NAS vs Laptop Server vs External Hard Drives
September 12, 2020 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to figure out how to best meet my data storage needs in a cost-effective way. I was previously using a desktop external HDD plugged into my router, and it's time for an upgrade. I'm trying to balance my perpetual lean toward frugality with practicality, and am looking for advice from more seasoned folks. A couple of snowflake-y details within.

I previously had a large external hard drive plugged in to my router. After an unfortunate incident, this has broken, and now I'm trying to figure out the best approach moving forward.

I am relatively tech-savvy, or at least able to learn, but I don't know a whole lot about networking or hardware, so some of these questions and assumptions may be naive.

Here are my needs:
-Using this to back up family photos
-Using this to back up computers (using Time Machine)
-Using this for torrents
-Using this to play media. We play media through laptops, so transcoding is probably not necessary. I figure I can set something up with Plex in the future if I need.

Some other caveats:
-It will be me and my wife and I using this.
-We will probably be moving internationally across an ocean in the next couple of years. Therefore, it would be great if we could swap out the power supply to accommodate another country's voltage and socket.
-I would certainly like to spend less than $500, and ideally less than $400 (including drives).

Here are my questions:
-I have an old Thinkpad lying around, and have toyed with the idea of turning it into a server. I am also considering getting an entry-level 2-bay NAS (looking at Synology's 220J, 218, and 220+). If my goal is reliability, should I just go with the NAS? I would like to be as cost-effective as I can, but I am also willing to spend a bit extra to avoid headaches, and maximize reliability.
-I previously had a desktop external hard drive plugged into my router. I would connect to this with my Macbook using SMB. This had some reliability issues. Playing large media often had buffering issues which I could not resolve (and I would often wind up copying files to my computer before playing). My wife also had issues when transferring videos taken on her phone - these were prone to corruption if they were above a certain size. Will a NAS (or laptop-server) avoid these issues?
-If we go with the NAS, should I choose HDDs or SSDs? The price of an SSD feels prohibitive compared to an HDD, but particularly given the fact that we are expecting to move a long distance, having something a bit more resilient is more appealing. Is this silly/should this not be a consideration? Will I have any trouble moving with HDDs if they are not plugged in? Given how common it is for people to use HDDs for this sort of thing, I am assuming that read speed shouldn't be noticeable for media - is this a fair assumption?
-If I go with the NAS, should it be possible to play media even when not on our local network? What protocol would I use to connect in that case?
posted by taltalim to Technology (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a Western Digital MyCloud Home and it does everything you mention (except maybe torrenting, I haven't tried that), to include hosting a Plex Server. We have a two-MacOS, three-Windows, two Chromebook household and no issues at all with compatibility. With the Western Digital app, I can access everything on the MyCloud no matter where I am (even on my phone, for what it's worth).

The 8TB EX2 is a bit more robust, and is $395 on Amazon right now. The AC Adapter is 110v-240v, so you should be covered on that side.

I have a bit of experience with networking and with setting up servers manually from a previous job, and I just didn't want to go with the headache for something as small as the three of us. I just couldn't beat the ease of setup for MY purposes.
posted by Master Gunner at 11:58 AM on September 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: >If we go with the NAS, should I choose HDDs or SSDs? The price of an SSD feels prohibitive compared to an HDD, but particularly given the fact that we are expecting to move a long distance, having something a bit more resilient is more appealing.

SSD is great for random access, but streaming is okay with spinning rust in a HDD. Bang for buck gets you terabytes of space versus gigabytes you can access in nanoseconds, so I'd pick HDD for long-term storage, with the warning that you should expect to replace them after five years of always-on use. When it comes to travel, there's nothing moving in a solid-state disk and, powered down, the mechanism of spinning disk can handle impacts with the force of tens of standard gravity do you shouldn't fear travel.
posted by k3ninho at 12:25 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I met all of your use cases including remote access to media (plus several more of my own) by purpose-building a Debian box from scratch on a cheap ADATA NVMe SSD, making a ZFS pool out of several shucked 10TB EasyStores, and setting up one of those Sonarr/Radarr/Lidarr/Plex/QBT docker-compose setups that float around on github. I bought more prosumer-end hardware to do this than you would probably want to buy because I'm a hardware snob and a silence snob, but the whole architecture scales up or down pretty easily.

If you wanted to build this on the cheap or with used hardware you absolutely could. The popular $125 "NAS Killer" build is a widely-followed guide that makes use of stuff you can easily get on eBay for cheap.
posted by majick at 12:32 PM on September 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I shaved this yak for years and I settled on a Synology NAS a little while back. I've been super happy with it. I bounced from an iMac with external disks, to a Raspberry Pi, to some router thing. The best part about the Synology has been that it's very plug-n-play. It has solid support and a great ecosystem. Suddenly I don't do very much home-IT work.

I have a four-bay model with big iron disks, they've been great. My wifi is way more of a bottleneck than the disk itself. It's hard to beat the amount of storage you get for the price.

If you're looking for a thrifty alternative, QNAP exists. I would definitely avoid them. Two friends have had their devices loose chunks of data in a weirdly unrecoverable way.
posted by thebigdeadwaltz at 12:36 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

My first foray into having a "NAS" was:
- An old laptop (a netbook, even!) running linux.
- An external hard drive enclosure plugged into that laptop. Later expanded to two external hard drives. Then four.
- All redundancy/backup/data verification was done by software within linux, not expensive hardware. I'd recommend searching for info on ZFS, duplicity, and plain old rsyncing.
- Plex and torrents were also easy to run within linux, of course. I had trouble transcoding large, strange video files on a crummy laptop, but never any corruption. As long as files are in the right format, you shouldn't actually need to transcode at all.

So, really, I feel like you have all the pieces to start. You might also want to look into FreeNAS software, which isn't quite linux but has all the features we both need and then some.

Since I like to tinker, almost every piece has been swapped out or upgraded over time. It's all in a single case now, running a laptop-style motherboard. One SSD to boot, one SSD for cache, four HDDs, one external HDD for wildfire evacuations. I've not lost any data since I started (2010?). I don't believe you need to immediately jump to custom-built server, as you can work your way up to it.
posted by Snijglau at 12:54 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

One note - make sure you have a complete backup (preferably off site but failing that, an external hard drive that's not connected to anything unless it's being used). A NAS backup can't save you from ransomware or intentional but unwanted deletions.
posted by Candleman at 1:00 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've got a 4-bay Synology NAS DS918+, and while I do use Plex, I haven't actually started running Plex from the NAS yet, though that's in the plan. Plex (currently on my old desktop)does allow you to play media not from your local network. Pro-tip with Plex: Disable authentication for local clients, so you can still watch/listen while your internet's down.

If your NAS has 2 drives in it, you're limited to RAID 0 (striping, good for speed but not reliability) or RAID 1 (mirroring-- reliable but not fast). I faced some of the same pressures and so I chose the 4-drive NAS, which allows RAID 5 or RAID 6 or RAID 1+0, any of which combine the best of reliability and speed.

I got some 8GB Seagate drives, and while I got the slower 5400RPM drives, the increased speed of RAID 6 allows me to recover much of that speed loss-- I read data from all 4 drives at once.

Regarding offline backups, I also have a very large USB hard drive that only gets plugged in to the desktop once a week for overnight backup, and unplugged in the morning. It'll keep my most important files safe from ransomware and hopefully speed ransomware recovery (which is aided when you have a known-good unencrypted version of some of your files).
posted by Sunburnt at 2:21 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you happen to need a streaming box, too, the NVidia Shield TV (Pro only in the latest 2019 refresh) Android TV box can share a connected external hard drive in pretty much the same way your router did. It can also run Plex Media Server, run retro console emulators, and stream games to your TV in addition to the basic YouTube/Netflix/Hulu/Prime Video type tasks.

It'll even play/DVR live OTA or cable TV with an appropriate tuner connected.

It's not any more of a real NAS than your router was, but if you just need a place to put files, it will do.

In any case, if you are storing things you can't afford to lose on a device, you need to have a separate backup of the data on that device. That's true even for an actual NAS with redundant disks. RAID isn't a backup. A separate copy of the data stored on a different disk or on a cloud backup service is.
posted by wierdo at 3:20 PM on September 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd get the Synology NAS, probably, rather than messing around setting up a laptop server. Unless you want to set up a server as a hobby / learning experience, in which case go for it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:14 PM on September 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I opted for a Synology NAS and have been happy with it!
posted by taltalim at 1:08 PM on February 24

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