Home NAS adventures, part 1

There’s a little Dell Optiplex SX280 next to my main desktop monitors, currently unplugged but with two external USB drives on it. It’s running Windows Home Server, but it’s usually off. I haven’t had the motivation to fix the issues with it, mostly from having a small primary drive and a shortage of table space. On top of that, we’re expecting that Microsoft will remove the Drive Extender feature from WHS in the new release, so I want something a bit more easily usable into the future.

So I’ve been pondering, for about six months, a home NAS to replace it, and maybe expand on it. So many options, from roll-your-own to hosting off my overpowered desktop to a purpose-built commercial appliance. I’ve promised a couple of BayLISA attendees such ponderings in blog form, so I’m finally getting around to it.

First requirement: Figure out the requirements

If all you need is external backups that are removable, a USB drive is probably good enough. If you want to back your VMware servers and feed your TiVo or smart TV, you need more. If you need 100k IOPS and n+2 redundancy, you need a different article.

Also, think about your budget. Sure, those pictures of your grandparents getting creative with Bob Marley are irreplaceable, but for the sake of moderation, think about what you can afford for the first generation of your home NAS. You can re-do it later when a new round of technology comes out, so don’t think of it as a permanent thing.

A model railroad buff I took some clinics with in the 90s referred to “givens & druthers.” You had your givens (this much space for your layout, this much money, your eyes able to see this small of a scale) which were not necessarily a unilateral choice, and your druthers (model the entire Florida East Coast Railroad with enough yard space to hold your 500 handpainted cabooses), and you’d decide how they best fit together and compromise accordingly.

So for my givens, I’ve decided that about $500 (plus disks) is my budget. I need gigabit Ethernet connectivity, independence from any particular PC I currently use, Windows/Mac/Linux connectivity on some level (CIFS is okay for this project), and a 5TB usable minimum. I am not stuck on hot-swappable disks, so they are not a requirement. I have two new-in-box 2TB 5900rpm “green” disks, and an unused 3TB USB3 external drive, that I’m willing to donate to the project if warranted. And these green disks (with 5yr warranty) are well under $100 so I can add more.

My druthers would be iTunes streaming, TiVo integration (although I have a Premiere XL and can expand it locally), bittorrent client, automatic backups (a feature I loved with the Windows Home Server), hot-swappable and auto-growable disks, and future expandability in number of disks, not just size of disks. I’d also like iSCSI and/or NFS for VMware backing stores.

Second step: Consider the top-level options

We have two options for this project, if we assume that hanging a pile of external disks on our PC is not an option.

* Build a PC with a lot of disks, to serve as a NAS appliance

* Buy a prebuilt custom NAS appliance

If you choose option 1, you get a lot more flexibility, lower up-front cost, and more expandability, but you have to consider the time factor, and software upgrades, and “support” if you’re so inclined.

If you choose option 2, you probably pay more up front, but you put less time into building/testing, you have someone to go to when something breaks or needs updating, and there are probably smoother interfaces to some of the features you want. Many prebuilt custom NAS appliances allow automatic hands-off disk expansion (other than plugging in the disks physically), so this is an appealing factor to some.

Prebuilt Custom NASes

We’ll start with this one, as it’s a bit more limited in scope.

When I started looking at a home NAS, the Infrant ReadyNAS NV was the top dog. This was probably 2007ish. I actually got a Thecus box for free on Craigslist, but I found the expansion to be painful (the system became unavailable for an entire day to upgrade from 4×160 to 4×320 hard drives) so I sold it and went back to USB drives for a while.

In the mean time, Synology and Drobo have both come out with a couple of generations of gear, Infrant was purchased by Netgear and has grown its product line as well, and there are a lot of smaller products like the BlackArmor line and some single-drive network-attach options from Seagate and WD.

Let’s look at current products that meet the requirements above.

Drobo has the Drobo FS, which offers five drive bays, single Gigabit Ethernet, Drobo PC Backup, Time Machine support for Mac, automatic rebuilding and capacity growing as new drives become available. List price is $699, but it can be had for a fair bit less from various authorized resellers, and rebates are often available as well. As of this writing, Amazon has it for about $560 and Drobo offers a $100 MIR bringing you under $500.

Synology has the DS411 product range, with the DS411 itself probably most closely matching the FS and the wish lists above. We have four drive bays, single Gigabit Ethernet with USB 2.0 and eSata ports for expansion, a number of A/V options including iTunes, DLNA, and BitTorrent, and a range of access protocols including iSCSI and NFS. List price on the Synology America store is $440, and discounts are available.

Netgear has the ReadyNAS Ultra and Ultra Plus lines, with a more powerful processor in the Plus at a slight premium. The Ultra 4 (RNDU4000)  is a suitable match, with four drive bays, dual Gigabit Ethernet, 3 USB ports for expansion and backup, three Memeo licenses for backup, iSCSI, DLNA/TiVo support, and a list price of $699. Discounts bring it to right around $500.

If you’re on a really tight budget, the ReadyNAS NV+ is still available. It’s a 4-drive unit with single Gigabit Ethernet, three USB ports, but a significant limitation that the others do not have. As the ReadyNAS NV+ is the older SPARC-based product line, it is getting firmware updates (as recently as last month) but drive support is limited to 2TB max per disk, and what I’ve read suggests this will probably not change. However, with a list price of $350 and much lower prices available at some retailers, it may be a good first step for some. If the limitation of 5.5TB or so is acceptable, you should consider this option.

But wait, there’s more…

In the next installment I’ll be looking at the options for a roll-your-own NAS, doing it myself with some parts around the house (to make sure I’m suggesting hardware and software that work together).

I’ll also be reporting back on the ReadyNAS NV+, which I learned this morning has third-party iSCSI support, and which I picked up this afternoon for $250 at Fry’s.

I do still expect to get a more modern device before Thanksgiving, but now I can ponder and save up a bit more, and maybe move up to a 6-8 drive device.

I welcome your thoughts on the above, suggestions regarding any of the products or anything I’ve forgotten (Iomega maybe?), etc. And feel free to use my links liberally to help fund my future home gear.


One thought on “Home NAS adventures, part 1

  1. Pingback: rsts11: Building my compact VMware server at home « rsts11 – Robert Novak on system administration

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