// February 8th, 2010 // No Comments » // Emerging Tech, Life-n-Times
Spence goes looking for an ultimate DVR/fileserver/webserver/mail server solution for his home…ideally all on the same machine. Well. It didn’t quite work out that way.
So one day I had the epiphany: wouldn’t it be cool to have one server that could basically take care of my home computing server needs. I’ve gotten a bit spoiled, I have to admit: I became somewhat addicted to timeshifting my favorite TV programs to a time which would fit into my somewhat hectic life (it’s the gym workouts which did it–I would go to the gym every Tues and Thurs nights, and that required a DVR to record some of my favorite nights of TV). I also had a number of other servers running–a web server to serve this site as well as a half dozen others, a mailserver to support the various domains I owned, and a fileserver to make it convenient to access files no matter what computer I was using at the time (iPhone, laptop, gaming rig, etc.). I also loved the ability to share files between the homestead and work.
The Old Setup
For years, I had the following servers setup to service those needs:
- Web/Mail Server: I was using a Linux variant (Fedora) with a LAMP stack to service my web and mail server needs. This server was basically bullet proof, having never really crashed on me for years.
- File Server: An old Pentium 4 running Windows XP acted as my File Server, again, pretty reliable, and very simple to hookup from my other Windows machines in the house.
- DVR: Time Warner DVR box. Capable of recording hi-def television, the box was very flakey, and frequently would need to be rebooted.
Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if I could combine all of these services on one machine? Afterall, it’s not like I was serving high traffic websites, had huge amounts of email, or was recording every other television program on the planet. In fact, my websites had pretty minimal traffic, and I only recorded a few channels. So after looking at a number of solutions, this is what I came up with:
- Uber Server: Running Windows 7, with XAMPP (Apache, MySQL, PHP, Mercury Mail), FreeSSHd, Windows Media Center.
I had an old Dell Dimension 8400 machine I could put all of this onto with 3GB RAM, 500GB x 2 HDs, an NVidia GT240 video card with 1GB DDR3 RAM, and a Hauppauge WinTV PC-250 tuner card. Perfect, right? Well, not so much.
Having been a beta tester for Win7, I was busy telling people just how much of an improvement Win7 was over Vista. And, in fact, I still believe that (as do many others). But imagine my chagrin when I installed Win7 on my old Dell Dimension 8400…and it failed. Not a driver failing. Not an app failing. The install failed. The machine would just randomly freeze during the install. After testing the memory, stress testing the CPU, removing every card (except the video card–which I changed), and changing out the PSU, there was only one conclusion: my old Dell Dimension 8400 simply couldn’t hack Win7. It seems that Win7 may press the machine beyond it’s capabilities (I was able to reinstall WinXP/Media Center Edition 2005 back onto the machine without ill effect).
Windows Media Center for Windows 7 has some interesting features, including plugins (for Netflix, for instance, and fantasy sport player tracking)
So, I decided to bite the bullet: use WinXP (and it’s old version of Media Center 2005–which lacks some of the niftier features of Windows Media Center for Win7) and see if I could set up the server to work with the other services I needed. I downloaded XAMPP and installed it within five minutes…MySQL no problem. Apache, no problem. Setting up the server as a file server, no problem. Porting over my Linux Apache settings, no problem. Moving the MySQL server no problem. Getting Mercury Mail working…not so much. In fact, I spent about four hours getting Mercury Mail configured properly…getting it to forward email to an external mail system, setting up anti-spam systems, etc. Finally, I got it set up…and started getting very strange error messages about interactive services (which shouldn’t have happened), as well as random crashes. Add on top of that the fact that the anti-spam features of Mercury Mail were letting numerous pieces of spam get through (80 or so a day, compared to the 1-2 that my old Sendmail system was letting through), and I wasn’t too happy.
Then the server started to freeze/lockup. Evidently a memory leak in Mercury Mail was causing Windows Media Center to run out of memory and fail when it needed to record a TV show. Throwing up my hands–and worried that one site my server was servicing (which wasn’t my own) was going down and staying down for hours on end…I finally fired up my old Linux server and took down the Uber Server.
In the end, I’ve ended up with the following:
- Web/Mail Server: Back to the old LAMP stack running reliably on a P4 machine.
- DVR: Broke down and bought a new motherboard (dual Atom processor with 2GB RAM–more than sufficient for the very light duty this machine will incur) and case…scavenged the RAM from the old Dell Dimension 8400, along with the Hauppage tuner and the graphics card (the mobo had a PCI-Ex16 slot, a PCI-Ex1, and a PCI slot–allowing me to plugin a decent graphics card and the TV tuner card)…all running Windows 7 for Media Center.
- File Server: Another new server, running Windows Home Server. This cool piece of software allows me to do the nifty trick of “borrowing” HD space from other machines, and adding it into one big file system. There’s also plugins for Windows Media Center/Win7 to allow integration between the media center and the file server. The machine is another ATOM based machine, using the mobo integrated graphics (just need it for install, since WHS is designed to be headless), as well as a SATA expansion card so I can hook up additional HDs as needed in the future.
Yes, I ended up with more servers…but at least I got rid of the pain-in-the-ass TWC DVR, as well as their ridiculous $30/monthly fees ($20 for the DVR service, $10 for the DVR rental, itself). The cost? $80 per mobo and CPU ($160 total), and another $60 for a new case. The memory I already had in my “uber machine” (2GB went to the Media Center box, 1GB to WHS–which btw, only requires 512MB to run). The HDs also came from the uber machine, as well as the video card. So in 8 months, I’ll have broken even ($240/$30 = 8mos) and I’ll have a modern DVR which can do other nifty things (like access Netflix streaming content, track my favorite sports teams and players, stream my ripped MP3s, and even allow me to access it all via my iPhone). WHS lets me to a number of cool things, too…like easily add additional capacity, manage files through Media Center, and backup all of my Windows machines automagically–something I used to do in a very ad hoc way.
Other Options Looked At
I did experiment with a number of other options (mostly DVR software), including all sorts of Open Source/Linux offerings (my initial thought was to make my Uber Server a Linux box since I absolutely loved the performance of my web and mail servers). Boxee, XMB, MythTV were all tested…and failed for a variety of reasons (only MythTV could record live TV broadcasts…and it’s interface was so bad, that I rapidly got annoyed…it also, for some reason, couldn’t recognize my very standard Hauppage WinTV-250 tuner card). XMB and Boxee had very appealing skins, but couldn’t record live TV, so was of limited interest. From a file server standpoint, Linux did very well, as I just created a SAMBA mount, and, voila, that was complete. However, to backup my Windows machines, I had to install Amanda…which worked, but was a pain in the ass to configure…say what you will about WHS, but it is exceedingly simple to install…it just “works”. Tried a number of other backup systems, too, including Bacula and rsync. So in the end, while Linuix was a very powerful platform, it was too much of a pain for me to configure and even worse to maintain.
The real question is how this configuration will work long term. I don’t expect any problems with the web/mail server. It’s been solid for years. What will be interesting to see is how Windows Media Center, and even more so, WHS hold up in the long term. I’ll let you know if I run into any major hurdles down the road…