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Build Your Own Media Server, Part 2

In "Building Your Own Media Server, Part 1, I provided a top-level look at the general process of setting up a home media server. This week, I'd like to give you some more specifics.

You can create a home media server out of an existing PC that you'd like to repurpose, or you can buy a new PC. Either way, the machine must meet certain criteria, as I outlined in Part 1. After you install Windows XP on the system and ensure that you meet the hardware requirements (i.e., the machine has an Ethernet connection and at least one large hard disk for storing your media files), it's time to make a few software-based configuration changes on the new system.

Let's tackle some home-networking basics. The home media server will need to be in the same workgroup as your other PCs, and you should give it a logical name. To accomplish these steps, right-click My Computer in the Start menu and choose Properties. On the Computer Name tab, click Change and give your home media server a simple name (e.g., Media). Then, change the Workgroup name to match the workgroup name that your other PCs use—I use "thurrott" at home, but you can pick any name that meets Microsoft's naming criteria. When you're done, you'll have to reboot.

To configure easy remote access to your media over the network, you'll want to set up a user account on your home media server that matches the user account that you use on your main desktop. That is, both systems should have the same username and password. (You'll also want to make duplicate user accounts for other family members if they have their own PCs elsewhere in the house.) And yes, everyone in the family should have a password: When it comes time to access your media content from your own PC, you'll want it to connect automatically, which can happen if you've duplicated the accounts across both machines. (And no one has to be logged on at the home media server for this to work).

Now it's time to create some shared folders—or shares—on the home media server. To do so, navigate to the location on your hard disk where you'd like the shares to reside. In our simple example, I'll assume that you've installed XP on the C drive and have installed a second hard disk, which I'll call D, to which you'll copy your media content. On the D drive, you should create a folder or group of folders that will hold your content. I'm logical-minded, so I'd create folders such as Music, Photos, and Videos.

After you create the folders, you must share them so that other users can access them from the home network. To do so, right-click a recently created folder (e.g., Music) and choose Sharing and Security to open the Sharing tab of the Properties dialog box for the folder you selected. What you see on the Sharing tab will depend on whether you've ever shared a folder before. If you haven't, a message will appear in the tab's Network sharing and security section that states, "If you understand the security risks but want to share files without running the wizard, click here." When you click this message, you'll see an Enable File Sharing warning message. Select Just enable file sharing, then click OK. Now, you'll see the dialog box as God intended it.

In the Network sharing and security section of that tab, select the Share this folder on the network check box, then select a share name, which will default to the folder name (e.g., Music, in this example). You should also select Allow network users to change my files. Only you and trusted family members with logon rights will be able to access these files, so you'll want to be able to perform simple file operations remotely.

Now, repeat that process for each folder you want to share. When you're finished, you can return to your main PC and see if you can access the shares. Start by choosing Run from the Start menu. Assuming you've named the home media server Media and a share on the machine Music, you would enter \\media\music in the Run dialog's Open text box and press Enter. If all is well, that location will open, although it should be empty since you haven't yet added any content. If you see a logon dialog box, you didn't correctly create a duplicate user account on the media server that matches your main logon's username and password.

If each share is working, it's time to copy over the content. You can use a simple copy-and-paste operation to accomplish this step. Next, you need to tell Windows Media Player (WMP)—or whatever jukebox you're using—where to find the content. In WMP, select Tools, Options. Navigate to the Library tab, and select Monitor Folders. Add the path to your content (e.g., \\media\music) to the list of folders that WMP will poll for content. When you've finished, press F3 to manually search for that content.

When your home media server is correctly set up, you can log out and access that content remotely from any machine in your home network. If you use a Media Center PC, a digital-audio or digital-media receiver, or other similar device, you can set it up to access content from the server.

As I mentioned last week, you should absolutely plan a backup strategy. Companies such as Western Digital and Maxtor sell excellent external hard drives with USB 2.0 connections, and often the backup process is automated. If you want to be truly safe, you should arrange two backups and leave one offsite. I switch between two FireWire-based LaCie hard drives, one of which is always at my parents' house, because they happen to live in the same town. But your desk at work or even a bank safety deposit box will work well too, as long as you remember to rotate the devices regularly. Better safe then sorry.

If you encounter any problems with these instructions, let me know!

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