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Part 2 Of My UnRAID Experience

This is a follow-up to my first post about my initial build of my unRAID storage server.

So having spent more than a month with my new unRAID box, I thought I’d add some follow-up comments. I have added a fifth drive to the mix since the initial write-up (it’ll be fun once I get it up to the max of 16 that my choice of the case & other equipment will allow). This time, a Western Digital 2tb ” EARS” green drive. All drives have continued to work perfectly, as has this new one. My archive of stuff has been growing as I’ve been getting more and more of it organized and copied over. I’ve been making a point to spend at least a little time every evening getting at least a few folders worth of stuff organized and copied over to the unRAID server. In a few months time, I may actually accomplish something I’ve never truly done in the decades I’ve been constantly using computers – have all my data organized (and in one easily navigated place and well protected, no less).

One of the biggest steps I’ve made with the server since the initial write-up was getting Crashplan working on the server to backup content from it to the cloud. I hadn’t been directly familiar with Crashplan previously, but I think I’d seen it in some lists of cloud backup services at some point. Having found out via the unRAID user forums that Crashplan would actually work with unRAID, I set about learning exactly how to get it going and what all CrashPlan offered in general. Overall, I was very impressed. I’ve been a happy Carbonite user for a couple years. I have two paid licenses for my main machines at the house, and nearly 400gb of stuff backed up from them. But now that I would be doing most of my permanent storage on the unRAID server, I wanted to find a way to do it directly from that server to the cloud.

Crashplan is somewhat unique compared to competitive services. For one thing, they have a free client that does backup between linked computers (multiple ones in the same location, or even friends machines over the internet). They also have ” CrashPlan Central” which comes along with their ” CrashPlan+” paid service (in a couple forms). It’s essentially a cloud backup target for their client to use as yet another possible backup target. They advertise it as unlimited in how much you backup (and make numerous comments in their forum confirming it to be truly unlimited). Heck, as far as I can tell, retention is also unlimited (could be wrong there, but haven’t seen anything to the contrary as yet).

As far as running Crashplan on the unRAID box goes, it runs “headless.” Essentially, the backup engine runs on the unRAID box, but since unRAID has no actual GUI platform for it to run the management client app on (unRAID only has web management interfaces, and Crashplan’s admin interface is a full GUI in need of an OS level GUI interface), you can connect to the engine on the unRAID box from a client installed on another machine. It accomplishes this rather amusingly utilizing a connection on a different random port that through something like the Putty shell client tunnels that port through an SSL tunnel to the unRAID server. That sounds tougher and more technobabble than it really is. The write-up on the unRAID forums/wiki actually makes it sound tougher and more confusing than it really is, actually. I had little trouble getting it all going once I distilled what they were talking about down to the actually needed steps. I considered writing up the steps I used specifically but failed to keep notes as I went. I could happily answer questions from other folks who are interested in getting it going, though, to try and help clear up any confusion. Just know that it’s really not at all hard to get going, it just sounds tougher than it actually is.

So when I was researching what plans and pricing CrashPlan offered, I came to find out that they had a “family plan” that amazingly allows for as many as 10 computers to have unlimited backup. This was a major bonus for me, as I would actually have 4 computers that I’d love to be doing cloud backup from (my main Win7 workstation, my fairly old Win2003 server, my Win7 laptop and of course my new unRAID server). And the Crashplan family license would cost no more than 2 subscriptions to Carbonite (it varies depending on how many years you buy up front – though they do impressively offer to pro-rate refund what future months/years of the service you don’t end up using if you decide to cancel at some point). After giving the server a good tire kick via their service trial on my main machine and the unRAID box, I sprung for the family plan (getting a 15% discount they were offering as an incentive to former Mozy backup service subscribers, as Mozy recently discontinued the “unlimited” part of their service – but sadly that promo code was only valid until the end of February). Within the first day, I’d already gotten more than 100gb uploaded from the two machines (I have a better-than-average speed internet connection).

I have had zero problems with the Crashplan stuff, and have begun recommending it to folks – particularly people who would be able to properly leverage the family plan advantage. The service has plenty of “geek” level features in how much you can tweak, and how versatile it is in capabilities. While it may lack one or two benefits of Carbonite (namely integration with the Windows Explorer shell – in ways like having a backup status coloring on folder icons, and other shell-level integrations), it actually brings considerably more functionality to the table and lacks nothing that’s a functionality show-stopper. In fact, it does one thing right that always annoyed me with Carbonite. When you tell it to backup a folder, it backs up everything in a said folder (unless you add exceptions to the rule – which you can even do with complicated RegEx if you wish to geek out to that level). Carbonite constantly tries to “second guess” you as to what you do and don’t want to be backed up in a folder, a fact that kinda drives me nuts. It was the one thing I always tried to make as clear as I could to people when I recommended the service to them. It’s a bit gotcha. Thankfully, a service more tech-nerd friendly like Crashplan does it right. That fact alone has become enough for me to recommend Crashplan over Carbonite to anyone. Crashplan is not only well suited for us tech nerds to who like more power features and tweaks but is perfectly nice for novices who want to just accept the defaults and not sweat the details. Also, I love the fact that you can tweak almost all of the Crashplan settings for a machine from their web interface without actually having to be in front of a machine or remote desktop into one.

My other big piece of the puzzle since that initial write-up has been the ordering of a media streaming box. To understand my needs, a quick description of my setup is needed. I have a primary Windows 7 workstation, which is a high-performance machine, and what I spend most of my free time on (seriously, it gets at least 4-5 hours use every day, oftentimes considerably more). It is a dual monitor setup (with two large 1920×1200 monitors). My home theater is located next to this machine. This home theater uses an HD front projector, running everything through my Onkyo receiver via HDMI. I say all this because there is one key problem involved in all of it. Though my workstation actually has three physical video output connectors, it can only utilize two of them concurrently (a fact that is true of nearly all video cards). Unless I got into the expensive (and utterly stupid) world of 3+ monitors on a card that utilizes DisplayPort technology (which requires UNBELIEVABLY overpriced “”active”” adapters for more than 2 simultaneous outputs), or went with more than one video card (which in the case of my current machine would mean an entirely new motherboard), then I’m limited to only having two simultaneous outputs. I live and breath dual monitor computer use. It’s annoying for me to be on a single monitor computer, actually. Once you’ve gotten used to the flexibility of dual screens, it’s hard to go back. So, to feed content being played from this computer up to the projector, I actually have to unplug my second monitor from the back of it and plug the feed up to the projector in. What this means is that I rarely actually do that. So I tend to watch tons of stuff on the bigger primary monitor rather than the projector. Well, not stuff from my DVD/blu-ray collection, as I can just toss that into the blu-ray player, fed to the projector. But any other downloaded/ripped/streamed computer-based content (of which I have plenty) ends up getting watched on the computer display. For some time, I’ve considered various media playback hardware that could be hooked up to the receiver/projector and stream media from the network independently of using the computer to play it back. A primary show-stopper with that was that much of the media was on various hard drives that were plugged in one at a time as needed, and for the most part, poorly organized. Now that I’ve got this massive data library on my unRAID server, though, the possibilities opened back up.

Then, almost on cue to me having the thought that I’d love to revisit getting a media streaming box, somebody posted a link on the unRAID forums to a nice deal on one of Zotac’s ” ZBox” units. I was generally familiar with the various media streaming platforms and devices that were available. I’ve considered the XBMC platform to be the best of them based on the casual amount of attention I’ve paid to the various platforms. But now I decided to do the proper research. I spent hours upon hours reading up on the various platforms. What they could do, what they couldn’t. I considered stuff like dedicated Roku boxes (ruled out almost immediately due to extremely poor format support), Boxee (a step in the right direction, but still too limited) and so on. Like my process for selecting unRAID over other competing platforms, I almost immediately fell in love with what I was seeing about it. And the more I read, the more I knew it was the right one for me. They have a nice ” XBMC Live” ISO image you can download and burn to a CD or USB to boot up a machine to test it with. I tried that out on my laptop and was very impressed with the platform. Having done the live test and being very pleased, that closed the decision.

Then it came down to hardware. Did I want to go for the deal that I mentioned above? I spent a few hours digging around through the various approaches to hardware I could use for XBMC and my setup. Something like the Zotac unit was ideal because it was small, quiet and simple. I wanted to see if I could build something cheaper and come close to that set of small, quiet and simple. After hours of slicing and dicing different approaches to it, I decided I couldn’t. XBMC can be installed onto an existing OS (Windows, OSX, etc), or it can be installed directly via that XBMC Live download so that it runs as a dedicated platform all by itself on the hardware. This is a more lean-and-mean approach to it, where it can utilize the hardware best and be as simple as possible. Using the XBMC Live install on the Zotac ZBox ended up being the best solution – by a huge margin. So, I ordered the nifty deal from Newegg. It has shipped and is due to arrive on Wednesday. So, I may follow up in a week or two with some thoughts on how much I like XBMC and the Zotac stuff. Together, I expect to highly enjoy it, particularly in combination with the unRAID box for acting as the multimedia front-end for all the stuff on the server.

My unRAID experience has been nothing but great so far. It is quickly becoming my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for a home storage solution. Sure, there are some other solutions out there, but the comparative pros of using it over the others are fantastic. The minimal licensing cost of the “plus” and ” pro” versions of unRAID more than make up for themselves in what the product offers – and in the long run will almost certainly pay for themselves in other ways. Put simply, after more than a month use of my new unRAID server my opinion is, “I love this thing.”

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