A tribute to my under-appreciated home file servers


— 11:37 PM on August 19, 2010

I spend an almost embarrassing amount of time in front of my desktop PC. It's my workhorse, and the system that I endeavor to keep the most up to date. My home-theater PC gets used daily, as well. This system has coveted spot in the living room and even a glamorous role in the entertainment business. My sleek ultraportable notebook? She can often be found sitting on my lap, back arched, letting me push all her buttons.

The family of PCs I keep running at home includes a file server, as well, but it's mostly out of mind. I seldom think about the system, let alone talk about it, yet I access its contents daily. Not directly, of course, but on a deeply impersonal level through mapped network drives.

Despite getting little attention, my faithful file server works tirelessly. Like a 7-11, it's open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Within its walls live two terabytes worth of data I share between all the other PCs in my home. This storage box also serves on the front lines of my backup strategy, and it's the repository for my most, ahem, precious videos.

In return for diligent service, I bury this system in the closet—and not even the closet in my office, but the one next to the water heater in the laundry room. There it sits, sequestered from the rest of the world and surrounded by boxes of old review samples. Indeed, my file server is currently lying under a pile of boxed hardware.

I banished this server to the equivalent of the very back room because there's really no better place for it in the house. Keeping the system behind closed doors nicely mutes what little noise it makes, and unlike in my increasingly crowded office, there's actually room in the closet. Besides, the file server only requires an Ethernet cable and power—no keyboard, mouse, monitor, or other peripherals.

Since it's not going anywhere, I'll instead use this forum to give my file server the props it deserves. And not just for this box, but the several generations of network-attached storage rigs that have graced my homes over the years.

Forgive my fuzzy memory on the subject, because I've never paid all that much attention to these systems. I'm not even sure when the first one was pressed into service, but I do know that it was an old Dell desktop from back before I started building my own PCs. In other words, a very, very long time ago. The Dell had a Pentium II under the hood and a hard drive that would no doubt be considered just as anemic by today's standards. However many gigabytes it had proved to be sufficient for the files I was looking to store and serve at the time. I added a couple of drives to the system over its life, too.

As the years passed, the Dell grew louder, its fan bushings whining under the strain of constant friction. Eventually, I ran out of free space and available hard drive bays. An upgrade was in order, so I cobbled together a new system with parts I had lying around. This build happened so long ago that I haven't the faintest idea which components were used. Certainly, they were nothing special. I do remember this second-gen file server running Windows 2000, and it definitely didn't have a RAID array. At time time, I didn't have the budget to splurge on matched hard drives.

I decided to take backups more seriously with this new file server, in part because I never seemed to get around to burning my important files to disc. The solution I came up with was a crude one at best: a couple of batch files scheduled to run in the wee hours of the morning and copy all my work and personal files from shared folders on my desktop. Ugly as it might have been, the batch files never failed to run, and the backups they created proved invaluable on more than a few occasions.

For a time, this newly minted backup server also did most of my graph exporting from Excel. The older version of Excel I was using at the time didn't properly export graphs when running under Windows XP, which just happened to be on both my desktop and my laptop. Windows 2000 had continued as my OS of choice for the file server, and with a little help from VNC, that system must have produced thousands of the graphs you've seen in reviews over the years.

At some point probably less than two years ago, the motherboard blew a capacitor, plunging the system into instability. As little attention as my file server got, it was a mission-critical element of my home network and even my livelihood, and an immediate replacement was in order.

Once more, I gathered together some parts I had lying around the lab: a low-end Core 2 Duo, an Asus motherboard based on an Intel P965 chipset with south-bridge RAID 5 support, and a passively-cooled GeForce 6200 graphics card. To these components, I added a copy of Windows XP from an old laptop, an Antec Sonata enclosure from an older desktop build, a beefy OCZ PowerStream PSU that can be fine-tuned to compensate for voltage lines that might sag over time, and a trio of terabyte Caviar Green hard drives that happened to be on sale at just the right time. On everything but the storage front, this system was certainly overkill. Reviewing hardware for a living certainly has me spoiled in the spare hardware department.

Ever the creature of habit, I migrated my old backup solution to the new system. What these batch files lacked in elegance they had already more than balanced with an impeccable service record. They were quickly replaced when Windows 7 arrived, though. Thanks to Shadow Copy, my desktop is now in charge of backups, using the file server as little more than a dumping ground.

There's really nothing special about this latest file server's configuration. The hard drives are running in RAID 5, giving me 2TB of fault-tolerant storage capacity. I did tweak the hard drives to enable Time-Limited Error Recovery—a feature that's generally reserved for more expensive enterprise-class hard drives (Shhhh, don't tell Western Digital). TLER is supposed to stop drives from prematurely dropping out of an array because they've spent too long chasing down an error, but my array seems to lose a drive every four to six months for no apparent reason. It's never the same one, and marking the supposedly failed drive as normal in the RAID control panel always results in a successful rebuild. Other than that occasional hiccup, this machine has been chugging along drama-free.

Based on its service thus far, I have every expectation that the most recent step in the evolution of my home file server will be around for quite a while. This new rig also has more ports and expansion capacity than its predecessors, so I'll be able to add several more hard drives without much trouble. I may have already taken this system for granted, but at least I've sung its praises here. Perhaps now it won't be forgotten entirely.

   
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