Rethinking the Home Server

Rethinking the Home Server

Making some changes this year with regards to storage

Last year, I performed an ongoing experiment in which I pitted a Windows Server 2012 Essentials-based Microserver against a Windows 8-based "home server" PC. The goal was to find out which—if either—of these setups was the better choice as a home server, and of course it required months of time in which I simply let each device do its thing. Based on this experience, I'm rethinking my home server setup and will be making changes this year.

You can see my basic use of these systems on my latest What I Use page. But a quick recap goes like this:

The Server machine is a previous-generation HP Microserver that's been upgraded with a stupid amount of storage, both internal and external. This is a general-purpose server with my full document archive (dating back almost 20 years), photo collection, software library and so on.

The PC was recently upgraded to Windows 8.1 and is mostly used for digital media purposes, such as photo backups, digital music and video, and the like. It has far less storage, and is less complex than the real server.

The Server machine is a semi-modern version of a setup I've had for years and years. It runs an expensive and complex Windows Server version, it utilizes Storage Spaces technology to create redundant pools of storage that span multiple disks, it holds virtually everything of importance to me both personally and professionally, and it's backed up locally and to the cloud (in this case Crashplan).

In the old days, this was everything. I needed to be able to reach it remotely if I was on the road, so I paid for products like LogMeIn Pro and Hamachi to make sure that happened reliably. But in recent years, the cloud has changed how I worked, and rather than centralize my daily use data on a server, I've started centralizing it in the cloud, with both SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro.

So while I do still have this huge archive of old data on the Server machine, for the past year and a half or so, everything I've done has gone through the cloud instead. I can sync what I want to the PCs I use, but my need for local storage has gone down dramatically, and even more so if you pretend all that old stuff doesn't exist.

This was the point, sort of, behind the Windows 8-based PC "home server": How little—storage-wise—could I get away with, given my new cloud usage?

Very little, as it turns out, and certainly not much from a cost perspective. The PC has a 2 TB data drive, but I only use a small portion of it. And frankly, I could use even less. And that, combined with my experiences with these two machines over 2013, has me rethinking the whole home server thing.

At home, I occasionally access each machine over Remote Desktop Connection. I do this to check on the health of the machines, to look for and install Windows Updates, and to make sure that everything is working as expected. For reasons I can't explain, the PC "home server" in particular has problems making this simple connection, and I've had to go down to the room in which they're stored to physically reboot the thing so that it works reliably over RDC. Why? No idea.

On the flipside, the Crashplan-based cloud backup on the Server machine is unreliable, and I often get reports that the machine hasn't been backed up for days. RDCing into the box and restarting Crashplan sometimes works, and rebooting it works even better, but it's stupid thing to have to do. (I use Carbonite for cloud backups on the PC server and that works flawlessly, from what I can tell. Of course, sometimes I can't even access the machine, so that's sort of a toss-up as well.)

Put simply, for basically the same reasons—complexity, reliability—I'm not so sure either of these systems is in a great place. And given my changing local storage needs, I'm starting to see the writing on the wall. And I'm thinking that an even simpler solution may be in order.

What that might be remains to be seen. But first, I need to think about what I want to do with all this data that I'm still storing locally. There's no rush: It's all backed up properly now, both locally and to the cloud, and even if I moved to something different, that can continue. But looking at my sadly voluminous use of hard drive space on the server, the first step is figuring out how much I'll need to archive.

It breaks down like so.

Document archive. While my ongoing work documents can go through SkyDrive, I'll need to figure out some place to stick all that legacy data that's currently on the Server box. Roughly speaking, the document archive is about 480 GB.

Photo collection. This is perhaps the one thing that needs to be locally available as well as in the cloud. My full photo collection (including home movies) is about 260 GB.

Music. After many years of maintaining a music collection across various machines and services, I'm good to go with just a subscription service, most probably Xbox Music. Currently, my old-school music archive takes up about 100 GB, but that's got some backups in it. Realistically, it's closer to 46 GB.

Videos. Like many people, I used to buy VHS tapes and then DVDs. And then I ripped my DVDs to disk. And then I stopped ever watching any of them. Now, we watch Netflix and sometimes rent movies from whatever service makes the most sense at the time. I can let much of this go, but my complete movie and TV show collection is an incredible 2.2 TB. I will need to go through this to pull out the stuff I do want to save—old MST3K recordings, Rifftrax purchases, some tech-industry and travel stuff and so on. I couldn't care less about the rest.

Software. I had long-ago started separating out "always install apps" and drivers from other software, but the full collection is about 225 GB and mostly worthless. Saving just the important stuff, I bet I need next to nothing here, as most of my installs now come from the cloud.

So, basically the documents plus photos and music is 825ish GB of stuff. Less than 1 TB.

But 1 TB of online storage is expensive.

So there are two things I'm considering here. Getting 1 TB of "deep archive" data into a preferably inexpensive cloud service and then possibly consolidated locally. And figuring out a sensible local home server/NAS/whatever-type setup that meets today's needs. That latter bit needs to include all of my photos, and would preferably be redundant (i.e. not a single hard disk). I'd like to be able to get to it while away from home if possible.

For the former, I know there are services like Amazon Glacier that may fit the bill. That service is $0.01 per GB per month, so about $10 a month for 1 TB if my math is correct.

For the latter, I'm leaning towards simplicity. A Western Digital My Cloud device can offer up to 4 TB of capacity and is available online, but it may be too simple in that I'm not sure about redundancy here. A WD MyCloud EX4 NAS may conversely be too complex, with RAID technology protecting the drives instead of the Storage Spaces technology I like so much in Windows.

And that's an interesting point, really: None of these potential answers are Windows, of course. That has pros and cons. But the day-to-day stuff goes through two services—SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro—that are very much integrated with Windows and very appealing for that reason. This other stuff... I just want to spend less time managing it, and I want it to be simpler when I need to manage it.

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