Advice on replacing my now dead Linux file server in this day and age
July 30, 2022 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Well, the Linux file server I built in 2011 and have fixed over the years appears to have lost its "magic smoke". I was working on a spreadsheet on a Network drive and went to do an interim save and noticed that all network drives were disconnected.

Power on does not issue beeps, no video, all the fans spin and I can feel the hard drives turning. At 11 years this doesn't owe me a dime, especially if the SATA hard drives can just be transferred to a new machine (we'll see). So this is a shopping question and I am willing to spend roughly 1000 - 2000 USD. More below the break.

In these days of supply chain shortages and inflation, I don't expect it will be easy peasy to set up a new Linux file server, but let me just throw out some specific questions I'd like your advice on:
- As I look at Best Buy and Costco I see pretty much gaming PCs, Tower PCs and Windows Desktops. All I really want is a decent tower to put Ubuntu on and slide my drives into. Costco always seems to be pretty easy going with its return policy, and presumably I could substitute a Linux boot drive for the one that comes with it and put the Windows one back before returning it (if I find that's necessary).
- Feel free to recommend a particular tower or manufacturer for my purposes.
- I've never bought a computer mail order, and I'm not sure now is the time to start. But if it's not a bad option, should I go custom build or just a tower that would suit my needs? Has anyone done this recently and do you recommend a particular company?
- Of course I will want to check the specs on number of drive bays and SATA ports (I will need 4)
- I know some will wonder why I don't go Network Attached Storage (NAS) and I suppose just a matter of not having any knowledge or experience in the area. Feel free to educate me if it would be a better course.

I should add that I am not a gamer, and I do have a new Windows 10 computer for main home computing use.

Thanks in advance for any wisdom.
posted by forthright to Shopping (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Two questions that I think will help anyone responding:

1. How much storage do the four drives provide?
2. Are they currently arranged in a RAID/ZFS/etc. array?

If this were my call, I'd get something like a NUC 8 or 10 (they work great with Linux; you may need a dummy HDMI thing to get it working properly as a headless server) with one or more SSDs, and I'd only spin up the old drives for long enough to transfer the data. If the drives are also 11+ years old I wouldn't count on many more years of trouble-free service, and even if there's data redundancy I'd worry about a cascading failure during resilvering if one drive went. Doubly so if they're all one lot.

NUCs are (relatively) cheap, dead silent, and are tiny enough to stick basically anywhere (you can even mount them on the wall). Bonus: paired with an SSD it would probably consume a fraction of the electricity you currently use.
posted by pullayup at 6:26 PM on July 30, 2022 [5 favorites]

Oh, one more question (though it's mostly beside the point):
3. Are you running anything other than file service workloads on the computer?

Very agreed with pullayup. The question to be asking is: can I find a way to move this on to SSDs (preferably nvme) in the smallest package I can buy?
posted by wotsac at 6:38 PM on July 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for replying pullayup. Sorry, I tried to include all the details but of course I missed some. I had two 3 TB and two 1 TB drives for a told of 8 TB not counting the 250G SSD boot drive. I also have 1 external USB 4TB drive for backup.

The drives are roughly 5 years old and so yes, perhaps I should put that in my budget also.

Never heard of NUCs (just looked them up). I wanted to reply without first studying up on NUCs. Do they run Linux? I gather some can support keyboard, mouse, monitor. Network also I guess?
posted by forthright at 6:40 PM on July 30, 2022

Response by poster: Hello wotsac. I do run some Web page scraping to gather stock prices, weather, etc. Also cron jobs to do the backups to the external 4TB drive. And since my during the day job includes mainframe, Windows and Linux programming, I sometimes do some learning/experimentation on the Linux box. But the majority of its purpose is as a file server.
posted by forthright at 6:43 PM on July 30, 2022

Response by poster: Oh, and I might as well keep breaking the thread sitting rule, sorry I should have said I've never done RAID or zfs.
posted by forthright at 6:49 PM on July 30, 2022

I am an IT manager and a Unix sysadmin. I don't want to do "work" at home. So I bought a four-bay Synology NAS, and four HDs. Two Ethernet ports, spots for an SSD cache, two DIMM slots.

I can enable SSH for messing around. It has enough CPU to transcode videos for the Plex server. There is a nice package store for adding common software. And the vendor releases updates to its software regularly.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:55 PM on July 30, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I know some will wonder why I don't go Network Attached Storage (NAS) and I suppose just a matter of not having any knowledge or experience in the area. Feel free to educate me if it would be a better course.

Maybe some people use the terminology differently, but as far as I'm concerned, what you have is a NAS. It's just that that term is more commonly applied to off-the-shelf solutions, as opposed to something you put together yourself. If you buy a NAS device from Synology or a similar vendor, all you're really getting is a somewhat locked-down Linux server with Samba/NFS/etc. and a nice user-friendly UI.

If I were in your shoes and had a bit of free time, I would almost certainly just build a computer using inexpensive components from a retailer like Amazon, Newegg or B&H (assuming you're in the US). Yes, there are still supply chain issues for some specific products, but if you're not super picky then there are still plenty of good options that are available.

For example, here's a build I just put together using PCPartPicker that seems to fit your requirements and budget. I used new drives rather than your existing ones, because prices and densities have improved so much in the last decade that IMO it makes more sense to just upgrade now. (If nothing else, fewer drives means less power consumption.) This setup has 2 internal drives so that you have the option of setting up a mirrored RAID for better reliability, but you could also get by with just 1 main drive and an external backup. (Remember, RAID is not a backup!)
posted by teraflop at 7:19 PM on July 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

you could also get used servers off ebay and slot your drives in, might be more of a "project" than you're looking for though.

my NAS is a old HP ProLiant tower with 6 drive bays, 2 Xeon CPUs and a ton of ECC RAM that i installed TrueNAS (née FreeNAS) onto
posted by glonous keming at 7:44 PM on July 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yeah, spend your money on an 8tb nvme SSD and like an 8th or 10th Gen nuc, or even a Dell optiplex 5060 or 7060 micro off eBay to be the computer. It will literally use less power than four 3.5" hard drives alone most of the time, and your only performance bottleneck would be 1g Ethernet.
posted by wotsac at 7:51 PM on July 30, 2022 [3 favorites]

I should note that my preference for NUCs is a direct result of experience using decomissioned datacenter hardware. Enterprise server hardware is powerful, reliable, and can have a fantastic price-to-performance ratio, especially used, but it's also LOUD (like, jet engine/"you may have to mod the hardware to run the fans at RPMs suitable for use in a human dwelling" loud), hot, and can use a lot of electricity (like, I had a dedicated circuit with a NEMA L5-30R socket installed for the PDU).

I'd also note that while I would still consider 8 TB of SSD storage a ridiculous extravagance, I ran the numbers and that SSD plus a NUC and 64 GB of DDR4 memory is still within your $2000 budget, if only barely.
posted by pullayup at 8:00 PM on July 30, 2022 [5 favorites]

I'll counterpoint that some of the mid-size dells servers don't have to be loud at all except at boot or extreme conditions. Power use doesn't have to be that bad.

But when you can shove 64 gb or more of ram into a computer that's smaller than a hard back book, has all the storage performance, may well have better cpu performance for your workload and idles silently at 10 or 15 watts? It's a no brainer
posted by wotsac at 8:09 PM on July 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

The recommendation for an SSD puzzles me: a 1 gbps network can be saturated by 2 SATA disks and, more importantly, many SSD's ghost you when they fail. (I think today's task is both recommending new choices and also planning for the new hardware to retire gracefully when it dies so you can move your data on again to the next host.)

At today's larger drive sizes, 4-disk RAID-0+1 eats a lot of space for redundancy. You might consider 6 or 8 smaller disks in RAID6 for having two redundant inexpensive spindles in the array that can be part of that plan for hardware failure, like having a cold spare disk at hand when a disk goes. (RAID5 has one redundant spindle but that single failure becomes a warning to mount the array as read-only and degraded and copy it to a whole new array, rather than exchanging the disk for a new one and having the system do the work computing the data for the replacement disk.)

PcPartPicker would be where I'd look for a case that can carry 6x 3.5" spindles, using a mid- to high-range mainboard with 6+ SATA ports, and a cpu marked for energy efficiency (hopefully also with on-chip graphics).
posted by k3ninho at 12:22 AM on July 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

forthright: At 11 years this doesn't owe me a dime, especially if the SATA hard drives can just be transferred to a new machine (we'll see).

I recently had the same happen: dead mobo, no beeps, nothing. Replacement (it's a mini-ITX with 6 SATA ports, so not that easily replaceable by whatever is at hand) has been on backorder for nearly four months now. Fortunately I found a predecessor to this board (slower CPU, previous generation of the board's chipset) second-hand, dropped it in and it worked straight away apart from the Ethernet ports using a different driver, and thus having different names requiring the network settings to use those.

I've also upgraded other systems by replacing the mobo and processor, and in all cases the system booted up sufficiently far to be able to log in, fix some offending setting or blacklisting a driver, then continue as normal.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:12 AM on July 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: wenestvedt: I am an IT manager and a Unix sysadmin. I don't want to do "work" at home. So I bought a four-bay Synology NAS, and four HDs.

I am also a Unix sysadmin, and thought that getting a Synology NAS would be a low-effort remote-ish storage solution. Until I found what the total *REDACTED* at Synology did to the Unix security model, which I expected, and needed to be present at the file system level: as long as you go through the Synology shell it's probably fine, but below that every file is readable *and writable* by every user. So rsync-ing files to one of the accounts on the Synology, then back to the client, they now have very different group ownership and protection.

Surprised I tried this again after setting things up from scratch, and fully by the manual: same outcome. It went back as 'not fit for purpose'.

If you have only one shell account, and do every file access though shares managed via the Synology GUI it's OK, I would expect. Anything outside that? Beware, here be dragons.

And rolling my own with a standard Debian install plus ZFS was, excluding the time assembling the box, not much slower than setting up the Synology. Plus, it's just another Debian box of which I have several, not some outlier.
posted by Stoneshop at 3:15 AM on July 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

The catch is going to the 4x SATA ports/drive bays. Quick glance on Costco I don't see many likely candidates - Even full sized towers don't seem to have more than a few 3.5" bays, which is not surprising given that everything seems to be going to NVME + maybe a big HDD for slow storage.

As a counterpoint to Stoneshop - I have a 5-bay Synology and it's fine for personal / family use. Yes, Synology takes great liberties with things under the hood -- but for non-technical users in a home setting it's fine and easy to use. I'll keep using this one until it burns out and then replace it with a TrueNAS model. Not because the Synology is bad, I just would like a little more flexibility than it provides. A little, not "build from scratch."

I would not go the NUC + biggie SSD route. I'd go with something like the Synology or a NAS OS that will give you redundancy and alerts when a drive dies. In 2 years or so I've had one drive fail a health check on the Synology. Ordered a new one, popped the old one out and new one in - chugged a bit doing data replication and no problems. If you do go the NUC + biggie SSD route, you'll also want an external drive for backup...
posted by jzb at 6:40 AM on July 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: jzb: The catch is going to the 4x SATA ports/drive bays. Quick glance on Costco I don't see many likely candidates - Even full sized towers don't seem to have more than a few 3.5" bays, which is not surprising given that everything seems to be going to NVME + maybe a big HDD for slow storage.

Asking pcpartspicker for an ATX midtower case with three 5.25" front bays you still get a gazillion (alright, 1066) options. With those 3 external 5.25" bays you can install a multi-drive bay like this, providing easy swapping as a bonus. I've also seen such a drive bay for 5 3.5" disks vertically, and with four 5.25" bays you can go up to 6 3.5" drives. One of my older systems is configured like that (6x 3.5" disk in 4 5.25" bays).
posted by Stoneshop at 9:35 AM on July 31, 2022

Best answer: Hi, I am you, and have been doing similar math this week. I had a 5 year old raid box decide to retire, and a family Synology I support swallowed it's tongue. Things I ended up working through:

How much of your content is a backup of some other computer? If the failure of the NAS leaves the original copy and the copy on your NAS-backup disk, then we don't need as much redundancy.

How much is archival, or being stored just in case? E.g. backups of old hard drives that some day you'll sort, or tax data to save in case of audit. It's getting hard to make a case for hosting this type of archive at home. The cheapest cloud providers are < $50/TB/year (S3 glacier, 1TB free in office365, Backblaze B2 &etc.), and can guard against loss, bitrot, obsolescence &ransomware in a way that's hard to do at home. When combined with a compressing, de-duplicating backup system like borg, restic or bupstash, a terrabyte of cloud storage can backup a surprising amount (my data reduces at least 10:1).

How much of the content needs to be served fast & to how many machines? Is Gigabit fast enough, or do you want even faster? This helps figure out protocols & network connections - streaming may work better over 10G than bonded 1G&etc.

How often is the computer actually serving content vs how often is it just burning power? I ended up trying to optimize for low watts... which rules out using the good used server equipment.

For me, 3/4 of the content was archive where I could keep one copy locally & intermittently back up to the cloud. The rest needed to be local, gigabit saturating, not susceptible to single disk failures, and reliably backed up. This led me go to a Raid1 (zfs mirror) of cheap 1Tb SSDs for the local stuff, and one big disk + cloud backup for the archives. When the big disk is spun down, it draws very little power.

I chose not to keep using Synology for the reasons other people listed above, and because I had to do forensics /file undeleting to recover files on the crashed one. I was lucky, and my version was using linux raid & ext2. Newer ones would be using btrfs, and I don't think file recovery would be possible. I'd rather use zfs + snapshots I control or simple linux filesystems. So FreeNas, Ubuntu or openmediavault seemed better.

For hardware, 3 disks is awkwardly between the NUC style boxes and larger servers. Nthing a used business workstation like the optiplex as a good thing for 3+ 3.5 disks while still reasonably quiet. There used to be a lot more variety in mini-itx motherboards with lots of SATA (ASRock Rack J3710-ITX), but that seems to be out of vogue. There are nas cases like or but fewer fit the (nice, available) ATX choices like teraflop found.

I looked at various usb c docks, and none of them looked trustworthy enough to combine with the stresses a NAS would put on them. I ended up with a motherboard with 2 M.2 SSDs onboard, and a case with room for one 2.5 disk.

posted by unknown knowns at 2:33 PM on July 31, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your patience, answers and suggestions. Today was Church and my grandson's 3rd birthday. But I did swing by Costco (more on that later) so I'd have a chance of making some (???) progress this week, since I'm back to work Monday.


unknown knowns: many years ago I had a power supply failure that fried my hard drives, so yes beginning then I began to mirror data between Windows and Linux using Samba and nightly robocopy and rsync, plus the large WD Passport USB drives is my belt, suspenders and crazy glue. And yes, much of my stuff is archival or financial/taxes or family photos, etc. that maybe I will sort out once I retire. Yes gigabit is fine, that's what I'm using now on my network. I do have Dropbox but have not yet worked out what type and percentage of data can be trusted to them due to their TOS. I have heard of zfs from a Youtube video, but not sure when work/family/etc. will give me time to rearchitect. Right now my focus is on recovery and like most folks my focus is shifted by others who depend on me.

Stoneshop: I imagine I might be able to replace the Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD5 motherboard but time is my enemy (I'm working 70% in semi-retirement, my wife has a long honey do list and my doctors like to keep me coming into their offices on a rotating basis). I should have mentioned that time is my enemy in my original question (my bad!)

teraflop: Thanks very much for doing that pcpartspicker for me, I find it very close to my needs, but your inclusion of 2 8TB internal drives got me thinking that I wouldn't need as many bays or SATA ports in that case (which I know makes other folks' suggestions more practical as well).

Which brings us to my "Hail Mary" attempt to find something off the shelf at Costco (because of their liberal return period). The guy there was VERY congenial and helpful, he got his screw driver and popped the side panels off almost all the towers they had on display. I bought the following one which I don't think is perfect but perhaps you folks can say "NO WAY" or "maybe???".

MSI Aegis ZS 5DQ-274US for $1099 + state tax. I suspect the problem is there are minimal drive bays/power, though plenty of SATA ports, but it seems to check all the other boxes (???). Granted the graphics card is way overboard but theoretically I could replace it with a more modest one and sell it. Photos here, note the hard drive and SSD are tucked into a rear lower left well on the motherboard side.

I hope nobody who participated and provided research minds me making this experimental purchase as opposed to Synology or NUC or zfs or FreeNAS. I just wanted to try something off the shelf before diving into the build from parts or repair existing or learn new technology efforts.

In any case this thread is much more modern than the others that showed up during my "pre-question" searches.
posted by forthright at 3:54 PM on July 31, 2022

Best answer: I'm replacing my 2012 Linux server now. Mine is not just a file server though, sometimes I run fairly large compute jobs on it. So I didn't just get a Synology or a little NUC; instead I went to Logical Increments and put together a system. Here's the parts list; I settled on a B660 based motherboard and an i5-12600K CPU. Note my system is MicroATX; if you want more than ~3 drives you'll want a full size ATX case.
posted by Nelson at 6:55 AM on August 1, 2022

Best answer: that MSI from costco you linked has a Ryzen 5700G chip in it, which means it has a decent GPU built into the CPU itself (AMD calls this arraignment an APU), which further means you can pull the add-in-card Radeon RX6600 and sell it or whatever, and not have to get anything else for video output at all. i have a 5700G as my primary couch computer and it does quit well for video playback and light gaming i ask of it. 4k60 HDR output to my tv and sips power compared to my other rigs.
posted by glonous keming at 11:02 AM on August 1, 2022

Response by poster: Well, it was a busy week. I finally got time to update this thread with the final results.

Thanks Nelson for the parts list, and glonous keming for the insight into the graphics capabilities and options I have.

It took me a LOT more work to get this machine to boot reliably (MANY hours). But I am very pleased. I guess building something similar would have been cheaper, but I still think it would have taken more time (elapsed: waiting for delivery, assembling parts and then at least some software challenges always). I pulled the Costco drive and put it somewhere safe in case in the 90 days I change my mind. Then in the 2 slots that freed up (plus a tiny space for the SSD) it all fit (a 6TB drive I bought and one of my previous 3TB drives).

My old AMD machine had 6 cores, this one has 16 (wow).

If anyone is curious (today or in the future) I installed Ubuntu 22.04 and had the following challenges:
- /etc/dhcp/dhclient.conf needed DNS info
- /etc/fstab needed /boot/efi entry
- /etc/default/grub adding amdgpu.dc=0 to Linux Default
- tinkering to get sound working
- however it still won't boot in the normal way, but I plan to put the question out to forums and see what they think (there's too many false positives in journalctl -b), BUT it will boot by:
* picking recovery mode
* going into boot
* mount -n -o remount,rw /
* exit
* resume boot, then the sign-on script comes up
(otherwise it just hangs and never finishes booting up, apparently because the boot drive is read only).

Thanks AGAIN for everyone who helped and educated me and recommended parts, etc. I will favorite some and best answer some but I really appreciate ALL the input.
posted by forthright at 4:01 PM on August 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

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