A few weeks ago, I took a look at my MacBook’s disk occupation and got a bit worried. The great little software Disk Inventory X made extremely clear that my work directory was a bit too packed with pictures, and checking the total disk occupation left me with an uneasy feeling of scarcity. This is the life of the “lucky” owners of SSD disks: fast, small, and unreliable. In fact, I had some worrying events on my laptop, like requiring multiple on and offs to finally show the “apple” logo, or getting stuck while installing updates. To be fair, it could also be the battery’s fault (which OSX is asking me to service), but these factors combined created a worry and an itch I must scratch.
Building my own Network Attached Storage system
Clearly I needed a NAS where I could put my stuff, keeping the laptop light, and get access through the local network. I checked around for interesting products, and I found some: I really like Drobo, but to me, the absolute best is the Synology product selection. Yet, the idea of having a dedicated product for nothing else than storage started to feel a bit restrictive. I have a TV with HDMI input. Why can’t I play Minecraft on it? The NAS project slowly became a NAS + “Media center” project, and I embraced the complexity. I quickly realized it was impossible to find this kind of product off-the-shelf, so I started planning for self-assembling.
The last time I built my own computer, the processor available was a Pentium II 333 MHz. It was as cool as it can get, with its cartridge-like shape and its holographic watermark. Despite having previous experience in hardware assembling, it took me a couple of days to build and even more to install, due to driver problems with Linux. Overall, it was a good experience but I was more interested in the software side. A few years later, I abandoned the Intel/Linux world and switched to PowerPC/OSX, and the rest is history. Things just work in the Mac world, and I like it that way in some circumstances, when my target is to use a computer with minimal fuss. Yet, I am not over-zealot as a Mac user, and this is especially true after they decided to drift more and more towards markets I either don’t care about (iPhone stuff) nor support (App stores). I also recognize a chance for flexibility and ad-hoc tinkering when I see one, and I’m all for it.
“Stefano” – I hear you say – “Why don’t you buy a Mac mini with an additional disk and get over the problem? It’s a full computer, it’s small, it has OSX and it does all you need”. Indeed this is true, but it’s also more expensive. Also, the needs are different: I don’t want a closed system. I need a flexible, highly configurable system that allows me to do both network storage and general computing in any potential software direction, and change the hardware when needed, adding new disks or upgrading the old ones. Having some additional nice features like an Nvidia chip for some grotesque CUDA experiment is a plus. From where can I start, with no experience in modern hardware?
Re-learning the world of consumer hardware
Not having a lot of hardware experience, I had to re-learn or update on a few things: processor types, socket types, RAM types, Motherboard types, case types, and power supply requirements. For example, the processor world is confusing at best. Here are some of the questions I had
- Is an LGA 1155 socket compatible with an LGA 1156. No, but they are for cooler purposes
- How many processors are available today, and which one should I get? Too many. In addition to the plenty of i3/5/7 models, Intel also has restored the Pentium name for recent processors.
- Sandy bridge, Ivy bridge? Ok, bored now.
Overwhelmed with the details, I asked a friend for help and checked some blogs. He gave me an extremely useful course in modern hardware, and an extremely useful price-comparison website, tweakers.net. It’s in dutch, but having spent a year in the most badass country in the world, I understand enough to use it. For the blogs, an authentic trove of information came from this one. In fact, I almost built his configuration, with proper changes.
In the next part, I will detail the products I bought and their price.