I know, I get it. I’ve been doing too many technology-based entries lately.
But c’mon, we both knew this was always gunna be the case.

I am going to build my own NAS at some stage. It is not THAT nerdy in the scheme of things. I mean, it could be worse - I could be stuck in a Star Wars convention: a group of freaks with too much time who all heavily they believe they have the force, talking about Magic (The Gathering), Warhammer and their favorite programming language.

So why a NAS? Well, let’s say you own 1000CDs and 500DVDs. Or you have downloaded that amount (not that I condone that sort of behavior). If you are going to store whole DVDs (not entirely a bad idea for preserving quality but there’s better ideas out there), that is anywhere from 4gb to almost 9gb. And that is for one movie. Do this over 100 or so times and you’re gunna need some space. And then anywhere between 30mb right through to 100mb for an album (depending on the quality rip) and you are looking at quite a large amount of space. The thing is these days there are plenty of sites with downloadable material you would normally have to fork out hand over wallet to purchase in the stores. Not to mention demos of your favourite band, iTunes store downloads or purchased albums/movies you would like backed up in case the discs ever get scratched beyond belief. And what a better place to store it than in a NAS?

Hard drives are cheap these days which makes this sort of thing even more practical which means the days of forking out $400 for a 20GB drive are over. Having said that, finding hardware at a consumer-entry level which is reliable are over, too. So really, to find out exactly what you want you need to ask yourself a series of questions to find out which product is best suited for you:

A NAS comes in two forms: Store-bought NAS or Home Made (File Server).
Neither is better than the other but if you plan on making one yourself, just be prepared to do more setting up of the device than the a store-bought one. A store bought NAS has typically a small case for physical storage but is more expensive, too. There is nothing stopping you from buying a smaller case and making your own but you have to make allowances.

How much do you want to spend on a NAS? (As the sky is the limit)
If you do not want invest time into wanting to know more about a NAS and just get one to start storing data, you could be looking at a store bought NAS (and as I mentioned, they’re quite expensive for what they are). You have options like a Drobo which are made perfectly for the person who (and it is the example they use on their website) does home movies or owns a studio and wants to save everything that is recorded somewhere easily without all the hassle (which would be most of the population).
Conversely, if you have plenty of time and do have that curiosity but do not want to spend a fortune in the process, a home made NAS would be your best option.

How much data are we storing?
This option is actually quite in-depth because you have a number of options. Something like a Drobo (or a hot-swappable NAS) can have space added to it at anytime so you can start out with small, cheap hard drives and add to them later. Whereas a home made NAS might not have that commodity. You would have to shell out all the money for the biggest hard drives up front. And then if you need to upgrade (purchasing bigger drives), you would need to find a way to copy data from the old smaller drives to the new bigger drives which can be a complex or at least painful process.

How anal do you want to be about storing your stuff?
With each of these questions, you will be faced with a number of options and this is why it has taken me so long to make the decisions I have. Each of the different setups of how you have you discs arranged logically will be in some form of RAID. Alternatively, you can have JBOD (Just A bunch Of Disks) which is simply a bunch of different disks put together in a loose and unorganized fashion. There is absolutely no redundancy with this option.
Why do I need redundancy? Well, you do not have to. It is not compulsory but if you have a hard drive die on you, the data is gone forever. The most common RAID set ups are usually RAID0, RAID1, RAID5 and RAID10 (which is a combination of RAID0 and RAID1). It does start to get in depth with what each one does but I can explain each one reasonably easy:

RAID0: Takes every physical disk and makes it one logical disk. Eg. If you have 4 x 1TB drives, that will give you one (logical, meaning you only see one drive on the computer) disk of 4TB. This is typically for speed, not redundancy. If one drive fails, the array dies and you\’ve lost everything.

RAID1: Takes half of the drives and uses the other half for redundancy. Eg. If you have 4 x 1TB drives, 2TB will store the data and the other 2TB will mirror the exact same data. So if one drive fails, no biggie. This is generally slower to copy data across to as it has to copy things twice. This makes the acronym RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) an antonym.

RAID5: This one is tricky: takes one disk out of the array for redundancy which is spread over the amount of disks. Eg. If you have 4 x 1TB drives, you have 3TB of space. That 1TB is redundancy which is span over each of the drives. If one drive dies, meh. This is usually the most common and money efficient way to create redundancy.

RAID10: Combines RAID1 and RAID0 together. So if you had 6 x 1TB disks you could split them into 2 x of RAID0 (one big drive of 3TB). If 2 drives dies in each of the RIAD0, no biggie. This however is expensive (sometimes not supported on low-end hardware RAID set ups) and can be a little complex to set up.

Once you have made the decision on which way to go, then you ANOTHER option: Hardware RAID? Or Software RAID? Now before you roll your eyes or start crying like there is a never ending line of questions you don’t have answers to, this is not too complicated. With a hardware RAID you are relying on a physical RAID controller (which might be inbuilt into a motherboard or it might be a separate RAID card you can buy. Hardware RAID is expensive and you would only really look an option like buying a hardware RAID if you building intensive servers that would used by business’. In which case, you are looking in the wrong area as we only want to build a NAS for the home. One of the major pros to running a Hardware RAID is that it certainly performs well. The only downside I can see is if the RAID controller dies, unless you buy the exact same RAID controller…the data is lost. Plus, hardware RAID are not portable between controllers.

You could have a software RAID. What this means is you do not have the hardware taking control of how the data is stored. Some people don’t like this option because if the software ever did crash you could loose all the data. But in most cases (depending on what OS you install), there is just as much (or as little) chance of software crashing as there is the hardware dying. A software RAID becomes completely reliant on software to drive the RAID and can be slower on the whole than a hardware RAID. Since this is going to be used in a home, it won’t really matter and the performance is not going to be extremely different in a home environment where you might only have 5 users accessing the data at any one time. Obviously though, if you spent $20,000 on a data server, you would get a better performance out of something you spent $1000 on. It also gets harder and requires more specialized software depending on the configuration of your RAID. For instance, if you wanted something other than a RAID0, RAID1, RAID5 or RAID10 (as they are the most common configurations), you might have to dig deeper than just installing an OS which may not support that type of RAID.

How many computers will be accessing the data?
If you have many computers accessing the data, you will want to cater for this by not only the sort of services this NAS offers (see below), the RAID configuration and the Network itself in which they access the data.

Eg. It would be wasteful to have a your RAID built for speed if you then stick a wireless card in it and share the data. The bottleneck would be transferring the data out to the rest of the network and then you add multiple users and you have brewed yourself a shit storm. The NAS might be able to handle the amount of users but pump out the data to them in such a slow way, it seems rather pointless. If it was only you who would access the data and the hard drives are kinda old or performance is no P1, then the wireless configuration would make sense especially if the NAS was located in an area that would be too awkward to get to by wire.

What OS (Operating System) did you want to install to run the NAS?
Before you make your decision on this ask yourself, “What kind of computers are going to be accessing my data?”. Will they be Apple iMacs? Linux Boxes? Windows machines? Each different operating system has a different way of accessing the machine so whatever the choice of the OS is, make sure your NAS will support it. It can be easy to set up RAIDs in XP, various Linux versions and if you are crazy enough OSX. There is even several OS’ dedicated to being a NAS called FreeNAS, NASLite and OpenFiler. A simple Google search will display there are plenty of places to learn how to use something like FreeNAS: http://www.learnfreenas.com/.

Do you want to provide any other services?
One of the very cool options in most NAS’ is the ability to host an iTunes server. This is sometimes not possible depending on what OS and software you have installed but generally speaking there is always 3rd party software which can do this. The thing is you have many iTunes alternatives if you are not keen on installing iTunes. So you can run an iTunes server and stream music over the network WITHOUT installing slow, shitty iTunes on your computer. If your network is properly configured and everything is running squeaky, this can be a seamless task rather than having the data stored on your computer.

Another service available to you is hosting a computer image on the NAS. How is this beneficial? Well, if you use Acronis® True Image Home 2009 and your computer dies, assuming the NAS is still fully operational, you do not have to kill yourself over the amount of data you have just lost if you computer dies. You can reload how your computer was from the NAS. Nice.

One of the things FreeNAS (as above) can do is connect to your NAS to a TiVO. Very cool.

Now once the decisions have been made, and you have made (or bought) the NAS, installed the OS…what now? Well, to make things more interesting there is one further step. You could have an old computer hooked up to the TV (even a really cheap entry level machine these days does a lot for little). And that computer is hooked to the network so, it can download from the NAS with ease. Let’s take this one step further and install a program that makes Foxtel IQ tame in comparison. You have many programs like SageTV, the Good-looking yet retarded MS Media Centre, MediaPortal, GB-PVR, MythTV or TVersity. Why would you even bother? Well, it is not really all that necessary especially if you know the directory structure of your own NAS. But, it does make things easier to manager with added flexibility. Plus it makes it gives the display to all your shit stashed on your NAS a nicer edge and a more friendly GUI (Graphical User Interface).

This all may seem a little overwhelming at first (hell, if I felt it as an IT-savvy user then those less technically inclined will have more to struggle with). Although as I mentioned previously, a store bought NAS does make things rather easy as it is finding how you want your data stored and then using simple utilities to make it so. But, if you want to invest the time this could be very worth while.