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Why your need a Home Server (or NAS)

Why NAS ?

Why do I need a Home Server / NAS ?

In addition to all the software you have paid good money for, no doubt you have large collections of digital photo's, music tracks and even movies that exist only on your 'daily use' computers hard disk(s). When** your disk crashes, chances are you will loose the lot (even assuming you can find the original software disks, in many cases when you try to install your 'paid for' software on your replacement computer you will be told 'Licence Invalid'***). You might think that MS 'Full Backup' will protect you - but have you actually ever tried to 'Restore'**** a file from MS Backup ? Keeping copies of your System and media files on a Home Server / NAS is the best way to make sure they really are backed-up.

** There was a time when a hard disks came with a Warranty of 5 years. This has gradually 'shrunk' to the point were some manufacturers (Seagate/WD) are only offering 1yr warranty on some drives - whilst demanding additional payments for 'extended warranty' (which at least is a good indication that the dives will last a lot longer than 1yr - after all, no-one offers extended warranties on something that is actually going to fail :-) )

*** Whilst IN THEORY you can recover files from your 'last back-up' or re-visit the site where you purchased the software / music etc. and re-download it, chances are, in practice, this can't be done.

**** A MS 'Full Backup' is a compressed archive. Whilst your files are 'in there' somewhere, it turns out to be almost impossible to get back any specific file without doing a 'full restore' (which wipes your whole system). If you are confident of getting stuff back from a MS Backup, try it now ... choose any arbitrary software application, music track, saved email or Office document on your PC and pretend you have have just 'lost' it ....

What to look for in a multi-disk NAS

I no longer recommend dual-disk NAS units = two single disk units cost the same as the dual disk and are more reliable and more flexible (see below).

A RAID system 'works' by spreading the data over all the disks in such a way that if any one fails, the remaining disks, when all used together, can be used to fully recover all the data. So, in a 2 disk system, you have 1/2 the space. In a 3 disk system, you have 2/3rds the space. In a 5 disk system, the most popular arrangement (and usually the maximium that a RAID controler will offer) you get 4/5ths space.

Thus, 20 years ago, when a disk drives cost a fortune, it made a lot of sense to go for a 3 or 5 drive system = and vendors of 3/5 drive NAS boxes knew they could charge an arm-and-a-leg and the punters would have to pay. These days drives are big and cheap = but the 3/5 NAS boxes have not come down in price to reflect that. So the 'only' RAID NAS box you are ever likely to afford is a 2 drive Mirror

These days even the 2 drive NAS is no longer price competitive (= see later)

If you have a dual-disk RAID NAS, then first it must have the ability to 'keep running' after a single disk failure !

You will be amazed at the number of dual-disk 'Mirror' RAID systems that refuse to operate after a single disk fails !

If you purchase an 'off the shelf' NAS RAID, after setting it up as RAID 1 (Mirror), perform the following test :-

1) 'Map Network Drive' on your PC and copy a few files onto the new NAS 2) Turn it off, remove the power from one drive, and turn it back on again** 3) Double click the Mapped Drive icon on your PC and get your files back (the NAS should deliver then from the remaining 'good' drive)
** The best of the real Mirrors will 'flash a light' (or 'sound the alarm') but will still appear as a Network Drive 'share' and allow you to access the files.
Some will only allow access via some 'administrators' application (or via  a web page connection).
A fake Mirror will flash a light and refuse to allow any sort of access to the files at all. If you can get access via some 'admin' application, you might see a 'status report' of the 'missing drive' (or some-such).

If you can access your files from your PC, fantastic - you have a real RAID ! If not, pack it up, send it back and post an Amazon review to warn others. However, even if the 'broken Mirror' works as it should, the next step is to 'repair the Mirror' = and that's when you discover how good the RAID software really is :-)

1) Delete most of the files 2) Power off the NAS, and reconnect the original drive 3) Power up the NAS again and use the 'admin' access to see what it's found

A real Mirror will detect the 'miss-match' and allow you to use the administrators utility to 'resync' the data, allowing you to choose which of the two drives you wish to keep as 'master'. A fake Mirror may refuse to work at all, detect the 'error' but insist you wipe (reformat) both drives or just wipe one drive without warning and automatically 'resync'

Using 2 single drive NAS units instead of one single dual drive NAS

As of today (Nov 2017) two single (3Tb drive) NAS units cost about the same as as one (dual 3Tb drives) NAS unit = and, in this case, two singles are much better than one double !!

First, the double drive unit packs the two drives so close together that a fan is almost always required to keep them cool, whilst single drive units are built with enough space around the drive (and sufficient air vents) to avoid the need for a fan. About the most common thing to fail in any computer is the fan - which then leads to overheating of disk drives (and thus speeds the failure of both drives) - so no fan immediately improves reliability.
Next, two single drive units means you have duplicate NAS controllers (and duplicate power supplies) - whilst a dual drive unit has a single controller (and a single power supply). So again reliability is improved.
Also, should one NAS (drive, controller, power supply) unit fail, you are no longer at the mercy of some dubious embedded 'mirror rebuild' software that, chances are, was never been properly tested (and chances are, will immediately reformat the 'good' drive when you plug in the replacement)
Finally, with two units you can use 'Update' back-ups from one unit onto the other, rather than just the simple 'Mirror'. Update never deletes anything. This means old versions of files can be recovered, as can any file that has been deleted from the first unit. By making the back-up NAS 'read only' to all but the Back-Up user, you can even build a system that is safe from deliberate (malicious) file deletion.
Since Update never deletes, the second (back-up) NAS will need extra space - however in a home environment most of what you store on the NAS will be movies, music and photos, most of which won't ever change = although you may well edit photos, when the advantage of Update means you can always go back to the original !

Note - the NAS units I purchased claimed to have a built-in function that could back-up the contents of one unit onto another. Unfortunately, the software refused to recognise the existence of the second NAS (it was from the same manufacturer, so plainly they never actually tested it). Since I wanted 'Update' (rather than Mirror) this was not an issue for me. If you need 'Mirror', a dual drive NAS (rather than 2 single drive units) is the simpler choice

My 'Update' solution was to 'map' both NAS boxes as 'network drives' on a PC and use the 'Free File Sync' software that ran every night to perform the 'Update'.
In FreeFileSync v6.7, setup the Update operation (select Mapped Drives etc) then go to the 'File', 'Save as Batch job' and schedule the job on the PC to run each night = or every hour if you need more frequent back-ups). Since I have a Gbit LAN, back-up speed is NAS drive limited, not LAN limited.M
This approach also has the advantage that the back-up status report (and 'My Computer') would immediately show if one drive has failed, so both units could be placed 'out of harms way' (and out reach of little fingers) in my loft and 'forgotten'.

Most modern 'NAS' devices are capable of much more than simply appearing as a Windows Mapped Network Drive 'share'. Other things you might want include :-

Ability to act as a 'Cloud Storage' device

Whilst you may not want to 'host' your own 'Google Drive' or 'Drop Box' system, a NAS that can act as a 'Cloud Store' means you can access it via a Browser - which is vital if you want to use it to use it to 'back-up' non-Windows computers. Since your 'cliud' is actually ion your loft - and not out on the Internet - it is a lot less likley to be 'hacked'

Tablet manufacturers are making all the same old mistakes the PC vendors made 20 years ago,
This means we have 'system updates' that fail, leaving the tablet unusable, software that 'takes over' the device and 'locks up' preventing a shut-down (until the battery goes flat), and tablets that won't turn on, no matter what buttons you press.
In any case, like modern smart phones, Tablets and 'portable media players' are all manufactured as 'disposable' devices. As soon as the the non-replaceable at any price battery reaches it's end of life (typically 18mths-2yrs) it's only useful as a Frisbee :-)
Whilst many people accept that a Tablet is a disposable device and change them every 12 months or so, many also have Address books and other data that they would really like to keep from one Tablet to the next.
So it's a good idea to save your Internet 'Favorites', eMail address book and photos / music etc. onto the NAS before the inevitable day when your 'media device' refuses to turn on ever again ...

I would, however, caution you not to 'expose' your NAS to the Internet (unless you are happy for your holiday photos and all your paid-for movies/iTunes to be copied by the rest of the world).

Blocking the NAS from the Internet can be harder than it seems - you may have to 'enable' the 'Cloud Storage' mode to allow access from within your LAN by non-Windows devices, and that might come with Internet 'by default'.
One trick to prevent it appearing on the Internet is to track down it's Network settings, find the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) address setup properties and switch to a fixed (non-DHCP) address. This will allow you to remove the 'Default Gateway' (set it to if it won't accept 'blank') and both DNS Server addresses = without which the NAS can't get outside your LAN.

MS Backup / Apple 'Time Machine' support

Many NAS units can act as a data repository for MS Backup or Apple 'Time Machine' - or may even include some synchronisation package

MS Backup in particular is virtually useless, except when you need to replace your C: drive.
Most likely you will want to restore just a single file you accidentally deleted - or a photo you modified without remembering to keep the original - and MS Backup is an 'all or nothing' approach
Time Machine may offer this = I'm not a Mac. user so can't say

Multi-media 'server' support

There are a number of popular Home Media system protocols that an off-the-shelf NAS might support - for example, 'Twonky', DLNA/uPnP and iTunes

This allows you to view movies (or play music) on your Home Cinema / TV screen in glorious surround sound without having to 'burn' the to DVD (or copy to USB stick) first.
An alternative approach is to 'map' the NAS as a Network Drive' on your PC and use media server client (such as PLEX) to 'server' the movies/music to a 'player' such as an 'intelligent' TV (or one equipped with an Amazon Fire Stick etc.)

Using DLNA

Many modern TV's, DVD players and Home cinema systems now ship with an Ethernet cable port and some even have built-in WiFi capability. This means they can play your music, display your photo's and even play your movies direct from your Home server / NAS using something called 'DLNA' (which is built over uPnP).

DLNA is an old standard and aimed at your home network (LAN), but still quite flexible. Most modern systems are aimed at Internet use (Amazon Fire) and are intended to be used with the vendors own on-line media 'store' (which will automatically collect payment from your account details you were forced to enter when installing the software) - although you can usually install some (proprietary) software on your LAN (so it can act as a media 'source') and the 'display' (Fire Stick)
To use DLNA, it is not even necessary for all your play-back devices to connect direct to your home network (LAN).
If you use HDMI cables to connect your DVD player, TV & Home Cinema (surround sound system), one device (eg DVD player) with a LAN link can act as a 'portal' and be used to 'pick up' data from your NAS media store and 'stream' it to the other devices (your TV & surround sound system).

The DLNA / UPnP / Internet Home Alliance

These are 3 different organisations promoting and supporting manufacturers who make consumer multimedia boxes that communicate with computers. DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) is the 'high level' standard used by many manufacturers of DVD players etc. whilst UPnP is the technology on which DLNA is based. The Internet Home Alliance is more focused on advancing the home technology market and conducting field trials.

'DLNA Certified' players typically work 'OK' with most DLNA Server software, however be prepared to pull the power cord a few times whilst finding a combination that works ..

How does DLNA "work" ?

Your player gets it's Ethernet address using DHCP (many allow you to enter addresses manually). You then use your TV/DVD remote control to 'choose' (i.e. look for) a DLNA Server on your home network. Control of what is shown on the TV screen then passes to the 'server' (which is why you end up pulling the power cord when the server stops responding).

Those used to Microsoft's 'Media Center' will be in familiar territory - those used to computers will soon become exceeding frustrated as they are forced to chose a 'mode' and then 'navigate' a series of created on-the-fly 'ghost folders' (called, for example, 'Albums, 'Artists', 'Random' etc) before finally reaching their image / music / movie archive 'share' via a 'key hole' folder typically called 'Folders'.

After the usual wait whilst the 'server' software then goes off to index the whole archive (of 10,000 images/music tracks etc.) = or doesn't (in which case any file you just added won't be visible) you get to choose the one you want to play from a 'keyhole' view that shows, wait for it, a total of 5 items at a time !

If you think wading through your music collection 5 files at a time is frustrating, just try pressing a button on the remote control a bit too quickly after the previous one and watch the whole stupid system 'lock up' as the server software 'crashes', leaving the 'average' DVD player so unresponsive that the only way out is to remove it's power cable.

About the only way to 'make it work' is to use your PC to copy the track / movie you want to 'play next' into the 'DLNA Server' media folder - and make sure the DLNA software never gets to see any folder containing more than 10 or so files = unless you like waiting hours for it to 'index' after which you can then step through your whole archive 5 files at a time :- )

Can I use my own desktop computer as a Server ?

If you have configured your 'main' PC with a RAID disk set, you may be tempted to use this as your 'Server'. Generally this is not a good idea because :-

a1) Your main PC is 'vulnerable' to virus etc. infection. You use it to browse the web, read eMails and generally do things that put your system and your data 'at risk'. Your real Server should always be 'isolated' from the Internet (i.e. have a manual entered IP address with NO DNS Server addresses and NO DEFAULT GATEWAY address).

a2) If your main PC is your 'Server', that's fine for saving the data from your other PC's / tablets / smart phones etc., but your main PC will only be 'saving to itself' (which does not protect that data from a system crash).

a3) The cost of a 'proper' Server can be quite low, especially if an older model is purchased via eBay and especially compared to the cost of recreating any otherwise lost data (e.g. re-visiting all your holiday destinations over the last 5 years in order to retake all your photo's).

A Home Server lets you perform 'quick & easy' back-ups. Even if you don't run clever 'synchronisation' software (that automatically copies everything you changed 'today'), the fact that it's easy to do a simple 'drag & drop' file copy means you are much more likely to save your files at regular intervals, rather than put off running MS Back-up (which could take hours) until it's too late.

Actually, most of us will use a 3rd party app. to perfform our back-ups. Almost every application that copies files (such as FreeFileCopy) does so MUCH faster than Miscrosoft and also offers things like replacing old files based on their date or maintaining old copies by automatically adding an 'instance' serial number (like Linux suppoted for the last 30 years and like Windows 10 now offers).

Click 'Next >>' in the Navigation Bar (bottom, left) for a guide to Choosing NAS software

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