Nice NAS

In New York City, one suicide in ten is attributed to a lack of storage space.
   Judith Stone

Just a year ago (February, 2014) I wrote about upgrading my file server with larger hard drives. This is a necessary chore now and then, either because the old drives are filling up, or to get ahead of reliability problems with aging drives. Or, sometimes, simply because higher-capacity drives are available at a too-good-to-pass price.

Oldest and newest photos, copyright 2015, Jay Cross, all rights reserved. May not be used or copied without permission.

I used an ancient Microsoft Windows XP computer for that server. With a RAID card installed, I added a pair of server-grade hard drives in RAID1 configuration. In RAID1, one drive mirrors the other. Data are written to the drives (more or less) simultaneously. If (when) one drive fails, no data are lost, and the server continues to function. In this degraded state, the failed drive can be replaced, the RAID controller will go nuts mirroring the older good drive to the new one, and then life is good again. RAID1 should never be considered its own backup, but the redundancy makes it a good system for storing/archiving critical files.

The server is attached to the house's wired, gigabit Ethernet network. While not as fast as a direct-connected Firewire, eSATA, or USB 3 drive, the network is reliable and adequately fast. When I copy a large number of files from my main photo-processing Mac Pro to the server, I simply set up the backup program and let it run. I don't care how long it takes. Backing up new work on a single picture, which may be one to two gigabytes of data (the raw file, a Photoshop .psd file, perhaps some jpegs in a few sizes, and in rare cases, a print-optimized file), takes seconds.

For backups I used additional hard drives in a slide-out tray system. This allowed backing up the RAID, removing the backup drive, and then storing it off site. I cycled through a pair of drives for the off-site storage. See the February, 2014 article for photos.

The update replaced a pair of one terabyte drives with a pair of two terabyte Western Digital “Red” server drives. Nice drives, and fast, but the old PC's RAID card couldn't take advantage of the speed. The computer also had become a bit problematic, occasionally locking up for no reason my extensive troubleshooting could determine. I rely on it to keep my master files safe, but I'd become increasingly uncomfortable with the machine's ability to do that. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin came from Microsoft, with the pronouncement that Windows XP causes cancer, premature hair loss, and toenail fungus. MS makes this clear via a big, red, dire warning when XP boots, and then again several minutes later. The time had come for a different solution.

I had simple goals: large redundant storage capacity accessible via my network, reasonably fast performance, simple management, and reliability.

To NAS, or Not To NAS?

I'd done some research into reasonable alternatives to the old server. I'd considered simply getting another PC, duplicating what I had but with a modern OS. I'd built the old server several years ago when I worked in the tech industry, when doing my job required a thorough knowledge of Windows (XP and server versions, and later, Vista). Fortunately, those days are over. Except for the old server, I use Macs for all my computing work, which naturally includes photo processing, storage, and printing. XP, the Windows version I know best, is history. I've never used a Windows 7 machine, Windows 8 on the desktop is ridiculous, and as I write this Windows 10 isn't yet real, making it an unknown. Besides, to run any new OS I'd have to buy a new PC; modern OSes won't run in a satisfactory way on any of the Wintel computers in my collection of older hardware. I think nothing from Microsoft will do.

I played very briefly with NAS4Free, a version of the Linux operating system designed to turn an older PC into network attached storage, or NAS. NAS4Free, being free and open source software, had some appeal and would happily run on older hardware. I gave it a try, tested it for several days with good results, but decided a simpler solution would suit me better. (I know about FreeNAS; it won't run well on any of the hardware I have.)

For the sake of completeness I should mention one can assemble a functional server from very cheap components, even from experimenter boards like the Raspberry Pi. While that would surely be a fun project, keep the objectives in mind; those include simple management and reliability. I suspect a tinkerer's platform may not offer either.

All of this led me to purpose-built NAS systems, of which there are many. I liked the concept: a "black box" with a Web-based user interface. The box contains a bunch of hard drives, generally from two to eight (some offer more, or add-on expansion chassis), a power supply to run them, network connections, and additional connections (usually eSATA and USB) for various uses, including backups, print servers, etc. Various RAID levels are supported. I'd looked at a few back when I last upgraded the hard drives in the old server, but decided the cost of a NAS and new drives totaled more than I wanted to spend.

The QNAP TS-469L with the hard-drive dock.

The QNAP TS-469L with the “toaster”, or hard-drive dock for backups.

But 2014 had been a good year for me, it was a justifiable expense, and NAS seemed the right solution. I'd decided to purchase a four-bay unit from Synology, when one of the tech vendors I use regularly offered a QNAP model at a price too low to pass. While the TS-469L is an older model, probably due for replacement soon, it met all of my stated goals, seemed to be extremely well built, and could be expected to perform more than well enough for my needs. I ordered one, along with a third party memory card to max out the RAM capacity. It's best to get such add-ons while they're available and cheap, since this stuff seems to come and go on the market quickly.

For backups, including those stored off-site, external drives would be needed. There are plenty of ways to attach external drives to the NAS using its USB or eSATA connections. My choice: a “toaster”, a small USB-connected box with a slot in the top designed to accept bare 3.5- and 2.5-inch SATA hard drives. I have an abundance of hard drives of various sizes and vintages, including the several I had in removable trays for my off-site server backups. Any of those can be dropped into the slot on the toaster and then used by the NAS as backup targets, for additional shared storage, or as source data to be copied to the NAS drives. The toaster is a simple, small, and flexible solution. The same drive dock is available under other brand names. There are several variations on the theme, too, from boxes like this to smart cables.

Easy Setup

The NAS rear panel showing connection options.

Rear panel showing connection options.

The NAS and one of its hard drive trays.

The NAS and one of its hard drive trays.

A few days later the QNAP arrived. It's very compact, and as mentioned seems well made. The power supply is internal, eliminating the power brick that's so common with such devices. Eager to get the NAS set up, I made several backups of the data on the old server, removed the pair of two-terabyte Western Digital Red drives I'd installed last winter, screwed them into the NAS's drive trays, slid those in place, and powered up.

Much of the setup happens automatically, but one can step in and make adjustments as needed. The native format for the drives is EXT4. Formatting took only a few minutes, but an hours-long synchronizing process followed. I wanted simple, so I made a few choices and then let it do what it wanted to do. When it finished I had two terabytes (about 1.8, after formatting, etc.) of RAID1 storage available on my network.

I placed one of my server backup drives into the toaster, set the NAS to restore from that, and walked away. As the toaster uses USB 3 to connect to the NAS, restoring the files didn't take long. A few hours later every digital photo file I have had been copied to the NAS, which I can now use just as I had the old server.

NASty Error

But Murphy rules, as always. The NAS performs SMART testing of the drives. This found a problem with one of the drives. Rerunning the test showed the same result. With the old server disassembled and the drives reformatted and installed in the NAS, I couldn't easily go back to the old system. To “fix” the problem I ordered a pair of four terabyte server drives (again, WD Red). A few days later I repeated the installation, set-up, and file copy process described above. The NAS then had about 3.7Tb of RAID1 storage. As it was still under warranty, I returned the failed 2Tb drive to WD for replacement. They have a simple and fast RMA process, making the failure relatively painless. When the replacement drive arrived, I put both of the 2Tb drives in the NAS and created a second, separate drive array. I'll use this for non-photo files.

So Far, Very Nice

Routine use of the NAS is easy: From the Mac OS I connect to the server, select its Photo folder, launch the Mac's backup utility (I use BackupList+), select the backup set to run or create a new one as needed, and then click the Backup button. The rest happens by itself. I can, of course, manually copy, via drag and drop, any file or folder from the Mac to the NAS or vice versa.

The QNAP has enormous capability: in addition to routine file storage, it can be used as a media server (videos and music); as a Dropbox replacement, which I do every day to transfer the Photo of the Day from my iPad to the Mac for processing and posting; a file-sharing or transporting system (think of it as a large, network connected flash drive); a Web server, a database server, and much more. All I want is safe backup for my photo files, but I'm intrigued by the possibilities.

The QNAP is small, quiet (I'd loaded the old server with fans, and it ROARED, but my server room is off in the hinterlands of the house, so noise has never been a concern), and very frugal with power. Running full-tilt the NAS uses about 10% of the power the old server required, and draws only a couple of watts in standby. I can leave the NAS powered up around the clock, making it always accessible. There was some expense, and some time required to set things up, but in the end I think I've simplified my life a little bit.

February, 2015

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