How can I make these computers work together?
June 7, 2010 8:26 PM   Subscribe

How can I optimally set up my home ecology?

Due to various casualties, upgrades, and repairs, I suddenly find that there are a lot of computers around here. Two new and functional desktops, one ~3-year-old desktop that probably has a burnt-out motherboard but could be put back into working order, a netbook and a frazzled old laptop, and an Xbox 360. I feel like this is a critical mass of silicon with which I (we; household of two) should be able to do something freaking awesome... but what? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Here's how things work now: the two new desktops are locked into their role as personal computers, with separate music collections and so on. The netbook is currently serving as sort of a coffee table/guest computer. The old laptop is, er, basically a paperweight at the moment and could (perhaps should) be given away or recycled. I've been planning on repairing the older desktop and turning it into a backup server/music aggregator/jukebox; I envision having complete backups locally, with the server feeding critical files to a remote backup for safety's sake. In many ways, it's at the heart of this question because there are limitless uses for a secondary computer - I just don't know which ones are awesome. All are currently on Windows, but I have no qualms putting Linux on the server, netbook and old laptop if it's worth grappling with interoperability issues.

How should I set this all up? What applications shine in multi-computer environments? Is in-home backup worthwhile, or should we skip that and go for remote-only? Any and all advice is welcome - thanks!
posted by McBearclaw to Computers & Internet (3 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have invested a great deal of time and energy (but not very much money!) into building my home network. Here are some of the things I have done.

You didn't say anything about your internet connection, but assuming DSL or cable, putting a pfsense router/firewall box between your modem and (I'm guessing) your wireless router opens all kinds of interesting doors.

In addition to routing and firewall duties, my pfsense box runs openVPN, so I can securely connect to my home network from anywhere and use it just like I were at home. This lets me run all kinds of cool network-based services over the Internet without actually exposing any of them to the public.

My Linux file server is where most of the action is. Transmission (bittorrent) can be run as a server process on Linux machines, so I can add and remove torrents to be downloaded by my server via a web interface. From anywhere.

All of the household music is stored on this file server, and I run mt-daapd to stream the entire collection a la iTunes music sharing. I don't need to carry music on my laptop: if I've got a wifi access point, I've got access to the whole catalog. (If I don't, my phone has Pandora; your mileage may vary.) VLC can be configured to stream video over the network, but I haven't gotten around to it myself.

I often find certain websites to be distracting when I'm trying to work. My fileserver runs Squid with Squidguard as a blacklisting proxy. When I need to focus, I set Firefox to connect through my Squid server. Bam, Metafilter (sorry!) and Slashdot get redirected to a custom page that tells me what I'm actually supposed to be doing.

You didn't say how familiar you are with Linux, so I won't take it for granted that you know about Samba, which is the Linux service that provides Windows-style file sharing. My girlfriend and I use Unison to synchronize directories full of currently-relevant files between our desktops, laptops, and the file server.

Our desktops are all Windows 7 and my girlfriend uses a macbook, incidentally - interoperability has never been an issue.

If you want to get fancy, you can set up SOGo with Postfix, Postgresql, and openLDAP for your own open-source email and calendar server. Think Exchange/Outlook, except free, and with Thunderbird as your client. I use this one at work, not at home.

And of course, with Apache and a dynamic webapp framework like Django or Rails you can make your fileserver do almost anything you can dream up if you can learn to program.

Approximately none of this stuff is easy to set up for a Linux novice. It is, however, very, very cool and empowering to get it running.
posted by zjacreman at 12:44 AM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

For xbox 360 support, you want something that supports UPnP AV. mediatomb is a popular program for this, but Microsoft's clearly preferred solution is Windows Media Center Edition, or Zune Store.
posted by pwnguin at 1:17 AM on June 8, 2010

Honestly? I'd get rid of the junk and clutter. Donate or recycle the broken desktop and old laptop. (Sure, you could fix them up, but will you? How long have they been hanging around?)
posted by runningwithscissors at 7:29 AM on June 8, 2010

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