The disadvantage is that you only get one drive's worth of storage.  Raid 0+1 is a combination of these two techniques that uses four drives.  The data is striped across two drives, and each of these drives is mirrored, resulting in good performance and security in the case of drive failure.  Still, you end up wasting two drives of data here.  That's why I chose RAID 5.  RAID 5 uses some special parity math and rotates the use of the drives to attain a nice balance between security, performance, and disk utilization.  My RAID 5 setup uses four disks, and if any one of those disks fails I can replace it and not lose any data. (If two drives fail, I lose some data, so it is important to watch for a drive failure and deal with it immediately).  With my four 320GB drives installed my RAID 5 setup provides just under 1TB of storage.

Now that I've got it setup, I'm kicking myself for not doing this sooner.  The drive performance is great, and it is nice to know that I have some security in the unfortunate event of a drive failure.  My motherboard has six SATA ports, and it can have two RAID arrays.  I'm considering modifying my setup to use a two disk RAID-1 for the operating system and applications and the four disk RAID-5 for all data storage.  As cheap as hard drives are ($60 for 750GB!) it's seems silly not to take advantage of the security and performance afforded by a RAID configuration.  The next thing I need to do is adhere to a regular backup schedule.

A note: building the RAID (initializing it for the first time) took a long time.  I kicked off the build process last night and it took just over 10 hours to complete.  So if you are considering setting one up yourself, be sure to allow for that build time.

Movies and Theaters

(tldr; going to the movies is expensive, UA galaxy needs updated, Watchmen was good)

I went to the theater tonight to see Watchmen.  I really enjoyed it, but that's not what this post is about.  I went to the UA Galaxy Stadium 14 here in Indy.   Normally I prefer to go to the Goodrich theater at Hamilton Town Center, as it is a newer theater and they have digital projection and IMAX screens available.  I should also mention that the AMC theater at the Castleton mall is very nice after they renovated it, but it's the least convenient of the three for me to get to.  

I chose the UA theater because I had a coupon for a free movie at a Regal cinema, and the UA theater is part of the Regal Entertainment Group.  I also had a coupon for a free drink (with minimum $3.50 concession purchase) as well as a $1 off concession at the Goodrich theater, but I figured the free movie ticket was the better value.  After all, a ticket at our local theaters runs $9.50 ($12.50 for IMAX).  I had my mind set on indulging in the decadence of buttered movie popcorn with lots of salt and a fully leaded Cherry Coke.  The theater got all of that free ticket back with that purchase: Medium drink + Medium popcorn (combo #3) was $11.50.  I always thought combos were supposed to be some sort of deal, but this was just 25¢ off of the normal price for the medium drink ($5.50) and medium popcorn ($6.50).  You can save a buck on each item by getting a size smaller, or spend a buck more on each to go to the large.  I'm not calling out UA on this pricing either, as it is the same pricing you'll find at the AMC and Goodrich.  However, there is one difference between the theaters: bag vs. tub.  I prefer my popcorn in a tub, not in a bag.  At the Goodrich theater you can buy any size and ask for it in a tub, and they will happily oblige you.  I asked for the same at the UA theater and was told that the only way to get a tub is to buy the large popcorn.  I asked the clerk if she could just measure out my medium bag and then pour it into a tub, and she said she couldn't because they keep an inventory count of the tubs, and she's responsible for reconciling it with receipts!!! I haven't been to the AMC theater in a while, so I can't say where they stand on the bag vs. tub issue.

I was going to the 9pm showing, and it being a Tuesday I figured I might just have the theater to myself.  Almost, but not quite: there were two couples in there and one other fellow going stag like myself.  That got me to thinking, "What is the break-even cost for showing a film?"  Assuming that everyone else at my screen paid full price for their ticket, that's $9.50 x 5 = $47.50.  The two couples were younger, so let's assume it was a date and the gentlemen sprung for the individual small cokes and shared a medium popcorn.  That's ($4.50 x 4) + ($6.50 x 2) = $31.00.  The other gentleman and I each had the same snacks, so that's another $11.50 x 2 = $23, bringing our grand total to $101.50 taken in by the theater for the 9pm showing of watchmen (I knew studying those story problems in math would pay off one day).  I have no idea what the licensing terms are for a theater when they show a film, but I have to imagine that they pay some sort of fee for each showing.  Add to that the cost of the staff, electricity, maintenance, and who knows what other costs to running the theater, and I'm thinking that UA didn't make much profit on the six of us who wanted to watch the Watchmen.

This line of thinking got me to further pondering how theaters can survive.  The UA theater has the oldest equipment of the three I've mentioned here.  The Goodrich theater is newly built, and the AMC theater recently underwent a major renovation.  While the picture and sound at both the AMC theater and Goodrich theater is crisp and bright, the picture at UA was smeary, as if there was a bit of vaseline on the projector lens.  Making upgrades to a theater isn't cheap, and where I'm going with this is that I don't mind paying a proper amount to see a movie on a large screen with fantastic sound.  Nor do I have a problem with the theater making a profit on this venture.  What I do take issue with is the disingenuous pricing.  If the theater needs to take in $25 per patron for a film, charge $25 for the ticket.  Don't charge me $9.50 for the ticket, and then expect me to think $5.50 for a drink or $6.50 for popcorn is reasonable.  In addition, sweeten the deal.  What if when you went to the theater to watch a movie, you also brought home a copy of the DVD, or maybe your ticket included a code to download the soundtrack.  That would certainly make it easier to justify the astronomical cost of a trip to the movies.

To put it in perspective, let's say that in a few years I want to take my family of five to an evening at the theater.  Two adult tickets and three kid tickets are going to run me $38.50.  Assuming everyone wants their own small drink and popcorn, that's another $50.  So $98.50 to provide two hours of entertainment to my family.  For that same money, I could buy a DVD player (under $30), a copy of the DVD (typically $15), and a decent take-out meal, and probably still have money left over.  Or, for that same C-note, I could have my cable company turn on every cable channel available, including on-demand subscriptions and premium movie channels, for a month.

I enjoy going to the theater to watch a movie from time to time, but I'm ready for a shakeup that will make the value proposition more interesting.

Jade Mason