Saturday, April 9, 2016

Connecting a Hard Drive to my Apple Airport Extreme via USB

Every couple of months it seems that my TimeMachine backup becomes corrupt on my Synology NAS. So I decided to try and use my Apple Airport Extreme router as a backup destination with a USB Hard Drive.

When I connected my USB enclosure to the Airport, it would not detect it on Airport Utility. It turns out that the Airport does not support RAID setups. My USB enclosure was set up as a RAID 0. So RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID anything is not supported- just plain disk partitions. So I connected it back to my MacBook and used Disk Utility to partition each hard drive: one for multimedia and one for TimeMachine.

When connecting it back to my Airport Extreme, it finally showed up! The Multimedia disk is to be used to keep my Photos library and the other partition would store my TimeMachine backups.

After making sure everything worked, I was next interested to see performance. I wanted to compare the speed of the hard drive connected directly to my MacBook via USB 3.0 and connected to the Airport Extreme via USB 2.0.

As these are mechanical hard drives, I expect them to be the limiting factor when directly connected to my MacBook. Running Blackmagic DiskSpeed Test, I get over 140MB/s read and write speeds on average.

Connected to the Airport Extreme, I would get an average of 17MB/s read and write speeds. This is as expected via USB 2.0, which is the limiting factor in this configuration.

This means that the Hard Drives through the Airport Extreme only run at 12% of their true speed limit! Unless you usually deal with small files, this performance can be very limiting. But for TimeMachine, I think the speed is good enough. While the initial backup took me almost 10 hours, the subsequent backups are fast enough. I don’t think backups need to be fast anyways.

For the Photos library stored in the other drive, the Photos app can be a bit slow but it is still usable.

One positive note about this setup is that even though the hard drive is partitioned as HFS+ to support TimeMachine and the Photos library, Windows PCs can access it as well as read and write to it. So for example, Macs on the network can use the Photo library on the Airport and the Windows PCs can view those raw pictures in the Photos Library.photoslibrary/Masters directory.

In the end I decided to keep the setup for TimeMachine, but the Multimedia disk will just be a place to store files to share not for my Photos library. I am really hopeful for Apple to release a new TimeMachine with USB 3.0 ports. That would be amazing! Fingers crossed for WWDC 2016.


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  2. When you say you "used Disk Utility to partition each hard drive: one for multimedia and one for TimeMachine." Did you reset the RAID configuration to individual disks and re-format for HFS+, giving you say 2 1TB hard drives or were you able to leave the RAID configuration and just use the disk utility to define the size of your partitions?

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