Backing up and syncing data

I was having a conversation recently about backups, and how Dropbox is great for ensuring that you don’t lose valuable files. However, the free version of Dropbox can only handle a maximum of 8Gb, and once you start looking at music and photographs then I think most of us would probably need a paid Dropbox account to make this method worthwhile.

Alas, the paid Dropbox accounts only come in 50 or 100Gb denominations, and can come across as quite pricey. I think there’s certainly a market for smaller and cheaper paid options, and I think that a 20Gb account at a reasonable price would get a lot of interest.

But yes, I digress. I though what would be useful (for me at least) would be to detail how I back up my data, and also how I sync it between the various machines I use (which is part of the same process for me).

I’m a great fan of Dropbox, and I use it to sync data between my machines and to collaborate with people on all sorts of work and non-work projects. What I keep in Dropbox is anything that might change, or that I will need to access on all my computers. This largely boils down to:

  • Work related documents that I need to share or collaborate on with my co-worker
  • Anything else I’m collaborating on
  • Anything that is an editable file (generally anything created with or Microsoft Office)
  • Documents I’m currently writing (usually as plain text files, unless they are collaborations)
  • PDFs of books/documents I’m currently reading
  • Useful phone numbers, next of kin details etc.

I also sync my browsing history and bookmarks through Firefox Sync, meaning that on a new/reinstalled computer I just need to install two applications and I can have a fair approximation of my most useful data within a few minutes, regardless of what operating system I’m using.

For actual backups I have a 2Tb NAS (Network attached storage) that backs up my Ubuntu laptop via DejaDup, and my Mac via Time Machine. All my other computers just reply on Dropbox and Firefox sync. I also maintain a few directories available to either just myself or to everyone on our home network. These are things I might want access to occasionally on multiple machines, but that are too weighty for Dropbox:

  • Photographs
  • Books
  • Music
  • Videos
  • Linux disc images
  • My .virtualbox file containing my virtual web server and a few other things

These total about 200 Gb, and I can access them from anywhere on our network (and further afield if I wished to configure the NAS to do so, which I don’t). Each of these items exists on one of my other computers already, but the NAS represents a repository of everything, and would be the one thing I’d save in a fire to ensure I had at least one copy of everything that was important.

I also have a 500Gb portable hard drive that I manually back up things to sometimes, but that I largely use when I’m away from home and want access to more movies and music that I can sensibly fit on my netbook.

I used to have a very complicated email backup system, but since I switched to Google Apps then I tend to let Google do most of the work and just back up my mailbox as part of my DejaDup/Time Machine backups. I also dump a copy of all my useful documents into Google Docs occasionally, and use it largely for real-time collaboration (which Dropbox can’t really handle).

So yes, that’s about it I think. I wouldn’t recommend this for everyone, but it certainly seems to be working for me at the moment.

Backup solutions

Since I started working exclusively on laptops, I’ve been backing everything up to a 500gb external hard drive. This is working well, but I do sometimes miss having an “always on” desktop computer that acts as a repository for everything I’ve ever owned. I keep toying with either buying or building something to fulfil this purpose, but I’m not sure what is actually required. I could go for some sort of NAS solution but that would take away the joy of actually building something myself, and I think for £260 I’d want something I could occasionally use for tasks other than storage. I was also looking at the Zotak Z-Box, which would be quiet and energy efficient, but which only takes 2.5″ hard drives (and thus would be more expensive per Gb of storage than a desktop solution). I suppose what I really need is a couple of 1Tb hard drives in some sort of shuttle setup. I’d also (at some point in time) like to experiment with pairing a Zotak Z-Box with a decent sized SSD drive which should result in a low-consumption (fairly) fast PC that would make a good long term successor to the ageing Mac we use as a media centre. Of course, this is not a good time for me to be thinking about buying computers, and I should probably think about how best to utilise the ones I have to solve this problem.

More adventures in new technology

It’s been a week for exploring new technology. After my iPad adventure, I also got to spend a bit of time with Ubuntu Netbook Edition this week. Now, I’m a big Ubuntu fan, but I have never been particularly interested in running anything but full-fat Ubuntu on my netbook. I still feel like this, but after doing a couple of wireless setups at work I have gone as far as creating a USB version that I can play around with when the mood takes me. On first impressions it seems very fast, and while the interface is slightly alien, it does make sense on a smaller screen, in the same way that the new ambience/radiance themes only make sense on a big screen.

I also spent a couple of hours working on one of the new Macbooks today, testing how and iCal integrate with exchange. I’ve not explored this side of Mac OS X for a couple of years, and was very surprised as to how far things have come. I think we’re getting to the point where the default calendaring and email software are finally ready for the business desktop, and I feel I could easily do 95% of my job on this Mac.

My first stab at self-interview

In my last post I mentioned The Setup. This is my attempt to answer the questions.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Andy, and I work for IT Services at the University of Birmingham in a Service Desk management/development role. In my spare time I listen to and write about music, dabble in free and open source software (mainly Ubuntu), and am sporadically involved in the Isles of Darkness live action roleplay society.

What hardware are you using?

At work everything is largely generic. I have a Dell desktop that is coming to the end of its life, but that is still more than capable of dealing with most of my emailing and calendaring needs. It is plugged into a 17″ Sony monitor that has been with me for about 4 years now, and which I keep holding on to as it is one of the few desktop monitors I’ve used that doesn’t give me a headache after hours of staring at it (yes, I know a new monitor and more breaks might be a more sensible plan).

Most of my actual work is done on an (again) fairly generic Fujitsu Siemens laptop, which I started using a couple of years ago, and which allows me to type for hours without my wrists hurting. I wouldn’t recommend this laptop above any other, but it does the job.

At home I have pretty much left desktop computers behind. My main workstation is a Sony Vaio VGN-NS10l (dual core, 4Gb ram), which I bought a couple of years ago and deals with anything I throw at it. I’ve also got a 10″ Dell Inspiron Mini, which goes everywhere with me, and is increasingly becoming the computer I do most of my web browsing, email and writing on. My backup machines are a G4 iBook and a EeePC 701, and we’ve also got another Mac and a Wii plugged into the TV downstairs. My wife has several other computers which I’ll not mention here except to say that we have more computers than there are rooms in our house (by quite a lot). And that’s not counting the ones that are propping open doors or otherwise not really being used for anything productive any longer.

And what software?

Work is a mix of Windows XP (desktop) and Ubuntu 10.04 (laptop). In Windows I largely use Outlook for email and calendaring, office communicator for collaboration, and very little else. In Linux I use Firefox for browsing (with Chrome and Epiphany for testing), Evolution for email, Empathy and Dropbox for collaboration, for creating documents and spreadsheets, and (generally) Bluefish for coding. Recently I’ve been using GIMP a lot too, and have also been dabbling with a few command-line image conversion tools. I also maintain several instances of Mediawiki, as well as a full LAMP environment for development, and use google calendar to plan and maintain my work-life balance.

At home both of my laptops are running the latest version of Ubuntu, which I’ve used as my primary OS since 2005. I use largely the same software as I use at work, although I’ve recently reverted to using gedit for writing blog posts and other bits of text, and only venturing into OpenOffice when I want to make something available to other people. Home is also where I spend a lot of time playing with WordPress and Virtualbox, and where I use Rhythmbox to listen to music (and to catalogue what I’m listening to). I’ve also recently started using Google Reader, and I now don’t know how I coped without it.

My Macs run a very stripped down version of Leopard, and really only get used for iTunes and other media related things now (although I’d still use my iBook as my main portable computer if it weighed a little less). They also run Dropbox (as does every computer I own), and I’ve been syncing all my important files between all my machines for a couple of years now. I still can’t understand why more people don’t do this, and I’ve lost count of the number of times this one piece of software has got me out of a hole.

What would be your dream setup?

I change my mind about my ideal working environment a lot, but what I basically want is a laptop that is thin, light and stylish, and that can perform at the level where I could use it as my only computer (including storing 100gb of music). The nearest thing I’ve come across is the 13″ Macbook Pro, although I’d be happier with something the size and weight of my 10″ Dell Mini with all the power and stylishness of the Macbook Pro. Being able to run OS X and Ubuntu at the same time would also be great.

Of course, having used an iPad for the first time recently, I’d probably have to add that to my wish list, just because it’s a really stylish and functional piece of kit.

I also wonder if having a desktop computer with two large monitors would make me more productive. I have a feeling that most of what I do can be achieved on a single small screen, but it would be nice to have the opportunity to experiment with these things.

Question format borrowed from The Setup under the Attribution-Share Alike license.

Bulk resizing images with ImageMagick

Another of those posts that are largely for my own benefit.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in various image editing programs recently (largely GIMP, but with a bit of Inkscape on the side). Yesterday it transpired that a folder of 24×24 images needed to be made slightly smaller as a matter of some urgency. I had a feeling ImageMagick would probably do the job (it usually does), but I couldn’t remember how.

It’s actually fairly straightforward. Navigate to the directory containing the images (via the terminal) and then enter the following command:

mogrify -resize 20x20 *.png

Which will resize all PNG files to 20×20 pixels.

This can obviously be altered to cater for different sizes and file types. So yes, ImageMagick saved the day again and I actually managed to leave work on time.

Ubuntu 10.04 LTS and Mandriva 2010.1

Yesterday I spent a few hours testing the latest beta versions of my two favourite Linux distributions (Ubuntu and Mandriva). I often get torn between which one of these two I’m going to use, but generally plump for Ubuntu when some particular bit of software I want to use either isn’t available for Mandriva or I have to spend too much time making something work and not enough time actually using it.

So far my thoughts are:

  • Gnome 2.30 rocks, and has moved in exactly the direction I wanted it to.
  • Ubuntu’s version of Gnome is now a lot further from default than Mandriva’s, which makes swapping between the two a bit of a pain. BUT, with a bit of tweaking I can make them both almost identical (providing I use Clearlooks as a theme and do a lot of UI tweaking in Ubuntu).
  • I still try and make each new machine I install look as close to the default Gnome as possible. This is something I might have to reconsider, as both of these distros look a lot better when they look like themselves.
  • Epiphany 2.30 might possibly be ready to actually use as my default browser.
  • I don’t like dark themes. They give me a headache and just look wrong.
  • The way Ubuntu integrates social networking is miles ahead of anything else I’ve seen.
  • I really like Ubuntu’s default background, which is not pink.
  • The new Ubuntu theme does look a lot like Mac OS X, but I think the change was needed. Mandriva still looks like it did 4 years ago, which is not a bad thing but which makes it difficult to work out which version I’m using.
  • Both distros boot far more quickly that anything else I’ve used. Rebooting Ubuntu only took a few seconds on physical hardware.

I think that’s all for now. I do have a few screen shots which I might do something with later.

Setting up a quick and easy virtual web server

I did a fair bit of work on this about a year ago, and then never got round to writing it up. What I was trying to achieve was to have a minimal virtual server running in VirtualBox, which could been seen from the outside world and would appear to all extent and purposes to be a real physical machine.

Start off by creating a new VM. I went with a totally stripped down installation of Ubuntu (from the alternative CD), adding just openssh-server and apache2 to the default install. I called it Ubuntu Minimal (the name will become important later).

Boot up the new VM, and then on the host machine enter the following commands (replacing the name of the VM with what you decided to call yours):

VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/ssh/HostPort" 2222
VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/ssh/GuestPort" 22
VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/ssh/Protocol" TCP
VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/apache2/HostPort" 8008
VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/apache2/GuestPort" 80
VBoxManage setextradata "Ubuntu Minimal" "VBoxInternal/Devices/pcnet/0/LUN#0/Config/apache2/Protocol" TCP

Power down the VM, start it up again, and then you should be able to ssh into it on port 2222 and pull up apache’s “it works!” page by browsing to http://localhost:8008. At that point you can install web apps and do whatever else you want with the server.

It doesn’t take up a great deal of memory, so you could probably have a couple of these running on most computers without any obvious performance degradation.

A brief life update

This week I’ve largely been:

  • Listening to the new albums by The Flaming Lips, Atlas Sound, Charlotte Hatherley and Broadcast (all of which I’m really enjoying)
  • Updating my main workstation to Ubuntu 9.10
  • Learning about Google Wave
  • Trying to juggle various work tasks (and not dropping anything hopefully).

Oh, and I still hate this time of year. Even though we had no annoying begging children this year, there is still the firework-hating dog to deal with.

Sensible window sizes on Dell’s version of Ubuntu

I love my Dell Mini, but there are a couple of “features” added by Dell that drive me mad. One of these is called Maximus. It’s an application that tells any window that opens on the desktop to open full-screen. It’s particularly annoying with applications I’ve added myself (like Empathy), as the default applications seem preconfigured to ignore it. I’ve had a poke around in gconf-editor (install it with sudo apt-get install gconf-editor if it doesn’t exist already), and the key that needs editing is called /apps/maximus/exclude_class (see below for details):


It’s basically a list of applications that open with the same window size they closed with rather than open in full-screen.

Double click on the key, and you should get the following dialogue:

Screenshot-Edit Key

Click on the plus button, and add whatever applications you need as shown below:

Screenshot-Add New List Entry

Then click on OK. Next time you open the applications in question they should honour your desired window size.