Tag Archives: build

The new NAS

PC parts for a custom NAS build

It’s close enough to 2023 now, and off the back of my QNAP being on borrowed time, it’s time to think about a new NAS. I’ve had a couple of NAS iterations over the years, starting off with a $200 HP MicroServer, then the aforementioned QNAP, and now, whatever I want to go with next.

I could, of course, go with another consumer-grade NAS like a Synology. Or even a QNAP if I am feeling particularly brave. Apparently, Synology units with processors that had the LPC CLK issue weren’t affected to the same degree as QNAP units were, because they implemented their LPC interfaces at 1.8V, preventing 2V over that circuit being an issue like it was in the QNAP units. That and/or in combination with a firmware update that somehow mitigated the issue, meant that a Synology unit would have been the more reliable choice at the time, and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if I had purchased a Synology instead of a QNAP back in 2016.

Alas, I did, and we are.

Which brings us back to the original question: what kind of a NAS do I want in 2023, that will hopefully last 5-7 years, if not more?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. There are definite, distinct advantages to having an all-in-one unit like a QNAP or Synology. You get the smallest possible chassis, minuscule power usage, and the entire software experience that buying a QNAP or Synology gets you, which means that even if you’re going to run your own Docker containers and just use the software to manage your storage, it’s definitely a more cohesive, user-friendly experience compared to rolling your own OS. But even after all that, I’ve been drawn to the idea of building my PC to serve NAS duties for a while now.

Why? It comes down to hardware, both in terms of choice and flexibility.

Buying a consumer-grade NAS like a QNAP or Synology means you’re buying into their ecosystem, with all of the advantages and disadvantages that entails. Yes, you can upgrade the RAM and install your own drives but that’s about it in terms of upgrades. With the exception of some of their pricier units, you can’t drop-in a PCIe card to add discrete graphics, or more M.2 drives, or even 10 GbE, if that ever becomes a thing at home. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

There are some Synology units that let you buy a PCIe expansion card that lets you add 10 GbE as well as more M.2 slots (in addition to the ones you already have), by the time you pony up for one of the pricer Synology units and the PCIe expansion card, you’ve basically spent as much as you would have if you picked your own parts and built your own PC from scratch, with none of the benefits of having custom hardware. It’s a trade off. I think it makes way more sense to buy a QNAP or Synology NAS, compared to building your own, than it does for you to buy a pre-built gaming PC from a major computer retailer like Dell or HP, purely because you’ll get more value out of a consumer NAS that you do out of a gaming PC that uses non-standard parts and layouts. You’re far more likely to want to upgrade your gaming PC within its expected lifetime than you are your own NAS, and you’ll appreciate standard PC components at that point, way more than you would if you were to upgrade your NAS. But I digress, and that’s a topic for another time.

When you’re building your own NAS out of commodity PC hardware, you have the complete freedom to choose which standard PC components you want, and the flexibility that affords you down the line. You might not ever need to upgrade your QNAP or Synology CPU in the lifetime of your NAS — but don’t you wish you could, when something better comes along?

But if there was a single reason I wanted to build my own NAS, it comes from being able to have access to hardware transcoding. Specifically, Intel Quick Sync Video.

While video transcoding isn’t generally a problem for me right now, that’s not to say it won’t be in the future. The Celeron J1900 in my current QNAP supports Quick Sync, and I haven’t had an issue streaming most of my content to iOS devices via Plex due to the wonders of direct play and most of my content being in a format that’s compatible with my devices. But between various CPU architectures, Quick Sync support for different codecs and formats varies. My current CPU, while it supports H.264, will only support decoding HEVC H.265, not encoding it, with zero support for newer video codecs like VP9 or AV1, or even 10 or 12-bit HEVC H.265 which is sometimes used by HDR versions of those videos. I don’t currently have Quick Sync video working on my current QNAP, but that is probably a configuration issue on my part; it’s entirely possible I haven’t set it up correctly in the Plex container.

Not supporting hardware-accelerated video encoding/decoding means we’re back to software decoding. And if YouTubers are to be believed, AV1 is going to be the next big thing, so even if we have to wait for a couple of years for it to be adopted by content farms, won’t I be glad I’ll have picked a 12th gen CPU that can handle decoding AV1 in hardware, as opposed to some Ryzen chip that would have had to rely on sheer CPU grunt to do software encoding?

While this might not be a big deal right now, it’ll matter if everyone starts using the royalty free, and even more efficient AV1 format. If that happens within the remaining lifetime of my QNAP, that’ll be an issue for me because it will mean I’m back to software decoding everything. I’m using software transcoding now, and it’s an extremely poor experience on a quad-core 2.0GHz CPU, even on my local network. The good news is, only Intel Arc has access to AV1 hardware encoders, which means everyone else has to throw CPU grunt at the problem, if they want to encode their content in AV1.

The other main advantage of rolling your own NAS hardware is that you can run whatever OS you want on it. While there are technically ways you can run other OSes on QNAPs or Synology units, it’s a hack. Building my own NAS lets me choose between straight Linux, like whatever version of Ubuntu that I ran on my HP Microserver, or the more storage-focused flavours of Linux/BSD like Unraid or TrueNAS. TrueNAS in particular is interesting because it is known for natively implementing OpenZFS, which is generally regarded as the best storage-focused filesystem. I don’t currently have a need to run any of the crazier storage configurations afforded by ZFS as I’ll be limited by the hardware and case that I’ve chosen (at least to begin with), but it’s nice to know they’re an option, if I decide to do that later on down the track.

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New PC: Firebolt

DSCF0895I was actually in San Francisco when Intel was hosting their annual developer forum last year. At that stage, I hadn’t really thought about putting together an almost entirely new PC, but you could say it planted the seed. After all, my current PC was over five years old, and despite a steady string of graphics cards upgrades, it was probably about time for something new and shiny, seeing as my computer didn’t even have USB 3 yet.

When I got back to Australia, I spent a few good months thinking about whether I wanted to get a new PC or not. There was nothing particularly wrong about my current rig, besides being a little long in the tooth. Depending on the games I was playing, the CPU could be a little bit of a bottleneck, but the GTX 980 meant things still hummed along just fine on screen.

By the time December came around, I had all but made up my mind. I was going to build a new Skylake-based PC, recycling only the graphics card, hard drives, and a fan controller from my current computer. Now all I had to do was decide on some parts, but here’s how it all breaks down.

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Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer: thoughts, strategies, and a guide or two

The N7 Shadow Infiltrator melee attack, with flame sword.

The N7 Shadow Infiltrator melee attack, with flame sword.

Continuing the trend of abandoned games I’m recently just getting back into (see: Battlefield 3, ARMA 2), I’ve been playing Mass Effect 3. I’m now all up to date with all the single player DLC; I’ve re-taken Omega with Aria T’Loak, I’ve investigated Leviathan, and I’ve had a ball in my swanky new apartment on the Citadel (and even invited a few friends over — if you’re a fan of the Mass Effect series and haven’t played through the Citadel DLC, you’re doing yourself a disservice).

But enough about singleplayer and its DLC temptresses. Let’s talk about multiplayer! On the face of it, ME3 multiplayer seems like the worst thing ever, or at least, not the most appealing. It’s four-player, peer-to-peer coop set in a variety of locations from the single player side missions, against a variety of the enemies. It follows a pretty simple formula: choose a location (there’s quite a few so I’ll link you to the appropriate Wikia page), choose an enemy (Geth, Cerberus, Collectors, Reapers), and choose a difficulty (in order of least to most difficult: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum). From there, you form a four-man squad of varying races and classes, all of which have their own unique skill sets (even though their skills will be shared by other characters, no characters have the same set of skills), choose from a massive variety of weapons, and kit out your characters.

There’s actually quite a bit to it. There’s millions of possible equipment and weapon combinations alone, which makes for unique games. You can be playing with four of the same characters, but each of those characters could have different playstyles (and hence carry a different weapon loadout and consumables, etc). Plus, there’s a heap of stuff you can unlock. 62 weapons, each of which has 10 “levels”. 65 characters over 6 classes. I’m not even counting all the weapon mods, character appearance customisations, consumables, or gear. You can see my stats and what I’ve unlocked so far here.

I’ll get to talking strategy in a sec, but first, a few quick tips.

Narida’s Class Builder is an amazing ME3 multiplayer resource where you can choose how to spec your character. It lets you choose everything about your character, including what weapons, how much damage your character does, what different evolutions your powers can take on and how that affects your damage/other stats, and so on. It’s fantastic. When you’re speccing a new character, consult the class builder to get an idea of what powers do what, and how that affects your cooldowns, that sort of thing. The only place where it falls down is giving you a sense of how fast things happen in game: a five second cooldown might not sound like much, but it’s an eternity when you’re trying to reload your Widow sniper rifle and dodging that Geth Hunter that appeared out of nowhere. For everything else, Narida’s Class Builder is your ME3 multiplayer bible.

Now, a lot of the game resides in the characters, and the classes you play. A lot of it depends on your particular play-style — any decently skilled player will be able to pick up an entirely new (level 20) character and do well enough at the bronze and silver levels, but I find gold and platinum require a higher plane of thinking.

The Krogan Warlord. I named my Warlord Thor, for obvious reasons.

The Krogan Warlord. I named my Warlord Thor, for obvious reasons.

As an example, take this particular Krogan Warlord build. The Warlord is a good character for smashing trash mobs on silver and lower difficulties, but like pretty much all melee-based characters, you generally don’t do enough damage to make it worth your time getting close to bosses (Geth Primes, Cerberus Atlases, Collector Praetorians/Scions, Reaper Banshees/Brutes), which means on Gold and higher, you’re generally going to have a bad time if you run in and try and hammer everything. I remember the first time I played the Warlord. I built my Warlord similar to the build linked above, and, thinking I was some kind of god, charged in and attempted to break all the enemies into little pieces with my hammer. That worked pretty well, at least up until the boss characters — the banshees, brutes, scions, praetorians, and atlases — who proceeded to insta-kill me, every single time I got too close. It was during that game that I discovered that even Brutes have their own insta-kill animation. Up until then, I had no idea brutes could even insta-kill you. But now I know, and these days, I tend to keep my distance with my Warlord — at least until I know I can take a boss down with one hammer attack. And that’s really what ME3 multiplayer is all about, working with the skills you have in order to be an effective asset to the team. It’s about knowing your limits, and playing it smart.

One of the first things I do when I unlock a new character is to look up “builds”, which tell me where I should put points into powers. But builds are only half of the story, and they’re almost worthless without knowing the strategy for that build. So many builds don’t have a guide on how to play that particular character/build, so you have to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t — but then, what’s the point of a build in the first place? Isn’t the whole idea of a build where someone else has already done the experimentation for you, and can just tell you what to do to win? Another thing I found really annoying is how builds recommend specific weapons. What happens if you don’t have that weapon unlocked? For this reason, these guides will recommend what weapon I run with, then suggest alternatives if you don’t have it. Which is why I’m going to open my little strategy guides under the proviso that they work for my particular playstyle(s). I have a few different play-styles — some are easy, others require a little more work on your part.

These are less strategies, and more just me telling you what I’ve found to be effective with any given build. In no particular order…

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Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! Warning: extremely long post ahead!

Yes, Severus. As in, Severus Snape. As in, Harry Potter is so cool and I’m such a geek that I’ve named all my computers after characters, and even spells from the Harry Potter universe.

The practice to name computers after a specific theme isn’t new (but why people name hard drives is a little beyond me), but some take it one step further by choosing a name not only from a specific theme, but a name from that theme that has meaning when applied to their computer.

Take my former computer Protego, for example. In Harry Potter Protego is a spell that produces some magical barrier that protects the caster from harm (to a limit). My computer Protego was somewhat like that – sure, it wasn’t some sort of magical barrier, but being an IBM xSeries sever meant it had a very decent, durable case – which earnt it the name Protego. I didn’t say the names had to be an exact match! :p

All of my past computers have had names that relate to the computers themselves, whether it be a physical characterestic or otherwise, no matter how vague the connection, they had names that related to the computer. That ended with Severus, however – try as I might, I can’t seem connect anything that I can associate with Severus Snape to my new computer. It’s just too hard!

Introduction now out of the way, it’s now time to get some background info in before we dive into the nitty-gritty. Over TWO THOUSAND words about your new computer, you say? Easy, I say – don’t worry, there will be an abundance of pics later on for those of you with an aversion to lots of words.

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