A Practical Server

A QNAP TS-251D A Network Attached Storage Server, suitable for most families. It can hold 2 x 4 TB hard drives. (Photo: QNAP)

Many families do not recognize their need for a server. In this weblog post, this need will be explained.

In almost every residence there is always a need for more storage space, physical as well as digital. A server can increase the effective use of the digital storage space. Some users need/ take more space than others. With a server, users do not need to get allocated the same set amount of space. Instead, the space can be pooled allowing greedier users to use more space than their more restrained counterparts.

People have many ongoing commitments, so it can be easy to forget something that is dependent on human brain power. Perhaps the best example is backup of data. Backup can be automated in several ways. It can involve the act of plugging in an external drive into a laptop, with software activated to upload new/ modified materials to that drive when that occurs. This will work fine until the user forgets to plug it in, or it can’t be found because someone else is using it.

Another approach is to store data on a cloud = someone else’s server, located externally somewhere in the world. Amazon, Google, Microsoft and many others are willing to provide cloud storage. Unfortunately, these services can be expensive, and one will always be uncertain as to how far the cloud service provider will allow others (unauthorized) access to documents. This can be especially important with respect to both personal and commercial documents. Sometimes people working at the cloud make a mistake that destroys all/ some of the stored content. This has recently happened at Adobe, where some users discovered that their entire content had been permanently deleted in error.

A server can be set up to automatically backup content found on other devices, mirroring changes made locally. As soon as a change is made to a document or folder, this change is implemented immediately on the server.

Even families need to collaborate. A server encourages people to work together by allowing users to access common documents, that are held on a server. Software is available that allows group editing of documents, without have to resort to commercial products, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365.

An important benefit of using a server, is that it incorporates software options that allow for remote access, this is, beyond the local area network (LAN), so that users can access files everywhere.

Further considerations

The successful use of a server is dependent on having a useful data/ document management system.

Some documents are very private, and should not be shared. Others may be slightly less private and can be shared with specific individuals. Then there are those that can be freely shared with friends and family. Sometimes there are even public documents that one could potentially share with everyone in the world.

Every user should have their own password protected (and potentially encrypted) area where they can store personal documents.

Common areas are often better organized by file type. There can be text files (including e-books), images (including photographs, reproductions of drawings, paintings and other artworks), videos (including feature films, television episodes and documentaries), audio (including music), and games.

As an example, music tastes can be very personal. Not everyone in our household appreciates Finnish rock/ Suomirock music. Yet, there is no damage done putting Leningrad Cowboys, Nightwish and Sonata Arctica in a common area. Those not wanting to listen to it, can simply ignore it.

A server can also work as a media center / home theater facility. This server is connected to the internet. In addition, it includes a user interface that allows users to navigate through what amounts to a digital media library, search for, and play back media files.

Some other capabilities include: Play, catalog, and store local hard drive, flash drive and memory card music. It should also be able to display digital pictures, including CD album art. With some caveats, it should also be able to stream video and audio files, including those from Netflix, Youtube and Spotify over the LAN. Similar caveats apply to games. It is usually unable to play content found on CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray disks.

Most of the time, individual users will rely on their own personal devises to browse the Internet, check email accounts and access assorted social networking sites. However, these could be made accessible using a server, functioning as a media player. Participating in video conferences can be enabled by connecting a webcam and microphone.

Most families would be adequately served with an off-the-shelf Network Attached Storage (NAS) server, such as a QNAP TS-251D with 2 x 4 TB of storage capacity (eg Toshiba N300), plus 2 x 4 TB external disks (eg Toshiba Canvio Advance) to be located outside the house, and provide “insurance” in case of fire or other event that physically or otherwise destroys the NAS. Setting up and running this device is relatively easy, using a web-based interface.

Cheaper servers can be made using Raspberry Pi based equipment. However, these require a skill set not every family has.

Typically a NAS uses Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive/ Independent Disks (RAID). This is fine for storage up to, say, 10 TB. Beyond this capacity, another approach is more appropriate.

OpenZFS (ZFS) is a file system that provides is an advanced open-source storage platform. It includes protection against data corruption, support for high storage capacities, efficient data compression, content snapshots and copy-on-write clones, continuous integrity checking and automatic repair, and remote device content replication.

Most ZFS system implementations are complex, and require trained personnel. However, a TrueNAS Mini is suitable for families, with a (relatively) easy-to-use FreeNAS/ TrueNAS web interface accessed from any computer or mobile device in the LAN. Note: 2020-10 is a transition period for TrueNAS. The FreeNAS software on these machines is in the process of being replaced with a TrueNAS CORE release. Once this is updated, machines will be able to run TrueNAS.

The ZFS system has been covered previously in more detail. At Cliff Cottage, the rack based Mothership NAS has a storage capacity of about 100 TB, where 1 Terrabyte = 1 trillion (short scale) bytes = 10¹² bytes. Currently 4 of 12 bays are used, with 8 TB disks = 32 TB. For most people, with the exception of some extremists – such as this writer, this is far beyond what is needed.

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