Posted by: Dave | August 12, 2010

NAS for $50 + spare parts you probably have

Okay, “you probably have” if you’re a geek ;).

So one night my media center PC in my living room started to turn on and off all by itself. The system was old (866 mhz old) and had certainly seen much better days. The cost to replace the power supply ($20-$25 at the MicroCenter in Uptown Houston) just wasn’t worth it on this system.

But I liked the fact that I had file storage on my network without having to keep one of my laptops on 24/7.

Well, I decided to “violate my warranty” on my Wii (there’s some geek double-speak for ya) and get WiiMC installed on it. Excellent product, just don’t go beyond version 1.0.4, WiiMC seems to only go downhill from there; as of writing the current version is 1.0.6. Great, I got the “media” part of my old media center setup back, but what about downloading podcasts/vidcasts and networked drives?

Well, I decided to take a gamble. As with any gamble, I went to my local Wally World because of their excellent return policy. By “excellent” I mean they’ll take back stuff they don’t even sell, but I’m not *that* shady – I just violate warranties.

I got to thinking. A lot of routers now have a USB port, I wonder if I could put a powered USB hub on it and attach multiple devices. That’s the gamble, because I’m too cheap to just buy a bigger HD and move everything onto it when my existing drives are working just fine, with one of them provisioned just a couple months ago. Like I said, yay Wally World.

I got me the cheapest Belkin I could that had USB connectivity that explicitly stated I could attach hard drives, the Belkin Play. Nothing in the manuals said it could do multiple drives, but it didn’t say it couldn’t.

So here’s where we turn off the paved road of intended and documented functionality and go onto the dirt road of classical hacking (even if most of this stuff is painfully obvious to experienced Linux admins).

Looking at the router, I recognized the file paths it was referencing in the logs very clearly – it was some *nix variant, very likely some Linux variant. This means at a fundamental level (the kernel level) it should support hardware folks would commonly plug into USB that didn’t need drivers other than what you’d expect for USB hard drives and printers.

Plugged in a powered USB hub and viola, it worked! Now, I will say it took the router about 3 minutes to recognize the drive, but it eventually did it. Why did I use a powered hub? For reasons I don’t yet understand, my USB hard drive enclosures don’t fully function without power coming from the hub, despite the fact every enclosure I use has its own power supply. On a hardware level, this makes no sense, since there are 4 wires in a USB cable, 2 for power and 2 for data. Can there really be that much resistance in a combined total of 9 ft of USB cable? Maybe my friends more enlightened on the electronics side of things can give a pointer.

Now, there’s a damn good reason they don’t document this functionality. Problem is that every time you turn the router on and plug in anything to the USB (or power off/on again), all the SMB mountpoints are renamed! What that means in layman’s terms is you may have to reconfigure software (especially WiiMC) every time this happens. It’s an inconvenience I’m sure some support person in India doesn’t want to help a 75 year old with. The Belkin Play is pre-configured to reboot weekly, I strongly recommend disabling this option if attempting this setup.

I decided to make this NOT be my main router. Sorry, I love the Buffalo routers entirely too much to give them up – they work well and don’t need constant coddling to stay in peak condition. Unfortunately, like most people, I was configured to use the 192.168.1 subnet. This is a problem, since Belkin Play reserves the 192.168.1 subnet for wireless cafe mode, EVEN IF YOU DISABLE IT *argh*! Normally, this could be ignored, but if I want to remote into the router… well, it assumes you’re just some guest and never lets you in, even with root credentials. So, I had to leave Belkin on 192.168.2 and let it govern that subnet, give it a static IP in the low half of the 192.168.3 subnet and switch my Buffalo to the 192.168.3 subnet, with dynamic IPs in the higher half of that range. It’s all good, but that was 2 hours of tinkering I shouldn’t have had to do thanks to an always-on feature that I don’t want nor need of the Belkin Play.

I’m intrigued by the naming scheme used by the SMB mountpoints on the Belkin Play. For example, I have a Western Digital “My Book” so it would usually be shared as “MY_BOOK.” However, this Belkin Router does “MY_BOOK(A1)” or “MY_BOOK(B1)” or even the more bizarre “MY_BOOK(ZA1)”. I’m sure I’m missing something from Linux 101 here, so if you have any theories on why this happens, I’d just like to know why – not that I’m in much of a position to change it short of putting new firmware on the router.

Oh, and to protect my geek cred, I’ve lacked the imagination to rename the drive. I don’t often leave things on the defaults, but this one worked well for me.

So, after yet another rewiring of my walk-in closet, which is becoming more and more of a server room, we’ve got this nice rats nest:

Ghetto NAS

But this setup, as ghettotacular as it is, has its many downsides:

  • S.M.A.R.T. diagnostic information is never reported. This means I have no advance knowledge the drive will fail.
  • There’s no simple way to do drive maintenance like SpinRite or Chkdsk on these drives.
  • Power outages mean I need to reconfigure WiiMC, which can eventually become a pain.

Performance… it’s been great. Granted, I was sure to keep my electrical and data cables near right angles when they must cross, so that may help in an unmeasurably insignificant way. Though I must admit, even big videos buffer on WiiMC in about 10 seconds over the network and file transfers of 300 MB files take about 30 seconds. Not perfect, but I am running over 100mbit here, not gigabit.

But wait, what about downloading media? A long time ago I found a guide on how to have iTunes work with a networked drive on Windows on lifehacker, here it is for your convenience: http://lifehacker.com/230605/hack-attack-share-your-itunes-music-library-over-your-home-network. Oh, and skip all that stuff they mention about SyncToy, that’s just not needed.

If anyone knows a better podcatcher than iTunes, let me know. I feel like I’ve tried them all and they all suck in their own ways. At least iTunes sucks in being a resource hog but otherwise does most of what I want it to do.

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