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3/23/2006
06:33 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: A Complete Terabyte File Server For About $500

Fred Langa shows you how to get amazing file server capacity at an amazing price.

Fred LangaA short while ago, I received a challenge from a reader who didn't believe me when I said in print that it was possible to put together a brand-new terabyte (1,000 Gbytes) file server for around $500. Well, you can, and I did. The example system I put together now resides on the far side of my office, offering up a thousand gigabytes--that's a lot of disk space!--as network storage on my office LAN.

The heart of my terabyte server is a modest array of high-capacity drives. In assembling that system, I realized that because large, single hard drives are more or less standard in many new PCs, most users have never had to deal with the details of drive installation, initialization, and configuration, either for adding multiple drives to a system or for swapping drives. Both these processes raise questions as to the safest and best way to set things up as well as to avoid data loss, especially if you're moving a current PC's setup and files to a new drive.

So we presented some preparatory information in "Another Hidden Gem: The Windows Disk Management Tool." There, we looked at a little-known tool built into Windows for creating, formatting, or deleting partitions and drives; changing drive letter assignments and paths; and so on. Knowledge of that tool can enormously simplify your hard-drive management tasks.

Next, in "How To Safely Add Or Replace A Hard Drive," we looked at a slightly nonstandard way of physically adding a drive to an existing, in-use system--a way I find much easier than the methods recommended by some drive manufacturers.

While the information in both the above articles stands on its own, it also serves as the foundation for this article. In the following passages, we'll look at that from-scratch, $500 terabyte server, including where I got the parts and for exactly how much.

Now let's get started.

Special-Purpose NAS Versus PC-Based NAS
Several companies offer ready-made, terabyte-class special-purpose NAS (network-attached storage) devices, and for some circumstances they're nearly ideal. For example, Buffalo Technology offers a NAS device with 1 Tbyte of storage that normally lists for around $1,400. With careful shopping, you can find it for much less; as of this writing, the best price I could find on Froogle.com was $750. (It's possible to find even lower prices from time to time in one-off sales such as eBay auctions, but for the purposes of this article we'll be looking at normal retail channels.) This kind of NAS is more or less plug-and-play, but focuses on one function only: adding storage.

For our 1 Tbyte NAS/file server, I chose a different tack, using a standard PC as the host hardware. Shared storage via a PC can deliver the same effective benefits as a vanilla NAS unit while also offering a few advantages. For example, it uses standard, commodity-level parts and familiar, well-proven technologies. Not only does this keep the prices down, but it also means all your normal PC knowledge applies--there's nothing new or different to learn. And because the server is a normal PC, it can also be used as such, performing any and all normal PC tasks in addition to the NAS-specific task of adding massive storage to the network. Having the storage in a standard PC further means you can have direct access to the 1 Tbyte of disk space (as opposed to network-only access for a classic NAS unit), and your 1 Tbyte file server can act as a backup or spare PC for your operations.

Familiarity, low costs, high operational flexibility--there's a lot to be said for this approach to massive storage!

But the downside is that it's not a fully plug-and-play system. You can't just take it out of the box, plug it in, and instantly have 1 Tbyte of space available. Rather, there's a little extra shopping to do and a little screwdriver-type assembly. Only you can determine if the benefits outweigh this extra effort. For me, they certainly do. And I believe many small-office/small-business setups are in the same situation as I am.

So to be clear, I'm not trying to talk anyone out of deploying a standard NAS device--there are times when that's definitely the simplest, best approach. On the other hand, there are also tens of millions of businesses that could use extra storage and 1) might find a conventional NAS overkill and 2) see a PC-based NAS as a great alternative, especially given the cost differential.

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