Unraid Freenas or Drobo : Big Storage Solutions.

Jul 14

One of the things I take a lot of pride in, is that I have a fairly digital lifestyle. I’m not talking about the while internet thing and stuff , that too of course.  But when I say Digital , i mean Digital as in digiTIZED. Over the last few years I’ve embraced most technologies that allowed me convert whatever I had lying around to a digital medium. Pictures: Since 1997 I’ve owned a digital Camera. I slid that 128 Mb flash card into the slot, clicked the big button and have never ever taken an analogue picture since. All the pictures we have taken in all these years have been safely stored (and backed up) to either our local hard drives (mostly on our servers/nas drives) and over the past few years, in the Cloud (Flickr). I’ve seldom to never had a picture “printed” to hardcopy cause I quite frankly never saw the need for it.

My entire CD collection was digitised a few years ago and has also existed only as a collection of digital bits and bytes. The actual cd’s that i owned (and I had quite a few) are stored in “archive mode” down in our basement. Most video material I had shot using my Video camera have been digitised and burned to cd’s or stored on our local harddrives. Whatever we still  had lying around as important documents got converted to PDF’s years ago. And with the coming of our Ebook reader I have effeciently rendered most of my book collection obsolete and have moved from letters to bits when getting new books or material.

The only ‘phisical’ medium that i have left is our DVD collection, that, somehow is in dire need of digitalisation. We haven’t purchased a lot of new dvd’s (save for collectors boxes like Battlestar Galactica and what have you) so the only thing that most of our dvd’s do is collect dust. It would be great to have one central place to store all those media. Sure, our fileserver with its 1 terrabyte of disk storage (and additional one terrabyte of backup storage) does not do a bad job in serving up the files we need. But it has its limitations. One terrabyte is only one terrabyte. And after several years of “collecting digital data” it might not prove enough.

On one hand you need a “compact form” of storage so you can access all of your data in one place, hopefully pretty fast. A built in drive into your fileserver or an external usb drive is fine. It doesn’t pay off to have several drives in several places (constantly having to reconnect and disconnect external storage) and its not very energy efficient to have all of your storage media plugged in at once. My solution has been to divide the data I have into two pieces. On one side I have data that is “fresh” and that i need to access every day. This data (like our music, pictures, projects) is stored on our server (a one terabyte disk) and backed up every day. On the other side there is also data that I don’t need every day, but that I would like to have for archiving purposes. I can either burn them to a cd (but that makes indexing the archives pretty hard) or I put them on another external hard drive that only gets plugged in when i need the data. Sounds like a plan ? Maybe, lets face it : One external drive is only ONE external drive. You can add ANOTHER one but then you would go like .. hmm where did i put this and that .. etc. If only you had ONE BIG PLACE to store everything, that “grows
along” with you as you go along.

So instead of putting my backups and my ‘old data’ on “passed down” drives that I have taken out of my system, i’m going to try something else. Lets face it. Since 1 terrabyte drives have become dirt cheap, I found I had several older drives just “lying around” A 500 gig, a couple of 250’s, A 320 .. a couple of 160’s.. you name it. Putting them all in several enclosures just is not very practical (again : the data is ‘fragmented’ that way) and it would be nicer to ‘accumulate’ all of that storage into one big place.

So there are two solutions you can go for. Freenas is one of them : Take an old beige box you have lying around, chuck ALL of your drives inside. Install Freenas on a usb stick, boot from such usb stick and presto : you have a fileserver. (mind you, its a fileserver that is capable of automated backups, connecting to windows, mac and Linux machines, even SSH access (yes yes, we LOVE our SSH) and more.

Dirtcheap, easy and it gives all of your ‘older drives’ a new lease on life. You can either use it as your “primary” storage solution (mind you : lotsa drives make lotsa heat and eat lotsa power) Or you can use it as your “archive solution”. A system you power up every now and then to write and access some data that you have “stored away” in the bigg-arse drivecluster you setup with freenas.

Freenas DOES support raid solutions, but you have to make shure the drives are the same type/size/brand in order for your software raid to be effective.But since you have a “collection” of heterogenous drives you would like to merge into one storage blob and STILL need raid .. Freenas is not going to be able to help you.

How about a system thatlets you pop in whatever drive you have, add drives along the way, REMOVE drives along the way and STILL be able to keep all of your data. I know .. I can just hear you screaming ‘ DROBO DROBO ‘and yes .. you might be correct. Sure enough, the wonderfull Cali Lewis has pimped the Drobo to us geeks using her sweet southern tongue (she is such a sweetheart) so why don’t we go for the drobo ? 2 reasons : Its proprietary techonoly AND its DAMN EXPENSIVE. (and its limited to some 5 drives).

Enter “UNRAID” : Having the same basic setup as Freenas (Beige box, lotsa drives, usb stick) Unraid offers you the functionality of the Drobo at the price of the Freenas. You can add up to some 36 hard drives (hello !) because this solution is geared toward fast redundant media storage (where Freenas is more of a simple file server/archive solution). With Unraid (just like with the Drobo) you can swap out drives replacing the smallest drives with bigger drives as you go along.

Unraid takes care of the Raid array (making sure you don’t lose any data) and looks the other way when you mix up drives with different sizes, speeds and brands.. its just works. But the catch is that in order to do this, Unraid needs to keep a “master catalogue” of all your drives stored on the biggest harddrive in the collection. So lets say you have a 500, and four 250 gig drives : then you’re gonna have one gig of storage because the largest drive is your ‘insurance drive’ that makes sure that everything is going to be a-ok when one of the drives goes south.

Sure : if you pop in a One Terrabyte drive for this, you can add 750 or 500 gig drives as much as you want. And as long as you keep adding ‘more and more’ drives, your storage is going to increase .. as long as they don’t go any larger in size then your ‘insurance drive’ there is no problem. But thats not always how it works. If I would like to use then UNRAID with the harddrives I lay off along the way .. the drives are going to get BIGGER everytime. Adding up to 36 drives is cool and will give you MASSIVE (and secure) storage. But the resulting machine would need quite a bit of juice to keep it going AND could easily heat up a small greenhouse (global warming anyone ?). Add to that that the FREE version of UNRAID only supports 3 drives and you have to pay (allbeit not that much) for the pro version.. I’ll probably stick to freenas.

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