Many different configurations exist when it comes to home media server systems. Understanding the core components will help you to understand what kind of system best suits your needs best, especially if you are considering building your own home media server system versus buying a off the shelf Network Attached Storage (NAS) system.
Media Server Description
A media server is computer on a network that serves as a central location for authorized users to access and store media files over the network. The server may also serve content such as providing a VPN to your home network, hosting your own web pages, dedicated game server, etc…
- Server – The computing device that serves and stores media. The server usually is headless meaning no keyboard or display. All interaction is performed over a network connection.
- Media – Any kind of data. Most frequently Movies, Security Camera Video, and Files
- Clients – these are devices that can access the media such as: Smart TVs, mobile phones, Laptops, and Desktop computers over the Local Area Network (LAN) or via the internet Wide Area Network (WAN).
The main purpose of a home media server is to allow you to easily and securely access central media files from multiple devices within your home. With the inclusion of a VPN or other means of encryption you can also extend this capability securely over the internet for situations when you are away from your home network.
Why Host My Own Media Server vs The Cloud?
When people refer to “the cloud” what they are really talking about are servers that which are remotely located and managed by a provider. Google Drive and Photos are two great examples. Their is nothing wrong with using the cloud based services but it really comes down to use cases and the cost for each service.
Potential Monthly Savings
With the power efficient media server options available the cost of electricity is far less than what you would monthly for various cloud services. But if you already have a high bandwidth persistent internet connection at home why incur the extra cost? When you start paying for multiple cloud services then you really start adding up a monthly bill that would quickly justify your own media server. Some examples are:
- Web Server – Let’s say you want to host a simple web page. Sure, you could pay a cloud service ~$3.00/mo for that capability.
- Security Camera Storage – Lets say you have a home IP based camera surveillance system. Again, most will steer you towards a cloud based service such as Ring who will want a ~$3-10/mo payment for the use of their cloud storage.
- Game Server – Serving games requires high performance hardware and a very speedy internet connection. Cloud based services can run from $10-40/mo depending on the game needs.
- Secure File Storage – Free Google Drive is a solid choice for file storage but that free service isn’t really 100% free. Google scans the files you upload and that might be fine for some content but for sensitive files such as tax documents you can use your own server to securely store and transmit them to end users. Your savings here is piece of mind.
- Streaming Media (Cord Cutting) – Plex is probably the #1 reason people are building their own media servers. Plex allows you to host and serve your own media files. You essentially have your own version of Netflix. Search the internet about Plex servers to learn more. Depending on your ability to host your own content you could save ~$10-20/mo by not signing up for as many streaming services.
Make vs Buy for your Home Media Server
This part is an important consideration. Consider your use cases. Do you want to be up and running with the least amount of effort? You may want to Buy. Do you have very specific functionality such as serving specific games that you want to accomplish. You may want to build. I am going to cover a few examples for each.
Ready Made Home Media Servers
Network Attached Storage (NAS) boxes have become pretty popular for the consumer market who wants ready made solutions with low operating costs.
NAS (Network Attached Storage) is an intelligent storage device connected to your home or office network. You can store all your family and colleagues’ files on the NAS, from important documents to precious photos, music and video collections. By using a web browser or mobile apps, you can access files and use various services provided by the NAS via the Internet.Synology.com
All of the popular offerings will provide a capability for:
- Network desktop backups
- video/surveillance solutions
- E-mail & Web Servers
- Docker/Container Environment (Think if this as your apps)
- Media Servers (Plex)
- Secure File Server
- Torrent and NZB Utilities
- Misc Applications
Just Add Drives
For each NAS you will need to select which hard drives you want to use and buy those separately. I would recommend any of the following:
- Seagate IronWolf. Capacities: 8TB, 4TB
- Seagate IronWolf SSD. 2TB (At little expensive for me at the moment)
- Western Digital Red Pro. Capacities: 8TB, 4TB (Best Value)
I am going to cover a few of the most popular models in the next few sections.
Synology Disk Station
The Synology disk stations are inexpensive, power efficient, and provide an easy to use web based interface. Synology offers many models. As most users expect to run Plex on their NAS having enough horse power to transcode and stream files points us to the DS4xx series such as the DS420J and the more expensive DS419Slim.
The DS420J has a quad-core ARM 64-bit processor which means it will be very power efficient to keep the annual operating cost low (~24 Watts peak). The ARM processor can handle transcoding and streaming just fine. It has 1GB of RAM which doesn’t sound like much compared to your desktop but the NAS servers run efficient and on a much lighter OS than what you are probably using on your laptop/desktop.
QNAP Disk Station
QNAP markets a model of their NAS tailored for Plex. These units pack more RAM than the Synology units and offer mainly Intel x86 processors for their media versions. When transcoding will be more power hungry than the ARM but can also stream to multiple TV’s in high definition w/o issue. At idle the power consumption is pretty close the Synology ARM at around ~12 Watts.
The recommended QNAP Models are:
Build Your Own Media Server
You can use any computer for a home server. You may have an older gaming tower sitting around or you want to build a monster machine. The main thing to keep in mind is heat dissipation and power consumption. This thing is going to be running 24/7 so if you live in a hot climate you won’t want the extra heat you may want to consider a less powerful NAS. If you live in a colder climate having a little extra heat produced is probably not an issue.
I won’t go through all of the details on building your own Media Server in this post as their are many variables to consider and plenty of tutorials on building a PC but I will pass along a few tools that make the process easier.
Picking out hardware
Consumer PC hardware changes rapidly. I prefer to setup an account on pcpartpicker.com to not along help me keep track of components during my build but also to keep track of what I ended up using in my builds. This allows me to go back and reference each build in the event I need to replace or upgrade a component.
Once you build your system some kind of OS and server user interface will be required. Many good options exist, I have had really good luck managing UnRaid serves. The license scheme allows you to try before you buy and it is a one time purchase.
UnRaid is very forgiving of major hardware upgrades. It scales well as your library grows and the user community is very responsive when you need a little help.
Power Conditioning and Battery Backup
If you are running a media server at some point you will have a power outage. To prevent data corruption it is a good idea to have that media server connected to a battery backup system. The added benefit is the power conditioning and surge protection that comes with this investment.