How To: Build a Media Server

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Where’s that Devo MP3 you downloaded last week? Is it on your laptop? Or on your desktop? Chances are, if you have more than one PC, you’re having a hard time keeping all your multimedia files organized. You could stream them all from your gaming rig, but do you really want to chance slower disk access and lost CPU cycles mid-deathmatch just because your wife needed to download a few dozen songs from the living room?

The best way to make sure your files are in one, easy-to-find place, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week is to store and serve them on a dedicated media box. Unlike your über gaming rig, built to push maximum frame rates, the media server should run cool, quiet, reliably, and without frills—an understated sidekick to free your power PC from mundane file-serving duties. Here’s how to build one.

Here's what you'll need:

* An ATX case with several hard-drive bays

* Windows XP Pro or Media Center Edition

* A 2GHz+ CPU and a compatible motherboard

* 1GB RAM

* A DVD Burner

* A least one large-capacity hard drive

* An external hard drive

* Options: An extra drive for RAID, streaming media boxes, and a TV-tuner card


PICKING THE PERFECT COMPONENTS

CPU: Raw, unadulterated power? Forget about it. In this machine you’ll want only enough speed to serve up files and run your streaming software. A slower processor will save you money that you can use on storage—the heart of a media server—or even your primary rig. And a slower processor will also generate less heat, requiring a more modest cooling setup and aiding overall reliability.

Also, because most media servers can do double-duty as home theater boxes, keeping the rig quiet means you can use it in your living room, if need be. We recommend the Pentium M or Mobile Athlon processor paired with a silent cooler, but these chips can be pricey. If you don’t want to buy a ton of new hardware, you can probably adapt an older PC. We wouldn’t recommend anything slower than 2GHz, though.

Storage: Using a lackluster CPU is fine, but a media server should have a robust storage setup. A single, fast drive paired with a large backup drive should do the job. We wouldn’t fool with any drives smaller than 400GB—either the 400GB Western Digital Caviar SE with a 16MB buffer or the Hitachi 7K500 500GB is ideal. The WD drive is a little quieter, while the Hitachi, obviously, offers more capacity.

If you’re concerned about data reliability, a RAID array is an option. A RAID 1 array, also known as a mirrored array, automatically copies your data to two hard drives in real time. Sounds like a good idea, right? It can be, but running RAID doesn’t necessarily make your rig bulletproof against data loss. If your media files are accidentally deleted, by you or by malicious software, the RAID backup will be wiped out at the same time.

For the most part, a single drive, which can keep up with typical media-streaming situations, will be marginally less noisy, and generate less heat. With the cash you save, you can buy an external backup drive. Your backup drive should include software that automatically copies the contents of your disk according to your set schedule. Unless you add tons of media every day, we recommend you run backups weekly. Any backup drive will do, as long as it can back up your primary drive in its entirety.

Soundcard: If your media server is destined to sit in a closet, disconnected from everything but power and Ethernet, it really doesn’t need a soundcard. If you’re going to set it up in your living room, however, you’ll definitely want a good, stand-alone soundcard. We recommend the X-Fi XtremeMusic. It’s a good value, and delivers superior sound quality, suitable for playback on a high-end home theater system.

Case, etc.: The other component you should choose with care is your case. We mentioned that a media server can double as a great living room PC. If that’s your goal, a slim-line case, such as Antec’s Minuet or Overture boxes, or even a small formfactor or mini-ATX case, will fit right in with your home theater equipment, although future expandability will be limited. If you’re going to throw your PC into a closet, any beige box will do.

This is the one time that it’s acceptable to use integrated video for your rig. Anything more is overkill, and anything with fans will just make more noise. The only reason to use a stand-alone videocard in a media server is if you need to connect it to a device that requires a component input, like an HDTV. As far as RAM goes, procure at least a gig.

The OS: In the past, we’ve recommended everything from Windows 2000 to Linux for a streaming server’s OS, but over the years, we’ve found that the best solution is actually very simple: Windows XP Professional. The rise of inexpensive video and audio streaming boxes opens lots of doors for the owner of a media server; however, most of the software requires Universal Plug and Play support, which only works on Windows XP (and it’s many variants).

You can even use Windows Media Center 2005, which delivers a few extra bonus features, with a catch: You can’t officially buy a retail box of Media Center 2005; instead you have to buy the special OEM version. You can get Media Center 2005 at online stores such as Newegg for about $130. Add a supported TV tuner and a remote, and Media Center lets you use your PC (as well as any connected streaming box or Xbox 360) as a PVR and digital-media hub, from which you can access movies, music, photos, and more.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
At this point, you need to assemble your rig, just like any other system. Build your rig, and then install Windows and all the necessary drivers, security patches, and updates, and your machine should be ready to go. Before you partition your hard drive during the Windows install process, consider creating separate partitions for your applications and data. Doing this makes backing up your data much faster, and prevents you from backing up data that doesn’t change every week—like the contents of your C:/Windows folder.

You shouldn’t need more than 40GB for your Windows drive, so you’ll still have tons of space for your media files. You should also give your machine a descriptive name, which will be easy to type, when the Windows installer prompts you.

COPYING YOUR MEDIA
Now that your box is set up, you’ll want to create folders for your separate media types off the root of your media partition. We recommend creating a Media folder on that partition, then creating subfolders for videos, music, and photos. You might even want to set up folders dedicated to downloaded files, ISO backups of your application CDs, or anything else.

Now, start collating all those loose media files from your various PCs. You can copy them through the network, but if you’re dealing with a few hundred gigs of data, it’s much faster to use that external drive and run around your house, collecting all the media on it and then transferring it to its new home on your server.

SHARING WITH OTHERS
Now that all your media is on your server, you’ll want to make sure that other machines on your network can access it. Right-click each of the folders you want to access on the network, and select Sharing and Security. Check the box that says “Share this folder on the network” and give your share a descriptive name.

If you want to be able to make changes to your files remotely, or add new ones, you’ll need to check the box labeled “Allow network users to change my files.” That will allow anyone with an account on the machine to add, delete, or change files on the server. You can manage accounts in the User Accounts Control Panel. You should be able to access any of the shared directories by typing //name of server//name of share in Windows Explorer

Next, install software for any streaming devices you have, like a Squeezebox or a video-streaming box. Once that’s done, your server
is up and running!

MAINTAINING YOUR SERVER
Because of its uptime, your media server needs even more protection from malware than your regular machine. Make sure you install antivirus software, and schedule automatic definition updates, as well as daily or weekly scans of all your drives during the night hours. Set up firewall software, making sure to open the ports that your streaming software and generic Windows networking use. The procedure for this varies based on the streaming software you use and the firewall, so you’ll have to consult your documentation.

This is also the time to schedule a weekly backup to your external drive. Your backup drive should have come with software that will allow you to duplicate the filesystem of your drive, don’t fool with incremental backups or proprietary compressed archives, if your software supports them. They’re not worth the hassle, and because you’re backing up heavily compressed media, there won’t be any space savings.

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