Project Gibson: Building A Home Server

Hacking The Gibson
“Hacking the Gibson” (MGM)

I’ve always been a bit of a media hoarder. It started in the VHS era recording various programs from television, then to downloading MP3s from Napster and burning them to CDs. Of course, there was also retro game emulation, but NES, SNES, and Genesis games were measured in kilobytes; those titles could easily fit on several floppy diskettes if I needed to back anything up. At some point, the cost of hard disk storage came down enough to make consolidating my literal binders full of backup discs a practical choice: a shoebox full of USB hard drives took up less space than the equivalent binders. Eventually, my knack for collecting and repurposing second-hand hardware led me to some discarded NAS enclosures, and I dutifully filled them with those hard drives I had previously stored in the aforementioned shoebox. Of course, this ad-hoc assemblage of networked devices could only extend so far before it became a monster–there was one NAS for my music, another for video, another for backups, one for my wife’s media–and they all lived in a noisy cubbyhole just below the living room television. The COVID-19 pandemic gave me an excuse to finally hit the reset button on the whole unwieldy, dusty, noisy mess.

Like many others during the early pandemic lockdowns, I took to reconfiguring my living situation as a means to not only to occupy myself and avoid the anxieties of the outside world, but to also improve some part of my living situation. The collection of NAS enclosures was hard to clean, and because it was hard to clean, it made the fans less effective, which made cooling less effective, which made the fans work harder, which made the system noisier. Switching everything to a combined enclosure seemed like the logical first move in rebuilding my media center, so I set about planning to build a fully-functional server that could handle at least the 10 hard drives that made up my current NAS solution and be extensible and upgradeable to meet any future demands. I had built stand-alone PCs before, so the theory was familiar to me, but I had never tried to assemble anything on this scale before. I was going to need to do some homework!

Project Magnavox (before the NAS takeover)
Project Magnavox before the NAS takeover

The Project Magnavox HTPC that I built back in 2014 seemed like the logical starting point. My wife and I had upgraded to an Android-powered smart TV already and made the original set-top box concept obsolete (or, at least, redundant). The motherboard, processor, and memory were still more than capable enough to decode 1080p video, so basic file management should be a piece of cake. This would also offset the total cost of the project as I wouldn’t need to purchase those parts. The bulk of the cost would be sourcing a suitable enclosure: something that could house at least (10) 3.5″ drives, something that has good airflow for cooling, and something that doesn’t take up a lot of space. Additionally, I would need SATA Y-adapters to attach all the drives to the motherboard that I already had, and I would need to find an appropriate OS that could power the whole thing without much overhead.

For the case, I settled on a 9-bay tower from Antec that already had a couple fans installed as well as some pretty large vents for thermal management. (On a side note: I get annoyed at how all high performance computer parts are labeled “gamer” and usually come with superfluous LED arrays or odd geometric form factors. Is it too much to ask for subtlety? Does everything need to look like it was a rejected prop from an early 00’s movie hacker scene?). The MSI motherboard that I pulled from Project Magnavox only had 4 SATA ports, so I picked up a couple of 4-port PCIe SATA controllers and some power splitters to connect all the drives I was about to employ. I would also need to pick up a few “last-minute” parts from the local Micro Center (which, it would turn out, was an adventure in and of itself during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic) as well as 3D print a few adapters to fit my 3.5″ HDDs into the case’s 5.25″ drive bays.

Inside Project Gibson
Drive serial numbers have been obscured, but I would advise labeling them to make service easier.

One of the NAS enclosures I would cannibalize contained a mount for an additional 4 drives, so that also went into the case bringing the total up to 12 drives by the time I brought the server online! However, because I am using drives from a variety of devices and vintages, the available storage would only total to some 7TB. My goal is to replace drives with larger units as they wear out and grow the available storage over time. The final part I will need top install is an internal USB port. This is a conventional USB-A female port attached to a USB header allowing for USB devices to be placed inside a computer case. This port will host the USB flash drive that the FreeNAS operating system is installed on, freeing all available HDD space for storage.

Once assembled, it will be time to install the operating system and begin migrating data from the stacks of USB drives that I’m using as temporary storage!

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