Media Server

28 March 2011

I recently decided to upgrade our home server setup. I posted some thoughts about what I was planning to do here, and now I've updated this page with what I did.

Before the upgrade I had a home server machine running Debian that provided:

  • some samba shares, which are only used occasionally
  • backups with rsync
  • music streaming with Squeezebox
  • dhcp server, so I can pin the IP addresses of regular devices

It's not much, but it's useful stuff. The box that ran it was rather old (I got it in 2005) and I wanted to reduce its power consumption. I also wanted to increase its hard drive storage, since it used IDE drives, which are now rather passé.

At the same time, I wanted to do something about video. Netflix streaming is increasingly useful, and there other online video sources I could make use of.

In the end I went for an HP_N36L for the new home server and a WD TV for video.

Discarded Options

The first suggestion I got for this was a Mac Mini. There's some good software for running it through the video system, and I can feed VGA into the TV. Its power draw is low and it could replace the server. But the more I looked into it, the less I liked it:

  • it's expensive ($700)
  • I'm more familiar with Debian based servers
  • I'd need to use external drives to get the storage I'd like

Jeff Atwood built a low power media serverthat could also handle both things together. I ended up not fancying having it all in a single machine - preferring the ability to upgrade them independently. I was also less keen on a Windows solution as I'm more familiar with Unix servers.

Several people suggested using NAS (Network Attached Storage). There are some very flexible NAS units out there, which support hot-swapping of hard drives and automatic RAID mirroring. I don't really see the need for hot-swapping as it's rare for me to change a hard drive and I don't mind bouncing the server when I do it. I also see little point in RAID mirroring. It does protect you from a hard drive failure - but that's not the only thing that can go wrong. RAID won't protect you from rm important_file. So my preference is regular, automated, backups. This also allows the backup hard drive to be well away from the server box.

NAS would allow file sharing, but wouldn't support the other options. Some NASs are hackable, but I decided I'd rather have a bare server that I can put a stock distribution on and go from there.

Another possible video option was Boxee. This would be very flexible, but also more pricey and complex than the WDTV. I felt the WDTV would do for now and I could always change later should I need to. There's actually a lot of options for video but the need for Netflix and analog outputs constrained my decision.

Other thoughts

Some other bloggers I read had similar things to think about