Jeremy Clarkson Be Damned: My Adventures In Reasonably Priced Network Storage

Building out a decent network storage plan has been on my list of things to do for about six months. An environment chock full o’ 85,000 iTunes songs and 28,000 iPhoto images keeps things interesting around my home office network. I told myself I was almost there with a 500GB Time Capsule, a LaCie 1TB external and a Maxtor 1TB external. And then the Time Capsule and LaCie exploded within two weeks of each other. Ok universe, I hear you. I batted .500 in getting my dead drives replaced ­– you guessed it: Apple stood by their out-of-warranty hardware (an early version that was ‘within a range of serial numbers’ known to have issues) and LaCie told me to kiss it. Guess who’ll never get another penny from me, ever?

So began the research and series of chaotic choices that are network storage. I pinged my tech friends, Twitter followers and most anyone who would listen. Of course, the first response from a majority was the PT Barnum of network storage: the Drobo. I was quickly reminded by Heath Wilkes of its one inherent strong point: “it’s a robot, man.” Others suggested network attached storage devices (NAS) both with and without drives installed. But because I’m cheap, I wasn’t going to pay a huge premium for a bare bones Drobo or some $600 Western Digital box. Plus, I’d just rolled up on a sweet sale at Fry’s (more on them later): 2TB Seagate Barracuda LPs for $108 each. I snagged two, and the plan was now coming together. So a nice little two-bay, diskless NAS seemed like a decent enough option, but wait...

Like any self-respecting geek, I had an ancient Dell XPS box lying around and discovered it had a RAID controller on the motherboard. Hot damn, RAID 1 mirrored drives here I come. I don’t need no stinking NAS. That might be the last, best use for the boat anchor anyway! Then I figured why not really go hog wild, and give Ubuntu server a try. It seemed the perfect undertaking for a dad with a one-month-old daughter (yeah right).

And then came the PC. I’ve been an all-Mac guy for about five years, but could build a hell of a barebones machine back in the day. I’m no Gomeler, but I’ve Frankenstein’ed some junk up in my time. So imagine my surprise when the Dell’s BIOS wouldn’t even see the CD or DVD drives. And of course Ubuntu can only boot from a CD before wiping the always-evil WinXP. So I proceeded to spend three nights in the basement dicking around with BIOS settings. I replaced IDE ribbon cables. I swapped a CD drive. I considered shooting the Dell with my Smith & Wesson .357, but thought it might wake the kids. And on the fourth day, I accepted NAS into my life.

And in another fit of logic, my brain said “you gotta buy it local because it’s gotta be up-and-running this week – no time even for Amazon Prime.” As it turned out, I was spot-on. Not because I needed it fast, but because I’d never been through the utter shame of returning something to Fry’s – and that’s a life experience you don’t want to miss. When you walk in, someone is sharp enough to notice you have a box in your hand and ask if you have a return. When you say ‘uh, yeah’, they point you to a cattle line across the entrance from the six lanes of return desks – even when three of the desks are staffed by people doing nothing. (I’ll save my musings on Fry’s staffing plan for a future post, but suffice to say there’s middle ground between their 24 cashiers and my local Lowe’s having one plus three self-checkout lanes.) Lucky for me, I’ve been through it twice with two different NAS enclosures – one Sabio that was DOA (visible on my DHCP table, but otherwise vaporized) and one Patriot that wouldn’t format the drives via the Linksys-like web UI. Overall, I can tell you this: unless someone pays you to manage a network, NAS sucks! I’m pretty geeky, but that junk was far beyond my comprehension. Perhaps that’s why Drobo actually sells $400 RAID enclosures without any drives?!?

So what finally saved the day? The answer was simple: FireWire 800 a drive enclosure into the back of my iMac and be done. So I circled back with Randy Arrowood, who had recommended an Other World Computing device from MacSales very early on. I hit up the site and found an even better RAID 1 enclosure: the NewerTech Guardian MAXimus. Even with its ridiculous name, it made perfect sense: out-of-the-box ready for the Mac and less than $130. So it arrived yesterday, and I proceeded to slap the two drives in. I’d already read the entire manual, and was confident their three-step setup process was a stark-raving lie. It powered up, opened Disk Utility by itself, I clicked one radio button, opened one dropdown, clicked one Submit button and the damn thing popped up on my desktop. A beautiful 2TB drive that’s completely mirrored to the second drive in the background ­– no need to do anything else except move my files on over.

The lesson of all this is clear: being cheap is always a pain in the ass. No wait. The real lesson is simplicity always wins. Great UIs always eclipse poorly documented products ­– even when one has a feature-level benefit over the other. The ability to deliver a powerful (feature-rich) solution in an easy-to-use experience is nirvana. I would argue this single-handedly has led to the rise of Apple – but some haters out there would inevitably disagree. Just know I got my drives setup, baby. Now it’s my turn feed the baby…


0 # Jeff 2010-09-19 20:08

Did you look at any of the Syntology Disk Station NAS devices? They are relatively inexpensive, and have a rich set of interfaces and a thriving open-source community behind them.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-09-20 05:42
Hadn't heard of them, but you're right: great spec sheets and decently priced at Amazon. Maybe if I fill up the existing drives, that becomes my next diskless unit. Thanks.
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