Please bear with me as being a bit of a newcomer at 19" rack-mounted equipment.

I've thought a fair bit lately about the best way of getting 4x or 6x of 2.5" hard drives into my rack and are currently really confused about would be the best (read economical) solution.

After scouting the market, I've found this type of disk array units that offers built in RAID and a lot of drive slots and a truckload of geek cred, but at a price that just isn't going to fit in my budget.

alt text I've also found these type of cute adapters that takes two 2.5" drives in one 3.5" slot, but I will obviously need a chassie with a lot of 3.5" spaces in order to make it work.

alt text

So what is the most economical way to house my harddrives in my rack?

  • Are you looking for strickly storage or combination storage/servers? Also what interconnect are you looking to use to attach these to the hosts? – 3dinfluence Jan 8 '11 at 15:37
  • @Industrial: Do you need a full file serving solution on just some more disks to connect to your existing servers? Do you need something with a built-in RAID controller or are you going to only attach more disks to a server's one? How do you plan to connect this storage to your existing equipment? There really are lots of solutions here, please clarify your needs. – Massimo Jan 8 '11 at 15:41
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    @Massimo: It sounds like he's just interested in storing them in the rack. I'd recommend cardboard boxes... they're very economical and ecologically friendly. – Evan Anderson Jan 8 '11 at 15:47
  • apart from being a cheap solution, what are you trying to achieve? give me a business goal – Nick Kavadias Jan 8 '11 at 15:56
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    @Industrial: ok, but will those RAID cards be in a server? And how exactly do you plan to connect them to the disks? – Massimo Jan 8 '11 at 17:54

It's easy to look at pictures of hard drive caddies and storage arrays but that isn't going to help. As I'm sure you know, it's not just about getting a large amount of disks and throwing them into a rack - you need to think about how they will be accessed, monitored, controlled, etc. I'm also a little confused - in your question title you talk about "many" hard drives and in the detail you talk about 4 drives - do you literally mean 4 drives, or do you mean 4 drive chassis of the sort in your picture?

The most "economical way of getting lots of disk into a rack mount" is difficult to answer because what that actually means changes depending on the problem you're trying to solve. You need to define what you're going to use them for, what sort of risks are acceptable to you and how you define "economical". And while you might have a tight budget, which is fine, you need to accept there will be some real costs here, either in time or money if not both.

What sort of problem are you trying to solve

In other words, what do you want to do with the disks, how will they connect to the thing(s) you want to use them with, etc. Different types of storage are suited to different types of job - broadly speaking you can divide "a bunch of disks in a rack" into 3 broad categories depending on what they are connected to (there are lots of other ways to group this and break it down, of course)

Direct Attached storage - DAS for short.

This is a dedicated storage array that plus directly into an already existing server to expand the storage available on that server, usually via either SCSI,(more recently) SAS, or (typically at the lower end) SATA. This will give you a reasonably economical way of providing a lot of storage to one machine. That one machine might then act as a file server and publish shares on your network to contain files, and you can even find software to turn this hypothetical server into a NAS (see openfiler or FreeNAS for examples) or SAN (openfiler is an obvious example, again).

Network Attached Storage - NAS for short

A NAS is essentially a minimalistic server that is dedicated to providing shared storage on a network. Typically this will be an appliance with a highly tuned OS and file system, designed to publish fileshares on a network with reasonable performance and security, and not do a lot else (though many home/small office NASes do other tricks as well).

If you're trying to provide bulk "network" storage, perhaps centralised storage for office workers to store documents, or even for their workstations to be backed up to a central point this can be a good bet. You will probably find that a NAS might cost more than a DAS solution, but then you don't also have to provide a server and spend time configuring the server as a file server. You pays your money and you takes your choice. There are some cheap NAS devices out there (like this one) but once you start talking about rack mountable devices you're talking about "enterprise computing" and the prices and features start going up accordingly.

Storage Area Network - SAN for short

A SAN is a more specialised network file store, which is designed to allow its storage to be divided between several servers and viewed "logically" on each server as if it were a local direct attached/internal device.

SANs are connected to the servers using them by a "network" that is usually (but not always) dedicated to the SAN connections to ensure both good security, reliability and performance.

SAN infrastructure and disk typically ranges from "quite expensive" to "Is that really a price, or an international phone number" so with your worries about budget you probably see this outside of your price range - though depending on your requirements it may turn out this is what you need, in which case you may be able to set one up for "free" using the resources I suggest above.

Risk, and how you define "economical"

You mention a NAS that supports RAID as being out of your price range in your question, but you need to think about risk - only you can define what chances you are prepared to take with your data and how valuable it is, but you need to be aware that the more disks you have in a storage array, the greater the chances that one will fail and the greater the chances that another will fail while the first one has not yet been replaced and brought back online. There's a discussion about this here.

This bring us to "economical" - do you consider this to mean you want the cheapest possible solution, period (which will probably be a server with a lot of DAS boxes, configured in one giant RAID 5 array) and damn the problems and risks this might bring? Or do you consider "economical" to mean "good value for money" (which isn't always the same as 'cheapest'). I'm a lot more comfortable with that second definition myself.

Other considerations

If you want a rack full of hard drives, then you need to be aware that this will require a good power supply and will also generate a lot of heat which will need to be removed/cooled in order to keep the hard disks operating reliably, so air conditioning and careful planning of rack air-flow and power needs may be a requirement.

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    "Is that really a price, or an international phone number" is probably the best definition of a SAN's price I've ever read :-D – Massimo Jan 8 '11 at 15:44
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    Well done, sir. – gWaldo Jan 10 '11 at 13:40

If you are for raw space and don't really care about performance (as long as it's near 100MiB/s for streaming access and at least 100's of IOPS) then it's hard to beat backblaze pods.

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  • VERY nice, but are they actually available for sale or that blog post was just the company's way of saying "look at how cool we are"? – Massimo Jan 8 '11 at 16:16
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    They don't sell the pods, but you can buy the enclosure from Protocase : protocase.com – petrus Jan 8 '11 at 16:27
  • You can buy the storage pod case from Protocase. The same company that built them for backblaze. From googling around it looks like in quantities of 1-4 they run about $880 each. – 3dinfluence Jan 8 '11 at 16:28
  • or SuperMicro.2 rack units high: 25 discs, 4 units high: 73 discs, SAS backplanes. – TomTom Jan 9 '11 at 14:45
  • @TomTom ...costing over $2k last time I looked – Hubert Kario Jan 9 '11 at 14:54

You can't really just "house my harddrives in my rack". Harddrives are built to operate inside PCs, and fx SATA cable lenghts are limited to ~1 meter.

Technologies originally targeted ad the enterprise such as SAS and Fibre Channel can have expanders, long cable runs, etc. But they're not what you would be likely to consider "economical".

One common way to get lots of storage on the cheap is dedicated servers built with custom enclosures such as this one from Supermicro. So you'd have a PC inside, connecting to all the harddrives via SATA or SAS RAID adaptor(s). And then you would connect the server to the LAN via a Windows on Linux server OS and your choice of protocol.

Another common way is to buy a NAS applicance from a reputable vendor. Look around, there are many examples. The NAS approach is arguably better because you have one vendor who supplies a ready-made, tested solution with support.

Note that when you have 'many' harddisk drives you really need to think about redundancy (RAID), because the occurrence of disk failures grows with the number of disks of course...

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  • SATA II apart from faster speeds added expanders to the mix... – Hubert Kario Jan 8 '11 at 16:20
  • @Hubert Kario: You are correct, I had actually completely forgotten about that. But that's because I have never seen an actual SATA II expander solution in a datacenter. Are you aware of any do-it-yourself SATA II expanders that actually ship in volume, and reliably work? – Jesper M Jan 8 '11 at 16:24
  • +1 good practical stuff – Rob Moir Jan 8 '11 at 23:27
  • @Hubert, SATA II doesn't add expanders, it adds port multipliers, which are horrible. SAS expanders are far better. – Mircea Chirea Jan 9 '11 at 17:31
  • Both technologies make bus sharing possible (lowering available bandwidth), what SATA can't do is multipathing. Besides, you have to remember that SATA is more of home, not enterprise, technology. On the other hand, if you can put enough redundancy in the system it will work out OK (see Google). – Hubert Kario Jan 9 '11 at 19:12

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