Lessons from the Rack

Being a system administrator for computing infrastructure at home, on the cheap, has its advantages. I have learned many valuable lessons, some of which are being put to practice at work (where possible). You see, unlike a system admin for a large corporation, an el-cheapo system admin has more constraints to work with. I thought that I would share some lessons learned from my own experience.

Lesson 1: Network storage needs to be fast.

I am using a NAS system at home to store all my media as well as my system backup images. It is the primary back-end storage at home. It is currently running on a 533MHz VIA system with 256Mb of RAM and it has to handle software RAID as well as OTFE without any hardware acceleration. As a result, it gets hammered most of the time and slows to a noticeable crawl.

My plan is to upgrade my NAS to a multi-core system with at least four SATA drives attached and hardware accelerated crypto if possible. I have the plan of adding storage to the network in the future. I could either get a powerful machine with lots of expansion capabilities or add multiple lesser NAS machines onto the network in the future. I favour the latter for redundancy purposes.

Lesson 2: Wifi interference sucks.

Wifi is a solution to a lot of problems, but it is not a solution to network up a home – at least not when you need anything more than 1Mbps. It is a cheap and easy way of connecting all the machines at home as long as you do not need reliable and fast transfer speeds (like when you are streaming a movie off a NAS). In my area, there are at least six other home Wifi networks and they clash with each other every evening when everyone comes home.

My plan is to add in a HomePlug system or extend the existing wired network for video streaming purposes. Wifi is fine for Internet surfing as that is intermittent. Also, nothing beats the speed of wired ethernet. I may want to upgrade my home network to a giga-bit one.

Lesson 3: Virtualisation is a life-saver.

I have to add that due to the el-cheapo nature of my setup, virtualisation is a must. Also, as I am only using a 400Mhz VIA machine with 256Mb of RAM as the host node for almost a dozen virtual machines, I have had to learn to optimise and shrink things down so that the system does not run out of resources and crash. That said, I am starting to feel the slowness of the systems as I continue to add more and more virtual machines in.

My plan is to purchase a new machine with the capability of running Xen as a virtualisation solution. That will open up a whole new world of para-virtualisation to me. This machine will probably be multi-core, 64-bit, supporting hardware virtualisation, and loaded up with gobs of RAM. If my NAS is fast enough, I can mount the virtual hard-drives off the NAS either as NFS shares or iSCSI.

Lesson 4: Power outlets are a premium.

For some reason, houses do not come with a lot of power outlets. Furthermore, it is prudent to avoid overloading any existing outlets. For obvious reasons, I cannot power a bunch of devices off the same outlet as the one powering my water heater. Same goes with the kettle, washing machine and fridge. In addition, the outlets are not all located in a central location. So, it would be useful to distribute the computing infrastructure throughout the house.

My plan is to re-organise my home computing infrastructure so that it uses up more power outlets. I have a hidden power outlet behind a shelf that is only being used to charge batteries. I could feasibly power up my server setup and store the servers in the shelf itself. I need to find a way to hide all the cable runs. I guess that it is time to visit Ace Hardware.

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Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Rack”

  1. Oh cool! i’m trying out NAS’s too – FreeNAS to be specific. I need some education on the best ways to do things.

    I managed to install the NAS, and configure them to do stuff, but when I tried to install a printer server, it says that there was not enough space. Don’t really know how to specify the size of the boot partition, so I’m kinda stuck.

    As for NAS and wifi, it’s only ideal for streaming media files, not for transferring decent amount of data quickly. I intend to LAN cable my whole house so that your network drive will feel more local.

    Also, do you know the rationale for using CompactFlash to IDE converter for using as a boot drive? Will that give me more space to install things on?

  2. The reason to use a CF card instead of a harddisk is for stability purposes. It is solid-state storage, meaning that it won’t suffer from mechanical failures. So, while your NAS disks can and will fail in time, the CF card is more resilient, allowing you to still boot-up into the NAS even if the mechanical disks have failed.

    It’s not about having more space. My FreeNAS is installed in a 128Mb CF card I had lying around.

  3. Just curious: I don’t get why el-cheapo necessitates virtualisation? Do you mean you have hardware dying all the time so you need to be able to move the servers onto new hardware quickly? Or is there more to it?

    Very curious also what those dozen VMs do but I guess this is not the place to ask 😛

  4. I want to do lots of things on my network, but I don’t have enough servers to cater to it all – I’m cheap. So, virtualisation allows me to have lots of functionality without necessarily spending more money.

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