What's a good simple and cheap media or file server setup?
May 29, 2009 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Advice for a server newb who needs help getting started with a simple media/backup/torrent server?

I've got a 438 GB movie collection an on external 500 GB USB hard drive right now, so I need to upgrade. I was thinking of buying two 1 TB external drives and using rsync for a poor man's RAID 1 setup. But for good drives plus shipping, that's nearly $250, and I thought, why not just setup a real file server? And maybe get a Bit Torrent thingy going too, so I could turn off my main computer at night and keep transfers going? Heck, I'd probably come up with other useful things for the server to do too.

But I don't know where to start. For hardware, looking at, say, a Dell Inspiron 530 ($379), it's too powerful and too expensive for what I'd use it for.

And for the OS... Windows Home Server? Ubuntu? I don't know what'd be easiest.

Ideas? Thanks!
posted by wastelands to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I use Ubuntu for my media server. I run rtorrent, which can watch a directory for new torrents, download them, then place the finished files in your media directory. I also use pytvshows to scrape rsstv for new episodes of my shows. The finished directory is then shared over samba (which is windows file sharing).

Would you also be using it as a media player, or is this machine just for torrents? If you're going to be watching anything off of it, you should probably plan ahead and get something beefy enough to do 1080p.
posted by valadil at 8:27 AM on May 29, 2009

I would go with whatever OS you feel comfortable with. Obviously Linux is thinner, and therefore probably a better choice. I'd consider a BSD, since this seems like a project and why not learn something new? I used to be a Gentoo (flavor of linux) guy until I tried NetBSD. I don't think I'm going back, for servers anyway.

As for hardware, consider the barebones machines from NewEgg. It's a case, power supply, motherboard, and processor all in one box. All you need to buy (again from NewEgg) is RAM and the hard drives. It's not like you're going to be serving up the files to a million users. Buying a real "file server" is not necessary for your purposes. Just a somewhat fast machine with enough RAM to handle everything running on the box. Also consider second hand from a friend, it doesn't have to be new.

Even if you pick a case, mobo, processor and RAM from NewEgg, and built it yourself, you'll still be better off IMO than going with a Dell. It's more learning :)

I'd consider the shuttle boxes: http://www.newegg.com/Store/Category.aspx?Category=3&name=Barebone-Mini-Computers

One thing to seriously consider is moving towards a MythTV client/server setup. The way it works is, you have a file server (which we're building now) and several clients. The server should be a full case, since you might want to install TV tuner cards later (MythTV can act as a DVR as well). The advantage is you can get one of those really thin machines (the clients) with a video card in it hooked up to your TVs, and watch the video everywhere.

If you go with MythTV, stick with Linux, you're gonna need the drivers. http://www.mythtv.org/
posted by teabag at 8:50 AM on May 29, 2009

I recently just setup an old machine to run FreeNAS as a file server. Here was my experience:

- The machine I was using is an old P4 with a few internal drives and some larger external drives connected via firewire.
- Burned a Live CD and booted up fairly easily. It saves the configuration data to a floppy or thumb drive, so you can run it permanently as a Live CD if you don't want to install it.
- I had weird crashing issues and bootup problems early on, which I eventually fixed by disabling my hardware RAID controller in my BIOS settings.
- Once I figured out the crashing issues I was able to install it to the HD easily.
- There are a ton of options in setting up the configuration for actually mounting and sharing the drives, some of which are not explained very well, but I eventually figured out how to set everything up.
- I've had it up and running for the last few weeks and it works correctly with the right setup (see below).

- Installation and setup was actually pretty easy compared to a lot of my headaches around setting up weird OSes.
- Little or no FreeBSD or Unix knowledge was needed.
- Other than the initial setup and install, everything is configurable via the web UI. No need to run VNC or anything like that to check the status or make changes. It's more similar to managing a router than a real server.
- A ton of services are built-in and ready to be turned on, including Windows (samba) network sharing, FTP, Bittorrent, etc.
- Since everything works from a Live CD, you can try it out first before committing to using it.

- According to the documentation and warnings in the UI, you're supposed to UFS format and there's no NTFS write support. So you can't just plug in your NTFS external drive and start using it without reformatting.
- My backup method of choice for my old setup (external drives connected to the machine that was being backed up) was mirroring via Retrospect. I have used it for years and in my experience it's faster and more robust than other options like rsync. For some reason Retrospect can't mirror properly when going from NTFS -> UFS on a FreeNAS share (possibly due to file date issues). It always thinks that the files have been changed and does a full copy every time instead of just copying changed files. I switched to backing up full drive images instead, but I would rather use my old method if it was possible.
- If you want to use any services that aren't supported, like adding a print server or something, you would probably be better off using a real linux or FreeBSD distro.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:04 AM on May 29, 2009

Yeah, the bare minimum cheap-but-new desktop is what you want. I've been using a 3.4 GHz pentium 4 with 1GB ram Ubuntu machine as a torrent/media/web server for about a year, and the only thing I have a problem with is space. My advice is to go (software) RAID 5 from the start, and try to get a motherboard with 6 SATA ports. I've done it the cheap way and just added new HDs without RAID when I want more capacity, but now I'm at the point where I have no backups and everything's spread across four 500 GB drives. RAID's going to be an even bigger investment now.

I'd budget: $150-200 on the DIY computer, $200-350 on the hard drives.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:07 AM on May 29, 2009

Depending on the level of techiness you're willing to deal with, you do not neccessarily want to base this on a PC. I have a Buffalo LinkStation Pro Duo, which is basically an ARM system attached to two SATA hard disks, running Linux. It's slower than a PC, but the cost over the drives is not huge (2x1 TB = USD 320 from amazon) and it's silent and uses very little power.

There's a whole slew of NAS devices, and lots of firmware hacking going on. nas-central might be a starting point (though the field is narrowed down if you actually want to do RAID).
posted by themel at 9:33 AM on May 29, 2009

You can get an HP MediaSmart EX485 server at Costco online right now for about $500, with a 750GB a 500GB and room for 2 more drives. Better deals may be out there, I haven't looked. My wife waved the coupon at me the other day and said 'is this the thing you've been talking about for ages?' I'm having a very hard time talking myself out of buying one.

It doesn't do RAID, but it mirrors files and folder structures you designate, which saves a load of space. It's tiny, quiet, designed for the need youhave and has won lots of awards. You can see more here.
posted by IanMorr at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2009

I've got a similar setup on a very old machine. It's a AMD 1.something MHz with less than a gig of ram and an old NVidia 5200 video card (with an s-video port). It's got 3 hard drives of various sizes, 1 for the OS and two for data (TV, ripped DVDs, backup for my laptop, music etc..). I went with Ubuntu and mythtv, actually using a version of ubuntu with myth built in called Mythbuntu. The output runs to my TV and I use my iphone as a remote. Lately I've abandoned mythtv for XBMC and love it. All the data is shared across my home network via Samba so that I can watch video on my laptop in my room, or the kids can watch a movie in the living room while I'm listening to music in the garage, etc.. For torrents, I've installed torrentflux, which has a web-gui so I can check it and upload torrents via my laptop or any computer in the house. Downloaded media is automatically listed in XBMC. My computer is probably 5 -7 years old, and it's never had a problem doing all I've asked of it.

Here are the instructions I've used over the years

If I were to build from scratch today, I'd want a low-power (fanless?) setup in a small case, with an NVidia chipset, as nvidia seems to have better linux support, and maybe run the OS from a SSD or something, with data served up on 1TB or bigger RAID/Drobo'd drives. Or I'd get a mac-mini and NAS.
posted by gofargogo at 10:35 AM on May 29, 2009

I've been using an HP MediaVault NAS for about 6 months now, and I've been loving it. I threw in a Western Digital hard drive for a 1.5TB of storage. It streams directly to my xbox 360 which is great and really convenient, does RAID, and is pretty small form and quiet. I don't think you'll be able to set it up downloading torrents without your PC on, but for all your other needs its a great option. This site has a huge database of Q&A, hacks, and other general info about the MediaVault, definitely worth checking out if you're interested.
posted by KilgoreTrout at 10:40 AM on May 29, 2009

I bought one of IBM's $200 refurbished PCs. It's powerful enough to do the job, they still come with XP instead of Vista (I'm using debian), and they're a good price. The ram is minimal, but it should be enough. And, the internal hard drive is small, but you could get an extra one (internal or external).
posted by philomathoholic at 10:50 AM on May 29, 2009

A couple months ago, I built a linux-based headless torrent box/media server. For the most part, I used this pretty comprehensive walkthrough. It's worked perfectly, and is very stable.
posted by mattybonez at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2009

I thought about building such a beast, but what I really wanted was just a big networkable storage box, I ended up with a D-link DNS 323 (two drives, 1TB each) It's pretty basic, but does support UPnP for streaming stuff to the Xbox 360 / PS3. It also comes with a basic Bittorrent server. There is a simple way to upgrade the box though (software only), so you can actually install a LAMP server, run the OS from a memory stick, and use an upgraded BitTorrent client. (I don't work for Dlink or anything, I just like the box!)
posted by defcom1 at 6:49 PM on May 29, 2009

Asus Eee 701: cheap, fanless, low-power, ON 24/7
posted by Akeem at 1:53 AM on July 24, 2009

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