Learning By Doing

Andy Warren, 2013-03-22 (first published: 2013-03-19)

I was recently talking with a friend about doing some research into a NAS solution for home and that I was trying FreeNAS out in a VM. He asked…why? Why not just buy one? He had one, a model I knew about, and said it was solid storage if maybe not the greatest at media streaming. So why would I consider building? To save money?

My answer was just to learn. I see something or run into a problem or  read a blog post about a solution and my interest is engaged. For this instance it was a combination of things; my router at home supports attached storage but it’s not redundant, I wanted something that would do iSCSI for when I want to mimic availability scenarios, and I was wanting to – finally – move some of the CD collection to disk and stream it around the house.

I started by reading about NAS. Lots of consumer/prosumer devices out there and you start to get an idea of various capabilities and price points. One that I liked from Synology has four drive bays and is $500 without the drives. What am I buying for $500? And given that it will run various plug-ins to extend it, what am I gaining or losing by not running a full ‘home server’ type scenario?

I’ll do more writing on the decision results I a later post, but what happened here is that I’m reading about NAS thinking to buy one, even at $500+, and then I run across FreeNAS. Free to try, free to use, why not load it into a VM just to see? Then I get into it and see that it uses ZFS and has some interesting RAID options. I mention this to my friend and he scoffs – who would use software raid?

It’s funny, I agree with him. I’ve used hardware RAID since I’ve been an IT guy,no one uses Windows software RAID (right or wrong). So now I’m challenging my own assumptions. As I write this I’ve been watching some video on ZFS and it’s interesting. It’s designed to make storage easy to use,and it’s designed to be robust – robust in a database robust kind of way, checksums everywhere to insure good data. I don’t know that I’m a convert to software raid yet, but ultimately it is software even if on a card. We’ll see!

I’m not done exploring FreeNAS or ZFS. I may look at OpenFiler, a product similar to FreeNAS. Maybe I’ll look at Storage Server, maybe not. I’m not – yet anyway – intending to  master the world of NAS or file systems or home servers, I’m just learning, following my interests in a way that makes the learning if not effortless at least pleasant.

It’s hard to know what I’ll learn that will matter in the long run. Or if I will do all this and still buy one off the shelf. It’s not the kind of research thing I can or want to do every time (well, maybe I would if time allowed), but I know that it has value and is worth the investment, I just can’t prove it before I do the learning.

Leave some time in your professional development schedule for some random learning. Install Oracle. Code something in F# or Ruby. Build a Linux server. Try Virtual Box instead of VMWare. You might be surprised of the value of a few hour investment.





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