Monthly Archives: September 2010

Bootable Mac Pro RAID

Posted by mitch on September 20, 2010

I do a lot of heavy disk I/O on my desktop Mac in testing code related to storage. For years I’ve wanted to have some fast primary storage on my Mac to speed up my work. In the past, I had used internal SATA drives and software RAID for drive failure protection, but speed isn’t really there. In hindsight, I probably should have ordered my Mac Pro with the built-in RAID card. The card runs around $800, but installing it apparently requires some cable work that I didn’t want to get bogged down in. After reading some of the forums, I wasn’t sure that was such a great choice for me either. I considered SSD for boot and some kind of cheap external RAID for data, but most of the cheap external FW RAIDs are crap (I tried a few of them).

What I ended up with has been fantastic. I have a 8×1 TB physical array with 7200 RPM SATA drives that run around $90/ea on Amazon. These are in a single 8-drive chassis from I had never ordered from these guys before, but the order showed up fast and in good shape. I bought two SAS cables and an internal SAS card–the Areca 1680x. Altogether, this ran me about $2,300 for the drives, chassis, and the SAS card and cables.

With the EFI firmware loaded into the Areca 1680x (found on their FTP site), the SAS card is bootable in my 2008 Mac Pro and I have no internal hard disks. The RAID is configured as a 7 disk RAID-6 with 1 spare drive. Creating the single RAID volume (~5 TB usable) took a while, and I/O performance is very fast.

Management for the Areca card can be handled with a local driver and web browser, or through Ethernet and a web browser, which is what I’m doing. The card provides a separate Ethernet port for management, so there’s no weird software bridging. This is awesome stuff–the PCIe card is essentially managed as an appliance via HTTP from any host.

On the left, Xbench results with a single 2 TB SATA drive.  On the right, the SAS-SATA RAID. (Click to view full-size.)

One thing to keep in mind if you are new to RAID–RAID is not a substitute for backups. A hardware RAID is formatted by the controller card and only that card will be able to read the data. For backing up, I use Time Machine with a Drobo Pro loaded with 12 TB of drives, connected via iSCSI on a dedicated NIC. This works very well; in fact, I installed my data onto this RAID by doing a recover from Time Machine.

If you’re looking for high-performance direct-attached storage for a Mac Pro, it’s tough to top this solution–It’s bootable, it’s relatively cheap, and it’s fast. I’ve been running this for a few months now, and it’s been completely reliable. My only complaint is with the chassis–there is a power button on the front at the bottom, which is an accident waiting to happen. However, this is minor and the price is right.

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Using Travel Rewards Programs

Posted by mitch on September 17, 2010

Tonight a fellow asked me about who has the “best” rewards program for travel.  I don’t really know, but I do have a few tips and notes on my experiences.  To frame my experience, I’ve traveled about 100,000 miles per year for the last few years.  I am by no means an expert traveler, but I know more about this than I did 10 years ago.

So, in no particular order:

  1. I really like the Choice Hotels rewards program.  It’s easy to earn free nights, and this chain includes Quality Inn, Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn.  I am not sure what the difference between the labels is (they seem about the same to me), but there’s thousands of these hotels in the US, they generally are clean and well-run.  Many of them have a slightly better breakfast than a donut + coffee on a folding table, and many of them have a few pieces of exercise equipment.  From a rewards perspective, it’s very easy to become a “Gold” member, which starts acceleration of points.  I’ve been in this reward program for 12 years and had no problem with redeeming dozens of free nights.
  2. I also really like  There’s a lot of choice with and I’ve had great luck with their rewards system, which is very simple–stay 10 nights, get one free.  There is a small caveat here in that the free room is actually a discount room if you stay at a higher end (priced?) hotel.  But I’ve gotten plenty of rooms for free with  Just beware when you check-in that is owned by Expedia and the hotel might ask, “You booked on Expedia?”
  3. I love Enterprise for car rentals.  However, they don’t have a rewards program that is useful.  The main reason to join their program is that large airports have a separate “Enterprise Plus” waiting line.
  4. The mainstream US airlines have about the same rewards system in many ways.  You should pick an airline that is convenient for where you live (if you live in Charlotte, fly US Airways; Dallas, American, etc.) for the best direct flight scenario.  I personally hate United, but if you fly enough to get into their 1K program, you will be all set.  I generally only fly two airlines:  Virgin America for BOS<->SFO and US Airways for everything else.
  5. While I love Virgin America, their rewards program sucks.  I’ve gotten several free tickets with them, but you have to spend a lot of money to pull this off.  Their rewards program is, in my opinion, far worse than American, US Airways, or United.
  6. The key with a lot of travel is to pick with certain vendors and stick with them.  I can go into Quality Inn and tell them I spent 60 nights with them this year.  I can tell Enterprise I’ve had their cars 150 days in the last 365.  When things go wrong, this can carry a lot of weight.  Once you’re in elevated levels of frequent travel programs, you will often get a separate phone number for elite travelers for service–put this number in your cell phone and use it when things go wrong.  The manager at the SFO Enterprise knows me by sight/name.  I know many airline and hotel employees personally as well.
  7. I’ve never had good luck trying to use points from one vendor with another (e.g, using Choice Hotels points for a discount at Enterprise).  YMMV.
  8. Whenever I buy from a new vendor, I open a rewards account with that vendor.  I only have a few thousand points with some vendors, but eventually they will turn into a freebie.
  9. I use TripIt to keep up with all my points (along with everything else TripIt does!).
  10. I only carry one credit card that is tied to a points system.  It’s tempting to move cards around, but it’s not efficient for me to do so.
  11. I try to stay within vendors from 6 or so groups of points for airlines and hotels.  This lets me optimize price without paying a premium for a particular vendor just to get points.
  12. A friend of mine has had luck buying bundles with Orbitz for lower prices.

I’m sure others know more about this than I do.  I haven’t read up on travel program tips, these are just observations I’ve picked up on along the way.

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The Problem with Bullshit Metrics

Posted by mitch on September 11, 2010

I bought a drill from Sears on their web site yesterday.  Buying online meant a small $7.50 savings, so I opted to buy it online with “Store Pick-up.”

At 9:20 am this morning, I got an email from Sears saying my order was ready for pick-up.  I went to the store around 2:00 pm in the afternoon.  If you’ve never picked up an order from Sears, it works the same way as when you buy an appliance in the store–you go to the Merchandise Pick-up area and scan your receipt at a kiosk.  This puts your name in a queue and your name appears on a TV monitor.

In this particular instance, I stood waiting for 4 minutes and 30 seconds.  A guy came out of the warehouse and called my name.  He said, “your order will be out in just a second,” and then he closed my name out of the queue.

I stood and waited.  In fact, I waited for 30 minutes.

I had enough time to see that Sears has a large poster in their waiting area.  This poster was about their customer service metrics.  It indicated that in the last 30 days, 100% of their customers didn’t wait more than 5 minutes.  (This poster was in the style of those “Accident free for X days” posters at other venues.)

So there’s at least two scenarios here:

  1. Sears staff members are lying to management.
  2. Sears management has a policy to lie about their metrics to customers.

Presumably there’s hire/fire or bonus incentives around these metrics for someone in the chain of command.  In any event, honesty about metrics is critical to evaluate your business.  Lying to yourself and your customers about your metrics leads to wrong decisions internally and insults customers.

While I was waiting, another fellow was waiting for a patio set.  He observed that he had been “served” in under 5 minutes, moved out of the queue, and yet he had to wait another 10 minutes.  He saw the monitor and I made sure to point out the metrics poster, so that he got the full experience.  This was a fellow of retirement age who (probably) wasn’t drafting a blog post in his head while he was waiting.  But he wasn’t impressed with the overt lies.

Be careful how you apply metrics in your business.  You might get the numbers you want, but will your customers get the experience you thought those numbers reflected?

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On Consulting — From the Client’s Perspective

Posted by mitch on September 04, 2010

A few months ago, someone asked me, “How about a blog post on your advice/experiences on consulting?”

My experience as a consultant is somewhat limited; I’ve only had a handful of clients in the past. From my perspective, things went well as the contracts were often renewed and I got more referrals for new business than I could handle. At the end of the day, a consulting business is a nice, safe business to run. You either find clients or you do not. You don’t have to spend months creating a product and incurring a lot of financial risk. You can get set-up in a week or two and you thrive (or die) based on your ability to network with people and deliver results.

The main equipment you need is a phone line, business cards, a web site, a bank account, an accountant, a simple legal entity, some references, and a few clients. You’ll want a multi-function printer/copier/fax as well, and perhaps a fax service and an answering service. None of this is hard to acquire. With some industry experience, some networking, you can start a functioning consulting business for $2,000 or less, depending on what type of corporation you set up and what your state fees (and accountant / legal fees) entail. For basic engagements, you won’t need a lawyer, or at least, more than an hour or two of legal time. This is pretty straight forward. If you’re going to be “self-employed” (an IRS classification), it’s even easier. (This is not legal advice. Talk to your accountant or attorney about your options.)

I suspect there’s already a lot of “how to be a consultant” or “how to grow a consulting firm” posts out there. But what about advice from the client’s perspective? I thought that might be more useful.

In the past year alone, I’ve hired over a dozen consultants to help my company with incremental headcount. These include technical writers, marketing, graphics artists, programmers, video editors, legal and financial consultants. Some of these consultants have been awesome. Others haven’t worked out. This post is a look at my observations from dealing with these people, projects, and relationships.

Who You Know is More Important Than What You Know
Every consultant I’ve ever hired came from a referral. Referrals generate referrals. I needed someone to help me with some financial modeling. I emailed an accountant who worked for me years ago asking if she knew anyone. She referred me to someone else. That person referred me to someone else, who is now my corporate tax accountant. However, he didn’t do financial modeling at his firm, so he referred me to someone else who then referred me to the guy I hired. The guy I hired was the bomb. His $5,000 engagement turned out to be worth several million dollars to me.

That’s a long chain of referrals, and thanks to email and the phone, it took less than a few hours to find the right guy.

You absolutely must be on LinkedIn. You must have a web site with an email address and a phone number. If you do a lot of in-person meetings, get your photo online so people recognize you at Starbucks.

Your Job as a Consultant is to Deliver Quality Results on Time and with Minimal Hassle
In general, whether you are an employee or a consultant, you need to deliver the expected results with less “touch” time from the hiring manager than if that person had done the project himself. Your ability to listen, communicate what you heard, confirm that your priorities are in line with expectations are all critical. Consultants are generally hired for either expediency or for specialized skills that do not require on-going full-time work. This means you need to deliver results rapidly, and be flexible when projects come up.

Clients can be vague, arbitrary, and a pain in the butt. I know I am. Part of your talent as a consultant is sifting through that to figure out what’s really going on.

Communication is Key
Clients will have different ways that they want to communicate. Some will lean heavily on a project tool such as Basecamp. Some will use email. Others will prefer to talk on the phone or meet in person. You need to be able to deal with all these forms of communication and respond when spoken to. I once had an artist consultant who wouldn’t reply to email if he felt there was no action for him to take. He also wouldn’t answer the phone or call back. His contract was not renewed.

Flexible Hours May Be Required
If your client is in another time zone or often asks about tasks in off hours, you might need to work outside of the 9-5 hours. If you’re going out of the office or on vacation, you need auto-responders set-up and it’s good to communicate any surprise time off with active clients up front. Some people become consultants to be their own boss, but the reality is, you are still working for someone. If your client has an emergency with your project, you might have an emergency as well.

The flip side of this is that some of your clients will be a bad fit with you and you may find yourself terminating the relationship, either due to too many emergencies or other behaviors. Just be sure you handle all aspects of the client relationship professionally; referrals and reputation are key!

Be Careful What You Say
After working with some clients, you may grow to feel comfortable with them. Perhaps you go out for lunch or get a beer after a meeting. That’s great, but try to keep the rants about your other clients or your partners to a minimum. There is nothing more awkward than a partner at a firm ranting about his firm’s internal politics. It sends mixed messages about stability and confidentiality to the client.

The Client’s Goal is to Minimize His Own Stress
I once had an accountant call me and tell me he thought he did my taxes wrong. I couldn’t fire him fast enough. Talk about stress! Another time, I had an attorney call me asking what I wanted to do about a legal situation, but he couldn’t explain my options in clear, jargon-free language, other than I had 72 hours to make a decision. I had to hire another attorney rapidly to figure out what was going on. The new attorney cost me twice as much, but was a far better value.  As  the client, I want the consultant to take care of things, make recommendations, and translate jargon into language that I, as a non-expert, can understand so that I can make the right business decision.

Appearance Matters
Every part of how you appear matters. If you show up to my office wearing a non-professional attire, I will wonder what the quality of your work is. If your business cards are cheaply made or clearly from a home printer, I probably won’t hire you. You don’t have to have an incredible web site, but it should be professional. If clients come your office, it should be clean and look like a real business.

When I needed to hire a video editor, I thought of a fellow I know. He has a large office, but it’s covered in papers and food crumbs. He has two 10 yr old computers and he gets into rants about how he hates HDTV and his customers. Then I thought of another fellow, who I knew socially and had told me about his new Mac Pro and his work for public television. I chatted with him and got some high quality samples of his work. He has been wonderful to work with.

You don’t have to buy a $1,000 suit; a $50 dress shirt will do. You don’t have to have a $5,000 desk, a clean $200 desk that is clean and organized is fine. You don’t have to spend $0.25 per business card, a $0.02 card that feels robust is fine. How you answer the phone, your writing in email, the type of shoes you wear all play into your appearance. Keep it professional.

And of course, be on time. There is rarely an excuse to be late. “Traffic” is not an excuse; there is always traffic.

Detailed Invoicing Inspires Confidence
No one likes paying bills. The worst type of bill to get is “Project X….. $100 per hour x 100 hrs …. $10,000”. What did I buy? If you’ve ever gotten a bill from a lawyer, you know that lawyers tend to provide a lot of detail. I have no problem with “Email with client re: important matter … 0.50 … $300” because then I can make a value assessment–was Important Matter worth $300? Probably! All consultants should err on the side of more detailed billing. A long invoice including lots of “date / project / hours / amount” on a 10 minute granularity makes me more confident than “50 hours on project”. Fortunately, there are a number of tools out there to help track time and build out invoices with great detail. Even if you’re best buddies and the client trusts you, more details are good if the client has a boss or investors or auditors that might be looking at the invoices later.

Learn Your Client’s Business
If you never figure out the jargon of your client’s business and the client has to keep re-explaining things to you, don’t expect a long term relationship. You don’t have to become an expert, but if you take some time to learn a little about the areas that you’re exposed to, that’s going to make you much more efficient. And your efficiency is an edge.

There’s probably more to say here, but those are some key points off the top of my head. I hope this is useful.

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