A rather complicated chain of events has led me to completely overhaul some of the technology in my house, which also happens to be Liliputing headquarters.
This summer Crashplan announced it would be discontinuing its consumer-oriented cloud backup service. So I started looking for an alternative… and ultimately decided that it was time not only to find a new off-site backup system, but also to set up a proper on-site system.
When the dust had settled, I had ended up with a Network Attached Storage Device (which replaced an old home theater PC that I’d been using as a network share device), a new uninterruptible power supply, signing up for a new cloud backup service, switching ISPs, buying a new WiFi router, and spending hours testing and configuring everything. Oh, and in somewhere in the middle of all that I figured it was a good time to wipe a bunch of old hard drives and recycle some old computers to clear up some office space.
Now that things are running pretty smoothly, I figured I’d tell you a little about the process and point out some of the mistakes I made along the way.
Part 1: The QNAP TS-251 – My first NAS
I’ve been a firm believer in online backup services ever since I accidentally killed my wife’s hard drive when trying to perform an upgrade on her laptop years ago.
First I used Carbonite, and then Crashplan. I appreciate that they store data off-site, so that it can be salvaged even if your PC is damaged or stolen and your house burns down. But they also make backing up your data super simple, since everything happens automatically. You don’t need to plug in an external hard drive or initiate a backup. You just need an internet connection.
But restoring data from a cloud backup can take hours, days, or even weeks depending on the amount of data and the speed of your internet connection.
A NAS, or Network Attached Storage device can do many of the same things, but since it’s hooked up to your home network, everything is much, much faster and you’re in control of everything that runs on the NAS.
For the past few years I’ve been using laptops with 256GB or smaller SSDs as my primary work machines. So I’d already gotten used to the idea of storing most of my music, movies, eBooks, and other digital ephemera on a desktop PC running in the living room. Equipped with a 1.5TB hard drive, it had plenty of space for all of my important work and personal files.
But that PC was originally set up to work as a home theater PC that we used to watch and record live television. That’s something we haven’t done in years, since we got tired of futzing with the rooftop antenna on our house. An Amazon Fire TV Stick has pretty much replaced our antenna: we just don’t watch live or recently aired TV shows anymore.
So rather than continuing to run a Windows PC 24/7, I’d been meaning for years to switch to a more energy-efficient NAS.
After spending a fair amount of time researching my options, I settled on a QNAP TS-251A, which was The Wirecutter’s top pick until recently (it’s since been replaced with the Synology DiskStation DS218+).
It’s basically a little computer that runs a Linux-powered operating system and which has two 3.5 inch drive bays, two Ethernet ports, and a few USB ports. You can also plug in a USB dongle if you’d rather use it as a wireless device, but Ethernet is recommended for top speed and stability.
Initially I was just happy with the idea of having an always-on, connected hard drive system that would use around 20 watts of power or less, making it more energy efficient than the Dell Zino HD computer it would effectively be replacing.
But I discovered the NAS has a few other tricks up its sleeve.
First, since it supports RAID 1, I was able to buy two 4TB hard drives and have all data synchronized between the two. So not only do I have a backup of all my data… I have two backups of all my important data. Sure, that means that I bought 8TB of data, but only have 4TB of storage space, but I can always upgrade in the future if I ever come close to running out.
(I should point out that I actually bought two 4TB Toshiba X300 hard drives at first… but they were noisy as all get-out, and I eventually decided to return them for something that would run more quietly. I wound up going with 4TB WD Red NAS hard drives, which reviewers said were much quieter, and they were right. Of course, before sending back the Toshiba drives, I had to spend a few days securely wiping all data from them… and since I ended up buying a USB hard drive dock in the process, I figured it was time to do some office cleaning, and I also wiped a couple of other old drives I had lying around so that I could recycle some old laptops and desktops without fear of my data being stolen).
Second, since this is basically a Linux computer, it can run all sort of apps. The easiest way to get applications is just to use the App Center in the device’s QTS operating system. But you can also upload and install third-party apps from other sources, and advanced users can take advantage of features like SSH to do more.
Oh, and third, this thing is upgradable. It comes with only 1GB of RAM, but after recyling one of the aforementioned laptops, I found myself with a spare 8GB stick of RAM which I was able to insert into the NAS to improve performance a bit.
Also, choosing a NAS helped me choose my CrashPlan replacement.
After addition to copying all of my photos, videos, important documents, and other files (like my Loving Project and LPX podcast projects), I set up File History on the computers in our household so that they would backup data from key folders to a shared folder on the NAS.
But I also wanted to find a new online backup solution for redundancy… and a bonus would be one that would not only work with the Windows PCs in our home and home office, but also with the Linux-powered NAS, allowing me to backup all my files without leaving a PC running all the time.
And that leads me to the second big decision I made.
Part 2: iDrive – my new cloud backup service
So this whole thing didn’t start as a network upgrade. It started because I was looking for a CrashPlan replacement.
BackBlaze is highly rated. But you have to pay per computer, and I’d prefer a single subscription that would let me use the service with multiple computers… and preferably also with my new NAS.
I liked that SpiderOak One supports unlimited devices, works on Windows or Linux, and sort of works with a NAS (if you treat the NAS as a shared drive and back it up through your PC). But SpiderOak’s pricing is a bit on the high side.
The service isn’t perfect. It can take days to get a response to a support ticket, for example. And you only get one user account for that price, but you can install the client on unlimited computers. And there’s a QNAP client in the QTS app store.
Most importantly, iDrive is still in business. CrashPlan is not. And since iDrive doesn’t offer “unlimited” storage, it seems like the company’s business model might be a bit more viable in the long run.
So I signed up for iDrive, installed the apps on my work computer and my NAS and… waited for all my files to upload. It turns out that uploading about a terabyte of data over a slow internet connection takes forever… who would have thought?
It took a few days to backup all the data from my PC. But it would have taken three months to upload everything stored on the NAS… and my internet connection was slowing to a crawl while that upload was in progress.
The company does offer an Express service where the company will send you a USB hard drive in the mail, allow you to copy all of your data to that drive and return it in the mail in order to speed up your initial backup. But I was impatient… and overpaying for internet anyway.
So after years as a Comcast Business Class customer paying $70 per month for 12Mbps downloads and 2Mbps uploads, I figured it was time for a change.
Part 3: Verizon FiOS – my new ISP
Fortunately, while Comcast cable and Verizon DSL used to be the only options in town, Verizon FiOS is now available in my area. While I’ve had some horrible customer service dealings with Verizon in the past that had turned me off the company for years, they’re currently offering pricing that’s hard to pass up: 50Mbps download and 50Mbps upload speeds for $40 per month.
Internet service providers being what they are, that’s only the price for the first year. But I’ve been assured that it will only go up to $55 per month in the second year, which is still less than I had been paying for substantially slower speeds.
The installation process was pretty painless. Since my Comcast contract had expired years ago, I was able to give two months notice… which means that technically I’m still paying for both services until the end of the year, but I’ll make up the difference in savings after a few more months.
I also took advantage of the situation to install our networking equipment in my office on the third floor of our house. Previously we’d had the cable modem and WiFi router on the first floor so it could be by the TV and home theater PC. But I figured it made more sense to put the NAS and networking equipment in the office.
Once everything was up and running, I was able to back up 1TB of data from the NAS to iDrive in about 2 days… and other computers, smartphones, and connected gadgets in the house never had trouble connecting to the internet while the initial backup was running.
But what happens if the power goes out? Would the NAS stop functioning, and potentially take my data with it?
Part 4: CyberPower CP850PFCLCD – my new UPS
Enter my shiny new uninterruptible power supply, or UPS.
I’d had an old UPS hooked up to the computer in the living room to keep things running for up to an hour in the event of a power outage. But I’d never set it up to gracefully shut down the computer in the event of a power loss. This time I wanted to do things right.
My QNAP TS-251 officially supports a wide range of UPS systems and other peripherals, so I found a relatively inexpensive model with a USB output and an LCD display. The display shows the current status of the backup battery, but it also shows how much power is being supplied to devices that are plugged in, so it gives me a handy way to gauge the power consumption of the NAS, Verizon’s Optical Network Terminal, and my WiFi router.
Plug a USB cable into the CyberpPower CP850PFCLCD and connect the other end to the NAS, and you can configure the NAS to shut down if it detects a power loss. That way the hard drives will be powered down properly to minimize the risk of data loss.
Part 5: Goodbye HTPC, Hello Plex
Now that I was using the NAS instead of my old home theater PC as a home file server, I was able to map folders on the NAS as network share drives on my Windows computer to perform file backups and so that I could store my music collection on the NAS, but play all my songs on my PC at any time.
But I also wanted to be able to watch videos stored on the NAS using the Amazon Fire TV in the living room.
At first, I tried to do this using MrMC, a fork of the Kodi Media Center application which is sold in the Amazon Appstore for $4.99. I’d been using MrMC for a while to stream content from my HTPC, but it seemed to struggle with media file streamed from the QNAP TS-251.
So I tried something different: I installed the Plex Media Server. There’s an old version available from QNAP’s App Center, but you can also find newer builds at the Plex website.
Once Plex is installed, you can add media folders using a web interface and then install Plex apps for PC, Android, iOS, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, or other devices.
Plex is free to use, although you’ll have to either pay a one-time fee or become a subscriber to use certain features (like streaming more than a minute at a time to a mobile device).
Overall, Plex is generally more reliable than MrMC, and it has the added benefit of letting you stream content even when you’re out of the house. It can also transcode content on the fly to save bandwidth or improve performance.
But… sometimes I would still see video stuttering when using the Fire TV Stick in my living room. Things were even worse on another stick in the basement.
Part 6: Wait, why isn’t this all working?
So remember how I thought it would be a good idea to put the networking gear in my home office… on the third floor of the house?
Yeah, so when the router was on the first floor, it had no problem sending a strong signal up to the second and third floors and down to the basement. But put a router on the third floor and it has a hard time reaching down to the first floor, let alone the basement.
I actually let Verizon talk me into purchasing their router: you need to either buy or rent one of their routers in order to complete the initial FiOS setup, but once that’s done you can plug any router into the ONT.
The router Verizon currently sells is actually pretty good, so I figured it made sense to buy it instead of renting it. You spend more money up front, but over time it’s the cheaper option… and Verizon only supports their official modems. So if there’s any problem with your service and the problem’t not outside the house and you’re using your own modem, they won’t offer much support.
But… after discovering my Plex problems and running speed tests on my phone in different places in the house, I tried unplugging the Verizon FiOS Quantum Gateway and using my old Netgear R6250 router instead.
That helped a little bit… as did a WiFi range extender I had lying around. But video playback was still glitchy and speeds on the first floor weren’t nearly as fast as on the third.
I considered buying a mesh networking system like eero or Google WiFi. But part of the reason I bought a NAS in the first place was to save on my electric bill. Plugging in two or three routers instead of one would be counterproductive.
But maybe I could find a router with better range.
Part 7: Linksys WRT1900ACS – my new router
It turns out I could. After consulting a number of online reviews, I decided to give the Linksys WRT1900ACS a try… a decision that was helped by the fact that at the time Linksys was offering refurbished models for $110, which is more than $100 off the usual price.
Out of the box, the router seemed to offer better range… but it also has four adjustable antennas, which helps you direct the signal. Since I live in a narrow townhouse, sending the signal down was more important than sending it out. So I adjusted the antenna and… it’s crazy how much better everything in the house works now.
As an added bonus, that little power meter on the UPS tells me that the Linksys router actually uses less power than the FiOS Gateway or my old Netgear router.
Part 8: The living room
Having cleared out the HTPC, UPS, modem, and router, my living room is a whole lot cleaner now. The only things that need to be plugged in are the TV, a set of speakers, and a lamp.
There’s also an Amazon Fire TV Stick, but it’s plugged directly into a USB Port on the TV, so when the TV is off so is the stick,.
While I was busy thinking about power consumption, I also invested in a Kill-o-Watt so I could measure power usage without plugging things into the UPS, and I was pleased to see that the TV doesn’t draw any power when it’s off.
I was surprised though, to see that the speakers were using almost 5 watts even when they were off. So I picked up a new power strip that has a master plug and a set of plugs that are disabled unless that master plug is active. Now when the TV is off, so are the speakers.
It’ll probably take a few years before I save enough money from killing that 5W of vampire power to justify the amount of money I spent on the power strip… but every little bit counts. And I’m more concerned with improving efficiency than saving money.
Part 9: The end (or, I think I’m done buying things… for a while)
CrashPlan ends its consumer-facing service. I decide I need to find a replacement… and end up changing internet service providers, buyign a new router (or two), ,cleaning up my living room, replacing a PC with a NAS, setting up a new system for backing up and sharing files locally, set up a home media server that can also be accessed outside the home… oh, and I also found a replacement for CrashPlan.
The whole saga took about a month, and then it took me another month to get around to writing this article detailing the process.
Overall I’m pretty happy with things. While iDrive customer support was a bit sluggish when I sent questions asking about problems with the initial backup from the NAS (when I realized it was slowing down my network, I tried to throttle the upload speed, but that didn’t work), for the most part the service works as promised. Now that my internet connection has been upgraded to 50Mbps uploads, it takes no time at all to upload files from my PC, from the NAS, or from my phone (iDrive has an Android app).
For the first few weeks that I had the NAS, I spent a lot of time poking and prodding it to figure out what I could do with it. Now I’ve stopped thinking about it at all. It’s just running in the background all the time, and it’s there when I want to watch a video or listen to music. It’s also where all of my podcast project files live, along with all other files and folders that are too big for me to store on my laptop. And data copied to the NAS is backed up to iDrive in no time flat.
Plex works nicely with the Amazon Fire TV Sticks, but I am tempted to upgrade from our first-gen models, which were released in 2014, to the newer 2016 versions which have faster processors and 802.11ac WiFi. Or maybe I’ll give the new Roku Streaming Stick a try. Or maybe I can live with the relatively slow boot times because I’ve spent enough money in the last few months.
I should probably point out here that my needs are probably different from yours, and I clearly made some missteps while working to upgrade my network and backup solutions. I’ve ended up in a place where I’m generally pretty happy… but I don’t know if I’d consider this article to be a review or even advice so much as a document of one person’s experience.
I will say that I do definitely recommend the Linksys WRT1900ACS router and the CyberPower CP850PFCLCD UPS. The are both working exactly as I had hoped, if not better.
The QNAP TS-251 is pretty good, and if $250 is as much as you’re willing to spend on a NAS, it’s a pretty good buy. But if I’d known I was going to use it as a Plex server I might have spent a little more to get a model with a quad-core processor or a faster dual-core chip for speedier on-the-fly media transcoding. But overall it’s a pretty nice little machine.
What about you? Have you made any major changes to your home network or backup systems recently? How did it go? Let us know in the comments.
Also feel free to pipe in and let me know if I made any stupid decisions (that I’m not already aware of) when configuring my new setup.