Thecus N5200 as a Server

Back in 2007, I bought a Thecus N5200 to use as bulk storage on my network. I’ve spent many years using and fighting with the unit but it wasn’t until my storage needs out grew the 5 SATA disks it could hold that I considering sending it off to be recycled.

It’s a pretty basic unit. From Thecus it arrived with 5 hot swap SATA disk trays and a simple web-based management interface. The interface wasn’t great at telling you exactly what the state of your disks were so I lost my data with this unit more than once. Over time though Thecus added a method to install add ons and little by little people started to write add ons for the unit and actually increased its feature set. You could get an add-on to allow you to access the unit over SSH and to set up rsync file copies to a second location. Overtime, it became very useful and it’s remained in almost constant use.

Recently though, I needed 6 disks to hold my data and it was time to retire the N5200. Just on a whim I did a quick google search to see if anyone had any success ‘hacking’ the unit and doing something neat with it. Several people had soldered a VGA connector to the motherboard. The back of the unit is basically a metal plate with covered up ports for things like PS2 keyboard and mouse ports and a VGA port. As it happens, the motherboard inside the unit has all of the components to use these devices, except the actual connector. I harvested a VGA connector from an old dead graphics card and soldered it to the motherboard of the N5200. (Well, truth be told, I had a fried do the soldering. He was working on a pile of other soldering that day and it was just easier than getting my stuff setup…)

Much to my amazement, when I connected a display to the unit I was immediately greeted with the BIOS boot up process. From here though, things got a bit more complicated.

The graphics chip on the system is, as you would expect, pretty basic. Beyond that though, the unit supports a maximum of 1GB of memory and has an Intel Celeron M processor running at 600Mhz. This is not a speed machine. It’s well equipped to to handle the tasks it was designed for but will struggle to be much use as a desktop.

That being said, with the right software and the right tasks, the unit has life in it. Full screen video and flash is out, but it’s a fine email/web surfing machine and the right display manager works quite well. I’ve had very good success with both Gnome 2 and Mate.

Installing an OS is a bit tricky. The unit will boot from a USB device (things like a thumb drive, or a CD-ROM) and it will also boot from its internal IDE interface. It uses a mini-IDE port and it’s a bit hard to get to. It’s workable but getting the right length of cable and finding a place to store the disk is tough.

Instead, I use a combination of thumb drive and a SATA disk. When installing linux I format and use a thumb drive for the /boot partition and the boot loader but I use one of the 5 SATA trays for the root partition, swap, and anything else you might want. It works well for me but can be a little complex to set up.

I’ve had good success installing current versions of Fedora (to date, up to version 21 works fine) as well as Debian. The only limitation this machine has in terms of what Linux distro you install is the processor’s lack of PAE support. PAE, or Physical Address Extension, is a way for 32bit processors to address RAM beyond 4GB (It’s more complicated than that…). When this machine was built though, there was no reason for Intel to add PAE support to a low power processor designed for mobile devices where speed was not top priority.

My goal for this machine is to install Centos 6, which I think is ideally suited to its hardware and use case. Sadly, Centos 6 requires PAE support and workaround needed to be devised. I’ll post about that in the coming days/weeks. Here’s that post: Install Centos 6 on a Non-PAE Machine

So, how do I use this slow and limited machine? With 4 free hot swap SATA trays, I use it for quite a lot of disk testing and verification. Linux has great tools for both checking a disk’s health, and when it’s time to be recycled, wiping the disks securely. Running 4 disks as once is well within what the unit can handle.

Further, the machine has two working NICs and I often us it as a go between when I’m testing and setting up routers or switches. I can easily connect the device to the N5200 and do whatever tasks I need to without having to take something offline, etc.. It’s also very useful when you need put something online while still keeping it separated from your main network. I can sit in between the problem device and the internet watching the data go by and keeping an eye on things.

Add to that mix light email work, or RSS feeds and it’s a pretty reliable unit to handle tasks you need to offload from another machine for whatever reason.

The Thecus N5200 is small, quiet and more useful the older it gets… or so it would seem.


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