Homeserver – From Windows Server to unRAID (Linux) and back again

I was quite happy with my old WHS 2011, running on a self-build box with a Intel Matrix Raid 5 (that’s the one you configure in your BIOS) until I ran out of disk space. Fortunately I never had a failed disk either, but Raid – be it hardware or software based, is a thing of the past. You are just not flexible when it comes to upgrading your storage.

You can’t just simply pull out a HDD and insert a bigger drive. And upgrading 4-5 drives at the same time is quite expensive. So I knew that I needed another solution. I never liked Raid 1 or something similar (like Drivebender which duplicates Data across multiple physical volumes) due to the fact that I lose 50% of my storage space. That’s too expensive for me as well. Most of my data are media files, which can be replaced if needed. Still I don’t want to leave them completely unprotected.
Important files, like personal photographs should always be backed up and not just in your household but stored at a remote location as well (in case of fire etc).

So last year I searched for a solution and found unRAID. It looked very promising. First of all, it was Linux based (hooray), runs from an USB stick, so you don’t waste a SATA port, and it comes with Raid 5 like redundancy but you are flexible to exchange your hard drives. That is due to the fact, that one drive (the biggest) stores the parity information wile the other drives come with a “normal” filesystem (ReiserFS in this case). Reads are done from one disk and writes are done to one disk + parity disk.
If more than one drive fail, you can still mount the remaining drives and access their data.

But there are some drawbacks, I didn’t notice at first. Write speeds at around 20-30 MB/s (due to parity calculation from all disks) really suck when you move GB of movies. Yes a cache drive did help to improve this, but it also added even more to the high power consumption. For some reason Linux isn’t optimized at all. My server, when idling and HDD spun down, used the same amount of power as with WHS 2011 when streaming a movie to my TV. Also I couldn’t get S3 Sleep to work good enough, so I always had to shutdown and boot the server again. Sure that might be hardware related, but it worked fine with Windows. My additional 2-port SATA card was also not working. As soon as it was plugged in the server wouldn’t boot anymore so I had to purchase a different one. Both cards work flawlessly under Windows and you don’t even need to install additional drivers (except if you want to install Windows on a drive connected to the controller).

Back to the S3 Sleep problem. Usually XBMC sends a Wake-on-LAN signal to the server when I turn it on and the WHS 2011 was there even before you could select a movie. unRAID takes about 40 seconds to boot. If you try to play a movie from XBMC when the network share is unavailable it prompts you to remove it from the Library – that sucks.

I also wanted to use the server to store Client Backups from Windows and Macs. Well in Windows 8.1 Microsoft removed the complete backup function and replaced it with File history. You can still create a system image but for some reason it never accepted unRAID as destination. Time Machines Backups did work, but were very slow and I didn’t dare to try a fullrestore. Instead I ended up purchasing a used Time Capsule (great device, really). So much for my Backup Plans.

Last but not least, there aren’t a lot of plugins. The new Air Video HD Server is unavailable on unRAID and I didn’t figure out how to host an iTunes Server. So after a couple of months it was clear that I needed something else. Before I moved to unRaid I had a look at Server 2012 Essentials and didn’t like it very much due to the really bad implementation of Storage Spaces – and I really wanted some kind of Redudancy + Pooling.

So I gave Server 2012 R2 Essentials a try. At first it seemed that Storage Spaces improved, but after some testing it was clear that it still sucks monkey balls. But the power consumption is much lower and I would be able to install a lot more software. Also I really missed the Windows Client Backup which automatically turns on your Clients at night, backs them up and then put everything to sleep again.

It was clear I had to move back to Windows. Server 2012 R2 Essentials really is a good successor to WHS 2011 (aside from the Storage Space crap) but two pressing issues had to be solved:
Redundancy and Drive Pooling

In the next post I will discuss the different solutions to those issues.

Summary of issues with unRAID

  • High power consumption (even when idling and disk spun down)
  • Lack of Plugins / 3rd Party Programms (there are some Slackware packages but it was very tedious to find those)
  • Hardware issues (Sleep, crash with certain SATA controllers)
  • Performance sucks without Cache drive
  • ReiserFS is dead and I don’t see any reason to use it nowadays

What I really liked about unRAID

  •  Runs from USB, doens’t need another SATA port
  • Ability to hide folders (access only via UNC path)
  • Network Share compatibility was great, worked perfect from Windows, Mac and Linux

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