A while back, I wrote an article entitled "How To Build and Equip Your Home Theater PC". In it, I detailed my first-ever HTPC (home theater PC) build. Many of you found the article helpful, while for others, it was but a nod to what you already knew. As it turns out, with the assistance of some pretty cool programs, such as J River media center and MakeMKV, an HTPC is a pretty powerful and universal piece of kit. Not to mention a rather affordable one, compared to some source components. But as I type this story some months later, I question if an HTPC is even necessary or relevant nowadays, what with all the connectivity and such built into many of our modern source component and display devices. After all, the idea behind me wanting to get on board with an HTPC was to get off the source component roller-coaster, so to speak. While I still maintain that an HTPC is a way to do that, it may not be the easiest way.
Upon completion of my HTPC, I immediately stocked its internal drives with content. When those were full, I turned to network-attached drives, and merely let J River catalog the data within as it saw fit. The more and more I did this, the less I relied on the hardware of the HTPC itself, depending instead on the software. Conversely, I was racking up quite a bill, as I found myself purchasing more and more network-attached drives (NAS), which were not only cumbersome but also scattered throughout my house. One thing building an HTPC did was render my beloved Dune-HD Max player all but obsolete, as it was no longer the belle of the ball. While I still consider an HTPC to be more versatile - after all, it's a computer - there is something to be said for relying on a device that is designed specifically for one task. In the Dune-HD Max's case, that task was playback, something that it was not only good at, but that came easy to it and, as a result, to me, the user. You see, as trick as my HTPC is/was, it wasn't as "friendly" as, say, your run of the mill Blu-ray player or the button on your HDTV's remote that says "Netflix." That level of simplicity had yet to be reached.
So I took everything back to formula, so to speak. In doing so, I refocused on my mission to distribute high-definition video and music throughout my house in a way that is easy and affordable. Looking at the stack of drives sitting in my office, it quickly dawned on me that what I needed wasn't a playback device, but rather a storage vault. Because we live in a digital age, everything we consume in the form of AV entertainment these days is digital. It's data. And since so many of our modern components are now able to access data via a network connection or wirelessly, the only thing I needed to ascertain was that that my data was compatible, which it was. Therefore, the next step was designing a system that would allow for seemingly endless growth, for storage is arguably going to be the format of the future, as opposed to physical media.
I began by looking into various purpose-built NAS drives or drive bays. I looked at everything and found that most (though not all) were a) limited on space and b) became very expensive the more you tried to expand. Most pre-configured NAS drives come in one of two common varieties: dual or quad drive arrays. In a dual-drive configuration, provided the device can handle, say, 3TB hard drives, you're limited in the total amount of storage you'll be able to enjoy. In a dual-drive setup, that limit could be but 6TB. In a quad-drive array, you're looking at 12TB, again assuming the NAS drives can even handle 3TB hard drives, which many cannot. If you're limited to 2TB drives, then you're looking at 4TB and 8TB respectively. While that might sound like a lot, it may not be enough if true image and audio fidelity is what you're after. After all, a 90-minute HD movie - think Blu-ray - can require anywhere between 20 and 30GB each. That means, per TB, you can expect to fit between 30 and 40 HD films, which may or may not be enough. I knew a quad-drive NAS array wasn't going to cut it, for I planned on using the additional storage for not just commercially available HD content, but also my own film projects. Looking into arrays that offered up eight and even twelve drives quickly became cost-prohibitive, as the enclosures alone could run several thousands of dollars, with drives being an added cost beyond that.
As with my earlier HTPC build, I made a list of a few key items or features I wanted my DIY NAS server to have. First, I wanted copious amounts of space, meaning the ability to fit a dozen or more drives down the road. I wanted it to be a standalone piece, i.e., not requiring another device like a computer to be on in order for it to work. It needed to be accessible to both Mac and PC. Lastly, I wanted it to be efficient and, most importantly, affordable.
Because a purpose-built NAS box is basically a computer, building one wasn't going to be too dissimilar from my experience building the HTPC. I was going to need a case, motherboard, CPU, memory and power supply. Since I wasn't going to be using the NAS for ripping or playback, just data storage and serving, I didn't need things like disc drives or dedicated graphics cards, which meant I was seeing savings right off the bat. When it comes to cases, I tend to shop one brand: SilverStone. With respect to this particular build, I chose SilverStone's TJ04B-E ATX Tower case, which retails for $159.99. The TJ04B-E is a great case for a NAS build, because it is an ATX Full-Tower design, meaning it has a lot of room inside and, more importantly, it comes as standard with 13 bays. To put that in perspective a little bit, a top NAS box manufacturer charges upwards of $1,700 for an entry-level box capable of holding only eight drives. I'm not made of money, so SilverStone's $160 asking price sounded good to me.
Next, I spec-ed out the CPU. I loved my AMD FX chip used in the HTPC build and saw no reason to look elsewhere when it came time to choose a processor for my NAS build. Rather than go with another FX-branded chip, however, I went with a chip from AMD's A-Series, specifically the A10-5700. The A10-5700 retails for $129.99, including fan, and is an FM2 socket, quad-core 3.4Ghz CPU. It's very efficient at 65 watts, meaning it runs calm and cool, given its Herculean power. While many (including some inside AMD) think I've once again gone overboard with my CPU, I disagree. While I may have been able to get away with, say, an E-Series chip, or lesser A-Series (or even FX Series), I argue that, at AMD's prices, you can't really go wrong. I happened to spec out and use the A10-5700, which I'm very happy about, though you could save a few bucks (maybe) and go with one of AMD's "lesser" CPUs and maybe spend between $75 and $100. Either way, with AMD, you're not going to pay an arm and a leg for killer real-world performance, which is why they're my go-to for builds such as these.
The A10-5700's FM2 socket did make shopping for a compatible motherboard easier. Speaking of motherboards, I went with Asus' F2A55-M/CSM which retails for $79.99. The F2A55 has onboard graphics (a plus for initial setup), gigabit LAN support, USB 3.0 functionality, support for up to 64GB of DDR3 memory and six Serial ATA headers, the latter being key in a NAS setup. Again, it may seem a bit like overkill, but my reasoning for the Asus F2A55-M was this: my chosen OS, FreeNAS, likes memory and the Asus supports almost unlimited memory if need be. Additionally, the Asus has the most Serial ATA ports available out of the box, meaning I could save a few bucks by not having to shell out for expansion cards or the like right away.
I had 16GB of memory left over from a previous build, so I went ahead and used that rather than purchase more. The memory I used for this build came by way of Corsair and the company's Dominator DDR3-1600MHz memory, which in this case is complete overkill. If I didn't have the memory left over from my workstation build, then I probably would've gone for something more along the lines of Kingston HyperX 8GB Memory kit for around $40. More on memory in a moment. Lastly, I needed a power supply, for which I chose Coolmax's V-500 500-watt power supply that retails for $24.99. For those of you keeping score, the total cost of this particular build, sans drives, totaled $394.96. Add in $40 for memory and the cost jumps to $434.96. Could you build a NAS cheaper? Sure, but in doing so, you'd probably have to skimp on available drive space, as well as CPU power, but it is doable. To compare, roughly $400 buys you either a Netgear RND2120 two-bay ReadyNAS ($429.99) or a QNAP 2TB Turbo NAS ($429.99). Both are dual-bay designs, whereas the DIY NAS laid out above has a capacity of 13 drives, or 39TB if you were to fill it with 3TB drives. The Netgear and QNAP offerings are limited to 4TB.
You may have noticed that I've failed to calculate the cost of drives into my equation. This is because I'm not going to be filling my NAS box to the brim straight away, but rather buy drives as I go. I'm a little anal retentive, so while it's possible to mix and match, I prefer to keep my drives the same. The drives I chose for my build are Western Digital's Green WD30EZRX 3TB hard drives, which retail for $139.99 each. I bought three on sale for $119 each, bringing my total to $751.96 all in. The three 3TB drives gave my NAS a starting capacity of 9TB, with up to 30TB in total storage remaining. Not bad for well under $1,000. I went with 3TB drives over 2TB ones because a) they're fairly common now and b) pound for pound, they're a better value, despite costing a little bit more. I went with WD's Green drives opposed to their NAS series because they're more energy efficient and, since my NAS box is going to be running pretty much 24/7, efficiency is important. In truth, both series of drives, Green and NAS, are practically equals, with the Green being the cheaper of the two, so why not save a little money, too? Building the NAS box was not unlike the HTPC - in fact, it was exactly the same. Rather than bore you with details, here are a few images detailing the components and the build process. For a more comprehensive written breakdown of how to build a computer from the ground up, please check out my earlier HTPC build story.
Rather than load up an operating system, such as Windows 7 or the like, I went with a free NAS OS by the name of FreeNAS. FreeNAS is, well, free, and can be downloaded off the FreeNAS website. FreeNAS is an open source storage platform that supports sharing across all platforms, Mac, PC and even UNIX. It's nearly infinitely configurable, though most users, like me, will probably opt for one of its more stock configurations. The OS rests on a USB or compact flash device (that you provide), which needs to be at a minimum 2GB in size. I went with a 4GB thumb drive which ran me, I think, $5. FreeNAS recommends loading your system up with as much RAM as you can muster, though the program's "butter zone" seems to fall somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 8GB. FreeNAS says that, for larger storage volumes, a good rule of thumb is 1GB of RAM per 1TB of storage, though several people I've spoken to about that adage have added, "Within reason." Needless to say, my 16GB of RAM left over from another build is more than sufficient. The 8GB spec-ed out above would also suffice. Upon loading FreeNAS for the first time, you're going to want to connect a monitor to the NAS Box itself, which I did thanks to my motherboard having onboard graphics capability (see how it all comes together?). Telling the bios to boot off the thumb drive rather than a disc will get things going in the right direction. The initial setup procedure is pretty straightforward, though it may vary from user to user and build to build, so it's imperative that you consult, at the very least, FreeNAS' quick start guide before getting too far ahead of yourself. Once set up and configured, a process that can take mere minutes, you can disconnect your monitor, keyboard and what have you and instead interface with FreeNAS and your NAS box via its IP address - I recommend a fixed IP address.
Once FreeNAS and your newly constructed NAS box is up and running, you can begin dumping content to it. If you're using it for media, i.e., music, movies and photos, then I recommend you adhere to the standards and practices laid out in my HTPC article. This entails having a master folder labeled "Media" and, within it, folders labeled "Music," "Movies," and "Photos." Within the music folder, I'd break down your files in this manner: Artist/Album Title/Track Name.file extension. For movies I'd go with Title of Movie/Movie Title.file extension. Most meta-data scraping software prefers this setup, which makes it easier for the software to do its thing and provide you with a media-rich browsing experience. With your NAS Box now populated, all you have to do is point your various network-connected devices at the NAS box and begin streaming locally stored content, provided a) you've set up your network shares properly and b) have made sure all your files are cross-platform compatible.
I have just about every connected device in my home, including my smartphones, directed at my NAS box. I stream locally stored HD content, complete with high-resolution audio, to my theater via my Dune-HD Max, as well as in my bedroom via my Oppo BDP-103. I even use a Vizio Co-Star downstairs to access content off the NAS. Having all your content in one location really does simplify things, not to mention keeping you pretty much protected for the future, since as long as your next source component has an Ethernet port, it should (in theory) be able to access content from your NAS box. This means HDMI, 4K or what have you can go through however many permutations it wants before settling on a "standard," and you should still be good to go. If your HDTV supports DLNA, then no source component may even be required. Simply plugging your display into your router, which also plays host to your NAS, would make whatever compatible files available right on your TV screen, provided you configured FreeNAS to take advantage of DLNA as well. By choosing to look at content as nothing more than raw data, the sky, not the format, really does become the limit. That's why I suggest that the ultimate source component isn't a player but rather a network-attached storage device or NAS Box