NAS 2016 Project

1 Vision & Goals

I want to build small NAS for almost 2 years before I started. When I finally started to study the topic I quickly found out fulfilling my need would not be an easy task. Initially, I was looking to build a system with five or six 3.5” drives, but later decided that one of main goals is the size (cubature). However amount of drives remain important as I expect to have advanced RAID configuration.

Digging for cases that would fit my disks I’ve accidentally spotted very interesting product Icy Dock ToughArmor MB996SP-6SB. This cage allows you to fit six 2.5” SATA hard drives into a single 5.25” bay. There is other more extreme option MB998SP-B, which allows eight 2.5” 7mm SATA drives into a single 5.25” bay; the problem – I return to it later – is to find a motherboard with 8 SATA ports.

When I found this cage I decided to build my small NAS basing on six 2.5” SATA drives. There are not very expensive Samsung SpinPoint ST2000LM003 hard disks 2TB in capacity. The speed of these disks are not very important factor for me. Additional advantage of these disks is the energy consumption; a single ST2000LM003 requires only 0.65A @ 5V. That gives less than 20W for six drives.

The planned server is intended to mainly host my photos giving me easy access to them but freeing my main drive from the weight of large JPEGs and even larger NEFs. Moving to higher resolution DSLR made such need even more important. I don’t need to carry all of them every time I move witch my notebook, they’re even more fragile kept on the main drive. Certainly server still needs backups.

2 Planning

To build a small server for more advanced home usage I need following elements: disk drives, mother board, processor, memory and – finally – the case to fit everything, plus some minor stuff like SATA cables or power connectors. The need for latter one is explained later.

2.1 Motherboard

Finding the modern motherboard that would have at least 6 SATA ports and still be Mini ITX in size was a bit of challenge. I dug a lot trying to find the motherboard available in Europe for modern CPU, the one without old crap like VGA ports. The LGA1150 seemed like good choice with different CPU options available. I didn’t find any motherboard for AMD CPU with 6 SATA ports. With some balance between the price and features, Gigabyte GA-H97N grabbed my attention, unfortunately the variant freed from WiFi which I don’t need in the server wasn’t available, and hence I ended up with GA-H97N-WIFI model.

This mother board is more for HTPC and even gamers as the PCI-e 16x slot allows to put quite powerful graphics card into your machine. But I couldn’t find anything else with at least 6 SATA ports. I have even the observation that the number of ports on Mini-ITX boards decreases. For my need perfect size would be Mobile-ITX with 6 SATA ports, but that is something I can only dream about.

I even tried to find Mini-ITX board with 8 SATA ports, but these seem to not exist at all. In theory there were some server boards of such size with 8 SATAs, none of them are available or affordable for average customer like me. The only option to have additional ports is to add PCIe card with additional SATA ports.

2.2 Chassis

Selecting the chassis (the case) is a challenge, because there are not many really small cases for Mini ITX mother boards with the external 5.25” bay. The requirement comes from my previous choice of ThougArmor drive cage. There is no reasonable explanation to my choice, except the fact I personally like this IcyDock product and it let me replace drives easily. We’re now entering the SSD era and I expect prices fall by half till the end of 2016. I already seen SSD drives with over 3TB of capacity, while 500GB can be bought for less than £100.

This is the list of cases I found that match that requirement:

W

H

L

Cubature

PCICase CYS81-150FSS

95

250

265

6.29

Antec ISK 300-65

96

222

328

6.99

In-Win BM639

112

264

230

6.80

In-Win BP655

100

265

310

8.22

In-Win BM677

112

264

330

9.76

ThermalTake Element Qi VL520B1N2U

130

220

330

9.44

ThermalTake SD101

119

264

261

8.20

First two on this list are pretty problematic. PCICase company doesn’t seem to offer their cases on the consumer market. Antec’s case on some pages is described as having full 5.25” bay while on others only slim slot for optical drives. Deeper analysis of pictures available confirmed the hole is only for slims. I was even considering some DIY on this case, but finally dropped that idea as the risk that the space in plastic front is not enough to fit full size 5.25” bay. BM639 and BP655 are older designs and offer weaker power supply and only USB 2.0 external ports (not a critical factor). ThermalTake SD101 seems to be not available in UK these days, while Element Qi is much more expensive and I could find it on stock. Moreover it has been criticized by plenty in comments on Amazon and some other sites.

The final choice was the case from In-Win the model BM677. To be honest, I’m very happy with the choice. This is very well designed case in overall.  It has some minor flaws, but it doesn’t affect overall good look and ease of use. This case can fit Mini-DTX motherboard (rare thing today) if the cage for 3.5” internal drives is removed.

2.3 CPU

During selection of a CPU I wasn’t tied to anything specific, except I was looking for Intel and not Atom. The boxed i3-4170 is an offer I found during my shopping, price was very attractive, so I chose this one. This choice would help me building a box which at the beginning will act as both NAS and multimedia HTPC.

2.4 RAM

My initial choice was 8GB of RAM, so I even bought GoodRam DIMMs with CL9. But later I came into conclusion that I want more as I’m going to give a hypervisor a try. Curiosity pulls me strongly towards that idea. It’s better to have more RAM to split between two guests operating systems.

As a result I ordered Crucial Ballistic Sport kit. I had reasonable price at Amazon, plus I utilize the birthday bonus they gave to everybody.

3 Shopping

3.1 Final choice

Final decision about the CPU choice and amount of the RAM installed lets me feed my growing appetite to use the machine to a bit more than just file server; I’ll highly probably use it to run some database and my private application and – if things goes as I currently expect – it may act as a multimedia player if I’ll be able to force the system to run XBMC for me (so it’ll act as HTPC for some time). But mainly it is going to keep collection of my photos at hand.

3.2 Costs

In the following table I’ve put the list of all components acquired by me to build the NAS with prices. These prices may be impossible to find in UK, however may be available in other European countries.

Unit price

Quantity

Price £

Samsung SpinPoint M9T 2TB (ST2000LM003)

75.94

6

455.64

Icy Dock ThoughArmor MB996SP-6SB

67.29

1

67.29

GoodRam Play 4GB 1600MHz DDR3 CL9 (GY1600D364L9S/4G)

16.09

2

32.18

Crucial Ballistix Sport 16 GB kit (8GBx2) 1600MHz DDR3 CL9 Memory Module

55.09

1

55.09

Gigabyte GA-H97N-WIFI

88.05

1

88.05

Intel Core i3-4170 (BX80646I34170)

85.63

1

85.63

Scan RB-413 SATA 15 Pin to 4 Pin Molex Gender Changer

1.76

2

3.52

15cm Phobya SATA III 6GB/s Certified Cable with Safety Latch

1.67

6

10.02

SATA 3 Ultra Slim Cable 50 cm with short connectors

6.58

1

6.58

SATA 3 Ultra Slim Cable 35 cm with short connectors

6.38

1

6.38

SATA 3 Ultra Slim Cable 25 cm with short connectors

6.18

2

12.24

SATA 3 Ultra Slim Cable 15 cm with short connectors

6.18

2

12.24

The motherboard comes with some two cables, but to fit all stuff nicely inside the case I needed shorter SATA cables. Additionally I decided to replace the power connection adapters attached to the IcyDock (8 cm cable) into converters Scan offered, that are very short.

As you may notice, hard drives were most expensive parts of this system. The table doesn’t take into account some additions I put later in the box, but which are not left unused, like SATA extension cars or Samsung SSD 120GB SSD drive (it can be used for ZFS caches in FreeNAS or to host operating system instance, for example RockStor).

I don’t estimate costs of work required to put all parts together, test it and install the proper operating system.

4 Putting pieces together

Let’s put all the stuff in the correct place and run everything. The first step is the installation of the CPU on the motherboard (as the manual says).

(TBD: mother board in the chassis, power supply connection, …)

There is a very small space left between SATA sockets 5 and 6 on this motherboard, as they are located at the edge that near the power supply just under the Icy Dock cage. I had to experiment with cables until I found best suited for this project are ultra slim cables with short connectors. That leaves enough space to lead one cable behind the power plug, on the edge of DIMM, around the whole motherboard and the CPU heatsink (the 50 cm one); the other one other way round, so it goes just under the power cables and then turns under the cage and it is laid along other four (35 cm). I found these slim cables extremely flexible and leaving a lot of space for the air flow.

5 Software Installation

I’ve decided to not give Rockstor a try. It’s a Linux base distribution dedicated to run the NAS & Cloud services which use BTRFS file system. But as a result it doesn’t seem mature enough in comparison to FreeNAS. In result I installed FreeNAS 9.10 which is currently a stable version based on FreeBSD 9.10 but stripped down to essentials required to act as a NAS with ZFS a main file system (to my surprise even on pendrive).

After some time, around middle of 2017 I've decided to give NAS4Free a try. It has more pleasant interface and uses more modern FreeBSD distributions as a base. As of March 2018, FreeNAS is on FreeBSD 11 as well, but it doesn't make the project more suitable for my needs now. NAS4Free is developed in true open source spirit, while FreeNAS is effectively a commercial product used by the company to run on their hardware. They keep it open for licensing and potential chance to get improvement and review by the community around them.