My home theater evolved in a piecemeal fashion and I found unRAID to be a simple and a low cost storage solution to my fragmented and burgeoning media collection. But simple ain’t easy and the tradeoffs might convince you that the new WHS is a better option. WHS and unRAID can also work in concert – many people use an old PC and unRAID as a backup for their WHS. This allows for performance gains and cost savings while having a complete backup of your media on a separate system.
I like to tell my wife that my reasons for ripping our DVDs were practical. Between a DVD player in the minivan and a hardwood floor under the family DVD player, the typical lifespan of a Blues Clues DVD was less than a month. An ISO backup of a new DVD for the kids was more an economic decision than one of convenience or media distribution. Unfortunately, the price of storing and streaming our entire DVD collection was still too expensive a few years ago. However, once the price of a 2TB consumer hard drive fell below $100, it became feasible to use an existing workstation as a storage server for my entire library of ISOs. I was also eager to cut the cord on our expensive cable providers and more storage was the key. Basically, I appealed to the hoary old chestnut: Honey, all of this stuff from Newegg is actually going to save us money.
IN THE BEGINNING, it was easy enough to shove hard drives into my beefy Windows workstation and create simple shares for movies. I played them over a wired network to an HTPC running Windows Media Center. This worked well until there was a proliferation of shares (Movies1,2,3,4) and I could no longer work in Photoshop while a movie was being served from my workstation. I had no data protection in the event that a hard drive failed and the thought of re-ripping and correcting metadata was daunting. The final reason for building a storage solution came with the purchase of a Dune Smart streamer and MyMovies software.
A single metadata aggregator and a single storage server were somewhat of a holy grail for me. After I installed and configured unRAID with MyMovies, I now run MyMovies on my main ripping workstation and my HTPC is a client for this metadata server. I also use MyMovies as the metadata aggregator for my Dune Smart H1. With unRAID, I have the freedom to try things like NFS for XBMC on Linux that were difficult on WHS.
A “Here Be Dragons” warning is in order because the subtle differences among storage technologies are argued ad nauseam among people (usually IT professionals) with strong opinions. I kept my focus on the cheapest way to store everything in a central location with some amount of data protection. My first thought was WHS, but my principle goal was achieving the biggest bang for buck. The problems with WHS mostly involved cost and the decision to abandon data duplication on the recent version. If I wanted data protection in WHS, I would have to go with the older version of WHS. Even if I decided to go with WHS for data protection, its mirroring technology meant that I would need twice the disk space for a given ISO or mkv. Even at low disk prices, these tradeoffs seemed too much for me.
Other products that I investigated also had tradeoffs between reliability, complexity, and cost. For example, hardware RAID is certainly faster than most software RAID, but it comes with vendor lock in. Many RAID solutions require same-sized disks that must be purchased at the beginning of the build. There are also other software RAID products (such as FlexRAID) that offer great data protection for free, but they don’t have a system for presenting a unified share of all my drives or the ability to off load work from my workstation. Still others are industrial strength solutions like ZFS and FreeNAS that can be tailored to the home server, but lack some of the ease of unRAID.
unRAID is basically a specialized Slackware (Linux) server that servers up Just a Bunch of Disks (JBOD) with a parity drive. This protects against a drive failure while allowing any sized disks (as long as the parity disk is the same size or larger). unRAID fills the disk with individual files rather than “striping” the data among disks. This means that in the event of multiple disk failures, the data on the surviving disks is recoverable.
unRAID hits my sweet spot for a pure media storage server for these reasons:
- Modest hardware requirements
- Unified shares with sophisticated data abstraction schemes
- Able to easily serve three HD streams over gigabit network with green drives
- Mature product with good support and documentation
- Ability to use existing hard drives
- Data protection (RAID)
- Power efficiency by spinning down drives that aren’t in use
- NFS server for Dunes and XBMC
- Try before you buy with up to 3 (2 data + 1 parity) disks
- Ability to grow the storage to 40TB usable with a mix of drive sizes
- Ability to backup family workstations to an unRAID server and to a cloud vendor (CrashPlan)
- Hardware flexibility – all components are easily replaced – even the motherboard
But this comes with some tradeoffs:
- You should be comfortable with simple command line syntax for the setup
- Patience is a requirement
- Write performance is good, but not great (~30-35 MB/s) on green drives
- Maximum of one parity drive
- Not suited for critical data
unRAID can be bittersweet because you can achieve Rock Solid® and dead simple operation, but you have to spend some time understanding how to properly set it up. However, setting up unRAID is more a matter of patience than of complexity.
In part two of this series I’ll be discussing hardware requirements, preparation steps, and walking through the unRAID installation process.