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Exploring storage options: setting up a home NAS server

Today I want to shed some light on the major three ways of archiving your music collection and the best ways of having access to it via Ethernet or WIFI. Large storage space is great for music aficionados. A question I get asked frequently is what the best storage options for a music server are?

Well, in the end it all boils down to a media server solution that reliably runs 24/7, consumes little electricity and offers fast instant access to your music collection.

I personally suggest a NAS but let’s take a closer look at all the options first:

Using an old PC

By far the cheapest and most flexible way to build the data backbone of your music server is to re-purpose an old laptop or desktop computer. It doesn’t have to be cutting edge hardware. Anything that was made 4-5 years ago is good enough. You can add internal or external storage via USB as needed. You don’t even need a Windows license to get started. Just install any major Linux distribution of your choice such as Ubuntu and you are good to go.

These days any Linux distro is able to handle the basic networking stuff including Ethernet or wireless connections. In fact that’s all you need for a music server. As for server software, it depends what you are looking for. Basic file sharing usually works right out of the box so you could as well drop all your files on a disk and share your music collection across the network.

To pull off more advanced stunts, I recommend checking out XBMC.

If you plan to use the machine solely as a NAS server, definitely explore the FreeNAS project. This is a completely free operating system based on FreeBSD. It will give you NAS-like functionality for zero cost. However, it can be a bit of a pain to set up and configure for non-technical users. That is if you are all fingers and thumbs, of course :)

Unfortunately, all of the flexibility comes at a price. What you need to do is making sure your server is running smoothly. You may also need to shop for low power consuming PC components. I find that it’s quite often difficult to indentify those parts.

USB port on your WIFI router

Assuming that you are already running a wireless network in your home, your router may already be equipped with one or more USB ports on the back.

For example, my Apple Airport Extreme allows me to plug in an external hard drive that I have access to across the entire network. You can even set read/write permissions for individual users for extra protection.

Be sure to use an external powered drive though as the self powered USB disks won’t work with most routers I’ve tested. That’s because there’s a limit as to how much juice your USB hard drive may draw.

Sounds like a terrific way to set up a server, right? Well, almost. Unfortunately you cannot run any specific server software on the router itself. Think of the USB drive merely as some sort of a “dumb fileshare” with no UPnP or DLNA capabilities. For many folks that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you are using a real computer such as a laptop to pull data from this fileshare. A number of music streaming devices are also able to read plain old fileshares but not all of them.

Router fileshares also tend to be painfully slow. So don’t expect miracles. Espcially if you are running a multiple-person household having simoultaneus access and multi-room audio.

Just like with the first solution, you are pretty much on your own when it comes to making backups. Sure, you could hook up a second hard drive and use software to duplicate your music collection on the primary disk. But this is usually when things go sour in my personal experience.

Enter NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.

Now we arrive at the royal-league of music server storage solutions :) A NAS is essentially a silent mini-computer, prepared to be used on a network and having multiple drive bays. You simply buy the storage (hard disks), drop them into your NAS and walk away. After following the setup procedure, your NAS can be left pretty much on its own. Because power consumption wasn’t an afterthought, you don’t have to worry about your electricity bill at the end of the month.

Having multiple drive bays allows you to define a backup plan in case things go wrong.

Each NAS solution comes loaded with a collection of amazing software. You are of course not limited to setting up an iTunes server, sharing your music collection or setting permissions on the stuff you want to share. In addition, you can use the NAS as a centralized backup hub for all your computers, share photos, videos or even access your “digital life” from virtually anywhere on the planet – as long as you have an internet connection.

For example, the Synology DSM software even offers cloud access. This means you could back up your music library using a paid subscription to CrashPlan which I personally use and highly recommend for added peace of mind. Synology has a great tutorial on their WIKI on how to set this up. Of course I’ve barely scratched the surface of the possbilities. There’s so much more to list that it would make your head spin.

There’s no shortage of NAS server products to choose from. Among the more popular manufacturers are LinkSys, Netgear, Western Digital and Synology (my preferred manufacturer).

A best-seller on Amazon – and rightly so – is the fabolous WD MyCloud 4TB. For under $200 including the drive you get a complete NAS with all the software pre-loaded. Of course you can choose a larger or smaller capacity if needed. Western Digital’s solution is in my opinion currently the simplest way to get a NAS up and running. While it doesn’t have space for a second backup drive, you can define a separate hard drive to be used as your backup destination.

My absolute all-time favorite to date is the Synology DSM-213j which comes with two drive ports and all the goodness of the DSM software. It’s such an excellent design with proven software. At the time of writing, it’s in its 5th release cycle.

Granted, for $200 without the hard drive storage its a bit pricier than the WD solution. But you will get rock-solid performance and near data-center reliability. Synology has years of experience and they have continously refined their software. Thus you never need to worry about your hardware becoming outdated. Most likely you can upgrade to the next software release at no cost to you.

But if you have invested a good bit in your music collection, this is where I would start with a decent NAS server solution.