Home Server Storage Upgrades

My current, primary home server has been humming along quite nicely since I upgraded to the 2018 Mac mini a few years ago. And I’m still using the OWC ThunderBay 6 that I bought in 2020 to house its storage.

The Mac mini that I ordered was just the base model with 128GB of storage. Rather than booting from the internal drive, I’ve been using an NVMe SSD that occupies the M.2 slot in the back of the ThunderBay. Up until just a few days ago, I was using a 1TB drive for this purpose. That size was chosen because it was the right price at the time and served my needs.

Since then, my needs have changed a bit, though. I started running a few virtual machines on the Mac mini, which I wanted to run on SSDs for performance reasons. But the 1TB boot drive just wasn’t going to be large enough. So I re-used a 2TB SATA SSD that I had lying around to store the virtual machines until I was ready to make an upgrade to the boot drive.

I was finally able to upgrade that drive a few days ago. I swapped the 1TB drive for a 4TB NVMe drive from Crucial.

The process was as simple as could be. I put the new drive in an external enclosure and ran SuperDuper! to clone the boot drive. Once the cloning process was complete, I moved the new drive into the back of the ThunderBay and booted from it. And that’s it. The whole thing, including copying the data, only took an hour or two.

I moved the virtual machine files to the boot drive and removed the 2TB SSD from the ThunderBay.

The ThunderBay now has a 4TB NVMe SSD that I’m booting the home server from, two 8TB Seagate hard drives that I’m using for media storage, and two 14TB Western Digital hard drives that I shucked and am using for local backups — the home server itself and every other computer in the house.

It’s about time I start thinking about upgrading those spinning disks too, though.

The two media drives are about 80% full, which is generally the threshold where I think about upgrading. I know how I am, so this whole process will likely end up taking a handful of months to complete.

My typical strategy when upgrading drives would be to buy two new drives that would be used as the new backup storage and then demote the old backup drives to media storage. This felt like the most cost effective way of increasing my available storage over time. But I don’t think I want to do that this time.

The 14TB drives that I shucked from their USB enclosure are a little loud. They’re fine for backups because I have a bit more control over when my backups take place. I have them all scheduled to run when I’m not in the office — I’m using TimeMachineEditor to accomplish this.

I sit about three feet away from the home server throughout my work day and the media drives are in nearly constant use during that time. If I used these louder 14TB drives to store our media, they’d drive me mad. I just don’t want to hear them all day long.

So I’m left thinking about upgrading all four drives in a fairly short period of time — probably over the course of a month or two.

At the moment I’m looking at 16+TB Western Digital Red drives. The company had a bit of a hit to their reputation a handful of years ago when it was discovered that they were selling drives that used shingled magnetic recording (SMR) without labeling them as such. But my understanding is that they’ve gotten better about labeling their drives and WD Red’s are quieter than Seagate Ironwolf drives.

Seagate Ironwolf drives are typically cheaper than WD Reds, though. And given the size of the drives that I’m looking to purchase, that can’t be ignored. I’ll have to do some more research to see just how much louder Ironwolf drives are and whether they would be something I could contend with. I suspect I may end up buying WD Reds that I use for media storage and then larger Ironwolf drives for backups.

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Budget Home Server

Mac Mini 2014, Available from OWC

I’ve been running Mac-based home servers since 2011 when I purchased my first Mac Mini for that very purpose. It started as a way to record over-the-air television with an Elgato EyeTV and to store movies, television shows, and music in iTunes that I could stream to our Apple TVs and sync to our iPhones.

I’ve since upgraded to a 2018 Mac Mini, switched to Plex for my media management, and I’m now using an HDHomeRun as my over-the-air capture device. And while I’ve added quite a few services to my home server over the years, streaming media to all of my devices is still, by far, its primary use case.

Recently, while perusing OWC’s used Macs, I started thinking about what I would recommend to a friend or family member if they wanted to get started with their own home server.

I think a lot of people would think of starting with a mini PC. They have become very popular recently and are inexpensive. But I’m not too fond of using Windows unless I absolutely have to and I don’t think managing a Linux server is user-friendly enough for most people — it’s barely user-friendly enough for me.

So the Mac Mini, in my eyes, is the way to go. Of course, you could just buy whatever base-model Mac Mini Apple has available at the moment, attach an external drive for a bunch of storage and you’ll be mostly off to the races, but I think you get a lot more for your money if you go the used route.

I would recommend a 2014 Mac Mini with 8GB of memory, 2.6GHz Core i5 processor, and a 1TB solid state drive.

At the time of writing, you can pick one up from OWC for $195.

That will get you a pretty good amount of storage to start with on a machine that can run up to macOS Monterey. That’s not the most recent version of macOS, but it’s still receiving updates from Apple and should have software support for the apps you’ll want to run for at least a handful of years.

In addition to the Mac Mini itself, if you don’t plan to connect it to a display, you’ll want to get a display emulator dongle. I use this one from CompuLab, but you could also get a Newer Technology one that’s a couple of dollars cheaper.

The last bit of hardware I’d recommend is an optical drive. This will let you rip movies and TV shows from discs to store on the server. I’m using an external Blu-ray drive from Pioneer, but it’s a bit more expensive than I think I’d spend on one today. If you wanted to rip Blu-ray Discs, you should be fine with this one from OWC. And if you are just expecting to rip DVDs, there’s literally thousands of options that are available for $20-40.

I’m not sure if there’s really any meaningful difference between any of the DVD drives available, but I’d recommend getting one from a brand you recognize. You won’t spend much more than if you bought a no-name brand, but you’ll likely end up with something that’s more reliable.

As a bit of an aside, I first started ripping Blu-ray Discs when I was still using a 2011 Mac Mini. These older Macs — including the 2014 Mac Mini that I’m recommending — are going to take a long time to rip and convert Blu-rays. That doesn’t mean I would shy anyone away from doing so, but I think it’s worth setting expectations.

With hardware alone, we’re at about $306 before tax and shipping — if you opt for the Blu-ray drive. That’s not too shabby to get you in the door. And you could certainly use this hardware as a home server for a handful of years, paired with free software options, and you’ll get by just fine.

For free software, you could use:

Plex is perfectly serviceable for hosting your media without a Plex Pass and the pairing of Handbrake and MakeMKV will make ripping Blu-ray Discs and DVDs a breeze. And with MacOS’ built-in screen sharing features, you can run the Mac Mini without a display attached and administer it from another computer on your network.

If you wanted to take the software setup to the next level, I would recommend purchasing a lifetime Plex Pass — $120 — which will give you the ability to download media to the Plex mobile app, give you access to Plexamp, and a whole host of other features.

In addition, I’d recommend purchasing Screens 5 — $80 for a one-time purchase. This will make management of the server significantly easier. You can install Screens Connect on the server and Screens 5 on your Mac, iPhone, and/or iPad to connect and control the machine locally on your home network or remotely anywhere you have access to the web.

And lastly, I would suggest purchasing a MakeMKV license — $65. You can get by with the beta key referenced above, but it expires and sometimes it expires before a new beta key is available. To support the developer’s work and ensure you can always rip when you want to, I’d recommend just buying a license.

With these extra software purchases, we’re looking at around $571 total. That may seem like a lot. But this is a system that you’ll be able to run on your network and use for the next five years, easy. Serving up media that you likely already own — everyone has a box of CDs and DVDs somewhere in their house.

And perhaps, if you really want to commit, you can cancel a streaming service or two and redirect those funds toward physical media. You’d be surprised at how cheap DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, and CDs can be acquired for these days. And after enough time of purchasing media, you’ll find that your own media library has more good content than any of the streaming services offer.

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