How to build the perfect home server
16th Jun 2012 | 09:00
From storing to streaming, here's how useful a home box can be
Build the perfect home server: introduction
Everyone reaches a point in their life when they have to start taking responsibility for themselves. It's no longer all right to merrily stagger through life's alleyways, urinating freely up the drainpipe of fun.
When it comes to your digital life things are different. Part of that is making sure all of your digital stuff is kept safe and sound, but along with that most dull of things, is making it equally easy to access.
The home server is nothing new – you might be running one already, and it's something we've been recommending for years – but it's time we started taking the idea seriously, and part of that is knowing how to build and configure one.
This is a box that's going to be running 24/7, keeping all of your data, files, films, music, photos and more safe and sound, as well as making them easily accessible.
That's besides providing any network capabilities or streaming servers you might like to add.
We're going to base our server around a stunning little box from HP. We've included a mini-review of this fella so you can see why we're so taken with it.
Of course, you can always build your own, and there's no reason not to. We've got tried and tested solutions for this option as well.
Creating the ultimate server is more than running a box of hard drives – it's about the software, how the hardware is configured, and how the box is connected and accessed. Everything from creating a suitable Gigabit LAN to setting up a near-bulletproof RAID for combined automatic backup and performance access.
Most importantly, it has to serve and work as invisibly as possible while using as little energy as it can.
Thankfully, all of this and more is possible. Just read on to see how easy it is and discover the delights a home server is able to offer.
So what are we doing?
We want a box that we can network to store all of our files, back up the many systems we're running, and run all our shared networked services, such as printers and remote media streaming.
But the question that hangs over this enterprise like 'What the cock is the current government doing to the beloved NHS?' is: What's wrong with a good old fashioned network-attached storage box of tricks (or NAS for short)?
The truth is, we like NAS boxes because they offer a simple, discrete way of adding network storage, often with extra services, with a minimum of hassle, outlay or power usage.
With options running from single drive up to full quad-drive RAID models, they will even take care of the whole boring issue of backing up your machines.
If you're willing to spend a little more (bearing in mind a decent dual-bay NAS will set you back £100, or closer to £179 with a drive), you'll get a more flexible server system including processor, memory, motherboard and a basic drive for £150 that will happily run any and all software you want, providing remote desktop access and full Windows server features.
It's these last two items that really swing it for us.
Having a home server means that even if new media formats or standards are released, the hardware can be easily updated, whereas a NAS would very likely not be.
A server can also be upgraded, and offers full remote access both in terms of streaming services and a remote desktop. You don't have to bend to the whim of limited NAS services – with a home server you can choose to use FTP, Dropbox, iCloud or all of them together to create your own personal cloud.
Hey, a review!
There's a host of potential home server options on the market, but it was love at first sight with the HP Proliant Microserver.
It's damn near perfect with vital statistics to please every geek, from its four quick-release SATA bays that support 8TB of storage to its twin 800MHz DDR3 slots supporting up to 8GB of RAM.
The goodies don't end there, with half-length x16 x1 PCIe slots, and onboard graphics. These are the usual basic 3D-incapable affair, but that isn't an issue for a screenless server.
A few last tidbits include Gigabit LAN, four front and two rear USB ports and one read eSATA port. Powered by a basic dual-core 1.5GHz AMD T
urion II Neo N40 processor with 2x 1MB L2 cache, it supports SSE4 instructions and AMD64-bit, and is rated at a low 15w TDP.
A score of just 0.88 in Cinebench shows it lacks any real grunt, but it's more than capable for standard file serving.
There's an optical bay as well, which is hooked up via a spare SATA port. This can be used to add an extra drive and has room for a legacy PATA drive with a converter card, which is a scenario we had to run.
While we're mentioning drive issues, we should say hardware RAID support is limited to 0 and 1, but as RAID 5 can be run via the OS this isn't a huge issue.
The real beauty of the HP Microserver is in its design and build.
There's lavish attention to detail on every inch of this server, from the removable, lockable front door with integrated tools and drive screws built into its inside (which bizarrely are not mentioned anywhere in the installation guide) to the removable drive bays with their expertly routed power and data connections.
The motherboard lives pre-installed on a removable tray at the base; unscrew two bolts and the tray glides out, providing access to the memory and connectors.
Coming with a 250GB drive and single 2GB DIMM pre-installed and £100 cash back – claimed from HP – you can be up and running in minutes.
While this isn't the quietest of systems, opting for good cooling over the sound of silence, it's certainly no boombox and will purr quietly in the corner.
With the cashback, the entire unit costs £160 and without doubt is something we can recommend.
Without this cashback it's somewhat less convincing, as you have an entire world of Shuttle-style barebones systems to choose from, which you could kit out with the missing parts for a similar price.
Build the perfect home server: DIY options
There's no reason you can't put together your own server box; we're simply extolling the virtues of a dedicated box as the neatest option both aesthetically and technically.
If you want to go your own way, a Shuttle-style barebones PC works well but many only provide two HDD slots, often the optical bay can have at least one, if not two drives squeezed into it.
If squeezing doesn't sound like your thing and space isn't an issue, packing a mid- or full-sized tower full of drives is a simple option.
Talking of squeezing, draining every last drop of juice out of your server system is going to help beat the bills.
Our favoured HP server doesn't do too bad a job, largely because it's based around a mobile AMD Turion architecture. When it's idling along, average power is around 30W even with a full complement of five drives and two 2GB sticks of memory. Under load with drives spinning, this peaked at 50W.
In comparison, NAS solutions will vary from 10W up to 40W. Before anyone starts screaming 'unfair', the lower 10W models are single drive units.
Shifting to dual-drive solutions tends to see this rise towards the 20W mark, so they do represent the best low-power choice, but you'll be paying as much as the full HP option for what is, in our opinion, a lesser solution.
Our experience with barebones servers tends to involve them trundling along at 60W with a mid-range processor.
We're like sad drunks in many ways - largely because we're sad drunks, but also because we keep going back to Microsoft for our operating system needs. But for once we're going to listen to our OS pusher.
Choosing Windows Home Server 2011 (WHS) makes a lot of sense.
It's the cheapest way of getting a legit Microsoft OS on a system; copies can be snapped up for under £40.
It's secure, built upon Microsoft enterprise server technology, forces security protocols to keep files locked up safe and sound, and it's multi-system friendly, designed to interact and control networked systems for backups and definition updates.
Finally, it's right up to date with hardware support, including drivers and 64-bit.
Getting WHS up and running is a good deal faster than most editions of Windows.
The only stumbling block we encountered was caused by its increased security demands. These are based around a password of at least six characters, with mixed upper and lower case, at least one number and symbol.
For some reason our keyboard was remapped after a reboot, which meant the symbol keys had changed. There's nothing like being kept on your toes.
Part of the magic of WHS is the Connector software. Once installed on your remote clients, it enables WHS to back up and monitor these machines.
This is crucial for automatic and centralised backups, and helps monitor system health.
We can't stress enough how flexible the backup system is. It's able to back up new files on a daily basis, and restore entire systems, individual files or folders initiated from the client or server.
Tied to this is health monitoring that can report the status of backups, free space levels and core services on Windows XP, Vista and 7 systems.
Array for storage!
As we've mentioned in the review section, one deficiency of the HP box is the lack of hardware RAID5 support. This isn't as much of a problem as it sounds because today, with lashings of processor power to spare, software-based RAID has become the favoured option.
OS-controlled RAID provides better error control and recovery should things go wrong. In fact, FreeNAS really requires any hardware RAID to be turned off, otherwise it can cause issues.
Within WHS, creating a software-based RAID – in fact a mirrored, spanned or stripped array – is a very straightforward process.
You'll only find RAID options in Windows Server editions; desktop Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 editions only offer spanned, stripped and mirrored features due to licensing.
Right-click 'My computer' and choose 'Manage', then open Storage > Disk Management.
If you've attached new virgin drives, Windows will ask if you want them initialised. Confirm that you do, and they will show up unformatted.
Right-click on one of the drives' detail sections to display the full gamut of drive options. Choose 'New RAID-5 Volume'. A new dialogue box will enable you to add the remaining drives, and Windows will handle the rest.
After a short sync period you'll find a single drive with storage that approximates to the total capacity of all the drives minus 25 percent, if you've used four drives to create the RAID.
So if you use four 1TB drives you'll have roughly 3TB of storage, as 25 percent is used to store the recovery parity data.
Cross the streams
The latest edition of WHS 2011 provides some nifty media streaming features for both the internal home network, and when you're out and about over the internet.
The streaming system is called Remote Streaming and is Silverlight based, but don't let that put you off. Support is reasonable and covers MP4, MOV, AAC, AVI, MPEG1/2/4, AC3, LPCM, MP3 and H.264.
The system also supports transcoding, so it should handle most devices that need to connect to your network.
An important addition to these abilities is support for DLNA.
This is a networked PnP streaming standard supported by a wide range of home appliances, including many smart TVs, Blu-ray players and the Xbox 360.
WHS provides flexible remote access to both shared files and media. This lets you stream media to a host of devices over the internet, not to mention provide secure access to files.
We wouldn't say WHS is perfect, but it's pretty good. Microsoft has even included a full 'add-in' system that enables third parties to extend its abilities even further.
Microsoft even has a convenient list at http://bit.ly/ wZ4r65.
One handy option is an advanced DNLA server from Serviio (http://bit.ly/zyq2NL). It's something that we've looked at in the past, and its transcoding-streaming skills come in very useful.
This is the start of running a solid home server. If you do any work at home it enables you to start securely storing, sharing and pushing files to the cloud.
Beyond that, it's very handy to have a vast amount of high-speed central storage that can be accessed locally and remotely.
Once it's set up, you're only going to use it more and more, and once you've had your bacon saved by a WHS backup, you'll never go back.