Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Western Digital My Cloud Review

Western Digital My Cloud - Personal Cloud Storage -Installation comments and feature reviews.   Review updated for 2016.12.  I have now had this drive in service for over two years.  Still a recommended device and the software still works the same. 



I had a problem:  Of the 6 or 7 computers at my house, my 650GB External USB drive could no longer hold all the image backups plus, moving a portable USB drive from machine to machine was a nuisance.  None of this worked well for daily backups. It was time for a Network Attached hard drive (NAS - Network Attached Storage).


Western Digital (and other vendors) now sell relatively inexpensive "Cloud Drives" - basically a drive on the wire.  The drive is visible from inside the network and from the internet -- acting like DropBox, GDrive or OneDrive -- except the drive is in your house and there are no monthly fees.

I bought a single-bay, 3TB model for $170.  Also available is a 4TB dual-bay RAID-0 (with two 4TB drives, mirrored) for $350.   

With a NAS/Cloud Drive, you get these benefits:
  • Stand-alone; no server or dedicated PC needed
  • Large capacities, relatively cheap (3TB for $170)
  • Visible to all devices in your network; disk appears as a Network Share
     
  • Visible to all of your Internet devices, including your phone, tablet, laptops, etc.
  • Acts like a Drop-box, Gdrive, OneDrive, but lives at your house
  • Build public and private shares; invite other people to use the device
     
  • Supports continuous or scheduled backups
  • Supports Streaming Music and Video folders
  • No monthly fees
And you get these drawbacks:
  • Vastly slower than an internal SATA drive
  • Much slower than a USB connection
  • Cannot connect drive directly to a PC USB Port 
  • Not well-suited for Image (ghost) backups


Setup

The hardware is easy.  Plug in a Cat-5 network cable and launch a configuration program (see software, below).  The drive will be online and ready in a few minutes. But the setup has two flaws.

By default, the drive picks up a DHCP IP Address from your router.  Although easy, I think this is a mistake - the address should be fixed, assigned manually from outside the DHCP range.  Admittedly, most home users won't know what I am talking about, but if your main router reboots and re-assigns the addresses, it would likely cause a world of odd problems.  I recommend hard-coding the drive's IP address, using a value outside of your DHCP pool.

The second issue was almost cosmetic.  The drive named itself "WD Cloud" (or something like that).  But everything about this product is called WD-Cloud-this- and WD-Cloud-that.  I got confused and later decided to rename the main drive to "WolfHouseSAN1".  Do the rename before you connect a dozen other machines. 

The drive does not have a power switch.  To turn off, use the Dashboard software.  Always power-off gracefully using the software.  And, a device as important as this, deserves to have a UPS battery backup. Mine does.



Bewildering Software

Western Digital's software, and how to install them, is bewildering.  This will frustrate even knowledgeable users.  When I am installing (or re-installing), I return to this page to see what I should be doing.

There are a half-dozen different utilities, all doing different things, and Western Digital does not help in explaining why or what you should do. 

WDC Downloads - User facing - Recommended - Go here first
WDC.com Downloads - Technical - For the geeky

My recommendations, in green:



The downloads are a mixture of ZIP and MSI files and figuring out how to run the installations is complex enough to keep non-technical people from succeeding.  Roughly speaking, expand the Zips, copy the contents to a folder, then run the setup.exe.  If it is an MSI, other-mouse-click the MSI and select "Install."  Really?  Come on Western Digital - you can figure this out.  It needs to be one download, with a menu, and it needs to walk people through the installation.  My mom does not know what to do with either a ZIP or an MSI.

Even the names are confusing

"WD My Cloud Mirror" is the main installation program

-- use this even if you did not buy their Mirrored drive.  It should have been called "WD MyCloud Setup".  This will get the drive online -- but this is not enough!  For the advanced setup options (such as the fixed IP address, which you also need), you have to install a second utility called "Quick View".  Quick View is a dashboard, but who would think it also contains setup controls?
 
"WD Smartware Update" is the 'backup program' -- This is the reason you bought the drive. Why was it not called "Smartware Backup"?.  Even though it is called "update," it is not an update.  Figuring this out takes time.  - Update:  Two years later, all this is still true.




Data Backup

For normal day-to-day file backups, use the "Smartware" backup utility, which is one of the downloads above.  This is a slick program but there are several decisions to make and each has limitations and risks. 

It can run two types of backups: 

1.  Category Backup, where it looks at the entire drive for particular file extensions, or
2.  File-by-file, folder-by-folder backup (my recommendation)  
  • "Category" backup looks for certain types of data files (by category, DOC, XLS, Music, video, etc.). 

    Approximately 300 extensions are supported, with a complete list of extensions on the support site.  I do not trust  this backup because unexpected file types, such as macro files, or other unusual files, such as a database, will not be backed up. 
     
  • Backup of Selected Folders - Recommended but with risks.

    Mark the (data) folders to backup, and exclude those you don't (such as Temp and Cache folders).  I recommend this method, but it has one giant caution. 

    The biggest problem with a File Backup is you have to include and exclude folders.  When a folder is marked, all files and folders within are backed up.  On the surface this is good.  But if new folders are added at a root, it will *not* be backed up by default.  (A better design would have been to select the top-most folder, then mark selected subfolders to exclude, but that is not how the software was designed.

    Because of this, periodically check which directories are included in the backup or be religious about where you save your data -- always in data or Documents. 

Both the Category or the Selected Folder backup have two types of schedules:

A.  "Continuous backups" (where the file is backed up as soon as saved) or

B.  "Scheduled Backup" where it is periodically backed up, on a timed schedule - Recommended.

The Continuous backup is a neat idea, but chatty.  If you save your Excel sheet multiple times during the day, it will backup multiple times.  I have the software set to keep 5 generations (5 copies or revisions of each file).  With a continuous backup, you may consume all generational backups sooner than expected.  This is all handled automatically, but it is nice to have a backup from 3 days ago and the continuous backup may be harmful in this area.

My recommendation is the Scheduled backup.

At first I had the backup set to run "Once per day" at 8:00am (when I was likely not using the computer).  All changed files are backed up once per day. 

But I found the computer was usually asleep and it would skip the backup.  When the machine woke, usually in the evening, it did not run a catch-up job, instead it waits until the next (8:00am) job.  When I realized this, I had missed 5 days of backups.
 
To work around this, switch an "Hourly" backup. This way, if a schedule is missed, it will catch-up the next time the computer is in-use and you are not beating the drive with a continuous backup.  This gives slightly better control over the generational backups.




Scheduled data backups have been glorious.  Automatic and unattended.  Restores are simple and reliable.

As a bonus, you can reach into the backups folders from a tablet or phone and show your friends the pictures you took the day before, without having to download them to the phone -- just reach into your cloud drive and look at last-night's backup.  This is not as the software was intended, but it works well.

Logins

The backup requires a login before you can use it -- but what login to use?  Western Digital was not helpful.  The answer is the same account you use when you log into the Windows desktop.  For example, on my Windows 10 machine, I login with "trywolf@somewhere.com"  - use this same account, spelled the same way.  Windows 7 users, who are running a local account, the username will be shorter: for example 'trywolf'.

If you don't recall the actual account, open Control Panel, Users, "Make changes to my account" (see inset). 

Click for larger view

Image Backup

Western digital did not provide backup software for "Image Backups" (Ghost images of the entire drive).  I use a third-party program called Acronis.

Acronis saw the drive* and the backup can run over the wire.  Be sure all of your switches and routers are gigabit speeds.  Even with fast switches, an "Image" backup will take 15 to 20 hours over the wire.  Image backups are not really what this drive was intended for.  

* Using Acronis on the Western Digital Cloud drive required adjustments in the backup job.  In the backup job, use the local workstation's login credentials (e.g. the account used to login into the workstation.)  For the destination, use a UNC path to one of the Shares defined on the SAN; for example "\\wolfhouseSAN1\Bak" and within that share, create a sub-directory to hold the backup. 

Restoring an image with Acronis is problematic.  The bootable Acronis recovery disk will not be able to see the cloud drive -- even though the Acronis Windows client was able to make the original backup.  As a horrible idea, you can restore to a bare-metal replacement drive by installing Windows, then Acronis, then the restore.  Instead, what I do is copy the image (.tib files) from the Western Digitial drive, to an external non-cloud USB drive, then boot the Acronis Linux disk.  From here, run a standard restore.  Of course, if you are trying to restore just a file or a directory or two, you will not have these problems; launch the program and restore the file.


Related: When making any disk-image backup (using a third-party program, such as Acronis), be sure to follow the steps documented here:  Disk Imaging Cleanup Steps


Other Backup Concerns 

Because the drive lives in my house, it is susceptible to fires, floods and other disasters.  You will still need GDrive (OneDrive, DropBox, etc.) for important off-site data backups.
 
Then there is this concern:  How does one backup the backup drive?  The Smartware utility provides a "Safepoint", which can mirror the entire drive -- but then you need a second drive large enough to hold this drive.  If you can afford to, buy the dual-bay mirrored drive, which helps solve part of this problem.   


As a File Share

The drive can also act as a standard network file share.  Files saved on a share are available to all of your devices, all in a central location. However, this has been vaguely disappointing.

On the home network, seeing the share, saving and retrieving files, has been noticeably slow.  The slowness is found in two areas.

If the drive is busy running a backup, it will be slow for other clients - taking 15 to 30 seconds to load even a minor document.  And, if the cloud-drive is asleep due to inactivity, it will take 40 to 50 seconds to wake and retrieve the file. 

The drive supports separate user accounts and you can build multiple shares (folders), exposing them to the Internet or keeping them private to your network.  Essentially, the drive appears as an SMB NT Server, with shares on the disk pack.  This works as expected and the details are too boring to explain here.  Share and other settings are exposed in the System Tray's Dashboard.



USB Connections

The drive has a USB 3 port and you will need a male-to-male USB 3 cable, not supplied.  To my surprise, you cannot use this port on a PC.  It turns out this USB port is only compatible with the USB 3 port on a router (WDC.com Answer 1544) and only more expensive routers have this feature.  The USB connection will gain you nothing in speed; you are still restricted by your other workstation's network connection.   

Not being able to mount the drive directly to a PC was not mentioned on the box and this means I cannot run Image backups or restored directly on the drive (This is why you cannot use Acronis to directly restore when booting from the Recovery disk).

Some may complain the drive will not run over wireless.  If it could, it would take a month to run a backup.


As a Streaming Device

The drive also supports streaming.  For instance, I copied all of my digitized music to the Public Music folder, turned on the streaming feature, and now I have access to my music, from any device, both on the internal network and from the Internet. This has been entertaining and I was completely surprised about how useful this was.  See this article for details:  Keyliner Streaming Music with a Western Digital Drive.  Since then, I have discovered the joys of Pandora.


Conclusions

The drive is working wonderfully as a backup drive, especially when using the Smartware utility.  Image backups are too leisurely to be useful and with these, use a directly-connected USB drive. 

Using the drive as a standard file share has been disappointing because of speed issues. Sometimes the speed is acceptable, other times not, depending on when the drive is asleep. 

Western Digital needs to simplify the software installation and simplify the decisions that need to be made on how the drive is installed. It is confusing to have a setup program that does not include all of the needed options, and other naming problems, mentioned above.

The Support Download pages had the barest of descriptions -- descriptions such as, "This download contains the latest version of the WD Quick View for Windows," are not helpful.  Tiny description, such as "This is a utility that will discover WD network attached storage drives on the network and provide drive status information." -- Is this important?  -- Should I install it?  My recommendations in the chart above will help you get started. 

With the complaints aside, this drive accomplished my goals in a way that is hard to do with other methods.  I recommend it. 


Additional Costs

When considering your backup solutions, there are other costs, above and beyond the price of the drive.  Ideally, you would do all of these suggestions, at great expense:
  • Upgrade all routers to gigabit speeds. 
     
  • Buy a second Cloud drive to backup the first (or buy the dual-bay drive).  You have to worry about drive failures.
     
  • Pay for the professional version of Smartware and then subscribe to DropBox, Onedrive, etc. so you can have more than 2G of free space.  Use this for offsite backups of your most important data.  The Professional Version of Smartware backup makes this easier to manage (although I have not tried this myself).  You need to be able to schedule multiple, different types of backups.
  • Use a third-party product (Acronis) for Image backups.  Buy an external USB drive to hold them.
     
  • Put this drive on a UPS battery power -- after all, this is a spinning hard disk and it will not like power failures.  The router should be on UPS too.  As you can see, this can get complicated.


Related articles:
Disk Imaging Cleanup Steps
WDC.com Downloads - Technical
WDC Downloads - User facing

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