G4 NAS drive MK3

the Mark Three is the last of version of the G4 NAS Drive project. the idea started back in the day when the readyNAS hit the scene. it was the first of the “appliance servers”. it’s only problem was it’s cost. without drives it was around $800.

I realized that an older G4 was roughly the same specs at the readyNAS in terms of CPU speed, bus speed, memory and if you installed a few bits of software onto a standard OS X one could gain specific permissions for file/folder sharing making it more like a server instead of a share. OS X 10.5 would make these tools unnecessary. but getting 10.5 installed on the older hardware is a trick. and while it can be done it and it works just fine it’s not supported.

the reality of the G4 NAS is that it’s really just a G4 Server. I used the word NAS as a way to draw attention to the project and to hit home that it’s really easy to setup and run OS X so it behaves like a server. yes, you can run OS X Server on the G4. it will run 10.4 just fine. running the newer OS X 10.5 Server requires a mac with better specs. you’ll find it much harder to get a more modern G4 for free or nearly free though.

the G4 machines I used for this project were retired hardware that had been purchased new. eventually they were deemed too old to do day to day work. in addition the machines that were made into NAS drives were passed over for faster G4 macs when a gift or donation was made to somebody who needed a machine. they were pretty much unloved.

the G4 NAS had three distinct versions. it was always a work in progress. each was based on a Sawtooth G4 upgraded with as much RAM possible. RAM is a particular problem because the G4 needs specific timing making it hard to find today.

Mk1 – RAID1 two 500G PCI SATA card.
Mk2 – RAID5 four 250G 3.5 drives PCI RAID card
Mk3 – RAID5 four 500G 2.5 drives PCI RAID card

the write up for the Mk1 reveals that there isn’t much to making the upgrade. it’s as simple as plugging in a card and mounting two hard drives. then formatting the drives using the Disk Utilities as RAID1.

problems with the MK2
there wasn’t an article for the Mk2. mostly because the build was completely complicated. it required cutting the metal case to wedge in the SATA backplane to hold the drives. this required removing everything from the case: drives, motherboard, power supply. I also had to cut the plastic bezel front. the first attempt basically ruined a case and a bezel. undaunted, because I had more than one, the second mac came out okay. and it was in use until recently. but it had problems. it’s power supply had died for the third time making it was clear that it was over taxed. this wasn’t a good solution for anyone expecting reliability.

the thinking behind the MK3
the MK3 G4 NAS drive upgraded the Mk1 which has been running continuously for three years. in that time both of it’s hard drives had failed. and one of the SATA cables also went mysteriously bad. this caused random server lock ups. fortunately Seagate promptly replaced both failed drives. and I had lots of SATA cables around.

what I really wanted was a more reliable Mk2. there were a few ways to achieve this. one was to brain transplant into a case that was more suitable to the task. but that came with a cost and more work. retrofitting a larger power supply isn’t hard but soldering wires together is beyond the skill set of the wide spread audience.

one day while searching for something else I found a a backplane made for 2.5″ hard drives. this tiny thing is the size of a 5.25″ device like a CD/DVD drive. the cage holds four 2.5″ hard drives. the drives are on sleds allowing them to be “hot swapped”. cooling is provided by a small fan that has speed control. it’s pretty small and slick.

this setup has three really big advantages compared to the 3.5″ version.

1) less heat.
2) uses less power. all four drives use less then one 3.5″ drive.
3) virtually no noise.

unlike the Mk2 that was an invasive build the Mk3 wasn’t a big deal. the drive backplane slid into the space where the DVD drive was before. in the three years that it ran the MK1 I never burned a DVD from here so it’s not a loss. once installed I plugged the cables into the controller I took the from the Mk2. I also connected the power. that was it. installed.

formatting it to working
formatting the hard drives required “logging into the controller” using a web browser that asked for a username and password. the card listed all the hard drives, I formatted them, then created the RAID5. the final step was the format the array again using Disk Utility. this is important because it reveals the RAID part is invisible to the Mac. it just thinks of it as a big volume.

the RAID5 took 20 hours to format. which is typical on this class of controller. even a Drobo has formatting that it must complete before it can be rebuild itself. I found that I could use the drive normally during this process. however, if a drive were to fail at this point no data would be recoverable.

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there are people that right now aghast at the thought of using a “laptop” drive for a server. I think this is a better drive compared to the larger drive. both have a similar MTBF. plus the smaller drive produces less heat because it uses less energy. I have found that the larger drives don’t seem to stand the test of time. in the three years that the MK1 was running I replaced both drives. these are “server” class Seagate with 5 year warrantees. and the Mk2 proved that over loading a power supply will kill it.

I’ve written that a drive has a useful life of three years. after that the next series of drives is available: more capacity and smaller power requirements. it’s a good idea to move with progress. I can’t imaging how much has been lost because copying data forward to more modern hardware wasn’t part of the plan.

the future?
the G4 is 10 years old. while there are fast G4 to be had the later Mac’s aren’t always better. especially the last one. it’s so noisy that you will hate it being on unless you change all the fans inside. also because of it’s speed we don’t always see these for free or low cost. the over 1Ghz seems to make them useful. even if you go with newer hardware there are no more software updates for this Mac. half of the line was left behind with OS X 10.4 and the other half get dropped with 10.5. these Macs continuing to run are only doing so because of the diligence I’ve taken to keep them running. free is a motivating factor. so is because I can.

while the G5 has some advantages the line is splintered. the PCI bus changes slightly with each build. but worse is it uses an obscene amount of power compared to the G4. even though it has a huge case there isn’t much room inside of it for mods although I’ve eyed that area where the PCI slots are. but the best reason to skip it is that PPC hit the end of the upgrade line with OS X 10.6. it really is game over turn out the lights for this Mac.

I am very likely going to experiment with the modern Mac Mini (Intel) as a platform. it’s small, doesn’t use much power, and doesn’t need a fan. it also has possibilities for re-casing. as in dump the tiny case putting the guts in something that will make the hard drives more easy to deal with.

there are interesting mods that could be added like a 5 way drive controller allowing the Mini to talk to 10T of storage.

other future
from a DIY point of view FreeNAS or OpenFiler have bright futures. an old Intel or AMD box can be had for free (or nearly free) giving you the same platform advantage as the G4. although you will want to re-fan it for quiet. I plan on re-useing our 3.5″ backplane for either of these projects. FreeNAS has a ZFS possibility. OpenFiler is the new kid with new ideas. both of these mean you have to depart from the Mac-dom. which shouldn’t be a big deal really, it just means you might have to learn something new.

there are still lots of commercial offerings that you might consider if you don’t want to roll your own. especially if the benefits of support and a warrantee are important to you. devices to check out include the readyNAS, Lacie, QNAP, Buffalo, Freecom, Addonics, and that very inexpensive Intel NAS. if you decide to go this way let us know how the device you choose works out for you.

RAID controller
HighPoint RocketRAID 1740 PCI Card $119 (pulled from the Mk2)
an altenate card is the Rosewill RC-217 4 Port PCI RAID Card we did NOT tested this card.

Drives and backplane
4 Fujitsu 500GB 2.5″ Hard Drive hard drives.
2.5″ Hot Swap Backplane RAID cage 4 x 2.5″ HDD in 1 x 5.25″ bay $50
SATA cables $12 for four

the old back plane is a
ICY DOCK MB674SPF-B 4 in 3 SATA I & II Backplane Raid Cage

total cost
RAID card $119
backplane $55
drives $79 each
total $490

MK1 build pictures
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MK3 build pictures
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