UnRAID and Virtualize All The Things

I have been out of the consumer hardware market for a long time. Despite building a ‘gaming’ PC (that doesn’t see much gaming) back in 2018, I’ve been out of the game for the past decade or so. In the early-to-mid-2000s my bedroom was a sea of tech; at one point I was running my own mail server (over a tiny ADSL connection), had two case-modded machines and a wall of monitors (CRT, natch) that would have made The Architect jealous.

Since then, I’ve been “on the road”. When I first moved into a shared house, there wasn’t room for a desk, so I had to shrink my tech down to something mobile – a Dell XPS 13. They continue to be an excellent laptop line all these years later, though sadly mine destroyed itself by boiling its integrated graphics card.

It got replaced with a MacBook Pro, thus beginning a 11+ year love of all things Apple. Windows 8 was released a few years later, cementing my stay in Apple-land. When I did get a desk back, it was an iMac I bought, not a Windows tower. That, once more, had to make way for mobile computing when I found myself on the road again, moving between flats and houses and jobs.

Another big part of the Wintel apathy was down to my job(s). Back in the day when I had an array of machines and the digital world at my fingertips, IT as a job was something I aspired to. Once I got into it, I found that spending 8 hours a day working on computers is a really great way to sap your enthusiasm for doing more of it once you get home.

When I finally ‘settled’ in New York (for two years) I finally got around to getting a Windows machine again, ostensibly for gaming. My girlfriend is an avid gamer, and I wanted us to share that hobby a little. Well, she probably did more than me – like I said, after 8 hours at a desk fixing problems, the last thing I want to do is come home and sit at a desk for another 4.
I quickly realized that I was well out of touch with modern components, what manufacturers were best, and so on. I think in the end I just found a few system guides that roughly correlated to my budget, and whipped the thing together.

All in all, it’s been a very solid, reliable machine. An Intel Core i7-8900K with 32 (now 64) GB of RAM, an NVMe boot drive (that was a nice change from my last Windows machine!) and some storage, and things were great.

I was also running with a Synology NAS for my Plex media library. It was a little 2-disk 4TB mirrored job, which worked ‘just fine’, but I found that I had to offload the actual media transcoding (for remote streams) to my PC. Once that filled up, rather than getting a new NAS I decided just to move all the disks and data to my main PC and have that do everything.
A new case was sourced (a Lian-Li PC-A75), the hardware transplanted, and I also took the opportunity to Frankenstein some other hardware together in my old case to replace my girlfriend’s PC which was on its last legs. The only thing that came over from the old machine was the graphics card, which is now slowly dying – more of that anon.

This has all been working fine, but it was a pretty quick & dirty switch over that I hadn’t spent much time thinking about or planning.

Fast forward a few months, and I hired a young guy at work who was also a Plex aficionado and was in the middle of rebuilding his own – rack mounted – Plex server, along with a host of other additions. My interest was piqued, and he told me more about his system. He had rebuilt it using Docker containers on Linux, and had a fully interactive web frontend to access media, as well as requesting it, auto-downloading and categorizing it, and more besides.

This was something I hadn’t even considered – again, my day job kept me plenty busy and I wasn’t exactly looking for more things to keep me in front of a screen. However, this information had awoken something in me – an urge to tinker with personal tech that had been lurking at the back of my mind, long dormant.

Around this time, the graphics card on my girlfriend’s PC started doing more weird stuff. Photoshop would randomly complain that it couldn’t initialize the graphics driver and deny access to a bunch of features. One screen would stop drawing certain items in Chrome. It had been on its way out for a while, but I decided it was time to do something about it, so started looking for a good replacement.

Somehow, Googling for a graphics card replacement turned into a whole system replacement. That then became researching individual components, and suddenly I was figuring out how to split my systems in two.

With no end to the Covid pandemic in sight, the winter drawing closer, along with its cousins Seasonal Depression and It’s Too F-ing Cold To Go Anywhere, I decided now was a good time to rebuild my tech and get stuck into a project or three.

Plan A was similar to my 2018 build – sticking with my conventional, out-of-the-game-for-years knowledge. I would build a small form factor machine into a small case that could fit a bunch of disks. Something small but good looking, maybe that I could put a novel cooling solution inside, to house my media, and what would become my projects for the season – docker containers for stuff like Radarr, Sonarr, Emby, and so on.

The other machine would be a rehoming of my existing machine, again with some interesting new cooling – perhaps a trip back to Water-cooling Town, a place I had visited first at University many moons ago. It was a mostly painful journey that ended up with a destroyed graphics card, but things had moved on in the last ~16 years.

That was when I stumbled upon UnRAID, VFIO, IOMMU groups, and other wondrous things.
I discovered that now, people were running some form of Linux on bare metal, then virtualizing a bunch of machines inside of it, and directly passing through pieces of the hardware to those operating systems.
People are now literally building multiple gaming PCs inside of one physical box.

The concept of virtualizing my primary OS on a device had never even occurred to me. I’m familiar with virtualization in the work place – most of my core infrastructure runs on Hyper-V, and without VMWare vSphere we could never do the development work we do without incurring crippling hardware costs.
Heck, I have a virtual copy of macOS running behind this browser window right now.

But virtualizing the primary OS? With graphics and input/output that operate like a bare metal install on consumer hardware? It’s something I’d never considered, but now seems obvious. Hardware has come on such a long way since I last built PCs with any regularity, and for the last 10 years my “IT brain” has been firmly locked into the corporate world.

In the case of UnRAID, the software is actually running from a USB device (in my case it will be a 16GB SanDisk Ultra Fit), with the application loaded into memory. This leaves all of the bare metal hardware free to be assigned at will (well, mostly …) to whatever you want to run on it.
And with UnRAID, you can run virtual machines and docker containers within it, whilst UnRAID itself manages your storage pools for you.

The whole thing sounds like a really fun project. As I mentioned, I’ve ‘done virtualizing’ for years now, but in the corporate world. Slapping Hyper-V on a rack mounted server and installing a ton of single-role server operating systems isn’t fun, it’s procedure.

So what’s intended for this Project Box (which I’m casually calling the God Box), to while away the winter hours? There are a few things I needed to make sure I could stick to:

  • A ‘daily driver’ machine for standard web browsing, life admin, occasional photo editing, that sort of thing.
  • A gaming machine, for the odd occasion I feel like doing that. I’ve just been gifted Red Dead Redemption, so that’s something to get my teeth into, and I love playing Civ as well.
  • A Plex server for media.

So, we’ll be running UnRAID as the ‘core OS’ of the device, from USB.
The machine will have 32GB of RAM (to start with), stolen from my existing machine. There will be a 1TB NVMe SSD to host ‘key’ virtual machines – in this case Windows 10 and Ubuntu Linux.
A second 500GB NVMe SSD will act as a cache drive for the system’s main storage.

Two 1TB Western Digital Blue SSDs will provide a striped array which will form the data partition for the Windows 10 machine. That’s based on current usage – basically it’s a partition for my documents and a local copy of my iTunes library (the idea is if the internet ever goes out for a long time, at least I can still play music).

The Ubuntu Linux installation will run Plex. Whilst I could run Plex in its own native container, I believe the performance is better this way. I can pass the Intel Integrated GPU through to the Linux VM, and perform hardware transcoding on it for pretty good performance. Originally I was intending to purchase a second graphics card for this, but I don’t think it’s necessary anymore.

For storage of the media, I’m adding an 8TB disk for parity. Data will be stored on the existing 4TB disks I have in my existing machine, but the parity drive will maintain data integrity, as well as allowing future expansion with larger disks
The parity drive must be equal to or larger than the largest disk in your array, and anything larger than 8TB gets expensive; as media grows I could slowly replace the 4TB disks with 8s and still have a ton of storage before needing to consider anything else.

I’ve already begun prepping migration, removing one 4TB disk from the Windows Storage Spaces array on my machine. That will form the beginning of the array on the God Box, with the parity drive building its index as data is migrated to it, which is more efficient (and safer) than migrating all the data first and then building parity. I have about 6TB of media, so I can migrate most to the new machine, remove another from the array and put it in the new machine before finishing the transfer, then moving the remaining disks.

All of this will be housed in a new enclosure – a Dark Base 700 from be quiet!, using fans and cooler from the same company. Other than Noctua these are some of the quietest fans on the market, and they look pretty cool too.

Having shamelessly stolen the idea from my colleague, I’m going with a white-on-black theme, with white components inside the case (where I can get them) and white cabling. be quiet! supply white versions of their fans, and a white cooling block for the CPU which should finish the look off quite nicely.

Lastly, horsepower. I was very tempted to go with an AMD Ryzen build, as they seem to provide more bang-for-buck. However I am wedded to Plex as a media player, and AMD support is poor with that product, so I’m sticking to Intel. A Core i9-10850K gives me 10 cores to play with, and an ASRock Z490 Taichi motherboard seemed to be a good pick to tie it all together.

be quiet! offer a ‘build your character’ page for their cases, so this is roughly how it should come out looking (albeit with more white highlights).

The components start arriving this weekend! The initial build will take some time (getting the cable management right is going to be a big consideration for this build), and I think fettling UnRAID to get the basics working is going to take some time.

However, once the base machine is up and running I look forward to migrating the data, then getting started on expanding the setup! There will be a lot to come, and I’m looking forward to sharing this project as it progresses.


Getting Away From Google

It’s been well known for a long time now that when it comes to Google, you are the fee. Their services are often free at the point of entry, and remain that way. All you have to do is allow their algorithms to parse though your data; what emails you send, what you watch on YouTube, the events you attend – where, when, and why. (OK not why, but by that point they probably already have enough info to surmise that anyway.)

Some people fundamentally disagree with this approach, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s pretty cool when your apps guess what’s happening before you do, but once you realize that it’s because some vast set of algorithms has studied you, and a thousand other people like you, and probably now knows you better than you know yourself … things can get a little creepy.

I am, of course, simplifying a more complex situation, but even I get creeped out when I open up the YouTube app on my TV and discover videos suggesting things that have only been discussed around the apartment, never searched for on any device.

Personally, I more or less made my peace with the data aggregation a few years ago, and even invested in a ‘Google Phone’ – the famous (in tech circles) Pixel XL 2. A great device to be sure, but I found myself missing the slick design, apps, and integration offered by Apple’s products. I’m particularly a fan of the Apple Watch, something no Android-powered device has come close to matching.

Security Technology

Two Factors are Better than One

Information Security is a Big Deal these days, just as it should be. We are adding personal data (or personally identifiable data) to the internet at an unprecedented rate. Instagram alone sees 95 million new images  per day. Whilst most would – and should – agree that the level of technology now accessible to the world is an incredible, and incredibly powerful thing, it behooves us to understand the risks that come with sharing any sort of information, particularly anything that can compromise one’s live in the “real world”.

There was a time when the boundaries between the ‘Internet World’ and the ‘Real World’ were pretty well defined. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s as technology growth exploded, I’ve seen the shifts from that world to today’s fully integrated one. Personally I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time, but with ease-of-use comes ease-of-loss.

I can now buy almost any commercially-available item in the world from the palm of my hand, by opening up my Amazon app and using my pre-saved credit card information to have anything delivered to me in just a few taps. I can pay for goods and services (up to a certain amount) using the phone itself as a payment method. I can order taxis, buy airline tickets, send and receive money, all alongside taking pictures and sharing them with friends and family.

This boundless freedom and possibility is exactly why you should be practicing good Digital Security. It’s why simple passwords aren’t “easy to remember” but the digital equivalent of leaving your front door open and your valuables on display. It’s why using the same password for everything is like using the same key for every lock – and keeping the master key under your front doormat.

It’s why Two-Factor Authentication (often referred to as 2FA, TFA, or Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)) is incredibly important today, and why you should all be using it.

Flying Technology Travel Uncategorized

iPads and Sleep Deprivation

The skies are blue and clear as we approach the south coast of Wales. It’s 4:30AM Eastern (8:30AM GMT) and I’ve been awake for about 21 hours. Once I land, it’ll be at least another two hours until I can get settled in my AirBnB room and get a few hours of sleep.

So instead, I’m going to talk about the iPad Pro.

Social Media Technology

Access Denied

I’ve made no secret of my general distaste for Facebook, or the fact that I quit some time ago (to all intents and purposes anyway). It’s still be useful, however, to get this content out to my friends and family.

A few weeks back I started to notice that I was logged out, and was required to enter a PIN from my phone to get back in. Thanks to an incredibly dumb UX decision by Facebook, I struggled with that for a few days, but eventually got the info entered. At this stage, I was asked to upload an image of myself for verification. I grabbed the first image I had available (a professional work picture that my colleague says makes me look “like a German porn star”) and uploaded it.

I then came to log in at some point a week or so later, to find that my account was disabled. Once your account is disabled, you’re pretty much screwed from what I can tell. You can lodge an appeal – which I did – and get nothing back. No confirmation that the appeal was lodged, no notice that anybody has read it, no sense of whether it’s been approved or denied. No dialogue whatsoever.

I lodged another appeal this evening but, if I don’t hear anything from that, I give up. I didn’t particularly want to be on the platform to begin with, but if they’re going to ban the account with no warning and give me no options to recover it, then I don’t see why I should deal with them at all.

Music NYC Smart Home Technology

Smarter than the Average Home

If you know me, you’ll know that I like my tech. I’ve worked in the sector for twelve years now (actually I think it’s coming up to thirteen … yikes) and have paddled in the seas of tech experimentation at various depths over the years.

After my abortive university escapade, I had my water-cooled custom-cased gaming rig, as well as my own Exchange and Web server. I cared about tenths of degrees of my CPU and GPU, how fast my RAM was clocked, and could tell the difference between a 5400 and 7200RPM spinning disk.

It’s not quite like that anymore.

NYC Technology US vs UK

Move, bitch

In case anyone thinks I’m being in any way sexist, I am of course referring to the Ludacris song ‘Move Bitch’ that has been co-opted into some of the most hilarious videos I’ve seen.

New York City has a problem. Now, I know it’s not a problem isolated to this particular city, nor even this country. I am also aware that London has its fair share of it too, but I swear it is nowhere near as bad as it is here (despite AJ’s protestations to the contrary. She’s supporting her hometown, I get it. But Jesus Harry Christ people, get the fuck off your phones.

NYC Relocation Shopping Technology

Exploring the Amazon

I recently talked about what to pack when moving abroad, with the tactic acknowledgment that you can’t bring everything with you, and the stuff. that you do send after you will arrive months later.

What this means for most people is that you’re going to have to buy an awful lot of stuff at the other end, and that can be a daunting task. Thankfully, we have online shopping. In particular, we have Amazon.

I’ve used Amazon for years on and off, as I’m sure most people reading this have too. Once I got here though, Amazon became our lifeline. As it turns out, they now stock damn near everything.

NYC Technology

America doesn’t want me to have a phone

When I moved to America, I decided that – to begin with – I would just use my corporate phone for everything. It seemed simpler and one less thing to have to buy and setup, plus it would let me wait for Apple’s announcements and see what those brought.

In November, I decided it was time to get myself a phone and split my personal stuff out from the company device, which always left me feeling a little uncertain.

You would think that, after having secured a bank account, a social security number, a place to live, and a house full of furniture that acquiring a phone would be easy.

You would be mistaken.

NYC Technology

Signs of Reggie

I recently talked about the process I went through to pack up all my gubbins and travel with, or ship it to the USA. I made a conscious decision that I would move with just what I needed to live; clothes, my laptops (for work of course), things to wash and clean myself, and … that was about it. Everything else would be shipped in boxes over the course of a few months or, if I hadn’t owned it in the first place, simply bought outright.

Once we’d found a place, the question of cleaning it quickly came up, particularly with wood floors throughout (dust magnet) as well as a long-haired canine in residence. A vacuum cleaner was needed, and fast, but my shiny-almost-new Dyson was in a box awaiting a boat to bring it across the ocean.

Faced with the prospect of buying another one to achieve our immediate needs and then having a duplicate a few months down the line, I decided to go a different route.

Enter, Reggie.