A Low Cost Direct Attached Storage Array
With the rapidly declining cost per byte the average consumer hungers for more and more digital media storage space. In the past several years I’ve noticed a significant shift in the market place for low cost and simple to use NAS devices. Unfortunately for me they are too simple. Enterprise hardware is still expensive for the average user. Even just a simple JBOD with a few SAS ports can make a person’s wallet hurt. They are generally always a “rackable” solution, which isn’t very practical if you have space challenges or don’t want something that sounds like it could take off into orbit sitting in your living room. I’ve spent a great deal of time researching products and toying around with a few ideas for my own space addiction and I think I’ve come up with a low cost solution that’s practical, aesthetically pleasing and, lets face it, I’m enamored by all the blinking lights.
Let’s begin with finding a case. This by far was most challenging simply because I had a very specific list of requirements that needed to be fulfilled. The first and most obvious in my mind was that I needed something that could hold a LOT of hard drives. You’d think it would be easy with the plethora of choices already on the market. The best case I could find held, on average, only 8 hard drives. I wanted something bigger but not a power sucking monstrosity packed with features I’d never use. This eliminated pedestal server cases, gaming cases, and custom made cases. Why? Because I didn’t need another server or a case that could hold a motherboard. I also wanted something that allowed me to easily swap hard drives without having to take the darn thing apart which meant hot swappable drive bays. Currently there are absolutely zero cases available to the average consumer unless you’re willing to go to a rack mountable solution. I wanted a tower. Small, relatively compact and quiet. Finally after a few days of reading custom hack job blogs and skimming through pages of forums where geeks verbally cut each other up over their crazy choices I stumbled upon an obscure picture of a JBOD like tower made by non-other than iStarUSA. They produce a 20-Bay tower (DAGE2040-5MS) in a beautiful case packed with all the same features I wanted. I looked all over the internet and couldn’t find a single retailer that I’ve heard of to buy from. CNET had a review and the MSRP was reported at $1500. There was a hit on Amazon and it was around $1000 from one retailer + $50 for shipping. I thought I could do better…if I could only find the case.
I discovered a small group of companies that make DVD/Blu-ray duplicator devices that offer just an empty case. Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of information on their specifications. I spent a frustrating week trading emails with their customer service representatives. Finally a couple of them agreed to send me pictures but they weren’t quite enough to satisfy my nagging subconscious that kept telling me not to spend $100 on a case that might not work. Throwing caution to the wind and just plain tired of trying to communicate my needs, I pulled the trigger and decided on a 13-bay case made by BestDuplicator via their store on Amazon. I chose this case over all the others because it had the largest power supply confirmed by email. The product page shows a simple picture with almost no usable info. I thought to myself, “If this works, I’m going to write a review somewhere and share it with the rest of my fellow geeks along with a few pictures.” The case itself is really light and made from typical materials you’d normally expect in a regular computer case. It comes with a 550 watt power supply with 13 SATA power connectors, one 4-pin Molex and one 4-pin Floppy power connector. There are 2 SCSI-1 “punch outs”, 1-serial and 1 other punch out that I can’t identify that is slightly larger than the SCSI-1 and doesn’t have any screw hole alignment notches. The case has (13) 5-1/4″ drive bay slots designed for Optical Drives. You can mount all kinds of adapters/accessories in these bays. For my project I selected (4) Norco SS-500 5-Bay SATA/SAS Hot Swap Rack Modules. Each unit occupies (3) 5-1/4″ drive bay slots. For the final slot I selected an Icy Dock MB324SP-B ExpressCage 4×2.5″ SAS/SATA HDD Hot Swap Mobile Rack giving me a total of 20 (2.5″ or 3.5″) hard drives and 4 (2.5″) hard drive slots. In order to mount the Norco’s securely I had to bend some drive guides out of the way. There wasn’t anything else in the case which prevented me from using these drive pods. Plenty of room for cables and ventilation.
The rest is pretty simple. Using (4) Dual Molex to 15 Pin SATA Power Splitters you can easily distribute power evenly among the available power leads to the drive pods. (6) MiniSAS SFF-8087 to 4xSATA Cables connects the drive bay pods to the (3) Dual Port Mini-SAS SFF-8088 to SFF-8087 Bridges. Zip-tie all the loose cables together into your preferred arrangement for a finished look. You can connect this to just about any server or a workstation running an OS that is equipped with either a RAID card or HBA adapter with external SAS ports using (6) SAS SFF-8088 To SFF-8088 cables.
Each storage enclosure cost break down:
(1) 13-Bay Server Case................$134.99
(3) 2 Port SAS Adapters...............$113.85
(6) SFF-8088 SAS to SAS Cable.........$66.00
(6) SFF-8087 SAS to SATA Cable........$41.94
(4) 5x 3.5″ Sata Drive Bay............$394.96
(1) 4x 2.5″ SSD Drive Bay.............$44.99
(4) Sata Power Splitters..............$3.96
Total Cost of each Array.............$800.69
For my purposes I decided to use (3) LSI SAS 9201-16e Host Bus Adapters installed in a server running Windows 2012 R2 leveraging Storage Spaces as my storage manager. The only drawback to this HBA is that it has no SCSI Enclosure Services (SES) manager so they aren’t “Enclosure Aware” nor can you light up a hard drive LED in the event of a drive failure. But there are a number of handy Powershell commands you can run to help you identify the drive’s serial number and which port it’s connected to. Additionally, you can’t use these enclosures in a Clustered Storage Spaces deployment which is fine for my purposes since this is just raw storage for my media library and it’s only meant to be a low cost alternative to other products on the market. You could use HBA’s or RAID cards with SES or you could use a drive pod with a backplane that has an SES chip, but I haven’t done any research on the availability on such a product. If you do go that route, I’d recommend using dual channel SAS drives and buy larger power supplies. There are a number of reasons why you should do this which is beyond the scope of this blog post, but if you want to know more about Storage Spaces then I recommend reading Jose Barreto’s Storage Spaces Survival Guide (Links to presentations, articles, blogs, tools) blog post.
In the end I built two of these enclosures and am very happy with how they turned out.
There is one other product that I didn’t mention. Addonics makes a few different 20 drive bay towers much like this one but it’s only equipped with one Mini-SAS port connected to Port Multipliers, so in essence you’re creating a bottleneck by connecting 20 drives to one Mini-SAS port. They also sell bare-bones cases but they are over $200. The iStarUSA enclosure also holds 20 drives and it uses 5 Mini-SAS ports . My design is much the same as the iStarUSA except that it holds an additional 4 drives, so naturally I added an extra port and it costs less overall.