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Adventures of a Computer Geek Part 2

Hello again! Last time I wrote about this topic, I told the story of how I acquired my home lab computer and the humble beginnings it had. This computer is a 2010 MacPro, or in technical terms, a MacPro 5,1. It’s a beast of a computer, weighing in excess of 25 kilos. Its aluminum chassis and futuristic design screamed out to me when I first saw it, and I fell in love. My initial plan was simply to run MacOS and play Civilization 6, one of my favorite video games. However, I began to realize this computer was capable of so much more.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I could do. Then it dawned on me: why not fill those four hard drive bays up and run a raid? I could load it up with my hodgepodge of music and start a movie collection. I had heard of Plex Media Server and how cool it was in allowing you to stream your media from your device to anywhere in the world, with a Plex Pass membership, of course. I made my first investment in this endeavor and bought a lifetime membership. It was around $120USD, and for a one-time payment, this was quite a bargain. Next, I thought about what sort of hard drives I’d buy. The choice was an obvious one for me: Western Digital Red. I had heard about these drives before and how reliable they are and that they are used in data centers. I figured it would make sense for me to pay a little extra for the reliability. After all, I was going to amass a media collection as well as hold all my other data, and I wanted something that wouldn’t just suddenly quit on me in three years.

I was quite excited when I bought these, actually. I had always wanted a RAID storage solution, and now I was in a situation where I could afford to purchase the necessary hardware.

The next step was to decide how to set up the array. Would I use the system indigenous to MacOS? Would I pay for a RAID card? Neither of these options appealed to me. I was thinking about the future, and wanted some kind of system that was not tied up with MacOS. Also, I didn’t want or need a RAID card. My solution? Enter ZFS! No additional hardware required, and it is compatible with various operating systems (sorry, but not Windows, at least when I set this up in 2017).

When I think back to my first days with ZFS, I feel like I was so naive. I dove right in and didn’t really think about how to lay things out. I set up a RAID1z, but didn’t really know about datasets, zvols and snapshots. I just created a pool, which mounted in the root directory, and I gleefully chucked my data on there. I had a 4TB Hitachi drive that I had removed from an external case laying around, and as an afterthought, I added the drive to the pool. Big mistake! I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just forfeited my data protection capability and created a RAID-0 stripe. The four WD Reds were in a RAIDz configuration, but that array was striped with the 4TB drive. If that drive had failed, then the whole thing would have been toast. I had thought once could simply add additional drives to the pool and the RAIDz would grow to fill them. I was horrified when it dawned on me what a stupid mistake I had made, and eventually I backed everything up – fortunately I didn’t have much data then – and rebuilt the array, leaving out the 4TB drive. I decided to keep that drive as a spare.

Where was I at this point? I was running MacOS High Sierra with a version of ZFS for Mac. Plex Media Server was running natively on the Mac as well. This suited me for awhile, until I came across another problem that needed a solution: as a teacher, I have an assortment of materials that I work with – grammar books, text books, worksheet exercises as well as archives of my students’ writing attempts. How could I organize all this stuff? Also, I had all my work from my university days, scans of important documents, personal journals, and other odds and ends. Sure, I could make some kind of elaborate folder structure. That would have worked. However, I wanted something a bit more robust. I wanted to put everything into a searchable database, and perhaps have OCR capability so I could process scans of books and other documents and make them searchable. I wanted something where I could access my data from anywhere in the world, no matter what computer I was using. In short, I was in need of a document management system.

I was also itching for an excuse to run virtual machines. I mean, I had 32GB of ram and all those awesome cores. I wanted to make good use of my investment. To this end, I chose another OS to run on the system – enter VMWare ESXI.