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We have a machine running consumer hardware at the moment as our fileserver, and of course its RAIDs keep dying. So we've been given permission to get a replacement that's less likely to die.

The problem is, I don't know enough to know what I'm looking for. We have four or five people in the office itself, who make regular use of the files via Windows Networking. We also have another fifteen or so remote users, who connect to the office via OpenVPN and will need access to the files on the machine.

Constraints:

  • Drives probably have to be pairs of RAID 1. The current machine has a pair of fast 320GB drives for OS/applications, and then a second pair of drives, in a separate RAID 1 configuration, of 1TB for data. We don't have to keep to this, but it seems like a good way of going about things. But maybe you have a better idea.
  • The system doesn't exactly have to be speedy, but it has to be fast enough that people who are accessing it via VPN are not going to find this machine the bottleneck ;)
  • I have a limit of approximately $2500AUD, preferably less rather than more.

We're batting about a couple of options:

  • Get cheap consumer hardware, and back up files to the backup server as soon as they're saved. I think this is done on the current machine using Windows Server 2008 built in folder duplication. After all, the machine doesn't exactly need to be a processing powerhouse to serve files. I don't know if Windows Server actually provides any killer features that would suggest moving away from using a desktop OS for it.

  • Get server hardware, and rely on the additional stability that is the sales pitch of the higher price tag. I don't know anything about server hardware, and whether it's actually worth the extra cost especially for these comparatively light tasks.

Any advice?

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RAIDs keep dying can you define this a little better ? perhaps youre having a PSU problem where your drivers would go off and unrecognized by the system and would go back once a reboot is done for a parcial amount of time until it dies again ? –  Prix Aug 17 '10 at 6:26
    
@Prix I'm not sure what you said, but basically, there are four drives. It seems like every time I look at the RAID maintenance app (which comes up when you log in), it says at least one drive has failed from one of the two pairs; often one from each of the two. If you tell it to rebuild, it spends a couple of hours doing that, then sits there happy for a little while before deciding that one of its drives has failed again... –  Margaret Aug 17 '10 at 6:36
    
@Margaret What is the PSU voltage you have and what the computer has ? (cd-rom, dvd-rom, blue-ray, hds, video card model, anything that may consume power from the PSU) and see if your PSU has enough voltage to sustain everything you have, if not simple replacing your PSU might solve your problem if you can check this out. –  Prix Aug 17 '10 at 6:39
    
I've seen this problem before. The reason was isolated to the machine. Could have been motherboard or PSU. Never did find out. Swapped raid card into another machine and all good since. –  Matt Aug 17 '10 at 8:45
    
i had this problem while using a bad PSU the computer had 5 HDs and a considerable video card, dvd-rom when it boost at the max out of the PSU one of the drivers in use at the momment would disapear from the system causing an error, but since he is using a raid it might actually keep and restore it in my case it wouldnt until i rebooted the pc at the given momment. Also make sure that you have the 110/220 switch on the right position this can aswell cause you trouble, while the PSU may work it won't provide the power it requires to proper work. –  Prix Aug 17 '10 at 8:52

9 Answers 9

up vote 0 down vote accepted

10 mins ago I posted a response where the problem is quite likely the same issue you're seeing - Consumer-grade hard drives have onboard error-recovery systems which can cause those drives to drop out of an active raid-array, as it stops responding for too long (and the raid controller assumes it's dead).

You need enterprise-grade drives without these onboard error-recovery systems (as they're assumed to be handled by the RAID controller in enterprise deployments).

As to your question of where to go next - Based on the above as you can probably gather, I'm very much in favour of utilising business-specced hardware in business scenarios, because consumer-grade hardware often causes unexpected problems with reliability and performance. Just as you're seeing right now! :)

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Ideally you'll want raid and a backup strategy in place. If this server is to host data of any importance then it definitely should be backed up at least nightly. For redundancy, look to spend the money on true hardware raid (rather than cheap fakeraid). We've always had good luck with smartarray controllers in a raid 5 configuration -- we haven't had a non-recoverable drive failure in the 12+ years we've been using them. There are differing opinions on whether 'server' drives are a must; my opinion is that for a small setup with hardware raid and regular backups they're probably not necessary.

For software, if this is your only server then you may want to go with a Windows Server to get Active Directory up and running. If you already have a Windows Server you could have a look at FreeNAS to run the file server functionality -- it's free, easy to set up, has a ton of functionality accessible through an intuitive web management console, and can use existing Windows servers for authentication. It can also do software raid and dive encryption.

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I don't know if you are looking for brands, but i found that HP prolient server line tends to be pretty good and inexpensive. I have built a few small workgroup servers on their g5 line. To cut costs i chose to use consumer line drives and placed them in trays form a 3rd party, they have a longer seek time, but since speed isn't a top concern, it should be fine.

I suggest a raid 5 or 6 for redundancy and size.

You can get these server chassis with board and minimum memory pretty cheap (999-1200) and add parts for not to much more (i think my total for the biggest was 1.7-1.8k).

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+1 get branded server hardware, a basic file server from HP, Dell et al with even an OEM Windows Server license shouldn't be anywhere near the budget max. –  Oskar Duveborn Aug 17 '10 at 11:17

More copies is always better than more expensive hardware as far as data safety is concerned. RAID is not a substitute for backups.

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  1. You need RAID (protection against individual hardware faults) and backups (protection against human error and catastrophic hardware faults).
  2. Even with consumer grade hardware your RAID drives should not fail all the time. There is little point in simply reassembling the RAID drives without checking why they have fallen apart. Maybe all you really need to do is replace the faulty drives. OTOH, if it's not the same drives failing all the time, then maybe it's the RAID controller. This is where the red alarm bells go off. If your RAID controller dies, and you can't get the exact same model (and sometimes even if you can) your data on the RAID drives is gone. Which is why we tend to use software RAID more than hardware RAID these days.
  3. For a simple file server like that, you can buy almost any off-the-shelf server hardware. You would probably want a relatively big tower case, as these tend to make much less noise and I doubt that you have a dedicated server room. If your preferred supplier doesn't want to offer cheap(ish) drives, then buy the server with the smallest drives they offer, then get some decent big drives from another supplier and swap them out. Works for pretty much all normal brands of servers (except high-end optimized storage solutions).
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nearly -1.... most modern not low end raid cards support array moving, even between models. Check Adaptec - works like a charm. Store all array configs on every (!) disc, movable between all current controllers. Works like a charm. –  TomTom Aug 17 '10 at 9:02
    
I had an HP NetRaid card fail on me, and even with another of the exact same model the RAID was gone. No chance, not even after weeks of trying. –  wolfgangsz Aug 17 '10 at 15:16

It doesn't sound like you have that much money available, and if you can save some that would be an important consideration right?

What you might like to consider is a second hand server. There are companies that specialize in ex lease equipment for sale and offer warranties. Depending on their age, some are even still covered by the original warranty.

This might sound crazy but actually a lot of server hardware can run for many years. In my old workplace some had been going 6 years and have only just been pulled out. If you go this route, I'd recommend IBM hardware. e.g. a 2U IBM x3650 are fantastic workhorses. We set one up that runs with up to 25 concurrent users. It only has 4GB or RAM and runs well with terminal services. With just 10 users it's reasonably speedy as well.

What usually wears out first with servers, is the hard drives. So you could buy new hard drives. However, you'll probably have to buy SCSI and they more expensive, but then you'll be saving on the server cost by going second hand. Just make sure you get to check the server over properly first and get as much RAM for it as you can afford. It's worth the extra cash.

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I built a similar file server that need to meet your requirements.

I used consumer grade hardware, in RAID 1 750GB hard disks.

Power consumption is must be considered for RAID configuration; I use the 120% approach, buying a power supply that will support 120% of the wattage required for ALL the devices that could be attached to it... Disks, drives, and motherboard/CPU combination.

While buying a SOHO server would be advisable, if your budget can not afford it, you could conceivably build a small server as redundant unit, and replace the power supply in the current file server.

It is highly advisable to start a back up process and stick with it.

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This seems to be a hardware question, so here goes...

I would consider the QNAP line of storage, such as the SS-839 or TS-839 Pro Turbo NAS. These devices are clever but simple. They have an embedded operating system, and they work very well in a Microsoft or Linux network. Fortunately they are well within your budget at around 1700 AUD complete with disks.

From an eco perspective, it runs on a low power intel Atom chip with 2GB of RAM. The SS model runs smaller 2.5" disks as you find in laptops, which consume even less power.

You mention that you are running applications on your current fileserver. This need not present an obstacle if you continue to run those applications on your current hardware (or buy a new PC with your spare change). This is possible because the QNAP will act as an iSCSI target, which means that it can make your current hardware think that the QNAP is a local disk. So you can run all of those applications using the CPU and RAM of your current hardware, but on the QNAP disks. This is the way that most enterprise 'clusters' work.

From the sound of your operation you will not reach the limit of this model until you go beyond 50 simultaneous users. The QNAP has has 8 disks - which means that you can use Raid 1 for redundancy and because you'll have 8 disk heads that can all reach for information at the same time you'll have a really fast access times.

I know I'm starting to sound like a QNAP sales guy (I'm not) but another thing is that the embedded OS allows you to configure backups in many ways, either using software that you install on your users machines, or using a 'one touch button' that copies the RAID to a USB drive. It also has VPN capabilities which allow either remote access, web based publishing or offsite replication pairs (typically by installing a smaller QNAP box at your home so that you have a constant stream of backup data going across the two).

This should cover you for now and for a few years as well. Because the QNAP is iSCSI enabled, if you eventually outgrow it as a file server you will be able to attach it to the Dell/HP/whatever box you buy as flexible storage.

Don't I sound as if I'm after one myself? We're a small medical information shop with about 10 windows servers running in a cluster with switches, SANs and god knows what.

...sometimes I just hanker after a simple little solution, and I think the QNAP presents that.

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Wound up with a Dell Poweredge T310...

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