There comes a time in every tech-conscious person's life when they reach the conclusion that they need to have some sort of network attached storage (NAS) to store their backups and all their data in a safe and reliable form. For me that point came in 2012.
Initially, I thought about doing what most other people in my situation do: buy a Synology or a QNAP box, stuff it with disks, and call it a day. However, I didn't like the idea of being under the mercy of some manufacturer releasing updates or fixes for whatever bugs their software had. I also figured that since I was going to have this machine powered on 24/7 on my home network, it might as well be able to do a few additional things, like running the occasional VM. These two requirements meant pretty much my only option was to build a proper NAS from scratch.
After quite a bit of online research, I settled on the Gen7 ProLiant MicroServer from HP; paired it with an HP Smart Array P400 hardware RAID controller (complete with a battery backup module), a Sharkoon 5.25" to six 2.5" drive cage, and a triplet of 750GB WD Black 2.5" drive in a RAID-5 configuration, for a nominal 1.5TB of redundant storage. When I finally filled those initial three drives in early 2017, I extended it's storage with a triplet of 1750GB Samsung/Seagate SpinPoint M9T 2.5" drives, for a further nominal 3.5TB of redundant storage. For over five years, it served all my needs without any issues. But then came the whole Meltdown/Spectre shebang. Overnight, the old AMD N54L inside it went from being able to handle around 120MB/sec at 30-35% CPU usage, to maxing out at 100% with only 50-60MB/sec of throughput!
And so, the journey to build a new NAS began. The old HP stood at 14L in volume. For this build, my aim was to shrink that to 10L. This meant I'll be looking at a mini-TX build. I wanted to reuse my drive cage and hard drives, which meant the case will have to have a 5.25" full hight slot. Back in October 2017, I bought a used Intel i5-6400T CPU for £50. I didn't have any use for it, but for that price I couldn't let it slip, when the going rate on ebay was closer to €150. I also had a couple of 8GB 2400MHz DDR4 SO-DIMMs lying around. Those two meant the motherboard will have to have an LGA1155 socket, and preferably support SO-DIMM memory. Finally, I knew the old P400 wouldn't do it this time, as it can't handle more than 120MB/sec in RAID-5, and so I'll need a "new" RAID controller.
Unbeknownst to me, the market of LGA1155 mini-ITX boards that accept SO-DIMM memory, yet have a PCI-E slot to accept an expansion card is almost non-existent. The only board that I could find that fit those requirements was Jetway's NF594-Q170. Except this board cost over €220 in Europe. I wasn't going to pay that much for a mini-ITX board. The whole point of going SO-DIMM was not to shell €160 on 16GB of desktop DDR4 RAM!
"Was there a way to use my mobile memory on a desktop board?" I asked Google. Sure enough, some Taiwanese company by the name of Ju-Jet Electronics had made such an adapter! The only thing left was sourcing it. Google suggested an e-tailer (mfactors.com) that supposedly sold them. But when I tried to buy from their online store, they required direct credit card payment through a less than reputable payment processor. As if that wasn't enough, they charged more for international shipping than two of the adapters cost! Following another couple of days of searching, I managed to get a pair from eBay for $32 shipped! This meant I could now use pretty much any LGA1155 mini-ITX board with a PCI-E slot.
A good, reliable, professional-class motherboard is a must for such a build. My old HP was shutdown about five times over the five years it served me. I expect the same level of availability of my new build. I settled on an Asus H170I-PRO. It provided a good set of features including an M.2 slot (already had a 256GB ADATA XPG SX7000) for a fast boot drive, dual GbE, and VRMs able to deliver more than 65W; meaning my 35W CPU would be a breeze for the 6-phase power delivery system. Best of all, Amazon sold the board for under €100, including shipping.
There were only three parts missing: The RAID controller, a case, and an efficient power supply. The case would be dictating the power supply format.
For RAID, I wanted a controller with plenty of features and room to grow. Mechanical drives evolved substantially over the past decade, but one area where not much has changed is throughput: They still can't output more than 140-150MB/sec. This means anything SATA-2 or SAS-1 (300MB/sec) would be more than enough. After some Googling, I found an old roundup at Toms's Hardware of three top-tier Enterprise controllers from 2009. While almost a decade old, those were some of the best RAID controllers money could buy back then, and the reviewed models continued to be sold until 2012/2013. I settled on the Adaptec 52445. It's small, has 6 internal SAS ports (each supporting 4 channels, for up 24 directly connected drives, or 256 drives with expanders), and provided me with an additional SFF-8088 for any crazy external-SAS ideas I might have in the future. Plus, with a bit of patience, it could be sourced on eBay for $30-40 including the Lithium-Ion backup battery module. Not bad for something that retailed at $1600 not many years ago!
Turning to the case, my requirement for a 5.25" bay greatly limited my options. Wanting a clean and simple design. A target volume of 10L made it harder still. The only case design I could find on the internet that came close was Lian Li's PC-Q07B. At under 11L (10.9L @ 193x208x280mm), it would be a good 30% smaller than the outgoing HP it substitutes. This case also accepts a standard ATX power supply, greatly facilitating the search for a high-efficiency, reasonably priced PSU. Only problem was that they stopped making this model in 2009. Again, after a couple of weeks of searching on eBay and I was able to buy a used one, in very clean condition, with the front USB ports upgraded to the 3.0 standard for under €50. Given the low power nature of the entire build, I needed to go with a low-power rating power supply, as even 80Plus Gold units don't hit 80% efficiency until 20% load. Dell's L265AM from their old OptiPlex 790/990 line early in the decade, rated at 265W with an 80Plus Gold certification fit the bill squarely. eBay has plenty of those available cheaply, and it wasn't hard to find a new (old-stock) unit for around €30 shipped.
For the CPU cooler, I went for a Noctua NH-L9i. It's low-profile fits with room to spare in the tight quarters of this small buid. Rated at 65W, it's almost twice the 35W of my i5-6400T. Reviewers and users praise its quietness and reliability. And at €38 shipped, I didn't have to look much further.
Finally, to keep the insides clean from dust, I bought a large sheet of thin foam, the kind used in air conditioning filters. Cut and glued pieces to size on all ventilation openings in the case (the black strip to the right of the motherboard, and the black fuzzy pieces on the back of the case).
Beyond the CPU and RAM, it took about two months to research, buy, and ship all those disparate components, from all corners around the world. And while it was a fun exercise, it reminded me why I hadn't really built a desktop system from scratch for over 15 years. It took way too many hours to research most components, and a few more fit everything together neatly in such tight quarters. I would've paid a pretty premium to have a fully integrated system from a major brand that could do the same, as my outgoing MicroServer did. The new Gen9 and Gen10 MicroServers sadly dropped the full-height 5.25" slot, rendering them unusable for such a build.
The keen eyed might have noticed the mish-mash of currency symbols throughout this post. This was no mistake. The CPU came from the UK, the motherboard from Italy, RAM was bought earlier locally in Portugal, the memory adapters and SAS-SATA cables came from China, the CPU cooler from Spain, the RAID controller from the US, and the case and power supply from Germany (different sellers).
Partly because of the mish-mash of disparate components used to build it, and partly because those components came from half a dozen countries across three continents, I christened this machine The FrankenNas :D