Home Media Server: Choose Your Weapon

Media_Server_FeaturedHopefully if you’re reading this article, you’ve already read through our “What is Usenet?” post. If you haven’t, you might want to start there so you know the direction this is all heading. Today we’re going to discuss home media servers, home network architecture, and what to think about when you’re setting up your configuration.

When it comes to setting up a home media server, there’s a lot of information out there and it’s tough for a beginner to know which direction to go. Fear not, we’ll help you navigate these waters. It’s probably best to start with the basic, what is a media server and why would I want one?

What is a Media Server?

Sometimes beginners get freaked out at the word “server” and think it’s some complicated device that only nerds use. A server is simply a computer that stays on all the time (most of the time). A server can be made with an old desktop computer, laptop, net-top, NAS (network attached storage), or even a Raspberry Pi. A “media server” is just an always on computer that you’ll use to store and access all of your different videos, pictures, music, etc. The benefit of having a media server is that all of your information is centralized, meaning you don’t have three copies of the same file on each computer in the house. When it’s on the server, the media is shared and available to all the devices in the house.

Along with storing all the media, you’ll want the media server to automatically do some things for you. Processing .nzb files, unpacking downloaded content, automatically searching for content you want, etc. To accomplish this, you’ll want a media server that allows you to install programs like SABnzbd, SickBeard, CouchPotato, and perhaps a few other goodies.

What’s the Best Hardware?

There really is no correct answer to this question. Along with technology constantly changing and thus rending some hardware obsolete, much of what you use comes down to preference, cost, and utility.

Different solutions

Some people like to go to their local electronics store and buy a 2TB NAS (Network Attached Storage). Basically this is like strapping a 2TB hard drive to your router and then sharing all the content with the other computers in the house. This isn’t a bad solution, but in most cases a NAS doesn’t have much processing power and it might be even harder to install things like SABnzbd, SickBeard, CouchPotato, etc. That’s not to say it can’t be done, some NAS actually have hand crafted plugins for the programs mentioned above. If you’re going to use these programs, this options is probably better suited for experienced users.

Others prefer to use an old computer, fill the tower with a bunch of hard drives and then make that their server. This isn’t a bad choice either, but big towers take up quite a bit of space, use a bit more power, put out some heat, tend to be louder, etc. This is probably a good solution to start out with though, to test the different software that’s out there and see what you’ll want to use and if you need to upgrade. You could always move the drives out of this computer and into another hardware solution later.

For a while, I ran an Acer Home Server (These are hard to find these days, but they are out there). It comes with Windows server, doesn’t take up much space, is quiet, has space for four internal hard drives and is capable of serving media files as well as running almost all the applications you might need. In my opinion, this is one of the better solutions and I know several people using this setup. If you can’t get your hands on this particular model, a solution similar to this one is a good way to go for users who might have already tried out the different programs and are looking to streamline what they have now.

Currently I have the following setup:


Mac Mini with a Drobo 5D connected via Thunderbolt connection. This definitely isn’t the cheapest way to go, but here’s why I like it.

  • Mac Mini is small, quiet, little to no heat, low power consumption
  • Mac Mini is powerful enough to run all my applications including SABnzbd, SickBeard, CouchPotato, Maraschino, MySQL, FTP Server, Plex Server, and more
  • Mac Mini makes regular backups via Time Machine
  • Drobo is a super easy file storage solution. When a drive fails, the entire media store continues working, you simply replace the faulty drive (no down time)
  • Drobo and the Mac Mini can serve up multiple streams simultaneously while downloading, unpacking, moving files, and transcoding video for a Plex mobile stream. It can handle all of this with ease

For the above reasons, and probably a host of others I’m forgetting to mention, I really like the above setup. It works for me, but it might not be what’s best for you. Here’s what you should consider when looking to make your own setup.

How Much Can You Spend?

I list this first because I think that’s what most people think of first. However, I would caution you to save and spend the money of features that are going to matter to you. If you KNOW you’re going to want to install Plex Media Server and stream files to your phone or tablet when you’re away from home, I probably wouldn’t go the route of a NAS or ACER. You’ll want to use something that has the power to transcode the video files before streaming. If you KNOW you don’t want to risk losing any media files, maybe save up and get a storage solution like the Drobo that’s really good about making sure your data is safe from a hard drive failure. If you KNOW you’re only going to manually feed SABnzbd .nzb files and manage all your own files, then perhaps a NAS on the back of your router is right for you.

What Equipment Do You Already Have?

As I said earlier, no single solution is right for everyone. If you already have an old computer lying around with five empty drive bays and are comfortable configuring RAID arrays, maybe try using that.

What Do You Want To Do?

If you’re not going to use Plex Server and only need the basic usenet programs, SABnzbd, SickBeard, CouchPotato, etc… then maybe the Acer Home Server or something similar is the solution for you. If you want to stream nine 1080p streams to different computers in your house simultaneously while downloading non-stop on a 100mbit connection, maybe think about something a bit beefier. Perhaps the four core i7 Mac Mini or another custom server with some good horsepower is more your speed.

Hardware Summary

The bottom line with all this home media server stuff is that there’s no correct answer. It all comes down to the factors I listed above. If I could offer any advice, I would say that you should start out using what equipment you already have, even if it’s not the best, to see what it’s capable of and then upgrade as needed from there. You don’t want to drop a ton of money on equipment you won’t use or won’t know how to use.

Home Network Architecture

When I refer to network architecture, I’m talking about what connects to what in the house to share your media. In general, the hub of the house is going to be your router. The router is going to be the hardware that allows all your devices to talk to one another so let’s start there.

What Kind of Router?

Like the media server discussion above a lot has to do with preference. Most modern routers have what you need to get the job done, but just for good measure, here’s what you want to make sure you have (we’ll discuss these features more in depth in a later tutorial).

  • At least 802.11n Wireless
  • The ability to forward ports
  • The ability to statically assign local IPs or use DHCP reservation
  • The ability to update dynamic DNS services like DynDNS.com when your WAN IP changes

Personally, I use the Netgear NightHawk 802.11ac router. I get good range and it has a host of features that make it easy to admin.

The Basic Configuration

If you only watch TV in one room in the house and you don’t mind having your media server in that same room, you may consider installing XBMC on the media server directly (assuming it’s powerful enough to do all the things you want). In which case, you just need to make sure the server can reach the internet through the router and you don’t need to share any files internally on your network.

The Multi-Room Configuration

I assume most of you reading this will fall into this category. Typically you’ll have the server in one room in the house, where it runs all your applications and stores your media. Then in each room where you have a TV, you’ll have some kind of device hooked to the TV that allows you to access and play the media on the media server. This might be a Roku, Raspberry Pi, old computer, Mac Mini, net-top computer with OpenElec installed, or other such device.

In the above configuration, you’re going to want to make sure all the media you want to share on the server is accessible by these other devices. For the specifics on how to share the media on your media server, you should either RTFM (Read The F***ing Manual) or try Googling. XBMC can use just about any method for sharing, SMB, FTP, SFTP, etc.

Personally, I have an Acer Revo 1600 in the living room running the nVidia ION version of OpenElec. In the bedroom, I have a ZBOX HD-ID11 running the same version of OpenElec. In my wife’s study, I have a Raspberry Pi running OpenElec. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I highly recommend using OpenElec. It’s small, lightweight, and allows devices to boot directly into XBMC (more on this in another tutorial).

A Word on File Structure

The way your media files are structured on your home media server is important. If you want to read more about it, you can check out this section on the XBMC wiki. There are also a few utilities out there on the internet to help you whip your media library into shape. This may not seem important, but when you start pulling the media into the XBMC library it will matter how your files are named and the structure you use. It’s worth taking the time to get this sorted out. Of course, this only applies to media you already have. Going forward, if you use SABnzbd, SickBeard, CouchPotato, etc… they’ll make sure all your media is named properly and stored in the appropriate place.

Below is an example of what my root directory looks like and the file structure I use.

   Movie Title, The
      Movie Title, The (YEAR).mkv

TV Shows
   TV Show Title, The
      Season 1
         TV Show Title, The - S01E01 - Episode Name.mkv

**If the above doesn’t have a file extension (like .mkv) then it’s  folder**

Final Thoughts

Start with what you have around the house and then build on as you need. Don’t assume that more power is always going to equate to a better experience. Let form follow function and try to invest in a system and configuration that you will feel comfortable with and enjoy.

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