Internet speeds killed after installing NAS?

2 March 2017, 06:55

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I recently installed a Synology DS416j NAS for a client and they subsequently developed a strange issue that initially I was sure had nothing at all do with the NAS. In the end I learned the NAS wasn’t the cause, although it was a factor in explaining the issue.

Diagnosis
The problem was this: Whenever anybody wrote data to the NAS it would kill the office’s Internet speed. Suddenly the staff would struggle to get 10Mbit download speeds whereas ordinarily they were able to get 70-80Mbits.

Their network setup was an Airport Extreme acting as a hub, and into that attached via Cat6E cables were the broadband modem, the new NAS – and an old Mac mini that had previously acted as a file server (staff members were slowly copying projects from this server, as required, onto the NAS).

Hmmm… To cut a long story short, the Mac mini was causing the problem and specifically the ordinarily problem-free Spotlight indexing routine. I’m still not entirely sure what the issue was but turning off network drive indexing on the Mac mini fixed the issue. Did you know that Macs automatically index network shares? No? Well, now you do.

(EDIT: Googling around shows many old blog postings that say Spotlight doesn’t automatically index network shares, but these all feature much older versions of OS X; I found the command below here, courtesy of Mac admin Pepijn Bruienne, who says network indexing is turned on by default. As with all Apple-related stuff, the workings of Spotlight is extremely opaque and incredibly difficult to fully understand, as demonstrated by Pepijn, who had to disassemble the binary of the Spotlight process to find out how to turn off network indexing!)

Turning off network indexing
To turn off network share indexing you’ll need to open the Terminal app, which is in the Utilities folder of the Applications list of Finder, and paste in the following (note that this command is just one line, even though it might appear to be several lines on your screen – triple-click it to select all of it, then copy, and then paste into Terminal):

sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.SpotlightServer.plist ExternalVolumesIgnore -bool True

You might see a rather stern-looking warning, which you can ignore, and then you’ll need to type your login password when prompted. You can then quit Terminal and there should be no need to reboot.

In fact, I entirely turned off Spotlight on the Mac mini, because it wasn’t needed. This can be done by pasting the following into Terminal, which is again a single line:

sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.metadata.mds.plist

Note that this will entirely deactivate Spotlight, so you don’t really want to do this on a desktop computer. Spotlight is used for several other things in addition to helping you find stuff. For example, the App Store update component uses Spotlight.

This workplace was full of Macs and why they didn’t affect the NAS in the same way is a mystery. After all, they too all ran macOS/OS X, and presumably their versions of Spotlight were also attempting to index the NAS. However, they connected over Wi-Fi, so I guess that the direct cable network connection of the Mac mini to the Airport Extreme somehow caused it to violently gobble-up network bandwidth until the indexing was finished. Or maybe it was something more complicated, and silly. Either way, the issue was solved.


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How to crash Safari by typing simple words

27 February 2017, 12:12

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There’s a handful of basic words and letters that when typed into the URL field will instantly crash Safari on the Mac. Versions of Safari on iPhone and iPad don’t seem to be affected.

Here’s a list of those found so far that crash Safari – type any into the URL/search field of Safari and Safari will instantly quit, and then report a crash error dialog box, before reopening.

tymal
rp s
joe r

There are likely to be others. As for what’s going on, well, the crash log points to the following:

Dispatch queue: com.apple.SafariShared.WBSParsecDSession.requestProcessingQueue

… which perhaps suggests it’s a URL parsing issue to my untrained eyes. However, these are fairly innocuous phrases and far from even looking like malformed URLs. It’s certainly very strange. If you’re better able to understand the crash log then post your thoughts in the comments below.

Curiously, typing any of these into the Spotlight search tool will also cause it to crash – although it immediately recovers. I imagine this will happen anywhere within macOS where a web preview or lookup is generated. The crashing bug is also present in the Safari Technology Preview. I tried to speak the phrases to Siri on the Mac to see what happened, but it kept mishearing me – Joe R was heard variously as “you are” and “Joe are”. Similarly, “tymal” consistently came out as “timer”. You might have better luck!

UPDATE: As mentioned by reader “MB” in the comments below, this bug can be deactivated by turning off Safari suggestions: open Safari’s preferences (Cmd+comma), click the Search tab, and remove the check from the Include Safari Suggestions box. To avoid Spotlight crashing when the words or letters are typed, open System Preferences, click the Spotlight icon, then the Search Results tab, and remove the check alongside Spotlight Suggestions.


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5 mistakes made by professionals using Macs

11 February 2017, 07:38

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I have a sideline providing Mac support and it’s astonishing how I see the same sins committed by professionals who use Macs (typically those working in the design, webdev or media industries). I thought I’d list a few here, together with their solutions.

Disk death
Typical quote:
“I’ve had the iMac for six years and never had a problem but now my Mac won’t boot.”
Analysis of the problem:
From my experience, nobody in the world realises that hard disks die. In fact, of all the components in a computer, the hard disk is almost certainly going to be the first to bring the show to a halt. I’m talking here about traditional rotational hard disks, used in iMacs, Mac Pros and older MacBook Pro models created before the switch to solid-state storage. It’s very difficult to say how long a traditional hard disk will remain good for but the backup company Backblaze, that uses a incredible number of hard disks, points out that if you bought 10 disks, two of them will probably have died after four years. By the six year point, five will probably be dead. That’s a 50/50 chance of losing your data on a six-year old Mac that uses a traditional hard disk. Because Macs are used for much longer than other types of computers – I have clients happily still using iMacs from the last decade — disk failure is often a hidden menace they just don’t see coming. Countless times I’ve turned-up at a client’s premises on a completely unrelated matter to find their Mac’s hard disk clicking away, seconds away from death, at which point they explain in passing that, yeah, they’ve had a few problems accessing their files…
Advice:
If you really care about your data and uptime, get your Mac’s hard disk replaced every three years. This sounds like a radical proposal but, really, it isn’t. Remember that even if you have a backup you will still lose valuable work time having to restore that backup if the disk fails — not to mention the time spent getting your system shipshape so it’s ready for work (fitting a new hard disk, personalising the OS and your apps etc). What about solid state disks? Well, the signs are that these have longer lives than traditional hard disks – but there will come a time when they fail too.

No backup!
Typical quote:
“I’ve been meaning to sort out some kind of backup for a while…”
… or …
“I bought an external hard disk for backup but the last time I did one was five months ago.”
Analysis of the problem:
That Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign file you’re working on for a client has an actual monetary value corresponding to the fee you’re going to get paid. If it disappears because of a disk fault or human error, that income also disappears. Why the hell are you taking chances like this by having just one copy of that file?
Advice:
Get either an external hard disk, start a backup regime, and leave the hard disk attached to your computer at all times OR get some network attached storage. Learn how to use Time Machine. It’s really, really easy – so easy that there’s genuinely no excuse not to use it. At the very least install Dropbox and sync your files to it – although using Dropbox in this way isn’t foolproof.

Saving to network shares
Typical quote:
“I’m so tired of Photoshop crashing when I’m saving files!”
Analysis of the problem:
There are two issues here. The first is that Adobe has never supported working directly off a network share, and there have been some terrifying bugs that have made it doubly stupid to do so (e.g. files simply disappearing). Adobe advises you to copy the file to your Mac’s hard disk, work on it, and then copy it back. If you want to collaborate with others then that’s what Creative Cloud is for. The second issue is that the SMB networking software within macOS (formerly OS X) has never been great, and Apple tweaks it radically seemingly with every new release of macOS/OS X. SMB is used to communicate with Windows servers/NAS devices.
Advice:
Don’t work off network shares. As for crappy file sharing, try using AFP instead — Apple’s older and slower yet more reliable file sharing technology. To do this you’ll need to ensure the server supports AFP (many NAS devices do, although you might have to turn it on in the NAS configuration panel). There’s an issue with AFP being depreciated by Apple and it might be removed entirely from macOS in a future release — but right now it’s still there.

Working over Wi-Fi
Typical quote:
“File transfers to our server are so slow — and sometimes they just fail half way through.”
Analysis of the problem:
Wi-Fi has good points and bad points in equal measure. For browsing on your iPhone in a café it’s terrific. For watching Netflix at home it’s OK. But for transferring a 100GB photographic asset in a work environment…? It’s just not good enough for that and will reward you with pain — especially if your office is one where the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t work well and if there are many other computing devices chewing up the Wi-Fi bandwidth. Note: even the hyped-up 802.11ac Wi-Fi isn’t good enough. You’ll never reach those advertised top speeds in real life. Nowhere near.
Advice:
Use wired networking, which is to say Cat6 Ethernet cables going into a gigabit switch, to which your NAS or server also connects directly. Compared to Wi-Fi the data transfer speeds will be mind-blowing. Yes, newer portable Macs will need Ethernet dongles but that’s just the way things are now. Spend the $20-$30 getting one. You won’t believe the difference.

Installing crapware
Typical quote:
“My Mac’s been really slow recently. A few months ago I installed a few apps to try and speed things up but if anything it’s made things worse.”
Analysis of the problem:
No app will genuinely speed-up your Mac. Apps making that kind of promise are a modern form of snake oil, collecting a fistful of dollars each time from the gullible and desperate. The number of Macs I see with the familiar and dreaded MacKeeper logo in the menu bar is astonishing, although “RAM cleaners” are also popular (tip: you can’t clean RAM). For what it’s worth, while it might help things run more smoothly, a tune-up by a professional isn’t going to turn things around either — and you can judge the honesty of a Mac support guy by whether they point that out.
Advice:
Around 90% of slow Macs I see require a RAM upgrade (usually they have 2GB or 4GB and I upgrade them to 8 or 16GB). Additionally, recent releases of macOS/OS X have been made with solid state disks (SSDs) in mind, and really fly once the Mac has one fitted. Sometimes the operating system or apps are so broken that they’re slowing down the Mac, and a tune-up will help — but these situations are vanishingly rare. Incidentally, here’s how to completely remove MacKeeper.

Update: There’s one I forgot to include here and it’s a weird one: Macs with the wrong screen resolution set. This is evidenced as black borders at the left and right, and everything on-screen looking blurry and just wrong. I’ve seen this on iMacs and MacBook Pros, and in theory it should be impossible because of the strong hardware and software tie of the Mac and macOS. But still it somehow happens, and people work with their Macs for years with this happening, without realising! The solution is, of course, to open System Preferences, click the Displays icon, then the Displays tab, and select either Default For Display – if it’s listed – or the top-most resolution setting in the list.


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Can't login to public Wi-FI? Here's a fix

26 January 2017, 09:30

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A lot of public Wi-Fi services use a pop-up login window, where after connecting you enter your credentials (or pay for access). You might find your Mac (or iPhone/iPad) is able to make a connection to the Wi-Fi but for some reason the login window doesn’t appear. The result is that you’re essentially not online – webpages will show as being unavailable.

The solution is simple – once connected to the public Wi-Fi service, just visit the following page:

You might want to bookmark this link so it’s always available. If you click it now while already connected to a working network connection all you’ll see is the word “Success”. However, if the Mac or iOS device isn’t able to reach the page – and it won’t if you aren’t logged in properly to the public Wi-Fi service – then it should cause the Wi-Fi login pop-up window to appear.


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