Date:11 August 2017
A home file server doesn’t necessarily have to do as much grunt work as its office counterpart, but the increasing demands of media streaming dictate that you can’t compromise on performance without getting grumpy looks from the household.
We live in a streaming world. CDs, DVDs and other discrete media (remember the LP?) still have their adherents – and their place. But storing a vast media library in a compact, unobtrusive box that’s always ready to serve up that content makes a lot more sense. Particularly given that the cost of the storage medium – the hard drive – is pretty
cheap these days.
1. Home file server shopping list
Hard drive or drives
Internet connection for downloading the operating system
USB flash drive or DVD for operating system
Laptop or PC for setting up
An endless supply of patience
* This can range from an unused PC to dedicated server units; see point 3.
2. Network and router
Nothing fancy is required to get your home file server and media players playing nicely. A 10-year-old Billion ADSL wireless-g modem router worked fine in our prototype set-up. For best wireless performance, though, you’d want to upgrade to a decent 802.11ac router, which can be had for around R1 000.
Gigabit routers start at around R2 500 and are really only necessary if you’re able to connect to the fibre network or you do some really serious streaming involving multiple users, hi-def video, hi-res audio and gaming. For wireless use, dual-band routers such as Asus’ AC3100 RT-AC88U are able to allocate high-intensity network activity to the faster (but shorter-range) 5 GHz band; and emails and normal browsing to the standard, longer-range 2,4 GHz band. You might find that your network is much more stable and performs better if connected by network cabling, if you don’t mind the installation hassles and the look.
3. The home file server enclosure
A server needs to be more than just storage. It must be constantly available, which generally means it has to occupy shared status on a network.
The easiest option by far is an off-the-shelf solution from the likes of QNAP or Synology. These not only look fairly stylish and discreet, they also come more or less ready to roll straight out of the box. These have dedicated operating systems and software that feature user-friendly graphic interfaces and customised apps that make the business of managing and playing your media no more difficult than operating your smartphone. The price you pay for that, though, is… the price. And don’t forget you still have to install drives for storage. Expect to pay about R5 000 excluding drives.
At the other extreme price-wise, a home file server can be as simple as a PC with extra storage you’ve added. The beauty of this kind of arrangement is that you don’t need a very powerful PC because you won’t be doing CPU-intensive procedures such as graphics or video. So an old PC should be good enough, even if you intend running a commercial server operating system such as Microsoft Home Server, which is likely to be quite resource-intensive. If your plan is to run a Linux-based operating system, a less powerful machine should be able to cope comfortably.
Look at Microserver
Somewhere in the middle is the Microserver, a genre created by HP. The relatively cheap originals have been supplanted by more powerful, more capable (and hence more expensive) modern equivalents, sadly. Fortunately, we were able to acquire a “new old stock” HP Microserver N36L online at R1 200.
The Microserver’s engine is not particularly powerful – it’s basically the equivalent of a netbook’s – but the overall package makes up for it. There are caddies for four hard drives, plus a DVD writer bay and plenty of expansion slots including USB ports. The Microserver has the clever feature of an extra internal USB socket on the main board, hidden behind the lockable front door. That’s where the operating system flash drive now lives.
4. How much storage?
The rule with storage is the same as for engine cubic centimetres – too much is never enough. The cost per megabyte gets cheaper as drive capacity increases, and in general storage costs are falling. At 1 terabyte, you’re paying around R1 200 for enterprise/network attached storage (NAS) drives that are suitable for continuous heavy-duty operation. However, 2 TB wasn’t much more and seemed to be the sweet spot for what we wanted – particularly since 2 TB WD Red drives were on special at takealot.com. Drives like these are specially designed for NAS applications. We were advised to get drives of different makes because this would decrease the likelihood of getting two from a bad batch.
Ignoring this advice may or may not come back to bite us. Installing the drives in devices like the Microserver or the QNAP is straightforward – you just pop each into its individual caddy and screw it into place (you may need to get screws – the Microserver comes supplied with them). If you’re repurposing a PC, they will probably slide in or screw in.
Now you can start configuring your home file server system. Our initial server configuration has two 2 TB NAS drives plus the 150 GB drive that the seller had included with the Microserver deal. He’d loaded Linux Mint on that and, after a bit of playing around with it, we were happy to continue with it as an occasional alternative OS.
5. Operating system
We decided at the outset that we would run the server on open-source software.
A server expert recommended FreeNAS (and offered free backup). It’s true that serious server users seem to prefer FreeNAS, but, after some research, it seemed more appropriate to business-oriented users. The eventual pick was Openmediavault. Apart from being fairly new, it seemed to be aimed at the less experienced user (hah!).
You download the openmediavault .iso image from Sourceforge.net/projects/openmediavault/files. It’s available for a variety of hardware platforms, including Raspberry Pi and Odroid. The 350 MB download provides an .iso image that can be used to create a bootable disc.
Programmes are available for writing this image to a bootable disc. You could use an optical disc, but we hadn’t yet installed a DVD-ROM drive and the idea of the USB boot alternative appealed, despite the warning by openmediavault’s developers that although this is a perfectly workable option, it’s compromised by the way the OS works and really needs a USB flash drive with wear levelling, which basically means none of them. (Putting the OS on a hard drive effectively limits space on that drive to just the size of the OS.)
The Disk Utility program bundled with Macs makes it easy. All you need to do is Open Disk Image, navigate to the ISO file you want burned and click OK. Then you insert a suitably sized blank disc and click Burn. Alternatively, you could use the Command Line (Terminal). You can find a step-by-step method at osxdaily.com; it’s actually quite straightforward.
Openmediavault is designed to be run headless: you control it from another computer wirelessly using a web-based interface over a network. Simply identify your server’s IP address, type that address into your browser’s address bar. The landing screen will invite you to login. The initial login credential is admin and the password is openmediavault; these can and probably should be changed later.
You can, of course, plug a monitor, keyboard and mouse directly into the server box and control it that way. Assuming that you are pretty handy with Linux, that is.
Far easier to fire up your set-up laptop or desktop, open up your Internet browser and navigate to the IP address that your router has allocated to the home file server (you can find this information by checking the IP address list on your router’s dashboard; alternatively, there are third-party programs available for free download – google them – that identify all the devices attached to your network and tell you what their IP address are). Type in a URL something like 192.168.1.106 and this will open up an easy-to-use graphical user interface.
Finally, the hard work starts: setting up the machine so that it is available to share files to the network. In principle, this is also fairly straightforward and the good folk at openmediavault.org have provided plenty of help and answers to FAQs. You will also want to ensure that there’s a suitable backup
or redundancy plan in place in case of drive failure; we opted for a RAID 1 set-up. As we said, the learning curve can be steep. But persistence pays off – and there’s nothing quite like having your media where you want it, when you want it.