So I was pretty intrigued when Fred Langa wrote an article describing how he set up a terabyte server for under $500. It just so happens that I could really use a big server myself – right now I’ve been doing music storage, backups, etc. to a big drive on one of my regular machines, and that causes problems from time to time.

Of course, when Fred was writing about this, he was comparing his server to something like the Buffalo Terastation, which would have suited my needs pretty well. But building your own is always more fun, right?

So I launched into a similar project, based on a $149 Fry’s Geode cheap PC and four 300G Maxtor drives. My plan was to use the four drives to build a RAID-5 system, giving me some reliability – in a system with perfect software, it would take a simultaneous failure of two drives before I lose anything.

And that’s where Fred totally snookered me. Sure, he put together a 1T server – but he didn’t build a Buffalo Terastation, because he didn’t create a RAID system – he didn’t even combine all those into a single big disk, making his server a lot less reliable and useful.

Fred recommended using Puppy Linux, which he ran off a USB key. I loved the idea, because it let me use all four channels for hard drives. But as far as I can tell, Puppy Linux doesn’t offer much in the way of support for RAID volumes.

No problem, because there’s a project out there called FreeNAS, which like Puppy, runs nicely off a USB key, and better yet, has a beautiful web-based interface for managing RAID volumes. I thought for sure I was on the way to total success with this system, and had it configured, up and running, and working pretty well – until the first time I had to reboot my system. That’s when I found out that the FreeBSD software RAID drivers are apparently well-known to be bug-ridden, and in fact it was highly recommended that I forget the software RAID in BSD and go straight to a hardware controller.

Next stop: OpenFiler, which is like FreeNAS on steroids. The 2.0 beta has even better software RAID support, and the Linux software RAID drivers are in theory a little more reliable. But guess what? I struck out here as well. OpenFiler requires that you have an external authentication system, Active Directory, NIS, or something like that. Sorry, if I had an authentication server at home, I would probably already have my RAID setup on that as well!

So no-go on the second specialized NAS system. I’ve got plenty of options left, and I’m plowing through them now. I don’t want to spend a lot of money, so software-based solutions are best. Here’s what I’ll be trying out over the next few weeks:

  • Windows 2003 Server – I can get a free copy through my student MSDN subscription, it can actually run on this anemic system I have -the question is how well. I have a fairly high level of trust of Microsoft’s software RAID-5 implemenation.
  • Some Linux – The basic Linux implementation of RAID-5 has been around for a while, and I guess I trust it pretty well, but the admin tools seem non-existent.
  • Cheap RAID card. I can get something like the Highpoint Tech RocketRaid 454 for under $100. Only problem is, while this is billed as a Hardware RAID controller, it actually uses the host PC to do parity calculations, so you need drivers to support your host O/S.
  • Expensive RAID card. If I’m ready to cough up a few hundred bucks, I can get something like the most excellent 3Ware Escalade 7506, which does all the work on the card, meaning you don’t need special drivers.

So hat’s off to Fred – he pulled the classic salesman gambit, in which he got me to believe he had solved problems that seemed to be an obvious part of the problem. In his case, the “obvious part of the problem” is that you don’t want a 1T server to look like four separate hard drives that aren’t RAID-worthy.