Home Servers. There are multitudes of reasons to justify your very own ‘server’ hardware at home. Multitudes.
Whether you are in the tech industry or not, you know that for one, you need somewhere to store your downloaded content (let’s leave the piracy/torrenting discussion out of it for this one) and you don’t want it on your laptop taking up precious SSD space. Secondly, Australian’s are not spoiled for choice when it comes to on-demand and streaming services like the US. Content doesn’t just have to be a bunch of movies or TV shows; nowadays, we are storing back ups of personal computers, gigabytes of personal photos from smartphones, DSLRs and any other imaging device, THEN movies, shows and music!
Then, there are also multitudes of reasons to shy away from your own setup at home. I’ll mention 3 of them that relate to my circumstances, which may also resonate with you, in a little bit. There are arguments and solutions for both sides of the story, but it comes down to your comfort level and what platforms you have adopted and used over time. Some solutions include the option of signing up to a ‘service’ and purchase streaming content where available through proprietary solutions (I’m talking fruit company here). You also have Netflix/Hulu work arounds for geo-locked services, but my ISP and physical location makes streaming services a buffering nightmare. Even Lync meetings are a stretch for me. I need a solution I can customise and tweak, store and share content through, upgrade and scale all within the four walls of my enterprise: my home. So, those 3 things that mess with my head when setting up at home:
- The frustration and worries associated with the pieces of the solution all coming together at once to play/stream a file or slideshow (Server OS, player, connectivity etc)
- Network lag
- Experience and know-how setting up and maintaining, troubleshooting error codes during playback and downloading only certain file types so that the codecs on your player play the content!
So what you and I need is a robust platform, a turn-key solution to turn you from a curious first-time sys admin to a home theatre streaming content guru.
My first time(s)
In the early days, putting a 2nd HDD in a Workstation PC or a Consumer grade laptop and running Vista Media Centre was groundbreaking, then adding a media extender like my PS3 and XBOX360 put me into mega geek status with my mates, but still that wasn’t enough. I separated ‘content’ from my primary PC(s) and embraced the Home Server solution. So far, I’ve experimented with HP Vault Data Server, an HP EX490 with WHS and a second HP EX490 retrofitted with FreeNAS. All of them did the job, but it hasn’t been easy. Issues from storage pool capacity, Twonky media server software on the WHS and clunky user administration. With FreeNAS – I don’t know linux, I don’t know why I thought I could manage it – the storage pool is a ZFS RAID array but I can’t get the MiniDLNA plugin or the webconsole to connect reliably and then I have to reboot the FreeNAS EX490 whenever I add content if I expect to actually select and watch it on my connected TV!
My new hero
Luckily for me, I am in the tech industry, so keeping up with the Jones’ isn’t a stretch or a daunting task. I work for HP and I have access to product, check. Solutions? Sure, for SMB, SME and Large Enterprise, no worries. But as a home user of HP products, I was so ecstatic to learn of and have the opportunity to play with HP’s latest MicroServer. But not just the MicroServer. A solution.
The solution consists of the HP ProLiant Gen8 MicroServer but it also has the addition of HP’s Networking portfolio, a PS1810-8G switch bundled with Windows 2012 Essentials server, giving me a package that is literally the basic building blocks needed to kick off a budding new small business, or a very impressive media server solution for home! We’ll get into specs in a sec.
Pulling the pieces out of the box, I’m delighted (but not surprised) by the efficient packaging and inclusions of software media on disk and a set of first-time use installation instructions. Setting those aside, i continue to unpack and de-trash, leaving me with a sexy looking cube of hardware and a separate switch that nestles nicely on the top of the MicroServer, maintaining a purposeful and consistent appearance. First impressions count for me so aesthetically, i’m sold.
Connecting to a TFT via VGA and then scouring my garage for a spare USB keyboard and mouse, I plug everything in and power up. First install took around 15-20mins to get to the point of leveraging the wizard driven tool entering ServerName, admin and standard user accounts. Another 5-10mins later, I’m looking at the WinServer dashboard with further assistance in completing first-time setup. That easy. I had quite a few MS Updates to do, but initially ignored them so I could get right into using it. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the options and choices (like I did when setting up FreeNAS) and the GUI was simple and leveraging the Windows 8 layout that i am most comfortable with. All told, within 30 mins after powering up, I had the HP Switch connected to my home LAN (and internet) and feeding the MicroServer below it. I then enabled the media streaming service via the Server dashboard, which then automatically made folders for me to identify media. I started dumping HD videos and TV shows from my Workstation Z620 over the network to the MicroServer at blistering speeds. Then, I mapped the folders that were created for me on the server on my local Z620. Simple. The HP Microserver sat purring away in my basement office connected to the LAN and my office Workstation. Through the provided HP switch, the solution is connected to my XBOX360 and 63″ TV in an upper level of my home via Netcomm Ethernet-Over-Power adaptors (200mbps). The XBOX is directly connected to my Netgear Nighthawk R7000 Wifi router which serves connectivity to the whole house.
Now for the test.
On my basement Z620, I navigated to the mapped folder where i dumped movies. Launched and started playing on the Z620, brilliantly (as expected). Whilst that was still playing, walked upstairs and turned on XBOX (I could still hear the movie playing downstairs). This was the first time the XBOX knew of the MicroServer, but as I navigated to XBOX’s System Media player, the MicroServer’s ServerName was first in the list, followed by my Z620, FreeNAS EX490 and my wife’s laptop. Selected a movie from the same folder and started to play. Perfectly. Walked upstairs to my laptop, on WiFi, running Windows 7, clicked Network and discovered the MicroServer as a media player. Selected that, navigated through the Media Player to the same folder, started playing another movie. As I traversed up and down the stairs, checking the quality and consistency of each instance of playback, 2 things occurred to me: 1) Am I really satisfied and content with how i’m spending my time? 2) This MicroServer is amazing.
Of course, that is a very elementary way to test and evaluate a solution, but given that i had everything i needed to get up and running in well under 1 hour from unpacking, I can honestly say, I will gladly spend another few hours setting up this solution to run optimally with respects to HDD array, user accounts, permissions and the like.
Blitz in a box is an understatement. Feel free to hashtag that if you decide to repost. #blitzinabox #hp
Nuts and bolts
HP has put all you need to get started in an out-of-the-box solution and best part is, you can scale it. Let’s talk specs now. The unit I evaluated for 2 weeks was a HP ProLiant Gen8 G2020T model, single dual-core CPU with only 2GB RAM included in the box. This is expandable to 16GB total across 2 slots. It is a non-hot-plug SATA solution, but for Home media server / SoHo / SMB usage, I doubt you’ll need the hot-plug feature (or the price tag that would go with). Speaking of HDDs, how does 4-bays sound? You can pick up 4 x 3TB HDDs from HP to give you a total of 12TB (dependant on your RAID array choice).
Need more features? Ok.
There is an expansion slot, a PCIe 2.0 x16 LP Slot. Option to install slimline DVDRW drive, HP’s iLO controller and dedicated iLO port, 2-Port NIC (1Gb), 1 VGA port, 5 x USB 2.0 and 2 x USB 3.0 ports and a customisable front panel – your choice of colours (blue, red, black and aluminium finish).
Plus the HP Switch! The PS1810-8G. Its an 8 port autosensing gigabit layer-2 managed switch, purpose built for stacking on the ProLiant Gen8 Servers, sporting a 16Gbps switching capacity and HP’s Intelligent Management Centre tool. It’s fanless, supports PoE, and uses lower power consumption leveraging the Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE) IEEE 802.3az standard. Oh, and the PS1810-8G has a lifetime, advance replacement warranty included.
I cannot conclude without talking about the pricing. If you are not in a hurry and preparded to use an online distributor to get the cheapest price possible for each option, you can get into a fully loaded 12TB, 16GB RAM, Pentium Gen8 and the PS1810-8G switch for around $1500 inc GST, but if 2GB RAM and 4TB’s is enough for you, then you’ll be very impressed with your solution for well under $1000 inc GST and some spare change to get a red or blue grill!
I’m going to retire my FreeNAS EX490. Time for me to upgrade to the new HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 – you should too.
Update: HP’s Online Store URL to buy this bundle!