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.
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.
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?
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.
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.