Fan-NAS-tic!

Over the last few years I have been playing with Network Attached Storage, NAS for short. A NAS is a bit like a portable HDD but instead of connecting it directly to your computer/device you plug it into your network.

The most basic NAS is just storage that connects to your network… beyond that the feature list is immense. Here are just a few features I have found really cool.

Time Machine Backup for OS X

Halfway through last year I bought my first Mac, a (now) 5 year old MacBook Pro. I knew Windows, I knew Linux, and with their market share I thought it was time that I learnt OS X. My impressions of OS X can be the topic of another article but one relevant feature is Time Machine.

Time Machine is an extremely useful feature. It is an incremental backup tool that allows you to scroll back through “time” to locate a file that you may have accidentally altered or deleted. HDD space on a Mac is a precious resource… again, topic for that other story, but on the QNAP NAS that I have been using you can set up a backup server for Time Machine.

As long as you have a network connection to the backup server the Time Machine functions as normal. If you have a portable computer (i.e. my MacBook Pro) the backup will occur once you are connected to your home network and plugged into power (you can force the backup to happen under battery power but the default setting is to wait for the charger).

My MacBook has a 500GB HDD, the Time Machine backup file on the server for my MacBook is just under 350GB. Not only does this save precious disk space on the MacBook but it also allows for a more comprehensive backup.

CCTV Surveillance

The NAS I have comes with “Surveillance Station” and two IP camera licenses. They support thousands of different IP camerasĀ and all you need to do is browse to the camera on your network, configure the recording settings and you’re all set.

I have recently purchased an additional camera license. The process was quite simple, there is a link to follow in the Surveillance Station management console, you purchase the license online, they email you the license file and you enter the code into Surveillance Station. My NAS supports up to 24 cameras and there is no way I’ll even come close to needing that many.

Virtualisation

The wife and kids have “iThings” (pods, pads, etc) and I was struggling to set up centralised music/media storage. You can set up a third party iTunes server on the NAS but iTunes doesn’t always see it and when it does it’s read-only. If you hear a song you like you can’t tag/import it to your device. It seems that the folks at Apple want you to store all your music on an “always-on” PC/Mac to access your media from other devices.

I was reluctant to leave a computer on 24/7 and I had noticed that my NAS was capable of virtualisation so I thought I’d try setting up my own “iTunes server”. I opened up “Virtualisation Station” and….

…it said I needed more memory. šŸ™

After paying an unfortunate premium for extra RAM I tried again. I couldn’t virtualise OS X so I installed Windows 10 on a virtual machine configured to the minimum specifications and installed iTunes. Since this “computer” is inside the NAS I was able to map a “network drive” that was actually a local folder. The “mapped drive” will always be available and has a virtual bandwidth of up to 10Gb.

With Home SharingĀ configured any Apple device on our home network can access media from the NAS. Since thisĀ virtual computer is dedicated for use with iTunes the demand on system resources is low; it will spend most of its time idle waiting for an Apple device to connect to it. I now run two virtual machines concurrently and the system resources of the NAS are rarely above 30%.

MythTV Backend

Once I had figured out virtualisation I remembered the multiple USB ports on my NAS and realised that the virtual machines can access the USB ports directly. I have been using MythTV for at least 10 years on a server with multiple PCI Digital TV cards. I figured that if I could find a pair of compatible USB Digital TV cards I might be able to retire my MythTV server, offloading it to the NAS…

…I was right! With two USB tuner cards mapped to a virtual machine I was able to eliminate the need for an entire physical computer.

The MythTV backend doesn’t require much processing power. Mostly it receives digital TV and writes it to a HDD (mapped HDD on the NAS in this case). However there are a few additional tasks that it performs the main one being commercial flagging (detection of commercial breaks to allow for skipping). On my original MythTV server I was able to flag multiple recordings at the same time. With the limited resources of the virtual machine I have had to restrict the system to only flagging one program at a time. Occasionally when watching a program close to its airing time the commercial flagging may not have been performed.

MythTV is a client-server system. You can run the client and server on the same machine but in this case the server (Backend) is on the NAS so the clients (Frontends) need to be separate computers. I have an HD capable Frontend in our lounge room but with a little modification I could make it a Secondary Backend/Frontend. As a Secondary Backend it may be able to assist with commercial flagging and other tasks while we watch recordings. Even if it can’t do both, having to run all the processing on the NAS doesn’t outweigh the advantages:-

  • as a virtual machine the entire server can be backed up and protected by RAID
  • new virtual machine servers can be “built” easily to test new software versions
  • the only hardware that can fail are the Digital TV tuners and the NAS/HDDs
  • I don’t need a separate computer to run MythTV

Summary

With this one tiny device, barely larger than the four HDDs it houses, I can record CCTV footage, distribute media to Apple devices, record and distribute digital TV, backup data, share files and much much more. This low powered device has the potential of replacing multiple devices, saving power and space. I am a big fan of the humble NAS.