My Hobby: Moving Files Around

I have found that my home server hobby is more a “moving files around” hobby. I have reached this conclusion based on the countless times I have found myself moving files from one place to another.

My FreeNAS media server

I have run FreeNAS on a HP N54L Microserver for over five years. It has been a fantastic server. I bought it, a slightly used review unit, loaded with four 500 GB drives that it would not have normally come with, for a song—less than a new one with no storage drives included. Over the years, I updated the storage (now I have 16 TB total, with 8 TB usable space, set up in a single RAIDZ2 volume), and the RAM (from 8 GB to 16 GB). Over that same time period, 8 TB went from an impressive amount of storage to something a relatively inexpensive single drive could handle.

What those single drives don’t have, however, is redundancy and data integrity features. My little FreeNAS server has that, thanks to the ZFS file system. At several times in my home media streaming career, the external hard drive I used to store my media files died, and I lost all my data. Thankfully, no important personal data, like my photos, was ever lost, but the experience was upsetting enough not to want to repeat any more.

Hard drive failures can happen to anyone, at any time, even if you have a nice server rather than a Raspberry Pi with an external hard drive attached via USB. Less than a year after I upgraded my FreeNAS server’s drives, one of them failed. The FreeNAS server emailed me about the error, and its UI showed that my drive array was operating in a degraded state. I quickly ordered a new drive, swapped it out the next day, and never lost a bit of data. (I returned the failed drive for a free replacement, so now I have a replacement available, in case I ever need it.)

File servers fill up, if you let them

FreeNAS has been stable, reliable, and a joy to use. One thing I have learned from running it, however, is that its file system, ZFS, degrades in performance when a volume (a pool of drives) is more than 80% full. FreeNAS will warn you about this threshold, but I never took it too seriously, because poor performance is mostly an academic concern when all you are doing with a server is transferring a few gigabytes a day. I do like to silence warnings, however, so I normally have to prune my media collection, or move some videos I want to keep, but am unlikely to watch again soon, to external, mostly cold, storage.

Of course, where is that old, external drive with my files on it? I have no idea. So, this week, when my FreeNAS server filled up way over the 80% warning threshold, I decided, rather than continuing to free space by deleting movies and TV series that I didn’t want to delete, to add some more redundant storage to my network, and move the old files there. This decision was mostly based on having some extra hardware lying around, unused. I have a 2 TB, two-bay Seagate NAS, which is a little, Linux-based server with a consumer friendly web UI for administration. Unlike FreeNAS, it is very locked down, and unlike my HP microserver, it has only two drive bays rather than four.

At any rate, I set that up again and started moving some files to it, which sounds simpler than it really is. I am cherry picking files that are less likely to be accessed to the new server, so I have to go through everything I have, to some extent. Because the files either number in the thousands (like music files) or are multiple gigabytes in size (like video files), moving them has been very slow. Because the Seagate NAS’s filesystem (EXT4) is different than the FreeNAS filesystem (ZFS), there are other interesting problems, like file naming rules, that trip up file transfers. Because these are two different UNIX-like systems with different users configured on them, sometimes there are permissions issues that prevent files from being moved, renamed, or deleted.

As cool as it is to stream movies and music throughout my house, making it all work requires, from time to time, a lot of low-level file transfers. It has been taking a lot more time and attention than I would like.