The starter guide to home servers

Features Mark Pickavance Feb 17, 2013

Mark Pickavance provides some encouraging words for those ready to grasp the nettle of putting a server in their home

In this feature I’ll be reaching out to those people who want to take the next natural step in their home systems, and establish a home server. It’s often a sign that, having explored what individual devices can do, that you’re ready to join up the dots and deliver something more than the sum of the parts.

This isn’t something that everyone will do or want to do, but the advantages of having a centralised server are compelling.

Why have a server?

At one time it was only businesses that had servers, and I even remember a time that proceeded that when all PCs were standalone. So why did companies think they needed them, and are the same reasons now applicable in the home?

Any business relies on a flow of information, and that could be spoken in person or on the phone, in printed form or electronic. What a server does is allows a business to centralise it’s information, allowing all employees easy access to it, so they can do their jobs more efficiently. Servers provide a single point of contact, and can help organise the information for more general consumption. That might not seem appropriate for a typical British home, but if you replace invoices and stock control databases with music, pictures and movies, then a server at home makes considerably more sense.

With all your personal data stored centrally, you can access it from multiple computers, and other devices, like tablets and phones. You can secure it against the failure of any one computer (including the server itself) and you can easily distribute it. You can also provide a single access point for peripherals, like printers, so that all computers have access to them, not just one.

What do I need to have one?

Having a car without roads is pretty limiting, and in the same way a server needs some infrastructure so that whatever you store on it can be seen by other computers. In most cases this is a network, either wired or wireless. However, the best solutions are usually a combination of the two.

To implement a wired network you’ll need a switch - the central hub into which all systems are physically cabled - although most Broadband routers now come with at least four Ethernet ports included, which you can use in exactly the same way. If you need more ports, you can chain a switch to the router and branch from that to provide 5, 8, 16 or more ports. In practical terms the number of computers that this would support without specialist management is greater than you’re ever likely to have, so from that perspective this simple model is practically limitless.

The downside of a wired connection is running the physical cables through your home, which can prove challenging to even those with good DIY skills. Homes in UK weren’t built with cabling in mind, but there are alternatives for those that aren’t prepared to drill holes and mount wall sockets.

One of those is to subvert the electrical cabling of the house to send data along with the power. These solutions aren’t cheap, and the speeds they offer aren’t as high as gigabit Ethernet, but they’re very easy to deploy and will work to connect remote locations on the same ring-main.

The final solution, and the one that most people use is standard IEEE 802.11, or wi-fi as it’s now generally referred. Depending how thick your walls are, this can either be a simple and effective means to create a network without wires, or a complete nightmare.
What’s critical to remember about wireless networking is that it extends beyond the physical limits of the property, that there is no guarantee of any specific speeds you’ll get, and the more devices using it the lower performance you should expect.

The key advantage of Wi-fi, other than the lack of wires, is that if you’ve got broadband you’ve probably got wi-fi too, so connecting your system up doesn’t have any more overheads than your time in configuring it.

In the context of using a server, I’d strongly recommend that at least that machine was connected to the router by wires, but it’s technically possible to make it wi-fi connected too, if wiring is not possible. Once you’ve got yourself a network, then you can think about having a server, and all that entails. 

The cost of ownership

Before I get into the mechanics of actually deploying a server, I need to talk a little about the cost of ownership, because very little these days comes without ongoing expense. Assuming you’ve got your infrastructure and you’ve budgeted for a machine to act as the server, what other costs should you expect?

One point that many people don’t consider is the extra demand on their electricity service, which if the serving computer is running 24 hours a day could quickly mount up. Ideally, the machine should have power saving features active, so that if it’s not been accessed that it can sleep, and wake when required. If you use a dedicated NAS box or similar device these can also be set to automatically sleep between certain hours, reducing the power consumption of the system.

If you have a computer that will be on 24/7, then it’s probably worth using a power meter to determine how much it draws, and from that you can work out the implications of running it on your yearly power bill.

The other cost isn’t necessarily financial, it’s your time. Once you’ve got your server running it isn’t really a fire-and-forget exercise, it’s needs to be attended to on a regular basis. What you don’t want to have happen is that the system fails and takes what data you’ve placed on it away. To avoid this you need to monitor it’s condition, check that any necessary updates are installed and that whatever backup strategy that you’ve employed is really working.

These all might seem dreary errands, but once you have a server you’ll be awarded the honorary roll of home ‘IT Manager’ and you need to do the sorts of things that would be familiar to someone paid to do that job.

That includes security sweeps, to make sure that it’s only you and your family that has access to the server, and not anyone out on the internet. Some servers have software that will email you should anything unexpected happen, and it’s well worth configuring these to avoid unwelcome surprises.

A choice of system

If you are serious about having a server then you need to decide exactly how you intend to deliver this technology. Here are a number of ways you can do it, some of which are more expensive than others.

An existing PC

This is how most people start off, by taking one of the existing computers and subverting it to become a server. At the simplest level all you need to do this is to add all your users to that computer, preferably with the same password they use on their own systems. Then you can share folders on the server, which can then be connected to using their logins from their respective PCs.

With XP, Vista or Windows 7 this is very easy, and the only limitation is that generally you’ll be limited to 10 connections because of a cap by the operating system. If you use Linux you won’t limited, and it’s entirely possible to have a large number of Windows, Apple Mac or other Linux machines supported by a single Linux serving PC.

Any services that you want to distribute, like iTunes, will need to be installed and configured on the serving PC by you - which, depending what you are trying to do, might get rather technical.

Advantages: It’s cheap! What’s more, you’re dealing with hardware that you’re familiar with. If the computer dies you can pull out the drives (unless they died too) and access the contents from another Windows computer.

Disadvantages: What I would avoid doing is trying to do this with a PC that’s also in use as a client, because it’s very easy to forget that other people are connected to you and turn off the PC. The action of serving also has an overhead in performance, so that PC will seem slow, or if it’s busy playing a game those connected to it will notice that it isn’t responsive. This shouldn’t really be a problem, because many people have an old PC tucked away that’s no longer used, and it’s probably powerful enough to be a server.

Also, some desktop PCs aren’t especially quiet, and having it running for long periods might be problematic because of the noise and the heat they will generate. Basically, It will work, but it’s not ideal.

A dedicated serving PC

While it’s possible to turn a desktop PC into a dedicated machine, you can also buy such home/small office servers. They usually come with a minimal configuration, no mouse or keyboard, and drive slots that can take multiple mechanisms. They’re often built around a low power architecture that allows them to remain on for long periods without getting hot, and they can be provided with a licence for Windows Home Server. If you’re converting an existing PC, Windows Home Server will have to be bought separately, or you could use a Linux distro for free.

Advantages: In a short phrase, dedicated servers are ‘designed for the job’. Using hardware made to be a server and an OS that’s also specific to the task is always going to be better than something that wasn’t. Low power consumption, and generally quiet operation are major advantages too.

Disadvantages: The cheapest of these computers is still around £250, and you’ll need to buy additional hard drives to provide centralised storage. Typically, I’d budget at least £400 for a dedicated small server. The other caveat is administering the computer, which you’ll need to understand and monitor. Many of these chores are the same ones you’ll have experienced on a desktop PC, but some of them will be unique to the server environment.

A NAS Box

The NAS (Network Attached Storage) box is an excellent alternative to the dedicated server, and in some respects it’s a superior solution. Depending what your budget will stretch to, these can range from a single drive solution to a massive rack-mounted array.
They can be bought with drives installed or you can add those yourself, if you already have them handy. Most accept 3.5” desktop SATA mechanisms, though a few take 2.5” SATA laptop drives.

My advice is to avoid the single drive models and go for two or four drive systems, even if you only partially fill them, and then buy extra drives later. What’s great about these units is that they’ve been built to be installed and almost forgotten, and their (usually) Linux OS is made to be robust and easy to administer via a web interface. If you want a server that’s very little trouble, then a NAS box is the way to go.

Advantages: Like the dedicated server, these devices are built to be installed and then left running, all day, every day. Therefore, they’re made to use as little power as possible, while offering the very best levels of performance. They’re quiet, and it’s possible to tuck them away in a quite part of the house where they won’t disturb anyone.

Disadvantages: Cost, mostly. The better ones can be £400 or more, without drives. But on the other side of that coin you need to balance the limited administration you’ll need to perform. They can’t run Windows applications, so you are limited to what software modules come installed, and those that are released by the hardware maker to extend the functionality.

If you don’t do a backup, and the NAS Box fails it could be almost impossible to recover your data without an exact hardware replacement.

Security

From the outset having a home server does make you more widely consider security, because the best solutions usually involve you providing everyone with a named login and password to access the server. This might seem excessive for a home environment, but I wouldn’t skip that stage as it’s critical to you having a system that can’t easily be damaged or rifled by a stranger from the internet.
As part of securing your system whatever server hardware you use should be protected by both anti-virus and a good firewall, and it should also be configured to automatically update both of these facilities along with general operating system patches.

It is possible to configure the server to be only accessible to specific computers (MAC address filtering) or from internal IP addresses, though that would inherently stop updates also, unfortunately. While cutting off the server entirely from the Internet could be a prudent exercise, it would probably make it much less useful, so I wouldn’t advise it. If you have ad-hoc requirements for access, a guest account with limited privileges is probably worth considering.

It’s your server and, as such, you need to protect it properly, or you may just find that it’s been taken over for nefarious purposes.

Hardware suggestions

So you want to buy a home server, but have no idea what to consider? Here are a couple of dedicated Windows Home Server solutions and a bevy of NAS boxes that I can recommend from direct experience.

HP ProLiant Turion II N40L MicroServer (£250)

This is a very cheap and cheerful server solution that’s made for an office or home scenario. Based on AMD’s laptop CPU the Turion II, it comes with 2GB of RAM and a single 250GB hard drive with Microsoft Windows Home Server 2011 pre-installed. You’ll need another hard drive at least to store your data on, but other than that it’s essentially good-to-go.

Acer Aspire easyStore H340-L Home Server (£240)

If you prefer Intel over AMD, the Acer easyStore H340-L used the 1.6GHz Atom 230 CPU, the Intel 945GC Express chipset, and comes with a 640GB hard drive. It has room for another three drives inside, and eSATA could connect more storage externally. It comes with Windows Home Server 2011, and 2GB of RAM, but annoyingly you can’t expand the RAM further because of the chipset. That said, with 2GB it’s reasonably fast and certainly powerful enough for home use.

Synology DS212j NAS Enclosure (£165 with no drives)

This is one of the lower rungs on the NAS box ladder, but the Synology pedigree means that it has all the functionality you’d expect. The DS212J is a dual drive option, meaning you could put 2x 1TB in here for a total price of £270, and you’d have a DLNA certified media server and centralised storage in one.

It’s low power consumption, can be expanded or backed up via external USB drives and can operate as a print server if needed. For the money, this is a wonderful piece of gear.

Seagate FreeAgent GOFLEX HOME 3TB NAS Drive (£137)

This is something of a bargain, because for the money you not only get a 3TB hard drive but also a simple, effective NAS box.
Actually the term ‘box’ is somewhat misleading, because this is just a plinth with the hardware to do file sharing duties. It also has built-in wi-fi meaning that it can be connected without needing an Ethernet network, although speed is impacted if you do this.

Seagate has recently released both iPhone and Android apps, allowing mobile phones to get access to music and images stored on the device. Not as flexible a solution as more expensive options, but a good starting point for those working to a tight budget.

Synology DS413j 4 Bay Desktop NAS (£275 with no drives)

For those wanting plenty of capacity then the DS413j is certainly the way to go, as it can take four drives up to a maximum of 16TB. However, that would cost more than £1,000 when you’ve factored in the four 4TB drives. With 2TB drives costing about £75, you can put 8TB in here for about £575 inclusive, and you can map the system so that you get 6TB of working space, but any drive death will not result in data loss.

The Synology DiskStation Manager (DSM) is amazingly featured and can be configured to perform many roles, such as mail server, web server, security camera management, SQL server, Torrent Client, iTunes server, and many more.

Final thoughts

Having a home server opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities, especially if you’ve got a growing family, and want to pool resources. By having a centralised place, that’s not the internet, files and services can be rapidly accessed and new contents easily added.
There are many other things that a home server can do as well, and some of them are truly impressive. One of my favourite home server features is my internal version of Cloud Computing, where my working documents follow me around from computer to computer. This is achieved by a feature of my Synology NAS box called ‘Cloud Station’.

To use this you need an account on the NAS box and to install the Cloud Station software on any PC that you’re likely to use. Then you can identify a folder as being a ‘Cloud Station’ one, though for whatever reason it must be empty to begin with. Once you’ve done that any files that you place in that folder are immediately duplicated to the NAS box, and then replicated to any other computer that’s also been configured.

This document that I’m working on will be on the NAS box just seconds after I’ve closed it, and on my laptop in the lounge before I’ve actually got to that room. In this way I can start something in one place and then complete it elsewhere. The really amazing thing about this facility, though, is that it works beyond the bounds of this house and my network - because Cloud Station is Internet aware, I can sync remotely.
That’s a very powerful feature, but it’s just the tip of a very large technological iceberg that owning your own server could expose.
If you’re unsure if this is for you, we’d recommend you dig out that old Athlon rig in the attic, download a server version of Ubuntu and experiment. If it isn’t useful then it doesn’t take a few seconds to turn off, but I’d be surprised if you don’t find it a little bit useful, if not entirely invaluable.