Last month I completed a storage network for a gaming center just outside of Indianapolis. After talking with Asustor about the deployment, they asked if I could publish an article showing how to build a smaller scale version for home users and talk about the benefits of holding your system's games on a NAS instead of on the host PC.
The gaming center was not the first time I've built a storage network for holding game for several PCs. Several years ago, I went this route in my own home even though I have more access to storage media than most people do. All three of my kids are avid gamers, and you could call them spoiled. Growing up, the two oldest were born into a world where dad tested video cards, CPUs, and motherboards for a living. Early on, they literally thought dad played video games for a living. Not long after the two oldest could walk; they had a gaming mouse in their hands. The youngest didn't even wait that long!
Benefits of Network Storage over Local Storage
Before we dive in let's identify a few key terms. Network storage is a fancy way of saying network-attached storage, a NAS for short. This standalone box holds storage media, hard disk drives, solid state drives, or a combination of both.
A NAS connects to your network and holds data that PCs connect to via the CIFS (//name_of_NAS/folder_name) or iSCSI, a point-to-point communications protocol that allows the remote storage to appear as local storage.
SATA is a half-duplex protocol. Many of the drives in your PC lack the ability to read and write data at the same time. NVMe SSDs operating over the PCIe bus don't have this limit, but large capacity NVMe SSDs are expensive. iSCSI, like PCIe, is a full duplex protocol that allows data to flow in both directions at the same time.
Your NAS combines several drives that read and write data at the same time to increase performance. Most users will want to use RAID 5 or 6 to build a redundant array that protects your data from a drive failure.
Using several disks in your PC increases the ambient system temperature. Moving the disks to a dedicated box allows you to reduce the internal temperature and thus reducing the cooling requirements and even the physical size of the system. Try putting five HDDs in a modern small form-factor case.
A NAS puts your data in one location that several PCs can access. Instead of putting an HDD (or more than one) in each PC, you can put the disks in one central location and allow the host PCs to access the date safely over the network.
It's possible to load all of your games on solid state SSDs in each PC, but that gets expensive. Most modern NAS allow you to accelerate your workload via SSDs by using them as a cache to the HDD array. Using this method, you can get near SSD performance for every gaming PC with only one or two actual SSDs that sit in front of the HDD array.
You will likely already have several of the required components to build your game storage over a network. Your hardware choices can influence the performance though, and you may want to look at more advanced products when you upgrade next.
For instance, you already have a PC, but you may not already have a 10-gigabit network interface on your motherboard. If you have a free PCIe slot, it's possible to add a 10GbE network card for less than $100. There are several modern components using the AQUANTIA AQtion controller shipping today, but you can also find very low-cost enterprise-grade server pulls on eBay for as low as $30. The server pulls will likely use older components that use more power and produce more heat. Your best option is to choose a motherboard with 10GbE on your next system update. The technology has trickled down to mainstream products from motherboard manufacturers, and you don't lose the use of a valuable PCIe slot with an integrated solution.
10-gigabit Ethernet isn't a requirement for iSCSI, but it does allow you to transfer more data in less time. In many games, the additional bandwidth will decrease your load times, but you will not see a 10x improvement because the CPU is still the bottleneck in most cases. If you do upgrade your network, having at least two 10GbE ports is necessary in 2019. With wireless routers shooting up in cost, spending $300 or more should net you at the very least multi-gigabit (2.5/5GbE) or full 10GbE even if you choose a retired datacenter switch.
Finally, you need a NAS. This can be a prebuilt purpose build system or an older computer repurposed for the task. The former is a more graceful solution using specialized components that maximize performance, power efficiency, and a streamlined installation process that leads to a better user experience. The latter will test your patience by putting the storage configuration and support in your own hands.