Getting started with UnRAID: Initial struggles

A couple of things I forgot to mention in the last post.

Firstly on the built-in fans; the two fans were identical, but held in with very different screws. The rear fan had what I would consider to be ‘regular PC case screws’, but the front fan was held in with odd small stubby screws which, when removed, had a strange sticky gasket attached to them which sort of broke away as I removed them.

Perhaps typical purchasers of these cases don’t remove the existing case fans and just add to them but … I found it an odd difference, and a disappointing lack of quality on the front screws.

Lastly, the ‘cable management’ around the back of the motherboard tray started out well, but started to become problematic. The case panel is lined with a foam insert, which is great for deadening vibrations and thus noise, but it means there’s not a lot of space in there. My goal was to keep the motherboard side of the case clean and clear, but I may need to let more cabling into the body of the case in order to not have everything so smooshed up behind it.

Anyway, it was another day before I could get the machine connected up to a monitor and to begin working on it. I booted into the BIOS/UEFI setup first to tweak things and see what I was dealing with.

The ASRock Z460 Taichi has what I’d call a ‘typical’ UEFI setup screen – graphics that (to me) hark back to 90s Japan, but it was functional and let me get to what I need. I went through all the settings, making sure to enable the virtualization features, as well as turning on the IOMMU passthrough features I’d need later.

I probably spent most time fiddling with the motherboards’ built-in LEDs. They do all sorts of things, but I just wanted a static white light. I’ve yet to see if I’ll be able to install software on my Windows VM to manage that further – possibly turning it off at night automatically – but for now it’s fine.

Next was to boot into UnRAID itself.

UnRAID provides a great little tool to flash a USB drive with everything you need, and it’ll run on macOS and Windows. Initially I downloaded it on macOS and built my drive. I had purchased 5 SanDisk Cruzer Fit 16GB thumb drives for the purpose – the plan was to use one and have extras to backup to in case I needed them.
We’ve had issues at work where a number of our servers were originally setup to boot VMWare ESXi from USB, and the USBs have been regularly failing, so that gave me caution.

Anyway, the machine didn’t boot. I quickly discovered it’s because I hadn’t checked the ‘Boot from UEFI’ option when building the drive.
No problem, I thought, I’ll just rebuild the drive. Whilst I was doing this, I had switched from my work MacBook Pro to my Windows machine, so I downloaded the tool there and popped the drive in.

The tool could not, would not see the drive. Weirder still, Windows didn’t see the drive.

No problem – I had 4 more of the things, right? I popped another one from its packaging and built it up. Blackjack happily booted right from it, and I was into the world of UnRAID.

I opened a browser on my Windows machine, navigated to http://blackjack and was immediately into the web console for the machine, and was instantly impressed.

The interface was very clean and looked like a proper piece of software. That might sound odd, but I haven’t dabbled in Linux-based tools like this for a very long time, and I’m used to things looking … less than polished, shall we say.
I’m a big believer in function AND form. Polish is important, something which companies like Apple have long understood, and is a belief that has held fast and been proven out during my career. It’s always worth putting a bit more effort into the UI/UX to provide a solid end user experience, because all the cool features in the world are worth nothing if the software is an ugly pain in the ass to actually use day to day.

Having done reading on UnRAID, it was fairly clear to me what I needed to do first – set up my disks. Here was my second disappointment of the day (after the thumb drive thing) because the 8TB parity disk I’d bought from NewEgg had not appeared. I later determined that it was completely DOA.
Now I ended up buying almost all my components from Amazon, as they were all at least $10 cheaper, except for the storage. However NewEgg sold me a dead drive, so I RMA’d that and ordered another on Amazon which arrived the following day. Companies love to bitch about Amazon stealing their lunch but sometimes it’s like … if you’re going to let them ….

Anyway. The parity drive could wait. It meant I couldn’t start transferring any media over yet though. If you configure an array of disks (you can just use one disk) without a parity drive, that data is unprotected until you add a parity disk, and parity is calculated.
If you add a parity drive first, then parity is calculated as you add data, so the data is copied to the array and (more or less) protected straight away.

I added my 500TB NVMe drive to be the cache pool, and setup my 1TB NVMe and 2x 1TB SSDs. I also immediately discovered that you cannot stripe disks in UnRAID – I was planning on a 2x1TB SSD striped disk for Windows, but that was a no-go. I ended up breaking them into individual pools and calling them ‘Win-games’ and ‘Win-data’.

My biggest question mark / concern / worry was over my ability to pass through my discreet graphics card to a Windows 10 VM, so I jumped ahead to that.
If I was going to fuck anything up, I wanted to do it early and now, before I had copied a bunch of data around the network.

My intuition was correct.

I setup a Windows 10 VM and passed a whole load of hardware through to it. Probably too much, as the server immediately hung and then would not boot. Obviously this was catastrophic, and I was most displeased.

I spent a bit of time looking around to see if there was a file I could edit to undo the damage, but given that I hadn’t really set much up in the first place, I figured I’d just nuke the USB and start again. Farewall USB #2.

This time the Windows machine would see the USB, but the UnRAID USB utility would not.
Frustrated, I switched over to my Mac, which also saw the USB … but the UnRAID utility wouldn’t.

I reformatted the disk, rebuilt it using the utility …. and now the server wouldn’t boot from it.

The only thing I could surmise here is that once you’ve built this USB, don’t screw with it or it won’t work again.

USB #3 came out to play, and I resolved to be more careful in the future. That involved some YouTube videos, and an acceptance that maybe I wasn’t going to get it all built in one night.

This is where I have to give a massive shoutout to SpaceInvaderOne. Seriously if you’re going to do anything with UnRAID, you need to go and watch his videos. He has a great way of explaining things, and goes into pretty much every area of the product. So far I’ve only watched a few pieces – enough to get me up and running – but I will be visiting more of his videos as my exploration of the product continues.

Anyway, he helped me figure out where I was going wrong with the graphics card passthrough, and after a while I had a working Windows 10 VM with mounted data disks, and video displaying on a monitor.

I did run into a situation where I was stuck with VNC as the primary graphics card, but I think I’ve got that sorted now. More playing is needed.
I began to migrate my data over, and was pleased at how the machine was very fast out of the box. I assigned 4 CPU cores from the 10 core processor to the machine, and 8GB of RAM, leaving plenty of horsepower for the rest of the system as I got it all up and running.

Honestly my biggest annoyance was keyboard & mouse at this stage. I have a wireless Logitech MX Master 2S and a wireless Microsoft Natural Keyboard.
The mouse is bluetooth, and I have no idea (yet) if I can pass bluetooth through to the Windows machine. The keyboard is also bluetooth but not switchable like the mouse, so is tethered to a USB dongle.
I have a 3-port 4-machine USB splitter for moving between my work machine and personal machine, but passing that through UnRAID wasn’t working, so for one night there was a lot of back-and-forthing with a USB dongle before I settled on just using one window in VNC and the other on a monitor to get some basic bits of work done.

I’ve since borrowed an Amazon Basics keyboard & mouse from work to connect directly to Blackjack whilst I get everything up and running.

Next post we’ll talk a bit more about SpaceInvaderOne, plugins, and containers.

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