The Malware Meltdown

Yet again it has been some time since I’ve posted here… it has sat at the top of my todo list for some time, but other todo’s keep climbing over it. Anyway, enough with the poor excuses… where are we at? Well, in summary, we have made lots of progress on Drive Xtender and Drive Bender v3… let’s cover Drive Xtender to start!

First of all a big sorry to those users that have been waiting patiently for the first beta. That said, most of the features we were shooting for, have been completed… now I can hear the punters screaming, “where the hell is beta 1”? That is a good question and one that has much to do with the title of this post, and, I will get to that soon… but in short, we shifted focus from Drive Xtender to Drive Bender v3. So, where does that leave us with Drive Xtender? Well, for the moment, I don’t want to bang on about a product that is slow to be realized, but, as I said we are not far off. A major change is that we have thrown out the original web portal and are redeveloping this in a new framework. For those interested, we moving from Angular 1 (the prototype was started a number of years ago) to React. While this is now underway, it is going to add significant time to the project… so we have decided to release the first beta using the Cloud Xtender client interface to manage things. As for when… soon 😉

The revised Cloud Xtender interface

The revised Cloud Xtender interface

Next, on to Drive Bender, and to elaborate on what I said previously regarding the title of this post. Earlier this years we received a support request from a user that has been struck by some ransomware. This attack had encrypted a number of important files on his Drive Bender pool, that he was, sadly, unable to recover. As part of our Drive Bender v3 roadmap, we had ransomware protection atop of our feature list. Given that our Drive Bender user base is our largest, their file security is paramount, so the decision was made to switch focus and get Drive Bender v3 underway. As a result, the v3 development cycle is all but complete and is in final internal testing.

V3 bring a lot of new features and fixes, but there are a number of standouts that I want to discuss here today. The first we have termed, the “Pool Firewall”. This feature provides firewall like features to the pool’s file system. That is you can apply rules to which files can be modified, and what application can modify them. Like a network firewall, you specify cascading rules that are checked during file access, if a rule is found that meets the criteria, the rule’s access level is enforced. So for example, you may want all your word documents, to sit under a documents folder, to only be accessible by MS Word, this is possible (FYI – We may also include read access limiting, but this has not been decided as yet, if you have any thoughts, let us know). We’ll be posting a “how to” on this feature very soon.

Pool firewall management

Pool firewall management

The next feature is one we have called “Drive Idle”… over the years, a common concern with drive pooling is 1) power consumption and 2) drive wear and tear. Every time a pool is accessed, it can require many, if not all drives in the pool to spin up. In fact, this access is often a third-party app indexing the pool as a background task, again, often requiring the entire pool to spin up. Our Drive Idle technology is designed to prevent these spin ups, or, at the very least limit them. This feature should also improve pool performance and responsiveness.

Finally, the last feature we are going to briefly go over is “Sleep Mode”. This is a feature that will have many users rejoicing, and also help reduce the number of support requests we get with regards to users disconnecting drives arrays when not in use (as this causing other issues). Basically, Sleep Mode decouples the underlying drives from the mount points… while the mount point(s) still exists, all I/O is prevented from reaching the pooled drives.

As previously mention, all these features are complete and in final testing… all being well, the v3 beta is scheduled to be released before the end of July.

One final note, there is a change in pricing coming with the final v3 release, the details of which are still being finalized, but the cost of a Drive Bender lifetime license will be increasing, so if you’re after a license, get in now!

A quick Xtender update

Well we have been going flat out here, and progress is good (as usual, not as fast as we would like… but never is). Our original beta plan had a release slated for late November, early December… this was to be a very raw beta that used a modified version of the existing Cloud Xtender client, and not the new Drive Xtender portal. The idea being, we could start to test the local Drive Xtender service etc. Well, the portal came together faster than expected, so we have ditched this idea, and are now going with a more complete initial beta. Here’s what to expect.

  • Drive Xtender portal with limited pool management.
  • Create a new local pool (there may be some limited cloud capability if time permits)
  • Installation using the Drive Xtender portal.
  • Pool “preview” mode. This can import existing Drive Bender pools. This will be non-destructive, and you can leave your existing Drive Bender pool in place (the same applies to DrivePool users).

Regarding the drop date… well beta 1 is close to being ready, and while I would love to push it out sooner rather than later, dropping a beta just before the holidays is a rookie move. To further complicate matters, I’m taking some time off over the coming weeks, so let’s say “soon” 🙂

One final word on Drive Xtender… we’ve had a few questions regarding how a public website (aka the Drive Xtender portal) is able to manage a service on a machine within a users network. Well, Drive Xtender uses some interesting technologies to accomplish this… but, for security reasons, it does require a user to visit the Drive Xtender portal from within their internal network, this is known as “direct” connect mode. That said, there is also a “limited” mode, which allows for some very minimum monitoring and management from outside of your network, however, this feature needs to be explicitly enabled by a user before it can be used.

Now for a quick Drive Bender update… we are finalising features for Drive Bender v3, these include

  • Application whitelisting, which allows only whitelisted apps to write to the pool (or specific folders).
  • Improved licensing that will allow users to manage their own license keys (aka release from a machine etc)… yay!
  • Improved startup performance.
  • 2016 Server dashboard support.

Anyway, that’s it for the moment, have a wonderful and safe Christmas, and we’ll see you all in 2018!

Oh… forgot to post some screenshots

connector
Installing the connector onto a machine

pool_manage
Managing a local pool

node_manage
Managing drives within a pool

adding_service
Adding a new service

 

The Bender Xtender

Ok, let me start with some great new… it seems the Drive Xtender concept has sparked more than a bit of interest. In fact, we have secured some cash from the powers that be, to get it finished!

Before we get into too much detail about Drive Xtender, let’s recap…

Since we announced Drive Xtender earlier this year, we have received a heap of questions regarding Drive Xtender, including pricing and the future of both Cloud Xtender and Drive Bender. First, let me say that we have posted Cloud Xtender v2.3, this update addresses the Dropbox v1 API’s that will be deprecated, if you are using Dropbox, make sure you get this update. It also sorts out a number of bugs that, with the help of some dedicated users, we have squashed.

Next, let’s look at Drive Bender v2.7, this release fixes a long-running bug with file locking… that caused all sorts of annoying issues for a small number of punters! Again thanks to those users that have helped with the debugging and sorting of said issues… awesome!

Post recap…

Ok, to the question at hand, the “why”, “how” and “when” for Drive Xtender.

Well first up, the “why”, and some insight into my thoughts on Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender. First of all, let me set the stage. Drive Bender has been a wonderful product for Division-M! With its initial release, Drive Bender generated enough revenue in the first couple of days to not only pay for the development up to that point but to also cover off the following 12 months… so in all, it has more than paid its way. That said, it is a power users product, lots of buttons, lots of knobs, and lots ways for less experienced users to get into trouble. Cloud Xtender, while not intended to be a power users product, did, as a result of the UX, suffered a similar fate. So the first part of the “why” question is easy, KISS (keep it simple stupid).

The second part of the “why” question is performance related. Drive Bender, like other products of its type, including RAID, have a tightly coupled relationship with their underlying hard drives… which in short means that performance is only as good as the lowest performing drive. Now as anyone that has used computers for any length of time would know, hard drives are crap when it comes to reliability! I would post a picture of my hard drive graveyard, but it’s too depressing!! Lesson two, design a system that removes this dependency.

The third and final part of the “why” question is power consumption. Over the years, this has been a key point with many users that have large pools, spinning up drives that do not need to be spun up is costly in terms of energy, and wear and tear… lesson three, only access drives that are needed for the file operation being requested!

Next is the “how”, and what is going to happen with both Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender? Well first let’s lay out the Drive Xtender versions that will be available… Standard, Pro and Premium. Both Standard and Pro are basically the same as Cloud Xtender, offering cloud drive mapping and a bunch of newer features (I won’t go into these at the moment). However, Standard will be free and limited to mapping no more than two, free cloud service (aka the local folder/drive size is limited to the size of the “free” tier of the cloud service it is mapped too). Pro will be a paid for service, and there is no limitation on the number of cloud drives mapped or their size. Premium, will include all features in Pro, in addition to local drive pooling with cloud and local drive duplication (aka you can duplicate local drives to a cloud drive etc). Cloud Xtender as a standalone product will no longer be developed, and existing users will get a free, perpetual license to “Pro”. On the other hand, Drive Bender will continue to be developed alongside Drive Xtender… with users being offered a large cross-grade discount if they want to move to Drive Xtender Premium (we are also extending this to a limited number of competing products).

Finally, let us move onto the “when”. This was, until recently the tricky question, resources were limited and that meant Drive Xtender’s progress was slow… with development only being done when time permitted. With our recent injection of cash, we are now able to develop Drive Xtender at pace… so the answer is ASAP! As it stands we have a large portion of development done, so we are pushing to have a release ready early 2018. With that, we are opening beta registration on the 17th of October, 2017. If you wish to be a part of the beta program, you must register (URL will be posted on Twitter and the forum on the 17th). By registering you are also eligible for a further discount if you want to cross-grade (aka Drive Bender to Drive Xtender Premium).

A view from the drivers seat

Welcome to the New Year! The last few months have been very busy… just before Christmas, we posted Drive Bender v2.5, and Cloud Xtender v2.1, both of which now support the Windows 10 Anniversary edition. For some users, the latest version of Windows caused some headaches, as Redmond’s new driver signing model was fully enforced in this version of Windows (and Windows server 2016). If you tried to install Driver Bender or Cloud Xtender on a fresh Windows 10 Anniversary installation, neither product would work correctly because the driver is not able to load. For those interested in the technical aspect of our driver, it originally started life as a driver supplied by a third-party (www.eldos.com). However, at the time (in 2011) the basic driver lacked a number of required features, so we modified it to support what we needed and created a new driver called VHyperDrive. Fast forward to 2016, and the base Eldos driver now supports much of what we need, so the decision was made to use this driver moving forward for Windows 10 and beyond. As far as a user is concerned, this means little, however, for us, it means less work (yay!).

Speaking of work, in addition to Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender… we have been banging away at a new product called… wait for it (drum roll please…) “Drive Xtender” (yes a play on the original Windows Home Server’s pooling feature, Drive Extender). This is a hybrid of Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender in one neat package. Over the years we have learned a lot with regards to a) pool performance and b) product usability. This new product brings with it these years of experience, and

  • Web-based interface, no more client application… config Drive Xtender from anywhere!
  • A new pooling model that delivers very much improved performance, and no more hung Explorer due to slow performing drives.
  • Lower complexity (which in turn improves reliability).
  • Install-less configuration.
  • Create a pool from either local drives or cloud drives, or a mixture of both.
  • Designate which drives (local or cloud) will be used for duplication.
  • Upgrade path from Drive Bender, Cloud Xtender and other competitors pooling products.
  • And a whole bunch of other clever bits and bobs!

In short, Drive Xtender is a game changer for drive pooling and cloud storage.

Finally, we are also cranking away on Drive Bender v2.6… this version, while not too feature rich, does contain a lot of the code carried over from the new Drive Xtender project. This will results in improved reliability while also sorting a number of bugs. We are hoping to have a beta release of this version in February.

PS… I must also apologize to a number of our users regarding our tardy support response times. Over the past few months, we have experienced an unexpected rise in sales, which has also lead to more support requests… couple this with the constant Windows updates, and we are finding it hard to keep up. That said, we are working on ways we can better support users… and hopefully, things will return to normal soon!

 

It’s hard to keep a good app down

Well, here we are some 7 or so months after we announced that “good things must coming to an end“… and still users are snapping up Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender, thanks! This all helps to keep the lights on. It has been a while between drinks, so I thought I would post on what I’ve been up too. Here’s a run down…

First of all, I have been busy with a new startup, heading the technical team and doing a bunch of web based development… different from my client/server and driver work, but still lots of fun. That said, when I’m not busy with my “day job”, I find some time to tweaking and bug fix both Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender (and answer the inevitable support question that comes my way). The end result is new versions of both apps, Drive Bender v2.5 and Cloud Xtender v2 (yes it is a big jump for Cloud Xtender, but we have a good reason… read on).

So Drive Bender v2.5, this is still in the works as there are a few bits and bobs yet to cover off, but we (aka me) are still working on it. Cloud Xtender, on the other hand, has been through the ringer. In working on a side project (more on this in a later post), I’ve discovered and fixed a bunch of stuff… all of which has taken CX v2 into a different realm, here are some of the highlights.

  • We are now providing app keys for Google, OneDrive, Box and Dropbox. This means that you no longer need to register your own application keys to add a cloud drive, connect Cloud Xtender with your cloud drives with a simple click. FYI – I should note that we received a lot of questions as to why we required users to use their own keys… well it was based on how we thought users would use Cloud Xtender, turns out we missed the mark here, all this did was to make Cloud Xtender far more difficult to use than it needed to be, whoops! So we have sorted that and now it is lickety-split easy to connect to your cloud drive.
  • Improved file encryption. Some users were reporting that encrypted files simply did not sync… a major issue for an app designed to sync files! Many bugs in this area have been fixed, and this problem should now be a thing of the past.
  • Improved access to cloud services via updates API’s, this results in improved syncing and overall performance.
  • A bunch of client fixes and improvements.

Bottom line, the biggest update to thus far for Cloud Xtender… you can get all the latest changes here.

Finally, we are planning to up the price on both Cloud Xtender and Drive Bender. That said if you are testing either product and missed the current low price (it will be updated very soon), send us a DM via Twitter (@_divisionm_) and we’ll send you a discounted link.

 

A (Happy) New Year with Cloud Xtender

Well first of all, a Happy New Year to everyone, 2015 was certainly exciting on a number of levels! Now we are in 2016, and there are a few updates in the pipeline.

The first of which has just been released, Cloud Xtender v1.7. This has a number of bug fixes and performance improvements, most notable is how background scanning is performed, and the load this can (or could) place on the host. We had a number of users reporting excessive CPU usage, which would cause system performance to suffer. You can download this update from http://www.division-m.com/downloads

Next is the pending Drive Bender update, most of which is contained in the patch available on the forum (http://community.division-m.com/index.php?/topic/5670-duplication-bug-patch/)… this fixes a small number of issues with duplication including a bug that was caused by the summer/winter time zone change that occurred in some regions. There are a number of additional changes and updates, including a new driver… all of which will be detailed in the change log. I’m hoping to have this out in the week of the 18th.

Finally we have had some unfortunate abuse of the new Cloud Xtender licensing model, with the discovery that a very small number of users have been redistributing licenses. As a result of this, we are changing the license from a freeware model to donation-ware model similar to Drive Bender… with the price to be $5 USD for a single machine license, or $10 USD for a 3 machine license. This ensures users are vetted by PayPal before licenses are sent, and will help us cover the cost of managing these licenses.

Anyways I’m looking forward to new challenges in 2016… stay tuned!

Drive Bender, Cloud Xtender and PoolHD… live on!

Well it has been a crazy two weeks since my last post, it seems I under estimated the community response, it’s just amazing… thanks everyone! As I mentioned in my original post, my hope was that all the products would continue on in some form or another. However there were a number of obstacles that needed to be sorted before I could happily allow them to go on.

So what was the end result? Given the level of user support, it seems I had no other choice other than allowing Drive Bender, PoolHD and Cloud Xtender to live on! As for my involvement, I’ve decided to remain involved as a hobbyist… that is I will remain active on the forum and play with the code when possible.

Now this leads us to how this is going to work. While I’m not comfortable selling a product that does not have dedicated support or development, we still need to generate some cash to keep the lights on. My original idea was to make all products freeware… however this does not help with the “cash” portion of my last statement. So I’m going with a super low $5 USD on Drive Bender (I’m actually calling this a donation), and freeware on Cloud Xtender. As for PoolHD, this will now use the Drive Bender license so users can use whatever platform they choose (if you are an existing PoolHD user, simply email support and you’ll get a Drive Bender license, this will be compatible with the next PoolHD update). When is this going to happen, well by the time you read this it should be all sorted.

Once again I would like to thank everyone for their kind words… it’s very much appreciated. See ya on the forums!

All good things must come to an end!

Well this is a personally sad post for me. I have made the difficult decision to move away from my fulltime position here at Division-M. Unfortunately slowing Drive Bender sales and sluggish Cloud Xtender numbers have meant that ongoing development at the current pace is just not financially possible. The slowing Drive Bender sales were anticipated, as Windows Storage Space’s had a big impact on this market, not to mention the cloud is also seeing users move from large local storage to much cheaper cloud solutions. Our strategy was to have Cloud Xtender pick up the slack, however this has not happened. While the initial Cloud Xtender numbers looked good, these have not been sustained.

So what happens next? Well for the most part, not too much… Belinda, our main support person will be staying on and servicing support requests as she has always done. Although I’m no longer working fulltime here, I will be helping with the more technical queries either via support or the forum. As for the future of Drive Bender, PoolHD and Cloud Xtender… at this point in time there has been no long term decisions made, but I’m confident that they will continue on, we just need to work out the details. Having said that, there are a couple of important points I would like to stress to existing users.
1) All valid licenses will continue to work now, and into the future. There are no plans to scrap the products.
2) As it stands we have pending updates for all products. There are a number of bug fixes with Drive Bender and Cloud Xtender, and a Windows 10 compatible version of PoolHD. These will be released over the coming weeks.

Finally I just want to say that this decision has not been an easy one, personally I have invested a huge amount of time and money into building this business, and developing its products… and for the most part, it has been very successful. However, as with any business it must be able to generate a sustainable revenue. I would like to say that from the get go, Drive Bender in particular has had a loyal following, and has chalked up 10’s of thousands of sales… and I thank everyone for their kind words and feedback over the years.

Ahh well, that’s about all I have for the moment. It has been a fun ride, but all good things must come to an end… now where did I put my CV?

It’s a dogs life!

There is an old saying that is often used by companies to describe using their own products… that is “Eat your own dog food!”. I’m sure it’s hardly surprising to learn that we use our own products, however it is often tricky to actively use all the features, or utilize the products in all the different ways users do. For example, Drive Bender is used on a number of servers in our office mainly for file and machine backups. Personally I also used it on a WHS 2011 machine at home for movies, music and home backups. Over the years this has proved to be an excellent way to tune real world performance, and discover potential new features. However when it comes to Cloud Xtender, this is more difficult. In the past we have used a third party cloud backup service (CrashPlan as a matter of fact), but during the development of Cloud Xtender, we switched to it for our off site backups. Files are sync’d to a server running a Cloud Xtender drive, and these are then pushed to the cloud. This all works a treat, however used in this manner we really don’t interact with the Cloud Xtender drive as such, so things like real world performance are harder to gauge. So the challenge here is to use Cloud Xtender in a more extreme manner… so a couple of months ago I decided to go all out and install it on my primary development machine. It replaced my “files” drive which contains all work related documents, source code and a bunch or personal files… in all there are over 550,000 files! In addition, this drive is also used to build software against (including Cloud Xtender itself), which has allowed me to asses it’s real world performance, while also providing real time cloud backup. As you could imagine, performance is everything… for example when compiling there are over 12K files system requests a second, quite the load for a virtual drive. I would like to say it was all was peachy from the get go, but using it under these conditions did expose a number of performance issues and bugs. On the plus side however, it has allowed me to tweak the performance and iron out these bugs… all of which is the basis of the current v1.6 release. It’s is hard to imagine a more extreme environment, although I’m sure there is 😉

It’s been a long time since i rock n rolled!

Well rock and rolled may not be 100% accurate, but you get the idea… “it’s been a long time since I posted on the blog” just doesn’t really roll off the tongue. Anyway we have been busy with software releases and updates (and I did sneak off to France for a month). Here is where we are at.

First up, our initial Cloud Xtender release had some strange quirks with some users reporting files not syncing or not syncing reliably. We did release a number of updates to address these issues, however we were never able to replicate them, which made fixing them difficult at best. So after the v1.4.7.0 release, we decided to go back and develop a new version of the sync engine (code name “Transporter”). The “Transporter” engine improves, syncing, streaming and caching for remote files, and syncing for mirrored files, and was released in the v1.5 update. We highly recommend all users update to this version as it also contains a number of important bug fixes.

So what’s next for Cloud Xtender? In the very next release we are adding the ability to add cloud folders to an existing Windows drive (aka drive C). Currently you connect to cloud services by adding a “cloud drive” to your system, that is a new drive letter that shows the contents of your cloud services. With this new update, you can add a folder instead of the drive letter, and this folder can be mapped anywhere on your existing Windows drive (you can switch between either). Another new feature is an updated interface and a “getting started wizard”. In short this will allow new users to get up and going with a single cloud service in seconds, with minimal understanding… well that’s the theory anyway. We are expecting this version, flagged as v1.6, to be released later this month (FYI – we will be posting a minor update, v1.5.2.0 prior to this, it has some caching performance tweaks). Following on from that release, we are also working on an update which addresses the outstanding OneDrive performance issue… stay tuned!

Now on to Drive Bender news. We just released v2.3.9.0 which has many tweaks including a number of Windows 10 specific fixes. Following on from this we are working on another minor update that addresses a handful of smaller problems that have been reported by users, we expect this release to be out later in the month. Interestingly we have an increasing number of users using Drive Bender with SnapRAID, we are looking at adding a “SnapRAID mode” which would make using Drive Bender with SnapRAID a snap! (see what I did there!)… this may or may not make it into the next update, it really depends on how far we take such a feature. It would be great to hear from users to get their feedback, lets us know via support.

After this we will be moving forward with the rest of the outstanding v2 features (better late than never hey), first out of the gate will be cloud duplication. And to answer a commonly asked question, no you will not need a Cloud Xtender license to duplicate to the cloud… although you will need an internet connection 😉

Finally on to PoolHD… and yes, there is a Windows 10 compatible version coming. I know this is taking some time, and we’re super sorry, but we are getting there. In fact it is being working at this very moment (well not entirely true, I’m writing this at this very moment, anyway). All going well, the plan is to have a beta this month. This will be a short beta cycle as most of the underlying code is based on Drive Bender, so we know it will be rock solid! Will there be any new features? Well the short answer is… ahhhh, no. We want PoolHD to be a no fuss pooling solution, If uses want more bells and whistles, they really need to look at it’s big brother, Drive Bender.

Anyway, there is someone standing next to me implying that writing a blog post is not really work… I beg to differ, this and after work beers at the pub are all nose to the grind stone activities 😉