Home NAS & Server (2): Software Choices

This is Part 2 of a series of blog posts on building a Home NAS & Server using Linux. For the full index and other details, please see the Index


Given the scope of what I want the new build to do, it feels wise to decide what software I want to use to provide those capabilities, as it’s more than likely that some of those choices will effect the hardware specifics they need to run upon.

Looking back over the previous list I feel there’s a few key points to cover, namely Operating SystemFilesystem / RAID, Virtualization, and DVR. There’s probably more besides that I’ll think of later.

Operating System

It’ll be no surprise that the OS is going to be a flavour of GNU/Linux here (it’s sort of the point of the project), but I should probably justify both why, and which flavour I’ll be looking at using.
Using Linux is the obvious choice to my mind based on a number of factors, not least of which is familiarity (as a server platform) combined with my general preference for Open Source software. It’s cheaper too, of course, although to be honest that’s less of a major factor given that Home Server versions of Windows aren’t massively expensive these days. The thing is, I’ve never really liked Windows Server stuff, even now I’m in a position to have access to them through labs at work, they just feel clunky. Solaris / OpenSolaris / Illumos, too, I disregarded as I’m not as familiar with it and it, frankly, doesn’t feel as flexible as my experiences with Linux.
I considered BSD-based solutions which, whilst viable, I’m less sure I can get things like the PVR-backend functionality (and TV Tuners) working on it without considerable (additional) messing around. I’m going to try and get more familiar with BSD, but I can’t justify this build as being the time to do it – given the Swiss Army Knife approach.

In terms of the distribution, I originally came down on the side of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Server Edition, with a view to moving to Debian 7.0 (“Wheezy”) when it’s released. However, with Wheezy’s release being so close, I figured it’s reasonable to start with it straight out of the blocks.
Debian’s what I’ve done most of my playing around with and I’m a big fan of APT for package management. However, I’m less confident of getting TV Tuners working with Squeeze, unless I start to draw more heavily on Backports – if I’m going to do that, I’d rather use Ubuntu LTS in the interim, and jump to Wheezy when it’s “new”.

Filesystem / RAID

When I set off down this path of building my own NAS I genuinely hadn’t given much thought to how I was going to handle this aspect. In my head, it was obvious – mdadm software RAID (I can’t really force any justification for using hardware RAID), most likely with LVM on top of it and most probably ext4 as the filesystem.

The more I got to thinking about it though, the more I got comparing some of my desired features with the kit I get to play with at work (NetApp filers of varying size and shape). Whilst I had previous exposure to snapshots through ZFS on Solaris, I never fully appreciated quite how powerful and useful they are. I like the idea of being able to do relatively easy, incremental backups to a remote location; I like the scalability of it (even if the scale is way beyond anything I’d need for a home NAS); and I like the extra steps it takes in checksumming and data integrity. Given the way ZFS handles disks, it effectively takes care of the software RAID side of things at the same time.

The downside is that ZFS isn’t really native on Linux (I’ll let Google help you, but fundamentally it’s a licensing issue). There’s a ZFS-FUSE project but as you might expect, all the reports suggest performance is sluggish to say the least. Additionally, I’ve already ruled out using Solaris / BSD as a base. There is, however, a native port maintained as ZFS on Linux which has a pretty good implementation working (albeit not quite with all the features of the very latest ZFS). I’ve been following the project for a while and there’s some healthy activity and, generally, I’ve been impressed.

To keep things native, I also looked at BTRFS which seems to be showing a massive amount of promise but, as of yet, doesn’t quite tick all the boxes to me on older / non-bleeding edge kernels. It’s something I definitely want to keep an eye on and test further though, as it seems to have the potential to surpass ZFS as time goes by, especially with the continued uncertainty after Oracle’s takeover of Sun and whatnot.

So, whilst it flies a little in the face of some recommendations from friends, I’m deciding to trust a collection of things I read on the internet and going with ZFS On Linux at this stage.
The key point for me was send / receive snapshots (on a relatively stable kernel version) – as I’m planning to build a similar device at my parent’s place, it painlessly addresses my off-site backup desire.

Virtualization

Given the way I seem to be wired, when I first considered having this build server as a platform for a few VMs (both for “production” use and for testing environments) I got way ahead of myself in considering whether running the host as dom0 for a Xen hypervisor, or using KVM. In both cases, I was heading down a road of working out whether running the hypervisor kernel would have knock-on effects on the systems desired output (NAS / PVR) and how to mitigate that.

Eventually, I realized I was being ridiculous. At most, I’m going to be running between 3 and 5 VMs near-constantly, with maybe a couple of extras fired up for lab purposes. None of them are going to be particularly resource-intensive, nor should they be under high load. As much as anything, they exist to provide some sandboxing and allow me to mess with config management and other tricks and tips that can ultimately be useful and applicable in a work environment.
Before anyway chooses to state the obvious – I can appreciate that Xen / KVM would be pretty good skills to have, but shoe-horning them into my domestic NAS environment strikes me as overkill (and if it *strikes* me as overkill, it *definitely* is overkill).

In the end I think I’ve setted on using VirtualBox, at least in the interim, for a few reasons. I’ve got some experience with it already in headless mode (albeit, not enough); it provides enough of the passthrough features that make it versatile-enough for my needs (I run my current labs in VirtualBox on my desktop); decent management tools exist; it can do some fun stuff to aid the integration with the neater features of ZFS; from what I can gather, the key limitations really only manifest themselves at a business-level, rather than home-use.

DVR

As has been hinted at previously, I really have no firm alternatives to MythTV for this purpose.
I first saw MythTV in action first-hand at a LUGRadio meetup many moons ago and I was wowed. Whilst I don’t doubt that there are other alternatives available (most, to my knowledge, need Windaz) – and certainly others that are quicker to configure – the sheer scope of what MythTV has achieved appeals to me massively. And I want to be – in some way – involved.

But, I’ll be honest, DVR had taken a bit of a backseat for me in short-term plans due to the difficult integration with XBMC but then these two posts ([1] and [2]) got me excited about it again. The only difficult part will be choosing a decent, supported tuner.

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