Case Study : Setting up a Home Server

Freenas ServerStoring and sharing media or backing up important data is often best done by means of a dedicated server accessible by your home network – this is commonly called a NAS or Network Attached Storage device.

Many people believe that networks only apply to businesses, but if you have more than 2 computing devices, which can be a computer, notebook, tablet or smartphone, then you already have the beginnings of a network at home. Advantages of setting up a home network server are sharing data among users, backing up important files like photos and documents and also making your music collection playable on any connected device.

I looked at buying a small NAS server box and adding a couple of hard drives but I decided that it would be cheaper (and a good learning exercise) to set one up myself using a spare Dell computer that was just lying around gathering dust in the office. I thought about installing a fresh copy of Windows XP Pro on it but after some study decided to try the (free) FreeNAS solution. This is basically a small stripped down Linux distribution with a graphical server control interface built in that is accessible from any PC on the network. Being Linux means it is also immune from Windows viruses or malware too.

Installation was straightforward and I decided to install FreeNAS onto a bootable 4Gb USB stick that is left plugged in the back. This has a couple of advantages – firstly, it means there is no need to waste any space on one of the hard drives and the PC is quieter and still quick to boot up.

Setting up sharing to any computer or device in the house was easy plus I also set up the UPNP and DAAP services to enable simple music and video streaming to the home theatre PC or even my Android tablet.

The Dell was perfect for the job as it runs very quiet (Dells use low speed but large cpu cooling fans and a large proprietary heatsink) and it had 4 SATA ports available. I currently have 3x SATA drives of various sizes installed but eventually will just upgrade to a couple of 2Tb drives when funds allow. I didn’t bother using a RAID configuration as I use other backup devices for important files like the photo collection. After setup was done I removed the monitor, keyboard and mouse as they are not needed with the control panel being accessible via a web browser.

Installing a new drive is straightforward – just fit the drive, start FreeNAS then format and mount it using the built in disk management tools. Dead simple.

The only problem I have found so far is the power consumption of the Dell. Leaving it running 24×7 isn’t practical as while 200W doesn’t sound much it adds a fair amount to the power bills if left running continuously. Because the server isn’t used every day, I just switch it on whenever I do a weekly backup or we want to stream a movie to the lounge TV. I have also set FreeNAS to power the server down at 1am every day in case I forget to turn it off.

If this setup were used for a business file server it would probably be best to set the bios to turn on computer at a set time everyday and also use the FreeNAS setting to turn it off after the office is closed to avoid problems with automatic backups failing or users being unable to open their files etc. Note that files on the server can be made accessible over the internet (only with password access of course) with some minor router and firewall configuration changes which would be handy for people wanting to access files from the office at home. I demonstrate this by turning on the Android tablet at a customers house and ask what music would they like to listen to streamed from my collection on the home server ! Tip: Use the free DAAP app from the Google Play Store, at least if your ISP gives you a fixed IP address at home.

Note that there is now a ‘fork’ of the FreeNAS software called NAS4Free. This open source project is new software based on the original FreeNAS 7 version (which I am still using). The FreeNAS project and software is still available but due to the higher memory demands for the later versions means it is not as suitable for older computers.

In summary, the exercise was a valuable learning experience and I have a trouble-free server setup that has been running without problems for nearly a year.

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