Home network upgrade: Storage Acquisition

For as long as I can remember I have been dealing with storing files in the following manner: floppy disks, zip drive disks, and now USB hard drives. When I had a Mac computer I actually was very good about regularly backing up my files via ChronoSync and then finally Time Machine. For the past three years I have been without a Mac and just have an old Laptop with Linux and an old desktop with Windows. For these machines, I have been backing up simply by copying files to a USB hard drive. My wife has been using the USB hard drive as well with her Windows laptop  However, over the years we have compiled and saved a lot of photos and videos. The USB hard drives are difficult to organize and manage well among the two of us, and a large volume USB drive is still quite pricey, so we entered the market for a networked storage system where we can save and share files from a central location.

I ruled out Dropbox, Google Drive, and other cloud based solutions as primary storage source. Why? Because I frankly haven’t bought into the cloud yet. For sharing files with people at large, sharing code for school projects, etc., I find such services great. I utilize my Google Drive extensively for school work. However, I’m not quite ready to put tax returns, photos and private data on the cloud yet. For off-site back-up, it is on my to-do list for research and evaluation, but I prefer to keep my primary back-up in my control for the time being. Perhaps when I get a better grip on encryption…

The initial thought was to go for a step-up from a USB hard drive like my Western Digital My Passport and use a Personal Cloud device. Seems simple enough, right? Network connectivity? Check. File sharing? Check. However, last summer at the lab at work a manager came to me with a problem: three HDDs failed in the RAID5 solution purchased from Dell almost a decade ago. I found myself reading more about network storage solutions, which also got me thinking about my home situation. While a personal cloud solves the immediate problem of having a network-based storage, what if it fails? I need RAID!

I then went crazy and dived into the deep end, looking at a FreeNAS build with RAID Z3, SSDs, SAS disks, Xeon CPUs, 64 GB of memory…it started to get expensive quickly, and then I started thinking about the noise of server fans…stop!  I looked at scalding down to RAID Z1, and even just RAID1, but I would still need to build a PC and deal with the configuration and performance tuning. I decided that since I am working full-time, going to graduate school at night, and raising two small kids, that I probably should settle for a canned solution such as a storage appliance rather than something I would need to tune and pay close attention to. When I done with school and have more free time, I still like the idea of building my own FreeNAS system–what a project!

I started looking at Western Digital, Buffalo, Seagate, Drobo, Synology, QNAS, and many others. I narrowed down the decision to the QNAP TS-251 or Synology DS216+ based on reading many reviews, web forum posts, etc. Both units are priced competitively, and in the end I selected the Synology DS216+. With roughly the same technica specifications, it came down to look to the unit and the OS on the device. I would have went with the QNAP if we were to use the NAS for streaming video (the HDMI output is nice), but in reality this storage solution will be used solely for file storage.

I consider this an entry-level purchase since it is a two-drive bay enclosure, and I will configure it for RAID1 with two 3TB Western Digital Red NAS disks. The hope is that it will last me approximately five years, with the plan to upgrade the capacity in three years when the cost of larger hard disks has come down. The DS216+ is powered by a dual-core Intel Celeron rather than a Marvell or ARM solution, so hopefully that will help it keep up with our storage demands. After five years I will take a look at our storage need and consider a higher capacity solution such as 4-drive bay enclosures.

Now that we have a storage solution, I need to figure out the home network connectivity once and for all. We currently access and connect to everything through the Verizon FIOS provided wireless router/AP combo…

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A year of math

I wrapped up my year-long course sequence in communications system theory at NCSU. Previously all of my graduate level courses have been in circuit design, and while there has been some math, it was all very manageable. This year, however, in order to build a solid foundation for my studies in RF and wireless communications, I decided to take communications system theory, and its prerequisite, random variables and random processes. What a year it has been!

The Pros:

I definitely feel like I have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of communications systems, and I hope it will serve me well in future courses. I think I am in a good place for course in the fall on the topic of wireless communications systems, and I think I will be ready for advanced subjects like MIMO signal processing. I have no doubt the random variables and processes background will help with any technical subject where one must model randomness, and I have even been able to apply some of it to some projects at work. I also picked up some much needed Matlab skills this year too, and I feel very comfortable with Matlab simulation and analysis.

The Cons:

In the 10+ years since I finished my undergraduate degree, I had not realized how many math skills I had lost. The course material all made sense this year, but the homework problems were intense and painful at times. I am sure that if I was fresh off of a three-sequence course in Calculus and a linear algebra course that I would have been in better shape. In addition to a table of derivatives/integrals, a table of trigonometric identities, and a table of Euler’s identities ought to be in any electrical engineering graduate student’s immediate reach. On the modeling side, I did not gain any skills with Simulink, which is unfortunate as I had hoped we could have utilized it as a learning tool in the communications theory class. I suppose it will be something that I will need to pick up on my own, perhaps over the summer.

Summary:

It has been a rough academic year, but probably a necessary year, and I hope that I will be better prepared for future graduate work. This summer I need to make some decisions about the future (Ph.D. studies?)…