Rosher Consulting

Software Consulting and Development Services

My ‘Franken-build’ Windows Home Server

I’ve just recently put together a Windows Home Server machine to backup all of my photos, music and so on as well as all of the machines around my house. It’s custom built rather than off the shelf, hence why it’s called a ‘Franken-build’, which is a term I first heard on the Home Server Show podcast to describe a custom build.

Why Windows Home Server?

If you see my post here you’ll remember that I purchased a NAS box about 18 months ago and have been using that to backup most of my content. Unfortunately I never really used it to its full potential as I had it waking up for an hour a day, doing the backup and then going back to sleep. I didn’t use any of the extra features such as the iTunes server or BitTorrent client and it was also lacking in a couple of areas, performance being the main one but also minor things such as not supporting Wake-On-Lan.

After upgrading my TV/File server again I had even more spare parts lying around so in the course of deciding what to do with all these bits I thought why not give Windows Home Server a try? There’s a free 120-day trial edition available from the Microsoft website, which is more than enough time to decide if you like it. It only took me a week to decide to replace my NAS.

Components

Here’s the initial list of components I had to work with when I first setup with the trial edition:

  • Athlon XP 2000
  • MSI KM4M-V Motherboard
  • 1gig ram
  • Seagate 80gig IDE
  • Seagate 160gig SATA
  • Old 350w power supply
  • Random spare DVD drive.
  • Intel 1gig NIC

I also have a Sempron 3000 CPU lying around which I would have rather used for this build as it’s faster and more efficient, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with the above motherboard and the motherboard that I do have for it doesn’t support S3 standby whereas I know the MSI board works really well with S3 because it came from my old Media Center prior to the Quad Core upgrade.

I didn’t have a case to put any of the components in so I just laid everything out on the table and connected it up, using a couple of wires to bridge the power connector so I could start the machine up. Windows Home Server was then installed, which took about an hour and I then proceeded to setup and install various add-ins so that I could test to see if it would suit my needs, which mainly involved the ability to wake up and go back to sleep at a pre-determined time.

Once I was happy I then decided to order a licensed copy of Home Server, along with a case to house it in and a new more efficient power supply. I ended up ordering the following:

  • Asus TA-D31 case
  • Antec Earthwatts 380w PSU

The Build Proper

As per usual everything turned up nice and quick from eBuyer, so I shut down the Thecus NAS for the final time and removed the drives in preparation for the build. Here’s some pictures of everything prior to starting:

The parts arrive IMG_5044 IMG_5048

IMG_5045

I put everything together in the new case, started her up and then proceeded to install the full licensed copy of Windows Home Server. Unfortunately with Windows Home Server you can’t upgrade the trial edition to a full licensed copy, you have to re-install from scratch, which I wish I had known about before spending the time to setup the trial version.

After finishing the install I noticed that there seemed to be some issues with the OS hard drive, every now and then things would appear to stutter and lock up so I decided I’d just use a different hard drive and re-install again. Unluckily for me the second hard drive I chose had exactly the same problem, so this time I borrowed a drive from the kitchen PC and used that instead, this time after over 3 hours spent installing WHS it was third time lucky and everything was working ok!

IMG_5060 IMG_5061 IMG_5064

Once everything was up and running, I could then proceed to copy all of my photos, videos and music over as well as installing the WHS connector on all of my PC’s so that they are regularly backed up, which is a nice added peace of mind considering that they weren’t backed up at all before.

Even with the low spec of the WHS machine I’ve been getting decent performance copying files to and from it, certainly much better than I ever achieved with the NAS. Write speeds have been around 40MB/s across the network and read speeds have been between 50-60MB/s.

The WHS has now been running for a couple of months and has performed flawlessly during that time, I’ve even purchased some new 1.5TB hard drives to up the storage to 3.5TB, which has meant that I’ve now got the space to back up my DVD collection as well as everything else. Overall I’m really pleased with the machine and would heartily recommend a Windows Home Server to everyone that has multiple computers in their house!

Gigabit networking part 2 + Thecus N4100+ part 2

The first parts of this post can be found here and here.

I've combined part 2 of both of these posts as ultimately the problems I had getting Gigabit network speeds and the performance of the Thecus were interrelated.

After my previous unsuccessful attempts at improving my Gigabit speeds I didn't completely give up and over the next few months I tried a few more things, the main change being moving everything over to Cat6 cabling, but as with most of my other changes I didn't see any massive improvements worthy of the Gigabit name.

During my travels I'd previously read about the impressive speed of the Intel NIC's and especially how well they performed when paired together, which got me to thinking 'what if you used the same NIC's in every PC?', I was sure I'd read something about this somewhere as well but as per usual my ninja Google skills let me down (back to ninja training school for me!) and I couldn't find the article I'd read.

A bit more Googling around and it seemed to me that the Intel PRO/1000 GT was getting some good reviews and more importantly the high speeds I was after, but at around £25 each (I needed 4 of them) I was a bit hesitant to commit down a path that I wasn't sure would yield any positive results. I managed to remain hesitant and keep my gadget spending in check for at least a couple of weeks, which is pretty good for me, before I finally buckled and 'thought to hell with it' and placed the order.

As per usual, eBuyer's excellent service meant that the NIC's arrived nice and quickly so I was able to get them installed into a couple of machines to test with. I chose the kitchen media center and the lounge media center since both PC's were easily accessible and they were both plugged into the same switch. Once the NIC's and drivers were installed I made sure I disabled the old NIC's to avoid any conflicts, enabled 4k jumbo frames, prepared a 1gig test file and loaded up FastCopy.

When those first test results came in I was like a kid at Christmas, wow, I was getting around 45Mb/s which I had never, ever got before. A few more tests in both directions confirmed the first result and I was very happy, I'd justified the money I'd spent (the missus might say otherwise of course :-)). I played around with the jumbo frame size, increasing it to 8k and then 16k, testing with a batch of smaller files as well as a single large file, there was hardly any difference seen with the large file, but with the smaller files the performance was worse with the higher frame sizes, so I stuck to 4k.

I then proceeded to install the other 2 NIC cards in the server and the kids media center, performing similar tests to what I had already done and on all occasions I got similar results in the 40-50Mb/s range. I was so pleased with everything that I begun to wonder what the performance would be like with the Thecus NAS, which up until this point had been sitting in the box it came in gathering dust.

Since I'd installed the 500gig drives that were originally meant for the Thecus into the server I didn't have any spare SATA drives that I could use to test with. I decided that it was about time I finally used the Thecus rather than just leaving it there wasting money so I ordered a new 1TB Samsung drive which would then be used primarily for backup purposes.

When the drive arrived I once again unboxed the Thecus and installed the drive, I then set the NAS up like I had done many times previously, making sure I enabled 4k jumbo frames to match my new NIC's. Testing the NAS didn't yield the 40-50Mb/s results that the new NIC's had done but then again I never expected it to, what I did get was speeds of around 20Mb/s which based on all the information I could find was pretty much the maximum I could expect from this NAS drive so I was happy, at least now I had some fairly decent file transfer times.

You may be reading this and thinking to yourself that Gigabit has a maximum speed of around 100Mb/s so why is this guy so happy with 40-50Mb/s? The answer is actually quite simple, all of my tests involved reading and writing to a hard disk, with most modern hard disks having a maximum throughput of around 75Mb/s. Don't believe me? After all SATA 300 is supposed to offer 300Mb/s isn't it? Have a look at this great article series on SmallNetBuilder entitled How To Build a Really Fast NAS, it really is worth reading all of the parts especially as it's near the end that they give you the hard drive benchmarks. Taking this into account and the fact that I have a mixture of old IDE drives and not so new SATA drives coupled with a range of CPU's means that achieving 40-50Mb/s is pretty good in my book.

Here's a summary of the setup that achieved the best speeds for me (your mileage may vary):

  • All NIC's same make and model
  • Cat6 cabling
  • 4k Jumbo frames
  • Gigabit switches

No other changes I made significantly affected the transfer speeds. I haven't made any other changes since installing the new NIC's and I've been living with a reasonably fast network ever since, so I'm a happy bunny.

NAS - Thecus N4100+

4100 Running a server 24/7 can become an expensive business especially when you're using an old power hungry Pentium 4 processor and you've got a lot of hard drives, which is why around December 07 I decided to get myself a NAS drive. I figured I could put all of my media files on the NAS and then keep the existing server in standby and have it wake up and shut down automatically to record TV.

Before I started looking for a NAS I drew up a list of requirements that I wanted to have, in order of priority:

  • At least 4 drive bays
  • BitTorrent client
  • iTunes server
  • UPNP compatible
  • FTP Server

I wanted 4 drive bays because it would allow me to start off with one drive and then add more as required, I wanted the BitTorrent client because I download some TV episodes and didn't want to have the server on for this, the iTunes server was required so that I didn't have to maintain separate iTunes libraries on various PC's, UPNP was more of a future requirement as more and more devices use this to discover content on the network and finally the FTP server as I occasionally upload files to the server.

Finding a 4 bay NAS drive wasn't a problem, there were plenty on the market, but finding one with the features I required was a bit of a problem as most 4 bay's were targeted at enterprise users, ones with the features I required had only 2 bays and I wasn't willing to compromise.

I eventually came across the Thecus N4100+ during my search that had everything I wanted and also had some really good reviews, most notably the reviewers pointed out the excellent features and the data transfer performance, which was something I was also interested in given my recent experiences with gigabit networking.

I did a bit of shopping around and eventually picked one up for £330 from Ultimate Storage, as I already said I was thinking of starting off with one hard drive and then adding more as time went on, but I've got no willpower when it comes to gadgets and when I saw the price of 500gig drives I ended up ordering 4 of them to give me 2 terabytes of storage!

When everything turned up I installed the drives and proceeded to get the NAS configured, which was reasonably straightforward once I'd read the manual of course. I decided to go with a JBOD setup rather than configuring a RAID array as I wanted to utilise all the available space and I wasn't bothered about backing anything up. Waiting for the NAS to configure the drives took about an hour, not sure why, but it would appear this isn't uncommon, in fact I've heard reports of configuring RAID arrays taking days, which I think is a combination of most cheap NAS drives using a slow CPU and having a software raid implementation, but anyway it got there in the end.

I then started to copy my media off of the server and on to the NAS, which is when I thought that perhaps Windows had a problem with its file transfer calculation time routine as it was way off the charts, heck, this NAS is supposed to be fast! I then busted out FastCopy to see what transfer rates I was getting and was disappointed to see that it was only around 5meg, doing some research on the net made me even more despondent and made me realise I should have done more of my usual research before buying the NAS drive as I wasn't the only one experiencing slow transfer rates.

I persevered for a while and tried all the usual tricks such as jumbo frames and any other suggestion I could come across but the best transfer rate I ever got was around 8meg, which when transferring gigs and gigs of files is going to take a long, longggg time!

Ultimately the problem with the NAS is that it's underpowered, even though it's got a gigabit Ethernet port and utilises SATA hard disks the CPU just can't keep up with high transfer rates, when I was doing my testing the CPU was always pegged at 100%, so no matter what configuration changes I made I was never going to improve the transfer rates.

I decided to cut my losses on the drive and send it back, the only problem was that I'd bought it just before Christmas and being Christmas I'd been a bit lax, Ultimate Storage don't exactly have a long return period either, so combined that meant that I was over the limit and wouldn't get a full refund. I couldn't accept the restocking fee, so I figured I'd probably eBay it or something... in the mean time I had to decide what to do with the four 500gig drives...

However, that and what eventually happened to the NAS drive is all a story for another time.