It’s hard to believe, but its four and a half years since we built our first proper rackmount media server for the Automated Home. Our tutorial for the MkI is still one of our most popular articles and it’s easy to see why (you may like to read our tutorial on the original Jukebox server first).
It’s something that people are doing every day as they realise they need to move all their digital media to a central server that can be accessed by the many IP devices we have now come to rely on. The machine has served us well, but nothing lasts forever and this week we pulled the old girl out of the rack for a heart transplant.
Time to Move On – Two things have forced the upgrade. Firstly the IDE architecture of the old machine meant sourcing older, more expensive hard drives every time we needed to add more storage. Although we had 8 drives in the old server they included small 120GBs, 160GBs 300GBs etc. We could replace multiple drives with a few inexpensive 1TB disks, freeing up bays and reducing running costs. Lately we’d even been adding external USB drives, which is far from ideal. It was clear we needed to move to Serial ATA and that the IDE drive caddies would need to go.
The Old Server out of the rack (complete with USB drives on top) Ready for the Upgrade
4 into 3 Does Go – While we’ve retained the old 4U rackmount case, we’ve up’d the density of the drives in the new build with the use of a couple of Icy Dock MB454 bays. These allow you to squeeze 4 drives into each 3 drive space. You can even get a 5 into 3 version, but we should have plenty of capacity for another few years with the 8 bays this gives us, and the slightly lower density should help with cooling and increase the life of the drives. The Icy Docks aren’t cheap but they are a real gem. They give an almost Drobo-esque ease with which to add new drives (although you’ll still need to use a screw driver).
More Power! – The second reason that forced the upgrade was the CPU. The VIA powered machine always struggled at anything more than basic file serving. 100% CPU utilisation was commonplace and software that attempted to re-encode media on the fly for playback on our PS3 for example, sent the server into meltdown. We decided against one of the newer Intel i5 or i7 CPUs, instead opting for the more reasonably priced 2.60GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300. It provides a good balance between power and economy and provides an enormous increase in grunt for the server.
We fitted 4GB of Kingston HyperX DDR2 RAM and a Corsair HX 450W PSU. This is the first time we’ve used a branded power supply in a build and is definitely worth a mention. For a few pounds more this really is a quality item. Sturdy build quality, ultra-quiet, huge range of connectors and with sockets meaning you only plug in the Molex, SATA Power and Floppy connectors you actually need.
Unlike the VIA EPIA board that powered the old server the Asus does not have built in graphics, but our spares box had plenty of old cards to choose from. The new hardware includes gigabit Ethernet ports so the server can take advantage of our recently upgrade gigabit Ethernet switch. The eSATA port allows for future expansion outside the case too and firewire and USB ports are always useful. We’ve also moved from a board with a single slot to one with a variety of PCI and PCI Express slots, also allowing for the addition of more controllers and port expansion cards if necessary.
Windows Home Server – The old server has run vanilla Windows XP Pro and been rock solid. We’re sticking with Redmond and installed Windows Home Server. WHS is based on Windows 2003 Server with its code and features optimised for use in the home and a user limited of 10.
We retained the most modern of the IDE disks from the old server (400GB) and installed it in one of the internal bays in the case for use as the OS / Boot drive. The install process is the normal Microsoft affair and takes around an hour. After that there’s the usual raft of critical updates, patches and optional software to install. Many hours and reboots later we were up and running with the latest Power Pack / Service Pack 2 (PowerPack 3 is due out of beta anytime soon and brings support for Windows 7).
As many people who have been using a home server over the last few years know, once a drive holding say your CD rips is full, you are faced with a messy upgrade. With a regular desktop OS and no RAID setup, adding a new disk usually means adding additional shares, perhaps ‘Music1’ is joined by ‘Music2’ in the example above. This JBOD setup is far from ideal, especially if you then have to reconfigure all your clients around the home like XBMC, Sonos etc to see the additional music. It’s not long before you have all sorts of shares, scattered across all sorts of drives.
The advantage of WHS in this setup is that the smarts behind the scenes make all your drives appear as one large ‘storage pool’. Each new drive added simply increases the overall capacity of the pool creating more space for your existing Music or Movies or Photos shares, without ever having to create and manage new folders or re-configure the clients accessing them.
As WHS formats each new drive when it’s added to the system pool, you can’t simply take NTFS drives full of data from an old machine and put them into a new WHS one. Although this wasn’t an issue for us as we weren’t re-using the old drives, its worth noting as you may need to buy a new drive or two if you are.
Like Drobo, and unlike RAID this setup doesn’t care about mixing different drive sizes and models either. As long as you have empty drive bays, upgrading space is the 5-minute task of popping in a new disk. Once all your bays are full then its time to remove and upgrade a disk for a larger capacity model. This involves designating a disk for removal, requiring you to have enough space across your other drives to store its data, or if not then the temporary use of an external drive. For this reason it’s best not to wait until your drives are full before upgrading to a larger one.
The Management – A few weeks ago we ran a story on a particularly impressive 20 terabyte home server belonging to one Automated Home reader. Looking at his setup we made sure to install the excellent Disk Management add-in. Amongst other things this allows you to create a wire frame graphical representation of your server. You need to do this right at the start though, then add disks one by one so you record where each physical drive is in your system. It’s then trivial to identify a drive if there’s a problem or it needs replaced.
Simply clicking on the drive in the left pane will highlight where it is in the wireframe on the right by turning green. The Add-in also reports other useful information such as drive temperature and speed of throughput. We also installed the WHS Mobile Add-in, which in conjunction with its iPhone App (Windows Mobile version available too) gives us access to the server while we’re on the move.
The Move – Once the server was up and running and the new SATA drives were installed and setup in Disk Manager, we started the ‘character building’ task of copying the data across from the old drives. Moving large amounts of data around is never fun and this was no exception, taking a couple of days to complete. The data on the IDE disks can be copied across to the server using the motherboards built in IDE line or if your system doesn’t have it you can use an inexpensive IDE to USB 2.0 interface instead.
Its Good to Share – Shares appear in standard UNC format – //servername/sharename – for example //JukeBox/Movies or //JukeBox/Music, The Samba shares can also easily be accessed from Macs or Linux machines using – smb://JukeBox/Music or smb://192.168.0.10/Movies etc. Each user can be allowed full access, read only access or no access at all for each of your shares. You can give your children read only access to the music share for example, allowing them to listen, whilst being secure in the knowledge they can’t accidentally delete something.
Flexible Friend – While you can run a limited set of apps on a Drobo and other NAS devices can run services too, there’s little to beat the sheer volume of windows applications out there. You can pretty much run any Windows app you want on this system. This gives us a huge choice of media encoders, FTP server software, Bit Torrent clients and the like that we can run on this box too, all easily managed from anywhere either on the LAN or across the Net.
WHS offers other useful features such as a web interface to your server and windows computers on your home LAN. You can control the console remotely, managing your media. Need to access a file from a friends house? Want to play that CD you ripped at home last night in work? Uploading or downloading files from your server is trivial from any other machine with Internet access.
All these remote features can be setup automatically for you with uPnP or if your router doesn’t support it or your prefer a manual setup then you can simply forward ports 80, 443 and 4125 to your servers IP. Even if you don’t have a static IP address at home WHS allows you to always connect to your machine remotely from a simple and memorable address which you get to choose – http://YOUR-CHOSEN-NAME.homeserver.com
The Connector – If you have other XP/Vista/Windows7 PCs on your LAN then installing the WHS ‘Connector’ software on them will automatically link them to the server, putting a short cut to its shares on their desktop and setting up automated backups.
The ‘single-instance storage‘ technology means that WHS will only hold one set of files for an OS and thereby reducing space requirements. We backed up two similar XP Pro machines. The first backup took up 7.6GB. We then backed up the second machine which only added an additional 2GB to the backup folder on the server.
Files and folders can be easily restored from these backups. You can also restore an entire machine by booting from a CD and sucking the image back from the server across the LAN. If you’re a Windows household then automated backups feature is probably worth the WHS price of admission alone.
Backup Buddy – You can designate any of your WHS shared folders for “Duplication”. This ensures those directories are stored on 2 physical disks, allowing your data to survive a single hard drive failure. You may not want to duplicate your DVD ISO’s for example, preferring to re-rip them rather than take up the additional space required to protect them. We have chosen to duplicate all our data / documents folders and all our digital photos and that’s currently taking up almost 800GB as can be seen in the nice clear pie chart graphic WHS produces in the Console.
We’ve heard enough stories on our mailing list to make the TV show – ‘When RAID Goes Bad’, users that have lost everything when one drive dies rather than being able to rebuild their array. So whilst having duplication is a good thing, and probably more than a lot of users have currently, you still need a backup at a different location to protect yourself against a catastrophic hardware failure or even theft, fire, flood etc.
Backing up the WHS system drive seems to be the weak link in the current version. From what we can see there’s no easy way to do this, bar having a separate RAID 1 system just for it. The partnership between the C: partition and the D: storage pool partition needs to be in sync, so imaging the OS drive with Acronis / Ghost or similar will be out of date and therefore useless shortly after it’s been done.
However if the system disk does die you should be able to install a new version of WHS on a new disk which will then re-gain you access your un-harmed data, albeit with the loss of any add-ins or other customisation to WHS you had.
Green Credentials? – The new Corsair HX 450W ATX Power Supply we fitted is “80 Plus” certified, guaranteeing at least 80% efficiency at various loads and the new motherboards more modern power management systems help here too. Our 8 SATA lines come from 6 ports on the motherboard plus 2 more on a PCI Express Card. We’re using a mixture of Westerm Digital Green and Samsung EcoGreen drives. These consume less power than standard disks – something that’s also welcomed in a server running 24/7.
The old server consumed electricity at 140 watts while in use, amazingly the new box runs at just 95 watts. So, even though we thought we had a relatively green CPU powering the last system, the older technology employed by its PSU, motherboard and hard drives was sucking more power. Part of the reduction undoubtedly also comes from the fact that there are now 3 fewer drives spinning. All this adds up to a saving on electricity for us of around £60 per year.
If you don’t need a media server with so many SATA ports on board and that’s capable of carrying out additional functions and running VMs then you may like to consider an Atom board. The Atom is the Intel CPU that powers most of the netbooks and net-tops that have become so popular in the last couple of years and it can provide more basic performance at even lower power consumption.
Get Back in Your Box – And so the lid has been re-attached and the server is ready to slide back into its home in the rack for another year or four. For an outlay of around £600 (plus drives) we’ve built a high quality 8 SATA bay server that’s comparable to the £1,000 Drobo Pro. While you don’t get the hot-swap-smarts of the Data Robotics system you get a similar setup that has the additional flexibility to run many services and applications. Windows Home Server has made managing our data a much simpler task and it’s brought us new features like data duplication, a web interface and remote access. Adding and upgrading drives from the front of the rack will be easy in the future and with half the bays still empty and a potential capacity of 16 terabytes, we should get a good few years out of JukeBox MkII.
Hardware Summary – Here’s the list of components used for the upgrade
(approximate prices including VAT show).
Motherboard – ASUS P5Q Deluxe [£120]
Case – Compucase S411 4U Rackmount [£100]
(Re-used from old server)
SATA II Aluminium Backplane – Icy Dock MB454 [£85]
SATA Card – LinITX PCI Express [£15]