Home Server and Storage

I need to address my home server storage capacity problem. For a while I’ve been using a single disk 2TB Buffalo home NAS with an old 1TB drive attached over USB to back the more important folders up as a local archive. (I should say that all my important family data is on my Mac, which is Time Machine’d locally and has offsite backups via CrashPlan.)

That NAS has filled up with family video and photo backups, my over-enthusiastic GoPro footage, sound recordings, rips of my DVD and music collection (as FLAC), and so space has run out.

I decided I wanted to spec something that would last for a few more years and decided that:

  • It had to be reliable and quiet, even if it was going in a cupboard.
  • If the system failed, I needed a decent chance of getting my data back.
  • I needed 4TB of space, with a local 1:1 copy of that – that’s 8TB of space total.
  • I needed to be able to Crashplan/other internet backup it offsite.
  • It was going to be on a budget!

There are lots of ways to approach this issue. For example – a simple way is to buy a big drive or drive array and attach via USB to a current machine. I like the idea, but it means I need that machine to be on, or in sleep mode, all the time, which is something I wanted to avoid.

Another solution is a home NAS like my existing one. These go from single drive units up to 5 drive and above RAID systems. They are relatively cost effective, but when they die, you’re often stuck trying to find the same model to use to get data back, and since many are embedded Linux, if it dies, your only real chance is to hook up what’s left to another unit and hope.

Another option: an old style home server. Essentially it’s a PC, with a lot of drives and that’s it. After spending time reading reviews, especially at Silent PC Review for quieter parts and considerations, and kakaku.com for pricing (I live near Tokyo so I’m spoiled for PC parts at retail) I came up with the following:

Case: I looked through SPCR’s recommended cases, and saw the Fractal Design Refine R3 – the R4 had recently been released. I looked at one, and some of the competition, and decided to give it a try. One minor note, I got the ‘Arctic’ white one so it wouldn’t stand out as much where I was going to place it, and since this thing is heavy, I bought it from Amazon Japan for pretty much what I would have paid in Akiba, but without having to carry it home on the train.  Mounting components is simple, and it comes with plenty of brackets and rubber washers to help isolate vibration from hard drives.

Motherboard and CPU: In my price range AMD have some good chips, but so do Intel.  I was looking at the AMD A6-5400K APU, and the Pentium G2020 – yes, a Pentium, but based on the new Ivy Bridge core – this part is lobotomised though, and only has Intel HD graphics, but for what I wanted, it would do. Then I looked at the mobos – either Intel’s 1155 socket based, or AMD’s FM2. In nearly all cases, the AMD chipsets had 5-6 SATA3 connectors, whilst the Intel ones had only 2. That was the deal breaker for me – I wanted to make sure the machine would have as much SATA 6Gb capacity as possible for the future, so I went with the AMD combo.  I chose an ATX board from ASRock, which have always treated me well, and between the two I’d have everything built in.

Drives: For the OS I picked up a Samsung 840 SSD in 120GB – I wanted a fast OS disc to get the machine up from whatever sleep / reboots it had to do. Also, it would mean a cooler, quieter machine.  For storage I went for 4 * 2TB discs – Western Digital Green – these are the only thing that I wonder about, as there are some stories about the Green drives not withstanding this kind of role. That said, I’ve been using them aggressively for years and not had an issue. We’ll see.

Memory: Corsair XMS3 in 2 * 4GB – nothing special, but a decent brand.

Power Supply: I like the Antec units, and thanks to a sale, I got an Antec EarthWatts platinum 450W power supply for a good price.

So that’s the hardware

For Operating System, I was actually planning to go with Linux, but since I have an MS Technet account, I decided to give Microsoft Server 2012 a run and it’d give me an excuse to spend some time with it. One thing I liked about a Windows solution was that I could use Storage Spaces, which allows Windows to group physical discs as virtual discs, meaning I could buy cheaper smaller disks and let the system see them as a single larger disc. This doesn’t buy safety against drive failure, so the other discs made an identical space, and used Windows Backup Service to do a nightly copy. The benefit here is that if the OS dies, or the machine is unusable, as all meta data is in the Space, you can hook the same two discs (in my case) up to a Windows 8 box, or a rebuilt Server 2012 box, and still use the discs. I decided to to try this, and built the system up on Server 2012 Essentials (the old home server plus small business server) but then rebuilt it on Server 2012 base, and it saw the Storage Spaces no problem, so I’m relatively happy that’ll work in a disaster scenario.

Finally, as it’s Windows, I can run Crashplan on it as normal and have that extra offsite backup mode.

[Update: August 2013 – Just a couple of months later, MS killed Technet, so I’ve happily rebuilt this with Mint Linux 15 (into text runlevel) using LVM over StorageSpaces. Crashplan still runs superbly.]

For scale, 2 * 4TB Buffalo NAS cost around 66,000yen (~420GBP/~640USD). This machine came in  a bit more expensive, around 74,000yen (with 32,000en of that being the 4 WD drives!).

In practice, after a month of usage, it’s been a great success – it’s fast and reliable, sleeps well and even when on generates very little noise, so I think I managed to hit all of my goals.