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Tag Archive for ‘OWC’

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.

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.

11-Inch MacBook Air

I often find myself checking OWC to see the used Macs that they have available. Especially the Mac Mini and Mac Pro. Two machines that I’ve just fallen in love with over the years.

I currently own five Mac Minis, all of which are in use throughout the house. They’re great for home servers, retro emulation, or general computing. And they’re dirt cheap now. You can routinely find 2014 and earlier models for around $100 with a decent amount of memory and storage.

As for the Mac Pro, I’ve never owned one at all. But back in my early days of writing on the web, I would find myself jealous of folks like Shawn Blanc and Glenn Wolsey who used these powerful machines as their daily drivers. I haven’t been able to pull the trigger on one yet, but the prices on old Mac Pros are reaching a point where they’re just too inexpensive to pass up.

But there’s one more Mac model that I keep an eye out for — the 11-inch MacBook Air.

The 11-inch MacBook Air is my absolute favorite Mac ever released. Ever.

Aside from the 12-inch MacBook, the 11-inch MacBook Air is the smallest and lightest laptop Apple has ever released. And unlike the 12-inch MacBook, the 11-inch MacBook Air has a functioning keyboard and a great assortment of ports — two USB-A ports, a single Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port, and MagSafe for charging.

I bought two 11-inch MacBook Airs back in 2011. One for myself and one for my wife (girlfriend at the time). The one purchased for her is no longer working properly. It has a bad trackpad, bad battery, and possibly a bad logic board. Mine is now used by my wife as her occasional non-work machine. It’s still on High Sierra, but it can run LibreOffice and Firefox ESR, which is about all she needs it for.

I could probably put some effort into the broken one and get it working, but for the price of a trackpad and battery, assuming the logic board is actually okay, I’m already about half-way to the price of another 11-inch from a later model year and I would get the benefits of a newer machine — faster USB ports, longer battery life, increased performance, and support for later versions of macOS.

Luckily enough, last week while perusing OWC’s available models, I noticed they had a 2015 11-inch MacBook Air with 8GB of memory, in “excellent” condition, with good pricing on storage upgrades. It, unfortunately, only had the 1.6 GHz Core i5 instead of the higher-end 2.2 GHz Core i7. Nevertheless, I pulled the trigger.

I selected the 500GB storage option, paid $300 after tax, and am expecting it to arrive by the end of this week.

I could probably find a better price on EBay, especially if I upgraded the storage myself, but I’ve bought a handful of used Macs from OWC and have always been happy with my purchase.

When the machine arrives, I’ll give it a once over in macOS. I’ll make sure the battery is still in good shape, the specifications are what they should be, and that all of the ports and whatnot are working properly. At that point I’ll more than likely try setting it up to triple boot macOS Monterey, Windows 10, and Ubuntu using the rEFInd boot manager.

And then I’ll have the coolest laptop setup ever.

‘Why the Raspberry Pi 5 Sucks’ ➝

I completely agree with Ryan Daniels on this — unless you have a very specific reason to get a Raspberry Pi, you will almost certainly be better served with a used Mac Mini or an inexpensive mini PC from someone like Beelink.

➝ Source: ryandaniels.ca

OWC ThunderBay Flex 8 ➝

I’m getting to the point with my storage needs that I need to start thinking about what to do once I outgrow my ThunderBay 6. Hard drives only get so big and I’ll eventually need more room than I can fit in a six-bay enclosure.

The standard ThunderBay 8 seemed like a good upgrade, but it doesn’t have the M.2 slot in the back like the ThunderBay 6 does. It would only functionally add one additional drive slot and that just isn’t going to cut it.

The ThunderBay Flex 8, though, might be a good solution. It features a PCIe slot, which I could use to add additional NVMe drives, 2.5-inch SSDs or just about anything else I could need for expandability.

This isn’t something I’m going to need in the near-future. I just upgraded my drives and that should give me a bit of time before upgrading again, but unless something else is released before then, the ThunderBay Flex 8 looks like a tremendous product.

➝ Source: eshop.macsales.com

SoftRAID for Disk Certification ➝

I bought a couple of 14TB external drives over the weekend, which were on sale for $200. I’m going to remove them from their enclosures and put them in my ThunderBay 6 to expand our home server storage.

But before I put them into use, I want to make sure the drives are in good shape. I’ve decided to make use of SoftRAID’s 14-day free trial to run the app’s certify process on them. This writes data to all of the sectors on the disk and ensures that it’s readable. And you can set the number of times you’d like it to run. I’m in the middle of the second iteration on the first disk and there’ve been no errors so far.

I’ve seen people recommend running this process up to three times before putting your data on a new drive, but I think I’m only going to run it twice. If only because it’s an extremely long process, especially for large disks.

➝ Source: owcdigital.com

Noctua Fan in OWC ThunderBay 6 ➝

A small update to my piece from a few days ago — I replaced the stock in my ThunderBay 6 with one from Noctua and am very happy with the results. I reduced the sound output from 49 dB to 39 dB and only gave up about 3.1 CFM of airflow.

➝ Source: initialcharge.net

OWC ThunderBay 6

I’ve casually mentioned here and there that I’ve been looking to move away from streaming media in favor of primarily watching content that I actually own — hosting it on my home server using Plex. As a result of this, over the past few months, I’ve been acquiring content at a much more rapid pace than I was previously. And that additional content is filling up my hard drives fast.

Up until a few days ago, I had two OWC miniStacks connected to my Mac Mini. One with a 4TB drive, which contained all of my ripped DVDs, Blu-rays, music, recorded over-the-air content from Plex DVR, and iTunes content that I’ve removed the DRM from. And a second miniStack with an 8TB hard drive, which stores the Time Machine backups for the Mac Mini and my work-issued MacBook Air.

What has really put me over the edge in terms of outgrowing my storage setup has been the uptick in Blu-ray discs added to my collection, though. I only started purchasing Blu-rays last summer, after I bought a Blu-ray drive that I could use for ripping. With the settings I use in Handbrake, a DVD is usually in the neighborhood of 1GB, but Blu-ray discs are about six times that amount. Or quite a bit more, in some cases.

The size of DVDs aren’t too bad and the cost of iTunes movies kept me from acquiring too many by that method. And even when I bought movies or TV shows through iTunes, Apple only allows you to download files in 720p. That puts the average movie around 4GB. Those two factors did quite a bit to limit the amount of storage I needed and how quickly it was used.

But Blu-ray Discs are pretty cheap. I routinely find excellent films available in the format for around $5. Just a few days ago, Amazon was having a buy two get one free sale — I picked up six movies at an average of $10 each. That might seem like a lot, but three of the movies were Disney titles, which are notoriously expensive compared to the average.

Blu-ray discs are cheap, but as I mentioned above, they take up a lot more storage space — not to mention the amount of time required to rip Blu-rays. For a comparison, on my 2011 Mac Mini, I can rip and convert a DVD in about 1.5—2 hours, but a Blu-ray can take around 10 hours. It’s worth it, though. The quality is just so darn good. And I don’t have to pay a monthly fee in order to watch the film, like I would with Netflix or Hulu.

I’m still okay with 4TB of media storage at the moment, but it won’t be long before I need to upgrade. So I decided to lay the groundwork for that now. I had some options — I could have abandoned the idea of using a Mac Mini as my home server and purchased a network attached storage device, like a Synology. This would mean I’d end up with a single unit that stored all of my hard drives and was able to run most of the software I wanted to use.

That does sound appealing, but the key word there is “most”. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to rip DVDs or Blu-ray discs right on a Synology. I would need to move that task to another computer and then transfer the video files once they were converted. With Blu-rays taking so long to rip, I couldn’t tie up my work laptop with this process and I certainly didn’t want to maintain another computer to perform the task.

Beyond the inability to rip discs, a Synology would still be limited in what other software I could run on it. I still have occasional times where I need to run a specific piece of software on macOS. I use iOS as my primary platform, but I do have an always-on Mac Mini. So in instances where I need to use macOS, I can fire up Screens on my iPad and remotely access the machine to run whatever I need to. That isn’t really possible on a Synology.

And of course, when I retire the Synology as our home server — in about 10 years when it’s time to upgrade — I have an old Synology. Whereas if I stick with a Mac Mini, I’ll have a Mac that can be sold or repurposed for other tasks.

So because of all this, using a NAS was just out of the question. Instead, I started looking at drive enclosures that could serve my needs. After a bit of searching, I determined that OWC had the best selection. They offer enclosures with Thunderbolt 3 ports, which gives me some future proofing for when I eventually retire the 2011 Mac Mini and buy a new model. And they have a number of options for how many drives you want access to — including a six-drive enclosure, which is what I decided to order.

A few days ago, I received the ThunderBay 6 in the mail and I love it.

The enclosure is the exact same width as a Mac Mini, so just like I did with the miniStacks, I can set our home server on top of it — making a nice, clean setup. Drives are pretty easy to install. You turn the thumb screw on the drive tray, pull it out, use the included screws to attach a drive, slide it back in, and tighten the thumb screw.

I haven’t bought any additional drives to go with the ThunderBay 6 quite yet. Instead, I removed the 4TB and 8TB drives that I had in the miniStacks and installed them in the new enclosure. I plan on buying another set of those same two drives in the coming months to increase my storage capacity. At that point, I’ll likely setup two volumes — an 8TB RAID 0 array from the two 4TB drives for media and a 16TB RAID 0 array from the two 8TB drives for backups.

When I buy those new drives, I’ll only be using four of the available six drive bays, but that is by design. My thought is that I can, even further down the line, upgrade my storage again. When I do, I’ll buy two drives, setting them up in RAID 0 and inserting them into the two open slots. Once I migrate my data over, I can remove the two oldest drives and have those slots open for when I upgrade storage again.

You might be curious as to why I’m looking to use RAID 0, since it doesn’t offer any redundancy in case of a drive failure. There’s a few reasons:

  • Speed: I’m using spinning hard disks because they’re affordable and offer larger capacities than solid state drives. But that means read and write speeds are significantly slower. RAID 0 will ensure I have enough throughput to handle several simultaneous streams of high definition video while still being able to transfer files or perform backups without a hitch.
  • Affordability: There’s typically a sweet spot for hard drive pricing, where you get the best bang-for-your-buck. Go above or below that capacity and you end up spending more per gigabyte. Using a RAID 0, I can get larger volumes without paying the larger drive prices.
  • A single volume: For the backup drive specifically, Time Machine stores everything on a single volume. You can’t split it amongst multiple drives without the use of RAID. Since I’d like to use Time Machine for local backups and I need it to store quite a bit of data, RAID 0 is the best way to go.

Shifting focus back to the ThunderBay 6, I currently have it connected to my Mac Mini through a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter — although it’s connected to the Mini’s Thunderbolt 1 port. This is my first experience with earlier versions of Thunderbolt and it’s a great interface. I knew it was faster than USB 2, which is how the drives were previously connected. But I didn’t expect to get speed improvements on my existing drives just by changing what interface they were connected to.

Over USB 2, the drives gave me about 30MB/s of read and write speeds, but over Thunderbolt I’m seeing about 120MB/s.

Speaking of Thunderbolt, the ThunderBay 6 includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back, which allows you to daisy chain multiple Thunderbolt 3 devices. So if my storage needs really grew out of control, I could purchase another ThunderBay or some other Thunderbolt 3 storage solution and connect it to my existing one — no need to take up an additional port on my computer.

A nifty little inclusion, hidden in the back of the ThunderBay 6, is an NVMe slot. It’s pitched by OWC as a way to add a super fast scratch disk to your machine — storing project data there while you’re working on it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever end up using the feature, but if I ever needed access to super fast storage, I’m certainly happy to have the option.

Overall, I’m very happy with the ThunderBay 6 and it’s the best solution on the market for my needs. But it’s not without flaws.

The fan on the back is a bit louder than I would prefer. I’m off of work on parental leave, so I’m not spending too much time in our home office. But whenever I walk into the room, the fan noise sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m hoping it will fade into the background when I’m in there working, but I’m worried it won’t.

So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. The ThunderBay 6’s fan is user replaceable, so I’ve gone ahead and ordered a 92mm Noctua fan, which is arriving tomorrow. This specific fan should be quieter than the built-in fan, but it also comes with a couple cables that let you run the fan at lower speeds — further reducing its noise output. I think I’ll be able to reduce the unit’s noise without sacrificing too much of its cooling capabilities.

Another downside with the ThunderBay 6 is that you need to use screws in order to install drives in the trays. I’m a little concerned that I might lose track of the included screws before I end up needing them. It’s not that big of a deal, I’m sure I could find replacement screws if necessary. But I know other companies offer drive trays that are entirely tool-less — they typically use a plastic rail that snaps in place to hold the drives. I’d love to see OWC integrate a similar system into their offering.

And lastly, the ThunderBay 6 is expensive. Without any drives, the enclosure is priced at $579.99. I mean, it’s definitely a premium piece of hardware. The entire enclosure is made out of metal — I was shocked at how heavy the box was when it arrived — and it includes exactly the features I want. As I mentioned above, I did quite a bit of looking before I decided on this unit. There are plenty of other options on the market, but none of them are as nice as the ThunderBay 6.

But I mean, the enclosure alone is almost the same price as an entry-level Mac Mini. I can’t say what the ThunderBay 6 should be priced at, I don’t know enough about the costs behind manufacturing, supporting, and developing it, but I can say that it’s current pricing is a tough pill to swallow.

But again, there isn’t anything on the market that offers what the ThunderBay 6 does — delightful materials, Thunderbolt 3 interface, six drive bays, and an NVMe slot. Because of that, even with its high price point, I think the ThunderBay 6 is an excellent product.

Update 1/25/20: I spent a little time last night installing the Noctua fan — it was an easy install. Just a couple of screws to take off the back plate and then eight screws to remove the fan and fan grills. The ThunderBay 6 uses a standard 3-pin connector to power the fan, so I didn’t run into issues connecting the new fan.

The Noctua came with a couple of adapters to run the fan at different speeds. I tried all of them and found the ultra low-noise one to be the best for my setup.

I used my Apple Watch to measure the amount noise coming from the ThunderBay 6 from the front of the unit. With the stock fan and no activity on the drives, it clocked in at about 49 dB. The Noctua in its default state was about the same, but the low-noise adapter (the middle option) dropped it to 42 dB and the ultra low-noise put it at 39 dB.

According to the specifications of each of the fans there isn’t too much of a difference in airflow. The Noctua at its ultra low-noise setting moves about 25.3 CFM. I had to search for the part number of the stock fan and found one that is similar enough that I believe it’s the same part. The specifications listed 28.4 CFM as the amount of air it moves.

So I gave up 3.1 CFM and reduced the noise by about 10 dB. In practice, I can still hear the fan from my desk, but it’s a very low hum. When I’m typing away and focused on tasks, I don’t think I’ll notice it at all.