A Refuge In Comedy

The first sentence of a blog post like this always seems to be the toughest. How can you properly articulate your feelings for a person that you never met, never spoke to, never really interacted with at a personal level, and yet left such a mark on your life?

Shit. Let's just...let's just start from the top.

I followed Giant Bomb from the start. When the crew bounced from Gamespot and started doing their own thing, I was with them. A lot of us were. Giant Bomb became my primary source of online entertainment, my go-to for video games and stupid comedy alike. I devoured as much content as it could put out. This isn't that unique; after all, I've heard the term "cult of personality" mentioned more than once in reference to GB (and at the time, Whiskey Media).

However, the unique part comes in a few years later. I was in a very bad place at that time. I had just found out that my long term relationship had hit a snag; my girlfriend was cheating on my with one of my friends, both of them were quite happy with that arrangement, and it was determined that I was no longer deemed necessary in their lives. As I lived in a small college town (and attended the same university), such a clean break was impossible and I frequently, frequently ran into the two of them.

As you can imagine, this had a negative effect on my quality of life.

My refuge was alcohol. Lots of it. I don't remember that much of the next few months; such was my descent that nearly the entirety of that time period is lost to me. I stopped caring about school, about my (remaining) friends, and about myself. I no longer enjoyed any of what I used to, no longer had a presence in any of my online haunts, and basically just dropped off the map. I was nearly booted from my university, nearly evicted from my apartment, and nearly disowned by my parents. I was so broken by this betrayal, by the fast switch from idyllic paradise to complete ruin, that some around me were worried that it would lead to my death.

To sum it up, things were going poorly.

Now, don't ask my why I decided to turn on a Bombcast. To be honest, the aforementioned gap in my memory makes it impossible for me to recall why I decided to tune back in after four months. Something must have caused it. However dimly I remember my motivation, I recall what happened when I pressed play as clear as if it had been the only significant event in my life:

"Hey everybody, it's Tuesday!"

This is going to sound melodramatic, but for some reason that line was my saving grace. It ignited a chain reaction in my head, a intense truth that, for all the effort of my friends and family (which I would later thank them for, profusely) had some how eluded me. The world was still turning. People were still playing video games! Jeff was still making great rap references, Vinny is still having misadventures as a new father, Brad is still bad at games, and Ryan is still hosting the best damn podcast around. In that one moment, I had realized how much I had let things get out of control, that I was letting a small series of events, no matter how traumatic, rule over and endanger the entirety of my life.

So I listened, and laughed. My friends say, when I spoke to them the next day, that I was laughing for the first time in nearly half a year. I hadn't lost my capacity for enjoyment at all. It was right there the whole fucking time, and I had just been afraid to experience anything but the pent up sorrow that I had stored. That Bombcast broke the floodgates open, and for the next week I laughed enough to fill up two year's worth of time, let alone four months.

I decided that I could get my shit back on track.

And I did. I kept my apartment. I finished school. I made my peace with those who had hurt me. I repaired as many of the damaged relationships as I could. I started new ones. I became active and outgoing again, as I was before. Better than I was before! I am not lying when I say I honestly feel like that experience has made me stronger. It's certainly made me care for the people whom I love in a way that I no longer thought possible. I'm very grateful for those that stood by me, even when I didn't want them to.

And I firmly believe it wouldn't have been possible without Ryan and the rest of the GB crew.

I had always wanted to send him a letter. To tell him that his words had inadvertently pulled me from a deep depression. Hell, he may have saved my life. I don't want to downplay what the rest of the crew did, but just hearing that unchanged opening line framed it all so well, all so clearly. But I never sent it. It just seemed too sappy. Too easy to play off as a fake.

I'm kicking the shit out of myself now.

So, I felt like I needed to write this. To tell the rest of the crew that you've done more for a total stranger than you know. Since then, every time I felt myself getting too down, that things were getting a bit too tough, I'd flip on a Bombcast or a Quick Look and laugh myself back to health. I still do it to this day, though things have been going so well that I haven't needed that safety net. Lately, it's acted more of a reminder of how far I've come.

Until today. Now it feels like that net is gone. For now, there is no refuge in comedy. And while I know the Bombcast will continue, and that Giant Bomb will continue, the one who pulled me out of the water without even realizing it is gone.

I know that what I feel is only the tiniest, smallest fraction of pain and grief that those who knew him personally must feel. To his wife, his family, to the rest of the crew and all the extended network of friends and duders out there, you have my deepest sympathy. If there is anything that I, a random man on the internet can do to alleviate even a microscopic part of your pain, just ask. If it's within my power, I'll do it.

Because he did so much for me, and never even knew it.

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Two Sides of the Same Coin: My Top (and Bottom) Ten Games of 2012

I have a love/hate relationship with making lists.

For one thing, I feel that every game is its own unique experience, greater then the sum of its parts, and that each is a beautiful snowflake that is special and all that other bullshit kids are being fed in grade school. There's a grain of truth in it, though; even though I may agree that game "X" is mechanically, thematically or visually more impressive then "Y", sometimes "Y" just resonates in a way that makes me enjoy it more. This throws the objectivity of lists such as these completely out the window.

Then again, these things are all opinions, so no shit, right?

However, making one of these reignites my love/hate for the game in question; in a year with such highs and lows as 2012, it's easy to forget all the little things that made games at the start of the year evoke that specific something, that undefinable quality which makes you remember. You never forget a great (or terrible) game; if you do, they just weren't as memorable (hence good/bad) as you first thought.

So, without further blabbering, here are the top/bottom games of 2012. Keep in mind I don't mean "best" or "worst", but what I enjoyed the most (or was most disappointed by) out of what I played.

The Top Ten

10. The Walking Dead, or "Fuck everyone who wrote this game!"

Now, I know you don't need justification for why you put anything on these lists, but I feel this one is a special case: It's not at the bottom just to be contrarian. While I appreciate how well it is voice acted (even more then how it is written), and how well it builds up an atmosphere, the "game" parts of the game are fairly...light. As a guy who likes games to grind glass into the wounds its difficulty inflicts, I couldn't stop myself from saying "Shit, this would be heaven if the game part of this game was better.", which is a real weird thing to mention about, you know, a video game. Still, I cannot deny how much of an impact it's going to be on the industry; hopefully it ushers in a trend of games with real emotional investment weaved into their stories....and not the bit where you don't really do all that much. Pulling through on merits of story, atmosphere and voice acting alone, it takes #10.

9. Asura's Wrath, or "BURRRRRSSSSSSSSSSTTTTT!!!!"

BURST! What else is there to say? Sure, some of the gameplay elements aren't exactly the greatest. Sure, it's a big QTE-fest. That didn't stop TWD from working as well as it did! And Asura's Wrath has one extra thing going for it: it's fucking insane! The last third of the game had me constantly wondering if someone slipped LSD into my drink; it was all such a blur to the point that I went straight to Youtube and watched the whole damn game as soon as I finished playing it. I'm convinced that the entire design team had a part in writing the story: one guy comes up with a plot point, passes it to the next who adds his or her own, and then it keeps going until everyone had their say. It reminds me of that game kids play when they are really young: one whispers something to the next, and so on down the chain until the last kid is left with a completely unidentifiable mess. This is one of those times when I just have to say "Play it. It's the only way you'll understand.", and that's why it takes #9.

8. Super Hexagon, or "High Score: 8 Seconds"

Super Hexagon hits that primal center of my head that only sheer difficulty can reach. It's the main drive for me, the reason why I play games, the sense of accomplishment that only rigorous hand-eye coordination or strategic thinking can fulfill. It's also the first game I've ever played on a mobile device to make me think we don't need handhelds anymore; if you can encapsulate this kind of an experience on a phone for that cheap, sign me up. Making me rethink phone gaming is an easy way to earn #8.

7. Dishonored, or "What do we do with a drunken whaler?"

When you are crafting a world, the goal is to draw a person in, to make them forget that what they are seeing was crafted by a design team. When done properly, it should seem like a living, breathing thing, and Dishonored nails that. It feels like Tesla and Crowley had a baby, and slapped it around just enough to give it a bleak worldview. On the gameplay front, Dishonored does its best to alleviate some of the mechanical problems other stealth games have run into, and while you are still more or less pushed down a linear path, the addition of the blink mechanic does a lot to make it seem less like a hallway and more like a street in NYC; sure you are going to wind up in the same place, but you can duck through a bunch of alleys or dash across buildings on your way there. And while the game's ending leaves a bit to be desired, the characters it creates and the world it frames, when coupled with some interesting gameplay ideas, are enough to secure it my #7 slot.

6. Xenoblade Chronicles, or "What the fuck, Nintendo?"

Why the hell did this game take so long to escape Japan? Technically a 2011 game (one that I went out of my way to play even before it made the jump), I was forced to put it down and wait for a localized release because I was spending too much time figuring out the mechanics instead of actually playing it. When it finally came out, it confirmed what I first felt: this is a real time RPG done right. The story is unique and takes a few unexpected twists, the gameplay is absolutely stellar and engaging, and it proves that you can do big, expansive environments on the Wii....as long as you don't mind sacrificing some texture quality. While not technically stunning, it has a great artistic feel to it; I could only imagine how much of a response it would have generated if it was on the PS3/360 and the bump in fidelity that entails. Still, in a year where my Wii got less use then my SNES, making me wipe off the dust and strap on a Wiimote is easily worth #6.

5. Hawken, or "Why doesn't Armored Core look this good?"

I love me some Mech games: the Armored Core series, Mechwarrior, Steel Batallion...if it stomps around and fires missiles, it's an easy win for me. Lately, however, there had been a dearth of good mech games, and I'm hoping Hawken leads the supposed resurgence. While it doesn't have the customization of an Armored Core game, I'm more then happy to give that up for intense visual fidelity and a fast paced multiplayer that actually feels damn good to play. I've been following this game for quite some time and was lucky enough to get into a few of the closed alphas/betas, and I'm glad to see it finally come out. Plus, it's free to play! When was the last time a free to play game looked this good visually? I can't comment on the buisness model much as I haven't played a ton of the non-beta version, but as long as they haven't messed that up, free + robots + sweet-looking + pew-pew = #5.

4. Sleeping Dogs, or "Who needs the True Crime license?"

Games with troubled development cycles become a total crapshoot. For every TF2, you get a DNF. For every L.A. Noir, you get a Daikatana, and so on. Sleeping Dogs winds up on the proper side of that equation; conceived as the next game in the True Crime franchise, it was canned by Activision, picked back up by Square (without the True Crime license), went to another year of development (after the previous three), and came out no worse for the wear. In fact, it's fantastic; after being killed off for not looking like a potential GTA-killer, it (in my opinion) more then achieved it's aims. It's one of those games that doesn't do anything spectacular, but every ounce of it is fun to play. Its one standout strength is how well it contextualizes actions normally seen to be ridiculous (as it's not out of place for a triad member to toss a man in a trunk now and then), which I would love to see more of. Being the diamond in the rough that Square hoped it would be is enough to net my #4.

3. Hotline Miami, or "My heart is racing and I don't know why!"

I really don't get why Hotline Miami is so intense. Sure, it's swift and brutal. And yes, it has visuals and a soundtrack that make it seem like you were shooting speedballs before playing. But it's no more technically demanding then something like Super Meat Boy, and no more fucked up then Asura's Wrath (although in a totally different way). I guess it's the marriage of the two that makes it such a trip; it's the kind of crazy I imagine you'd get if they remade Scarface, with less Miami Vice and more Drive. I also have deep respect for a developer that tells torrent uploaders to make sure they are pushing the latest version; if you're getting it for free, you might as well get the best experience that might lead to to buying the game. It probably could have made my Top 20 with just the soundtrack alone, but for dealing a fucked up and brutal experience with it, Hotline Miami takes #3.

2. FTL, or "Little Jimmy Taco is dead and it's all my fault!"

Every time I fire up FTL, I know my poorly named crew is bound to die. Sure, I've won before. I know it's a possibility. But I've trained myself to let go from the beginning; it makes the blood on my hands at least a little tolerable. In all seriousness, FTL proves you don't need to have character dialog, voice acting, or defining personalities to get you to care about people in your game. All you need to do is place their lives in the player's hands and put enough obstacles in their way to make death a likely occurrence. The mechanics are fairly complex, but it's the real time nature of the game which ratchets up the tension; managing personnel, targeting weapons, dealing with boarding parties, and delaying the inevitable destruction of your ship all add up to a frantic and engaging experience. The knowledge that you sent Blast Hardcheese to his death in a flame filled room...only for the oxygen to blow up on the very next missile...damn it...pushes FTL to #2.


Speaking of Blast Hardcheese, XCOM takes whatever FTL does inside my head and cranks it up to 11. Sure, it's pretty buggy. But you know what, I don't care! It just makes it seem like the aliens are breaking the rules, turning even the code itself against me. Every time I come back from a mission with an empty seat, I'm replaying the fight in my head, wondering what I could have done better (unless it's a dead rookie, in which case everything has gone to plan). And none of them ever have a single character building moment outside of the ones you create for them in your mind. Anyone who thinks TWD can get you more emotionally invested never had your best heavy (poor Blast!) mind controlled and had to choose between their life or the potential lives of one of their teammates. On Impossible, every shot, every move, every overwatch was one step closer to the death of my liver. And with my own body on the line with every mission, XCOM easily takes #1.

(Honorable Top 10 mentions: Journey, Rhythm Heaven Fever, Darkness II, Binary Domain, Dustforce)

So, those were the good. The defining upsides of 2012 for me. But what's an upside without a downer to make it even sweeter? Here are the games that had me cherishing my Top 10 even more. Just keep in mind that these aren't necessarily the worst games I played all year (a few are), but the ones that were the most disappointing. This list is also a bit less serious then the first, so keep that in mind when reading.

The Bottom 10 Disappointments

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, or "So big, so colorful...so bland."

Here's one of those games that just didn't do it for me, for one reason or another. Actually, it's that distinct lack of a major flaw which puts it so low on this list; about midway through, I just realized I wasn't having much fun. None of the characters were doing it for me, none of the backstory was really grabbing me...I don't know. The combat was fairly interesting, and I thought it had some good ideas when it came to UI and inventory management...but all the voice acting and reams of script couldn't draw me in like the nearly silent crew of XCOM or the totally silent crew of FTL. Alas, it seems like a fair amount of people felt like I did, which is a damn shame; even though this game might not have been worth the money, the idea that a man spent his fortune to create it out of a driving passion to make games is more then worthy. Sadly, that doesn't make the game any more enjoyable to me, and as such it earns the #10 slot.

9. Mass Effect 3, or "Wait a minute, I have to do what now?"

Overall, I think ME3 is a pretty good game. It had some really high points, and the gameplay was pretty solid. So, why does it make this list? Well, the ending, of course! Now I know people are tired of hearing about the damn thing, but what can I do? I honestly feel that it squandered the potential that had been building over the entire trilogy, and to swing and miss so hard at the end...well, it's probably unfair to lay that solely on ME3, but god damn Bioware! What happened? In 15 minutes, you took a reasonable entry in the ME universe and flushed it all away. Fans became so desperate for something, anything to grasp onto, that they started to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. I never bought into any of it, and neither did Bioware as they caved under pressure and put out an extended cut which...helped. A bit. When the ending is so bad that you can't remember the rest of the game you played, and when the developers go out of their way to try and fix it, you easily take #9.

8. Borderlands 2, or "I dreamed a dream in time gone by...."

Oh, Borderlands 2. I tried to love you like I did your predecessor. I tried to remember the countless (or 200, but whatever) hours we spent together, the classes we missed, the people we stole loot from. But it was all for nothing! A year ago, if you asked me "Would you like more Borderlands?", I'd probably nod my head until my neck broke. But as it turns out, I may have played so much of the original that more of the same just didn't cut it. I thought the story was well crafted, for the most part; Jack was a decent villain, there were one or two good twists, and I liked the expanded variety of equipment...but I've lost the loot lust. The drive for more guns. The need to grab as much off of my teammates as possible and run into the night. Unlike some people (notably Jeff), I found a class that more or less played like how I did in BL1, but it....it just wasn't the same. Or maybe it was, and I've just moved on? Either way, losing that lovin' feeling is enough to net #8.

7. Diablo III, or "Look, another spear! Look, better pants! Look....let's play something else."

I have absolutely zero history with the Diablo franchise. Never played any of the first two, never even knew anyone that was a rabid fan, and so on. Every damn time I'd look at a video of it, Quick Look or otherwise, it just seemed like such fun. Punch and stab a bunch of shit, get some better loot, go back to punching and stabbing, and so on. But it just never resonated with me. I gave it a fair go, I swear; I pushed all the way to Inferno or whatever the hardest difficulty is. You'd think after that amount of time it'd be somewhere on the other list, but I felt compelled to do it in order to stave off buyer's remorse. It felt like a chore, something to keep me semi-occupied while I listened to podcasts. I had a bunch of friends who all dropped out long before I did, and while it took me longer to see the light, I now realize just how worthless the whole experience was. Inane story, bland mechanics and artificial difficulty are more then you need to secure spot #7.

6. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, or "Oh god, why? Just.....just why? What did I do wrong?"

I knew this game wasn't going to be any good. I knew it. After the Shangri-La that was the first Steel Battalion with the massive controller, I knew there was no way a sequel was going to be half as good.

But this?

What....why? It's...it's ruined! They're never going to make another one of these!

You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!

(Making me quote Planet of the Apes is #6 material.)

5. Assassin's Creed III, or "I can't believe I kind of want Ezio back."

I think this one is all me, really. I think I'm just done with this series for a while. It finally wore out the good will that it had built up. It seems like series of weird judgement calls; the plot feels pretty disjointed when compared to something like Brotherhood, the cities are less interesting to traverse, they've added a bunch of mechanics that I feel are....questionable, and while naval combat is kinda awesome, the bugs that have seeped in make me wish they polished the rest of the game and left it on the cutting room floor. For me, the high water mark was Brotherhood; Ezio was still fresh, the added mechanics ranged from fine to awesome, and you actually felt like you were killing off high profile targets instead of...tougher normal redcoats. I don't know, my experience is probably atypical, but as it's my list giving me that "No, thanks. I'm done" feeling is enough to earn #5.

4. Hitman: Absolution, or "This isn't Blood Money! Give me Blood Money back!"

I'm usually all for trying something different with a new game in a franchise. I liked the move from Majora's Mask to Wind Waker, for instance. But in this case, all you had to do was give me more Blood Money. That's all I wanted! Make Blood Money, but prettier. Boom, $60. But no! This isn't anything like what I wanted. Sure, the contracts mode is pretty fun, but the main game is worthless! 47 completely blows all of his established character traits out of the water for some contrived reasoning and the rest of the game becomes a more or less linear approach to what Blood Money did so well. They also blew the difficulty; it goes from "Walk past the guards" stupid to "Seen across the map" brutal with no stops in between. When you've got almost guaranteed money in the bank and somehow find a way to piss it down the drain, you steal #4 without a struggle.

3. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, or "This is just straight up busted."

I love Dark Souls. Love it to death. But that was the PS3, and that was back in 2011. In 2012, I was jumping for joy when I heard that it was coming for the PC. It's my preferred platform, so if I can get a game I already own on the PC, I'm probably buying it.

But man, this port is FUCKED.

How did it go this wrong? I never expected a keyboard and mouse to be preferable to a controller, but they aren't even viable. I didn't expect a massive amount of graphical options, but to keep the game locked into 720p internally? I love the fact that the game has added DLC (good DLC, at that), but when you need a modder to come in and clean up your mess, you get #3.

2. Capcom, or "Holy shit, Capcom! What are you doing?

Capcom has lost their fucking mind! They've gone completely off the rails. Outside Asura's Wrath (and possibly Dragon's Dogma, but I haven't played that), everything they have touched has turned to pure shit: Street Fighter x Tekken is a joke of a fighting game, with mechanics that are actively contrarian to any sort of competitive environment. Resident Evil 6 is more or less the death knell of that brand of survival horror; even if you didn't like 5, it at least wrapped everything up fairly neatly. 6 is such a giant lump of shit that it makes Operation Raccoon City seem like a gem (it's not). I've already mention Steel Battalion, so even their published titles are turning to shit.

1. CAPCOM!, or "No, seriously! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

Holy shit, it doesn't stop! You kill Mega Man Legends 3 and Universe, put out a shitty iOS game, drive Inafune out, and the best thing you do with that franchise is release a fucking fan game for the 25th anniversary (which is also the best thing you've done with that franchise this year)? Oh, good job closing Clover Studio back in '07, not like they've gone on to reform and put out anything interesting! I just don't get it. Who is even pulling the strings any more? I feel like Wily has actually manifested and taken over, and decided to indulge the same impulse that made him create fucking Spring Man over and over again. It's baffling; it's like Sega squandering Sonic but on a massive, grand scale. I bet there are even more that I'm missing, but Capcom has fallen far enough to take both #2 and #1 without a struggle.

So, that's my top and bottom 10. Sorry for the Capcom rant; I could have broken it up to just RE6 and the death of MML3, but they've kinda been a major minus for me this year. Feel free to pick at my points; after all that writing (and ranting), I think it's time for a drink.


Too Many Games: Building a Home NAS

Enough is never enough.

I'm the digital equivalent of a hoarder. Not in terms of the mess, as I do try to keep everything organized, but in terms of sheer quantity of media. If I've got the space for it, I refuse to delete it. I've kept backups of all my disk-based games, even the ones I haven't played in 15+ years. I've ripped (or am in the process of ripping) my blu-ray library, both for ease of access and categorization. I've kept entire runs of television shows, hundreds and hundreds of gigabytes of music, and at one point I had something like fifty fucking gigabytes of just wallpaper. Who the hell needs fifty gigabytes of wallpaper?

Well, I did. At least until I decided to prune my overripe collection of digital artifacts in order to meet the physical limitations of my hard drive. I'd determine what was necessary, what I used on a semi-regular basis, and toss the rest out. Windows doesn't play nice when your hard drive is scraping up against the limit, and I've long ago maxed my laptop's meagre storage capacity, so every now and then I'd repeat the purge, only to acquire more media and restart the cycle. Each and every time, the core collection of "essential" media (as essential as you can get when you are talking about things like movies, music, and games, of course) would grow a bit, and each purge would free up less and less space.

Well, I've finally hit the breaking point. I'm unwilling to cut things down any farther. I've hit an impasse.

Not good.

So, what to do?

  1. Man up and cut the media down again. Not going to happen; that's the shortest term of all short term solutions, and I'd rather avoid repeating this dilemma for a good while.
  2. Slap another hard drive in there. Very doable; for $100 or so I could double or even triple the space I have. But there's some downsides; no redundancy (if a hard drive fails, it takes all the data with it), you're adding another drive letter (and will keep adding drive letters if you need more space), and it isn't truly a long term solution.
  3. Go a bit crazy.

Now, before I explain what I mean by Option Three, I'm going to have to get a bit...technical.

RAIDing For Fun And Profit

When you start to talk about large amounts of hard drive space, you inevitably start looking at multiple disks. Even the largest hard drives tap out at four terabytes of space, and while that would serve most sane people for a good while, I just owned up to having fifty gigabytes of wallpaper. I think we know where I fall on the sane/crazy scatter plot. Anyway, you cannot look into multiple hard drives without hearing about RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and it's a way to expand the capacity of your system by pooling drives together in order to increase redundancy, performance, and space in a sort of balancing act depending on exactly what kind of RAID you choose:

  1. RAID 0 is pure performance. All of your data is spread across all the drives in the array, meaning cranked up throughput, but also a big downside: if ANY hard drive fails, you lose ALL your data. Yep, doesn't matter if three out of four HDDs are fine, if number four decides to eat it, then all of your data goes bye-bye. Needless to say, not the solution I'm looking for.
  2. RAID 1 is purely about safeguarding your data. It's usually used with just two drives, where the first mirrors the second and will stop you from losing any data in the event of a single hard drive failure. Needless to say, there are no performance benefits, and you lose the capacity of an entire drive (so if you install two 3TB drives, you only have access to 3TB, not 6TB, as one whole drive is just a mirror). As it provides no space increase over a single drive, it doesn't fit what I need.
  3. RAID 10 usually uses four drives, and combines RAID 0 and 1. Your data is split across two hard drives and the remaining two are used as a mirror, so you get the protection of RAID 1 and the speed of RAID 0. Still, you lose out on half of your capacity, and that's a big deal when you start talking 4+ drives.
  4. RAID 5 uses up one drive's worth of space to calculate parity data, meaning that you can survive the failure of any one hard drive. As long as you replace that drive before another dies, your system will integrate that new drive into the array and you'll be back to full strength again.
  5. RAID 6 is the same as RAID 5, but uses two drive's worth of space for parity data, and therefore can take two hard drive failures before you lose any data.

There are other RAID levels, but those are the most common. Now, RAID usually requires a dedicated piece of hardware known as a RAID controller in order to handle the above; most motherboards support some RAID levels, but I wouldn't trust them to deliver the performance nor the safety of a dedicated RAID card. However, we have other options, and that requires us getting VERY technical.

ZFS: Zebras For Science!

Got your attention, didn't I?

ZFS actually stands for Zettabyte File System, which why I didn't use that as the paragraph head. Not nearly as exciting. I'm going to leave out a LOT of the details, partly because I find them boring, and partly because I don't quite understand all of them myself. The key points, however, can be laid out without much trouble:

  1. ZFS includes a lot of the high level benefits that RAID does, and does them all in software.
  2. It lets you pool multiple drives under one drive letter.
  3. You will never hit the limit on how much data you can access; it would take enough energy to boil every ocean on Earth to fill up this file system.
  4. It allows for expandability under the same letter (Run out of space? Add in a few more disks under the same pool.)
  5. When configured for it, you can survive hard drive failures in the same way that certain RAID configurations can.

The downsides? First, it loves as much RAM as it can get, on the order of 1GB of RAM per TB of HDD. Also, you won't be running this under Windows, as it has no support for it. That means you're either working with a virtual machine in your main rig (too messy for my tastes), or you're using a separate box build just to house the drives and run whatever OS you choose. That leads straight into the next component of this build: a NAS.

Getting NASty

While doing the research for this build, I figured it would be best if this new machine could serve up the files to all my various devices across a network since it would be the new central repository for all media. That meant building a NAS, or Network Attached Storage. Now, the difference between a NAS and a server is basically nil, with a few exceptions:

  1. NASes are usually designed to be run headless, i.e. no monitor. My particular NAS will be totally web administrated, so that means no keyboard or mouse once everything is up and running, either.
  2. NASes usually have smaller or stripped down operating systems, which means less features but less maintenance. They also can fit right on a flash drive!
  3. NASes are usually meant to do a small variety of tasks with low power usage, while servers are much more robust and usually consume more power.

So, I decided I wanted a box that I can move between my house and my apartment fairly easily, with no GPU or monitor necessary, and I wanted it to be able to act as a media center to my various devices. That influenced the part listing quite a bit, and after some extensive research, here's what I came up with:

The Build

Case: Fractal Design Node 304: $100. The Node was such a pain in the ass to get my hands on, you have no idea. I've been waiting since June for this thing to come it, and it goes out of stock as soon as I order it. I finally was able to procure one and it should be arriving on Saturday. Now, why the Node? For one, it's tiny. 10" x 8" x 15". Not all that much larger than a shoebox, really. This'll be a big help when moving it from location to location. And despite its size, it can fit six 3.5" (desktop sized) hard drives at once. Plus, with no external 5.25" bays for something like a useless CD/DVD drive, it also looks quite good. I knew from the moment it was announced that it would be the case for this build, and I stuck it out. Here's hoping I was right.

Motherboard: ASUS P8H77-I : $100. A mini-ITX case means a mini-ITX motherboard, and there are VERY few that have six SATA ports. This one fits the bill and came in at a very reasonable price point.

CPU: i3 3220: $130. Overkill of the highest order, really. This is equivalent to a processor you'd find in most NAS solutions that companies sell for two or three grand, not a little home box like what I'm building. So, why all the muscle? For one, expandability. I want to be able to toss three times the amount of drives I have in here and make sure the bottleneck doesn't fall back on the CPU. Next, power. It's an Ivy Bridge CPU so the TDP is way down thanks to the 22nm process. Finally, price vs performance. The "reasonable" choice of processor would cost around $70, and frankly $60 is so little when compared to the cost of the drives I'm putting in, I decided not to sweat the details and go for the extra oomph.

RAM: 16GB Corsair XMS3: $50. I got these on sale, and they're perfect fits. They're low profile which is great for the small case and the amount I bought wwill not go to waste, either now or later. ZFS loves as much ram as it can get.

PSU: Rosewill Capstone Modular 450W: $65. Newegg's house brand which is made by other reputable manufacturers for them, the Capstone 450W is compact, rated 80 PLUS Gold for top notch efficiency, and modular so I only need to include the cables that I....need. Plus, it's gotten some stellar reviews...wow, this reads like an ad. I should get a commission.

All told before hard drives: $445. When you look at comparable, pre-built NAS boxes from big names like QNAP or Synology, you are getting a four drive (vs my six), single core Atom CPU rated below 2Ghz (instead of my 3Ghz+ dual core i3), with barely 1GB of RAM (vs my 16, granted for ZFS). Honestly, it was a no brainer to do this myself.

Now, the drives:

6x Toshiba DT01ACA300 3TB: $870 ($139 per drive). So, there's the expense of it all. Brand new 3TB drives from Toshiba (who bought up what remained of Hitachi's 3.5" drive business after WD was forced to give it up) which are using Hitachi's factories and techniques meaning the reliability and RAID performance should be the same. One of the nicer things about these drives is the fact that they only have one platter per TB, meaning they should run cooler and with less power vs other models.

I'm going to be running six of these in a RAID-Z2 configuration (the ZFS software equivalent of RAID-6), which means I should wind up with (drum roll please) 12TB of usable space. In a system the size of a big shoebox. Oh yes.

I'm going to need a LOT more porn.

Building the build!

Uhhhh, haven't done this yet. Some of the parts as still in transit. Still, if anyone is interested, I'd be happy to post some pictures and a build log of my slapping the whole thing together and crying as 3/6 of the drives turn out to be DOA. Oh yeah, I've already mentally prepared for failure.

If anyone has any questions about why I chose what I did, any NAS/ZFS questions in general (or a desire for me to go more indepth, as much as I can), or has tips/pictures of their own NASes/home servers, feel free to post `im!

EDIT: I'd also love to shove this over to the PC forum instead of just general, if any mod can facilitate that.