Building an Open Media Vault NAS (Part 1 — Choosing Hardware)

A place to call home

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I’m pretty sure the amiibo make it go faster

My first home server was an ancient 2007 Mac Mini hooked up to a hard drive (or two, or three). It was an inelegant, but easy solution to having network file storage in the house. Last year, I finally bit the bullet and bought a dedicated NAS, built by QNAP. I had some issues with the hardware though, and rather than using the replacement they sent me, I ended up deciding to roll my own solution.

More than four months later, I couldn’t be more pleased with my current solution. Since it seems like my guide to installing Subsonic on the QNAP proved to be useful for some people, I decided to write a guide to how I built my NAS, the pros and cons of my choices, and explain any pitfalls. Like the Subsonic guide, it’s also a good checklist for me to look back on.

My two major choices in building the NAS related to (1) hardware and (2) software. Certainly, software influenced at least one of my hardware choices, but I think the two decision points are independent enough that I will tackle them separately. This article deals with hardware, while part two discusses why I chose the Debian-based Open Media Vault as my NAS OS. The last article will describe how I configured Open Media Vault.

Building a NAS is much like building any other PC — my most recent previous experience building a PC was putting together a gaming machine back in 2013. The difference here for me is I’m not as focused on power so didn’t need a graphics cards (indeed, the onboard GPU is enough for me) or cutting edge CPU. In fact, for my NAS my number one concern (beyond reliability, and ease of putting it together) was how many hard drives I can stuff in the thing.

One note before we dive into the hardware: I ended up pricing and shopping for the components late in 2016, buying all the parts from either Amazon or Newegg. Prices fluctuate, so it’s likely worth your time to comparison shop. Also, all the prices I list for my purchases are with tax, and usually free shipping through Amazon Prime.

Case: Fractal Design Node 804 — Plenty of Room for Hard Drives

I was browsing for cases that I thought might work for this project when I stumbled on a Lifehacker article about the Fractal Design Node 804. The cube-shaped case is more squat than the towers I have more experience working in. This microATX case is bigger than a pre-built NAS, including the QNAP it replaced. However, even though it is bigger, it’s relatively unobtrusive, and the black stylings would fit into most entertainment centers. Unlike the smaller QNAP, it’s also much easier to work inside of (upgrading the RAM in the QNAP was a major pain). If size is a primary major concern you, though, may want to look at smaller Mini ITX-compatible cases.

The case is easy to get into, since all the external side panel screws are thumb screws, and nothing more exotic than a regular sized phillips head screwdriver is needed. The built-in chassis fans can be controlled via switch on the outside.

I seriously love this case

However, the real draw for this case is the number of drives it can hold; you can stuff up to eight hard drives into the case. You could have a 32 TB NAS if you put 4TB drives into every slot in the case. It’s sort of nuts, and even with all the hard drive slots filled, the Node is easy to work in.

The Node pulls this trick off shunting most of the rest of the hardware — including the motherboard, and other components on one side of the case. This side can also house a couple of hard drives. The other side of the case contains the power supply, and slots for more hard drives to hang down off racks. It works really well, and I liked it so much that I’m near certain my next gaming PC case will also be a Fractal cube.

The case cost ~$97 with tax on Amazon, though at the time of writing the price has shot up to $123 as I write this. Shopping around is likely to find you a better deal.

Motherboard and CPU

Of course, since this is a microATX case, that influenced my decision on a motherboard. I picked up the microATX ASRock H97M Pro4 LGA. It’s a decent board with a number of features (what I cared about most were its video connectivity, for initial setup, and number of USB ports). ASRock isn’t a fancy board brand, but you definitely don’t need a top of the line gaming motherboard for this NAS build. You really just need a workhorse, and ASRock seems to have that covered. Keep in mind here, that a Mini ITX motherboard would also fit in the case, but as a smaller bit of hardware, will likely have less features for a higher price.

Note that the ASRock board doesn’t support wifi out of the box. Day to day, you don’t want to connect your NAS to your network via wifi — the speeds are too slow, and if you use your NAS to serve to multiple devices, you’ll quickly regret it. However, if you desperately need wireless access, you can buy a PCI card to add wifi capabilities or choose another motherboard that has it built-in.

As for the CPU, I went with the Intel Celeron G1840. The Celeron’s good enough to get any RAID tasks done and serve up the GUI for the NAS’s OS. You’re not playing games or even really using a very intensive UI for the OS — Open Media Vault’s GUI is served via web page, and the NAS is always running headless — so anything beefier than this is overkill.

The motherboard cost me $64. As I check it now, the price seems to have jumped up to $150. However, I’m sure it’s because the board has been superseded by later models. Therefore, it wouldn’t be hard to find an equivalent ASRock motherboard for lower I suspect. I spent $42 on the CPU, and it’s up to $49 on Amazon.

Storage

The other major component of your NAS is storage. You want to fill this machine up with hard drives to store your stuff right?

I didn’t buy hard drives specifically for this build — instead, I had purchased a combination of NAS HDs for the QNAP, which were used for a few days before I sent the unit back.

For main storage on the machine, I went with two 4TB HGST Deskstar NAS drives, and two 4TB WD Red NAS drives.

Here’s where you can learn from my failures: my initial setup on the QNAP consisted of three 5TB WD Blue drives and 1 Seagate 5TB. I pulled them all out of consumer-level external hard drive enclosures. Using these consumer drives for your NAS is putting your data at risk, and the Seagate drive in particular was a nightmare. The two drives I recommended above have been tested for use on a 24/7 NAS, and are much more reliable than cheaper drives you can find elsewhere. You can buy bigger or smaller drives, but do us all a favor: buy highly rated NAS drives. This will be your biggest outlay for the NAS, but it’s well worth it (and, while I’m at it, again don’t buy Seagate).

The reason for buying two different sets of two is to protect against drive failure. Your four disk drive pool may survive one drive dying if you set up one parity drive, but if you have four drives all manufactured at the same time, the chances of multiple failures at the same time are higher, and your pool can’t recover from that. This is likely a less urgent concern with the NAS certified drives, but still better safe than sorry.

I do still have one of the Blue drives in use, as a temporary download drive on the NAS. If it goes kaput, I’m not worried about the data, and it may be a way for you to save costs depending on what data you’re storing where. Just be careful about what data you’re storing on non-NAS rated drives.

The hard drives you choose are your storage drives — where all that data you’re hoarding goes — but you’ll need some place for your NAS’s operating system to live too. It doesn’t have to be huge, 32GB to 64GB is enough depending on what OS you decide to use (Windows 10 needing the larger amount of space, Open Media Vault only really requires 2GB).

Some NAS builds suggest you can use a thumb drive as your OS drive. That’s technically true, but I worry about the long term viability— those drives have limited lifetime writes, and while your OS may not hit that limit, I’ve had enough USB drives go bad that I don’t want to test that theory. If you do go this route though, Open Media Vault has a plugin to limit the number of writes it makes to the drive for just such an installation.

You could use a small (capacity) 3.5" hard drive as your OS drive as well, but then you’d be wasting one of the case’s eight slots for drives. If you’re not going to max out the drive slots, and you have an HD lying around this may be a good, relatively cheap option.

The best option, if you ask me though, is hooking up a small SSD. It’s fast, it’s quiet, and it’s one less moving part to worry about. I bought the ADATA Premier Pro SP310 64GB SATA. I could have gone with a smaller capacity drive because Open Media Vault is lightweight, but bought the 64GB card in case I decided to move to Windows 10.

You’ll need some way to install the card on your motherboard, so you’ll also need a PCI Express card the SSD can plug into. I found this SEDNA one on Amazon that seemed to do the trick. Be careful opening this one though — when I opened the package, all the nuts and board came tumbling out, and it took me a while to figure out how to mount the SSD to the board with the bolts again.

I also need a few other cables. The PSU and Fractal case come with cables, but not enough if you’re going to put in more than a couple of drives. So you’ll need molex to power cables ($7) to hook extra HDs up to the power supply, and SATA III cables ($7) to hook those drives to the motherboard. These are commodity cables, though, so you might be able to get even cheaper at New Egg or Monoprice.

Finally, now — before you put the machine together and load your valuable data on it — is the time to think about a backup system. Even if you use RAID or some other drive pooling system that automatically backs up your data, you should use an external backup as well. Again, learn from my failures: the QNAP system I had was defective, but my backup drives weren’t good either, which caused me major headaches. Your system will allow you to hook up USB drives to the NAS, and that’s my recommendation on how to backup. Windows 10 and Open Media Vault will both give you options to back up to an external drive. Think about your data backup system NOW, get the drives, and use them!

The two HGST Deskstars were $162 each when I got them and are the same price now. The WD Red NAS were $149 when I got them, and $145 now. The Premier Pro SSD was $32 and is a little more expensive on Amazon now, at $40, though it wouldn’t be hard to find equivalent SSDs for cheaper. The SEDNA PCI to SSD adapter was (and is currently) $30, but it looks like this $23 version, which can hold two SSDs cards may also be a good option.

Other Components

There aren’t a lot of other decisions to make with the machine, with the exception of the power supply. A good power supply is reliable and relatively quiet. You don’t want your power supply to die or kill other components in your machine. A quiet PSU is also especially important if you’re keeping your NAS in your living room and/or in your entertainment center. You don’t want the fan buzzing loudly when you’re watching a movie.

I went with the CORSAIR CXM series CX450M 450W. Corsair’s a well known and trusted brand. 450 watts maybe overkill for our little NAS (the lowest version available is 430 watts), but with a ton of hard drivers, I wanted to make sure the machine could draw enough power. I’ve had no issues so far, so I’d say it’s likely a waste of money to go beyond 450 watts. The Corsair has the (slight) added benefit of being “modular” meaning you can remove some cabling from the PSU if you don’t need it, freeing space inside your NAS’s case.

Most of the other hardware is more or less commodity stuff, so you won’t need to shop around for anything but price. I’ll remind you again here about the molex to power cables and SATA III cables since waiting on them pushed finishing my build back (and no one was happy about a half built NAS sitting around on the living room table). We’re relying on built-in graphics, so you won’t need a graphics card, but you will need RAM. More RAM will help as your server does file operations, so 8GB should be the minimum you want to get, and for larger drive pools 16GB isn’t too much. Crucial RAM is fine, and I picked up two 4GB 240-PIN DDR3 (make sure you get the right pin size — the smaller versions won’t work with the motherboard I recommended).

I bought the Corsair PSU for $46, and it’s $58 now. The RAM is $56 on New Egg now (I wasn’t able to find the 240-pin version on Amazon), though I was able to grab it on New Egg for $39 on sale.

Optional Hardware

While not strictly necessary for your NAS build, there are two cool pieces of hardware I’ve really enjoyed having for my NAS, and I want to recommend to you.

First, is a battery backup system (also known as an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS). You hook your NAS into this device (both via power cable, and an optional data cable) and the battery in it will keep powering your NAS should the electricity go out. The data cable will allows the battery communicate to the NAS how much power it has left. With that information, the NAS can shut down cleanly based on criteria you set. For example, you can set your operating system to shutdown when the UPS only has five minutes of battery left. Open Media Vault can even shoot you an email when it’s on and off battery power using this information.

This is important because you don’t want your file system to lose power while its writing files — especially if it’s syncing drives. Some drive pooling systems sync data automatically, and you’ll mess up the data pool if you lose power. This can happen with brownouts too, when you don’t completely lose power. For me, that’s a big deal, and if you care about the data you’re storing on your NAS, it should be for you too.

Though it’s admittedly overkill, I went with the APC Back-UPS Pro 1000VA. This UPS gives my NAS 30 minutes or more to wait for the power to come back or to shut down gracefully (e.g., close any data operations before powering down) if the power doesn’t come back. It also has enough outlets for some other devices to plug in and shut down when the NAS does. This could be useful if you have, say, a router that you want to stay up in case of power outage. Keep in mind, though that more devices drawing from the battery will lower the power your NAS has during an extended outage.

Plugging into the UPS unit also protects the NAS hardware itself from electrical surges.The battery backup also has outlets for surge protection — devices you plug into these outlets won’t stay up during an outage, but are protected from electric surges.

I love this APC unit, but you can find smaller units with less bells and whistles and less battery time. If the UPS has a data cable that can inform your NAS when the power is out, and give it five to ten minutes of battery time to shut down, that’s the minimum necessary to protect your NAS and data.

The second optional kit I’d recommend is the ZyXEL PLA5456KIT HomePlug kit. Though the name doesn’t make it clear, this is a powerline networking kit, which lets you pass your internet connection through your home’s electrical lines. The Wirecutter has a lot more information on this kind of device, but basically they let you hardwire your network devices away from your home’s router.

I bought the ZyXEL because I built the new NAS after moving into an older two-story townhouse. The wifi signal from the router on the second floor was weak on the first floor. In general, you don’t want your NAS to connect to your network via wifi — use ethernet to hardware into the router instead. If your NAS isn’t sitting next to your router — for example, if it’s in your entertainment center — you can use the ZyXEL to hardwire your NAS. You’ll plug one ZyXEL into an outlet near your router, and then run ethernet from the router to the ZyXEL. Plug the other one near your NAS and run ethernet from it to the NAS — with almost no setup you’ll have hardwired speeds to your NAS.

I actually have the opposite problem: my NAS is close enough to my router to plug directly into it, but I stream video from the NAS to my Apple TV (using Infuse, something I’ll discuss in the following article on software). Streaming 1080p or 4K video simply won’t work well and reliably over wifi, so I have one ZyXEL near my router, and the other one near my entertainment center, so that my Apple TV and game consoles can benefit from a faster wired connection (I bought this cheap switch which allows me to use the ethernet from the ZyXEL to plug in four more devices, but TP-Link now offers an even more svelte version for cheaper).

The ZyXEL is one of those devices I wasn’t sure about when I purchased it, but after using absolutely adore. Set up was remarkably easy, and the benefits it offers to streaming from my NAS (in addition to streaming services on my AppleTV and my game consoles) are excellent. The value of the device depends partially on the wiring in your house, so I recommend buying from somewhere that offers a generous return period (Amazon is a good bet), but if they do work in your place, they’re well worth the investment.

The APC Back-UPS Pro 1000VA cost me $103 on an Amazon Goldbox deal in 2015. The regular price now is $135. I bought the ZyXEL for $75 on New Egg, and they’re available $90 on Amazon.

Putting It All Together

Once you’ve gathered all the parts you need, you’ll need to put them together. Unfortunately, it’s been months since I built the NAS, otherwise I’d have a step by step guide on how to put the machine together using the parts I’ve recommended.

Luckily, however, it’s not a terribly complex process, and numerous YouTube videos and web sites have guides for putting a PC together. Give yourself a large space to work, make sure you have a few cups for screws, a couple of regular-sized screwdrivers, and avoid working on a carpeted floor (and/or get some kind of anti-static device), and you should be able to knock this out in an afternoon.

First I’d work on the motherboard outside of the PC case. Gently set the CPU into the motherboard and press it into place (YouTube is a major help here — it actually is a more forceful operation than you’d think). If you’re careful, this is the only really scary part of the process, since installing everything else is fairly obvious. Next add the RAM (make sure you set it in correctly — I spent a week trying to figure out why my gaming PC wouldn’t post, because the graphics card was blocking the RAM enough so it didn’t sit completely).

I’d also add the SSD into the PCI adapter (you’ll have to bolt it in) at this time, and then install the PCI adapter into the motherboard itself. If you have anything else, like a wifi PCI adapter, now is the time to add that as well.

You can then open up the case (which is easy, all the external screws on Node are thumb screws), and place the completed motherboard into it, then screw it in. I put the PSU in next (the main internal portion into NAS, don’t plug it into an outlet!) and remove any modules you don’t need (all you really need is the molex cables that hook into your hard drives). You can hook the PSU into the motherboard as well.

Next, I placed the hard drives into the case. If you’re working on the Fractal Node case, and are placing the drives into the left-hand side of the case you may want to start there. I didn’t, so all my drives went into the right-hand racks. I’d plug the SATA cables into the drives before loading them in and then pull them through the middle divider, so you can plug them into the motherboard (it can be a little difficult to plug the SATA cables into the recommended motherboard in this case, but it’s do-able).

It’s pretty clear where the drives should sit on the racks themselves, and the case comes with more than enough screws to load the drives in. Just be careful about the rubber stoppers you’ll use to fit the drive screws in as you can force them in the wrong way (yes, I did this wrong and then had to go back and redo the whole set of drives).

After this you can plug the molex cables from the PSU and into the drives. If you have enough drives to warrant extra cables, plug those into the PSU’s cables, and then into the hard drives.

Make sure everything’s plugged in securely, and then give it a test boot with the panels off (so that you can shut down and fix anything if it doesn’t boot, though make sure you don’t work on the machine without shutting down and unplugging!). If the machine gets through the initial post, you can be pretty sure your hardware is hooked up correctly, and you can move on to my upcoming post about software installation. If not, double check your build for loose cables, devices not seated completely, and other potential oversights.

You can now find a place for your NAS and plug its power cable into the UPS, and the ethernet cable into your router or powerline cable device.

We’ve built a machine. It’s time to give yourself a pat on the back, as most of the rest of the work can be done from your keyboard. Barring any issues with hardware, the OS you’ll be using on the NAS will be the primary way you interact with it once it’s built and put in place, so there are plenty of considerations there. In the next article, I discuss why I chose Open Media Vault, and I’ll walkthrough installing OMV on your hardware, and in part three, I’ll show you how to get it up and running.

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