Rosher Consulting

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My ‘Franken-build’ Windows Home Server

I’ve just recently put together a Windows Home Server machine to backup all of my photos, music and so on as well as all of the machines around my house. It’s custom built rather than off the shelf, hence why it’s called a ‘Franken-build’, which is a term I first heard on the Home Server Show podcast to describe a custom build.

Why Windows Home Server?

If you see my post here you’ll remember that I purchased a NAS box about 18 months ago and have been using that to backup most of my content. Unfortunately I never really used it to its full potential as I had it waking up for an hour a day, doing the backup and then going back to sleep. I didn’t use any of the extra features such as the iTunes server or BitTorrent client and it was also lacking in a couple of areas, performance being the main one but also minor things such as not supporting Wake-On-Lan.

After upgrading my TV/File server again I had even more spare parts lying around so in the course of deciding what to do with all these bits I thought why not give Windows Home Server a try? There’s a free 120-day trial edition available from the Microsoft website, which is more than enough time to decide if you like it. It only took me a week to decide to replace my NAS.

Components

Here’s the initial list of components I had to work with when I first setup with the trial edition:

  • Athlon XP 2000
  • MSI KM4M-V Motherboard
  • 1gig ram
  • Seagate 80gig IDE
  • Seagate 160gig SATA
  • Old 350w power supply
  • Random spare DVD drive.
  • Intel 1gig NIC

I also have a Sempron 3000 CPU lying around which I would have rather used for this build as it’s faster and more efficient, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with the above motherboard and the motherboard that I do have for it doesn’t support S3 standby whereas I know the MSI board works really well with S3 because it came from my old Media Center prior to the Quad Core upgrade.

I didn’t have a case to put any of the components in so I just laid everything out on the table and connected it up, using a couple of wires to bridge the power connector so I could start the machine up. Windows Home Server was then installed, which took about an hour and I then proceeded to setup and install various add-ins so that I could test to see if it would suit my needs, which mainly involved the ability to wake up and go back to sleep at a pre-determined time.

Once I was happy I then decided to order a licensed copy of Home Server, along with a case to house it in and a new more efficient power supply. I ended up ordering the following:

  • Asus TA-D31 case
  • Antec Earthwatts 380w PSU

The Build Proper

As per usual everything turned up nice and quick from eBuyer, so I shut down the Thecus NAS for the final time and removed the drives in preparation for the build. Here’s some pictures of everything prior to starting:

The parts arrive IMG_5044 IMG_5048

IMG_5045

I put everything together in the new case, started her up and then proceeded to install the full licensed copy of Windows Home Server. Unfortunately with Windows Home Server you can’t upgrade the trial edition to a full licensed copy, you have to re-install from scratch, which I wish I had known about before spending the time to setup the trial version.

After finishing the install I noticed that there seemed to be some issues with the OS hard drive, every now and then things would appear to stutter and lock up so I decided I’d just use a different hard drive and re-install again. Unluckily for me the second hard drive I chose had exactly the same problem, so this time I borrowed a drive from the kitchen PC and used that instead, this time after over 3 hours spent installing WHS it was third time lucky and everything was working ok!

IMG_5060 IMG_5061 IMG_5064

Once everything was up and running, I could then proceed to copy all of my photos, videos and music over as well as installing the WHS connector on all of my PC’s so that they are regularly backed up, which is a nice added peace of mind considering that they weren’t backed up at all before.

Even with the low spec of the WHS machine I’ve been getting decent performance copying files to and from it, certainly much better than I ever achieved with the NAS. Write speeds have been around 40MB/s across the network and read speeds have been between 50-60MB/s.

The WHS has now been running for a couple of months and has performed flawlessly during that time, I’ve even purchased some new 1.5TB hard drives to up the storage to 3.5TB, which has meant that I’ve now got the space to back up my DVD collection as well as everything else. Overall I’m really pleased with the machine and would heartily recommend a Windows Home Server to everyone that has multiple computers in their house!

Adding 2TB of storage to the media server

If you've read my post on the Thecus N4100+ NAS drive then you'll remember that I bought 4 500gig hard drives for it that I didn't end up using with the NAS due to its performance problems, this post aims to explain what I did with them.

The most obvious choice was to add them to my existing server, the problem with that though was that the server motherboard only had 2 SATA ports and they were both being used already.

I had a look round at a few enclosures that could house 4 drives, then at some that could house 2 drives before giving up as they were all just too expensive. Heck all I want to do is fit a couple of drives and then plug them into the server, it's hardly rocket science and yet everyone seems to want to charge an arm and a leg for them!

sataCardI’m sure it was via a forum post on www.team-mediaportal.com that I then stumbled across the notion of using a PCI add-in card to expand the number of SATA ports, seems obvious really when you think about it! So after a little digging around I came across this card on DABS and placed the order. 

My only other issue was how I was going to mount the drives as I already had 5 drives in the case and not enough space to mount 4 more especially without running into heat issues and just as before finding a basic enclosure to store 4 drives in was a problem. Since the server is in the loft, having a nice shiny case to store them in wasn’t really necessary, so instead I took a couple of hard drive mounts from some old cases I had lying around and used them instead, not pretty but it works!

drives  IMG_4191

The performance of the drives via a PCI add-in card was never going to be the same as a native SATA interface but for what it’s used for it works well enough, certainly well enough to stream HD content across the network, in fact the only issue I’ve had with it in the year or so of use is the dodgy software that came with it which tends to eat RAM like it's gone out of fashion…

NAS - Thecus N4100+

4100 Running a server 24/7 can become an expensive business especially when you're using an old power hungry Pentium 4 processor and you've got a lot of hard drives, which is why around December 07 I decided to get myself a NAS drive. I figured I could put all of my media files on the NAS and then keep the existing server in standby and have it wake up and shut down automatically to record TV.

Before I started looking for a NAS I drew up a list of requirements that I wanted to have, in order of priority:

  • At least 4 drive bays
  • BitTorrent client
  • iTunes server
  • UPNP compatible
  • FTP Server

I wanted 4 drive bays because it would allow me to start off with one drive and then add more as required, I wanted the BitTorrent client because I download some TV episodes and didn't want to have the server on for this, the iTunes server was required so that I didn't have to maintain separate iTunes libraries on various PC's, UPNP was more of a future requirement as more and more devices use this to discover content on the network and finally the FTP server as I occasionally upload files to the server.

Finding a 4 bay NAS drive wasn't a problem, there were plenty on the market, but finding one with the features I required was a bit of a problem as most 4 bay's were targeted at enterprise users, ones with the features I required had only 2 bays and I wasn't willing to compromise.

I eventually came across the Thecus N4100+ during my search that had everything I wanted and also had some really good reviews, most notably the reviewers pointed out the excellent features and the data transfer performance, which was something I was also interested in given my recent experiences with gigabit networking.

I did a bit of shopping around and eventually picked one up for £330 from Ultimate Storage, as I already said I was thinking of starting off with one hard drive and then adding more as time went on, but I've got no willpower when it comes to gadgets and when I saw the price of 500gig drives I ended up ordering 4 of them to give me 2 terabytes of storage!

When everything turned up I installed the drives and proceeded to get the NAS configured, which was reasonably straightforward once I'd read the manual of course. I decided to go with a JBOD setup rather than configuring a RAID array as I wanted to utilise all the available space and I wasn't bothered about backing anything up. Waiting for the NAS to configure the drives took about an hour, not sure why, but it would appear this isn't uncommon, in fact I've heard reports of configuring RAID arrays taking days, which I think is a combination of most cheap NAS drives using a slow CPU and having a software raid implementation, but anyway it got there in the end.

I then started to copy my media off of the server and on to the NAS, which is when I thought that perhaps Windows had a problem with its file transfer calculation time routine as it was way off the charts, heck, this NAS is supposed to be fast! I then busted out FastCopy to see what transfer rates I was getting and was disappointed to see that it was only around 5meg, doing some research on the net made me even more despondent and made me realise I should have done more of my usual research before buying the NAS drive as I wasn't the only one experiencing slow transfer rates.

I persevered for a while and tried all the usual tricks such as jumbo frames and any other suggestion I could come across but the best transfer rate I ever got was around 8meg, which when transferring gigs and gigs of files is going to take a long, longggg time!

Ultimately the problem with the NAS is that it's underpowered, even though it's got a gigabit Ethernet port and utilises SATA hard disks the CPU just can't keep up with high transfer rates, when I was doing my testing the CPU was always pegged at 100%, so no matter what configuration changes I made I was never going to improve the transfer rates.

I decided to cut my losses on the drive and send it back, the only problem was that I'd bought it just before Christmas and being Christmas I'd been a bit lax, Ultimate Storage don't exactly have a long return period either, so combined that meant that I was over the limit and wouldn't get a full refund. I couldn't accept the restocking fee, so I figured I'd probably eBay it or something... in the mean time I had to decide what to do with the four 500gig drives...

However, that and what eventually happened to the NAS drive is all a story for another time.

Building a media server/bedroom HTPC

IMG_4182 After the success of my first file server I thought it was about time to upgrade to something a bit more meaty. The other half had also suggested about having a TV in the bedroom, need I say more... ;-)

As per normal I really didn't want to spend too much money on building this machine, my main criteria was to make sure the cost was no more than buying a standalone TV, at the time (December 2006) the cost of a reasonable 19" TV with a built in freeview tuner was around the £300 mark.

I'd just built a new PC for a friend and luckily for me he said I could keep everything from his old PC, which included a Lian-Li PC60 case, I already had some spare hard drives and a keyboard and mouse lying around as well.

The system didn't need to be particularly meaty, so the following is what I ended up ordering for a total cost of £293.59 including delivery:

  • Belinea 1925S1W 19" Widescreen
  • AMD Sempron 3000+ 64Bit (1.8Ghz) Socket 754 Processor
  • ECS 755-A2 SiS755 SKT 754 motherboard
  • Corsair 512MB DDR 400MHz/PC3200 Memory
  • Microsoft OEM Media Center Remote Control Inc Reciever
  • Hauppauge WinTV-Nova-t PCI Freeview Receiver
  • Belkin G Wireless USB Adapter

The Hauppage card does actually come with its own IR receiver and remote, but I prefer the Microsoft media center ones, mainly because they're USB and can bring the PC out of standby.

When all the bits came I built the machine and also attempted to use MediaPortal's TV Server for the first time, which is a client/server based TV app, unfortunately this was in the reasonably early stages of development at the time and didn't work too well, so I stuck with the standard MediaPortal TV engine.

Once everything was up and running I then wanted to put the machine into the loft and just have the monitor in the bedroom, so that the PC was tucked out of the way and we wouldn't have to put up with the noise. The loft itself didn't have any power points, so I spurred off of a point in the kids bedroom, went through the airing cupboard (which as stated previously in my last post already had cabling running through it) and put in a single socket, which I then plugged in a surge protected 4 socket extension lead.

IMG_4179 The power was now sorted, but I then had to think how I was going to get the cabling from the loft down into the bedroom to the monitor, luckily for me we had yet to decorate (and we still haven't!) so I could afford to be a little messy and then worry about clearing it up at a later date, so I just punched a hole in the ceiling and dropped the required cables through. It doesn't look pretty but it does the job!

I was now able to put the machine in the loft and connect everything up, this is when I realised that perhaps going wireless wasn't such a great idea as I couldn't get a signal with the USB receiver in the loft, so I ended up having to drop this through the ceiling as well using a USB extension cable.

At this point I was able to decommission the old file server and transfer the 2 external hard drives to the new server, re-adjust the sharing folders on the kitchen and lounge media centers and that was it, the new file server/media center was up and running and has been for the last couple of years. It's since been rebuilt and had lots of storage added, but I'll talk about that in a future post, in the meantime here's some more photos of the system.

TV Series Browsing the TV guide Watching TV Music The PC in the loft