I put together a plan to update my home computer setup over the course of the next 12-18 months. You don’t want to know what I’m using as my primary desktop right now. You just don’t.

One of the things on my to-do list is centralized storage. As the kids get older, I’m pretty sure I’m going to need that. I looked at a Drobo, but the price tag scares me off. So I’m weighing some alternatives.

FreeNAS with ZFS

Some people claim you can build a better Drobo for less by using FreeNAS with ZFS. It certainly is cheaper, even though you need roughly 1 GB of RAM per TB of shared storage. But any AMD64-capable motherboard bundle you can get inexpensively will do the job, and 4GB DDR3 modules cost $30 each, so you’re looking at less than $200 worth of hardware if you can recycle a case. If you have to buy everything, you’re still looking at less than $300. That compares favorably–if half the price is your idea of favorable–to a bare network-attached Drobo, at $600.

Drives of course start at $50-$60 each for 1 TB units and go up from there, depending on your storage needs.

FreeNAS with less

And if you don’t need ZFS, FreeNAS can get by on a lot less hardware–anything that can take a half gig of RAM and can boot off USB. If it lacks SATA, use a converter, or add a SATA card. The difficulty with older hardware is that if you have to buy a SATA card and a gigabit NIC, you’re more than halfway toward a new motherboard with both built-in.

Hitch a ride with a desktop PC

This option should save me space and power. There’s a computer in the basement. Lately it hasn’t been getting a lot of use, though at times it does. Since I don’t have any SATA-capable hardware collecting dust, I have to buy hardware no matter what. So I think I’d rather try to let the hardware do double duty,drop a new motherboard/CPU and memory into the basement PC, and use the onboard RAID to build an array of drives and share them out. The other computers can all be equipped with inexpensive small and fast SSDs and rely on that PC for storage over gigabit ethernet. I can shut it down when I don’t need it–shutdown -m \\downstairs will do the trick from a command line, if I end up running Windows on that PC–and I can power it up from anywhere in the house with wake-on-LAN via something like Magic Packet Sender.

I could do something fancier, but with four people in the house, I think it’s overkill. Some people run full-blown Windows domains in their homes, with file and even Exchange servers, and if you need experience running a network, that’s justifiable even if only two people are on it. Experience is everything for a budding sysadmin. But I do enough of that at work, and I’d rather mess with other things at home.