HTPC Networking Consideration (Part 2) - Home Server & Wired Networking

6/25/2012 9:31:37 AM

Home Server

An alternative to using a NAS box as a central multimedia hub is to use a home server instead. A home server is quite simply a small (usually low power) computer that runs the Windows Home Server 2011 operating system. Released this time last year, Home Server 2011 is an easy-to-use server OS based on the familiar Windows 7 GUI. The main Home Server 2011 functionality can be accessed through the 'dashboard', from which you can set up automated backups, media sharing, file serving, remote access and a host of other features. The hardware requirements for Home Server 2011 are modest, making it an ideal platform for an older PC you were thinking of retiring. So long as it has a 1.4GHz 64-bit processor, 2GB or more of memory and a 160GB or larger hard drive, you're good to go. When setting up your home server, the drivers you should be using are those designed for Windows Server 2008. Failing this, many Windows 7 64-bit drivers will also work, but it's not guaranteed. Because of these driver limitations, we strongly recommend you keep the hardware simple; bleeding-edge components are not needed for a home server, and will likely cause you more headaches.

Description: a NAS box as a central multimedia hub

Although the media serving capabilities of WHS 2011 are reasonably robust, using an add-in like Serviio enhances its UPnP/DLNA functionality. This open-source add-in for WHS allows you to set up transcoding for devices with limited file format compatibility, allowing you to watch obscurely encoded content on your straight-laced devices. It also allows you to stream web content like YouTube across your connected devices.

Description: Windows Home Server 2011

Windows Home Server 2011

We could easily spend another eight pages talking about WHS 2011, because its abilities are wide ranging and flexible. It's reasonably cheap as Microsoft operating systems go as well, costing just $65.12 from Amazon at time of writing. If you don't have a system ready for WHS 2011, you can buy home servers from many manufacturers. HP offers a WHS 2011 compliant micro-server for just $335.68, or if you fancy something with a little more gusto, Chillblast sells a home server for $478.4 with a Sandy Bridge CPU, a 500GB hard drive and 2GB of memory, complete with the OS.

If you need plenty of space for your multimedia collection, a home server could easily end up being considerably cheaper than a similarly specified NAS. They're also endlessly upgradable - all you need is a larger case and a SATA card and you can continue to add extra capacity as you see fit.

How Much Bandwidth Do I Need?

Description: a Blu-ray disk

Arguably the most demanding thing you'll be doing over your network is streaming 1080p high-definition video. The question is: how much network bandwidth does this actually need? If you rip a Blu-ray movie with no reduction in quality, this will require a maximum of around 54Mbps for flawless playback.

This figure represents the maximum raw data transfer for a Blu-ray disk, however, and most movies require less than half of this bandwidth. In other words, if you're using a 100Mbps wired connection, you have more than enough bandwidth at your disposal to stream a single Blu-ray movie over your network. If, however, you want the ability to stream more than one file, then you may start to run into bandwidth limitations.

Wired Networking

Description: Ethernet Router Network Diagram

Ethernet Router Network Diagram

In a perfect world we would all have gigabit Ethernet cables running throughout our homes, interlinking all of our devices and allowing media to be shared between rooms at ultra-high speeds. If you need to get a property rewired for whatever reason anyway, then you should definitely factor in Ethernet as well, as our demands for connectivity between rooms will only increase. Retrofitting a property with network cables is prohibitively expensive, however, because a standard three-bedroom house could easily cost you in excess of $12,500 once you've factored in replastering, decorating and installation. Sometimes, though, it pays to think outside the box. It's comparatively easy, for example, to run Ethernet cable between rooms using the exterior of the house, as they can be tacked to existing masonry and just need a single hole drilled through the wall on either end. Just make sure you know how to terminate a network cable before carrying this out!

The lovely thing about wired connections is that they provide fantastic connection speeds, unrivalled consistency and are very resilient against all kinds of interference. If you have a gigabit network at home, you should be able to stream as many as ten or more HD videos at once.

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