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Recommendation: home server OS (backup, file server, media streaming)

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May 27, 2013 9:12:16 PM

To all the (home) server experts out there:

I have a fairly simple home computing/network setup that consists of:

  • 1 Windows 7 Pro desktop (my wife's)
  • 1 Macbook Pro running OS X Mountain Lion (10.8.3)
  • 2 iPads (a 1st-gen and a 2nd-gen)
  • Internet connectivity with AT&T U-Verse, with a 2nd router configured to use the openDNS service (all devices connect to 2nd router).


  • In addition, I have a personal Windows 7 Pro desktop in my office at the university that's connected to the network via a static IP address.

    Here's what I want to be able to do, that I'm currently not doing:

    • Have an automatic, simple, centralized, easy-to-configure backup system that just works for all my computers. I want to be able to restore both individual files and folders as well as the entire OS+applications+data if a hard drive fails, or if I decide to upgrade/rebuild a machine.
    • Be able to keep certain directories synchronized between both the home desktop & laptop, and the work desktop & laptop. Having local copies of those files on the hard drive is important, as the laptop doesn't always have internet access.
    • Have a central location for streaming media - both music (99% iTunes) and video (60% ripped DVDs, 30% home videos created with iMovie, 10% videos bought on iTunes) - to both computers and iPads connected to the home network.
    • Maybe set up an email server at home.


  • I have a bunch of computer components sitting around, and was thinking it'd be useful to build a home server to do all these things, as everything could sit in a central location. I have a choice between an Intel i7-920 based system (9 GB RAM) and an AMD Athlon II x4 640 based system (4 GB RAM), and am looking to build a small box that doesn't have keyboard, mouse or monitor, and which I can tuck away in a corner of the bedroom where the router is located.

    But I know very little about building and configuring servers. I've built plenty of desktops, both Windows-based and Linux-based, so I know something about installing and configuring desktop operating systems, but I also know that server OSes are much more complex and difficult to configure than desktop OSes are.

    So I'm wondering - is there an easy-to-configure OS that you'd recommend for my home server needs? I have access to many/most of the Microsoft operating systems because I'm part of the engineering school at my university (Dreamspark subscription). OS X server isn't very expensive, and most of the Linux/Unix server OSes are free, so price isn't really a factor for me. I want this to be a long-term solution, one that I can set up once and then forget about until I start adding computers for growing kids, or until I need to add/replace hard drives to increase my storage space.

    Whatever it is that you recommend, I'd also appreciate it if you'd give me some sort of installation/configuration reference, whether a book or a website, to guide me through the process.

    What do you recommend for me?

    Thanks.
    May 27, 2013 9:47:28 PM

    I think the hardest of your needs to implement will be image backups of all your client systems. I don't have a solution for all of your needs, but you might want to check out Windows Home Server, I know it will do the client backups but I don't know if it will handle all of your media streaming needs.
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    May 28, 2013 5:29:12 AM

    mbreslin1954 said:
    I think the hardest of your needs to implement will be image backups of all your client systems. I don't have a solution for all of your needs, but you might want to check out Windows Home Server, I know it will do the client backups but I don't know if it will handle all of your media streaming needs.


    Hmmm, Newegg still has Windows Home Server 2011 for $50 (link). I've heard polar opposites about it, though - it's both fills a real need in the home server market, and has real issues, especially with the Drive Extender technology that sometimes fails spectacularly. I've also heard, somewhere, that MS is no longer going to be making versions of Home Server - is there still support for Home Server 2011?

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    May 28, 2013 9:50:15 AM

    I don't know, I bought a cheap copy ($50) of Windows Home Server a year ago but have never installed it, for now I have access to most of Microsoft's software through my TechNet membership and so don't need it (yet).

    You could always go with Server 2012 and use a 3rd party solution for workstation backups, but I'm not aware of anything that will run on the server and yet backup client machines. Well, Microsoft has an Enterprise server solution, I used it once a year or so ago at a facility I do part-time work at, it's Microsoft Data Protection Manager. You can install an Agent on each workstation and the agent, in cooperation with DPM on the server, will back up clients. I doubt there is an agent for Apple OSes, but I don't know for sure. I'm sure it's expensive.

    I still think that's going to be your hardest requirement to satisfy: client OS images. Good luck.
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    May 28, 2013 9:52:14 AM

    Here's a link:

    http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/systemcenter/ff63200...

    It turns out the software is free with a TechNet subscription ($250 first year, $150/yr. afterwards).

    Big drawback, however. The last time I used it, it would NOT back up the server it was installed on. So to backup your main server and whatever client workstations you have, you'll need to dedicate a server to DPM. Probably not what you're looking for.
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    May 28, 2013 12:09:53 PM

    mbreslin1954 said:
    ...I'm not aware of anything that will run on the server and yet backup client machines.


    From the Windows Server 2012 Essentials website:

    Quote:
    Windows Server 2012 Essentials can perform complete system backups and bare-metal restores of the server and the client computers that are connected to the network.


    And I found, over at Paul Thurrott's WinSuperSite, a series of article outlining how to set up an instance of Server 2012 Essentials for home use (link).

    So, Server 2012 Essentials looks good, looks easy to set up, looks like it does a good job. What I don't know is how well all of my Apple devices will play with it. I've looked a little bit at FreeNAS, and it looks like it plays equally well with both Windows and Apple machines, but I've also read that it can be a royal pain to set up - I don't currently have the time or inclination to spend the next week becoming a Linux/Unix server expert in order to get a home server set up properly - I have too many other things going right now for that to happen.

    So, I'm leaning toward Server 2012 Essentials. Should I be looking, seriously, at anything else?
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    May 28, 2013 12:27:32 PM

    Cool, I didn't realize that Windows Server Backup would do client PCs also. I'm sure what it's referring to is Windows Server Backup, which comes with every version of Server 2012. I'm running Windows Server 2012 Datacenter (it's available with TechNet, why not?), and it's called Windows Server Backup. Since my family's data is almost all on the server, I only back up their client PCs like once a year, on an external hard drive with Acronis True Image, mainly to save myself the trouble of re-installing Windows in case of hard drive failure or Windows getting hopelessly hosed up.

    I'm not aware of anything else you should be looking at, mostly because I'm not very familiar with server backup software. Most real server backup software you buy will cost close to $1,000 (Acronis, others). The built-in backup software with Server 2012 is quite nice. However, there are a few limitations.

    From my experience, you can only have one backup scheduled. Once one is scheduled, if you go into "Schedule a backup", your only choices are to modify the one schedule you already have, or to stop the backup. So you can't have two schedules running, say one to backup the server at one time, another to backup clients at another time. Whatever gets backed up has to all be done at the same time. You can schedule the server and the clients to be backed up at the same time, and you can back up multiple times a day, and choose which devices are backed up full or incrementally, but that's about it.

    By the way, one of my needs was to record cable TV over my gigabit network via a Comcast cablecard in my HD-Homerun TV tuner, for a free, home-made DVR on my server, which would be running all the time anyway. I didn't want to build a new workstation just for making a DVR and have two machines running 24x7. Then I discovered that Windows Media Center (WMC) would not run on Server 2012. So I made a virtual machine with Windows 7 to run on the server, ran WMC on that Windows 7 VM, and now I have my DVR and media streamer and server with only one computer running. I'm very happy with this.
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    May 29, 2013 12:22:49 PM

    So I decided to try setting up a Server 2012 Essentials machine, and the installation process has gone pretty well to this point.

    I now need to connect my home desktop to the server...and I don't know which route to go. Do I keep the machine in the workgroup that it's currently in, or do I change all the accounts over to domain accounts? I guess I'm not clear on the differences between a workgroup and a domain, when it comes to things like local programs and data/files.

    Could someone who's knowledgable about domains tell me what will happen to the accounts (wife's, kids', administrator's), and local programs/data if I decide to join my home domain when connecting to the server?
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    May 29, 2013 12:39:56 PM

    The key difference between a domain and non-domain (workgroup is meainingless now-a-days) is that the domain keeps global userids in a global accounts database. It's the same thing Novell Netware used to have in their distributed or global directory system. You log into the network, not a local PC. After a Windows client joins a domain, you then have two choices when logging onto that client: log on with a domain userid, which is kept on the domain controllers (userids, passwords, permissions, etc.), or log on with a local userid.

    Say one of your client PCs is named WIFE-PC, and your wife logs on with local userid WIFE. As far as the server is concerned, your wife's local userid is in the form of "domain\userid", and her local client ID would be WIFE-PC\WIFE. Yours might be PHENDRIC-PC\ME.

    If you wanted to keep using local userids, then you would have to define server permissions on files and directories for each local userid, which can get laborious. Also, your wife can't log onto your client PC with her local userid, unless you've first created a local userid on your client PC with the exact same name and password (e.g., "PHENDRIC\WIFE"), which you'd also have to do on the server. So you end up creating a separate userid (WIFE) with the same password on each client AND the server. That's the only way she could log in to each machine with the same userid and password, and if you want to change the password, you have to change it on all client PCs and the server, else the passwords will be out-of-sync.

    If all clients are part of the Microsoft Server Domain, all userids and passwords are defined once on the domain server, then when you log onto your client PC, you log on with the Domain userid (e.g., "DOMAIN\ME" or "DOMAIN/WIFE"), and the PC knows to check the user accounts database on the server (or any domain controller) instead of looking to its own, local user account database. One userid, one password, and you get access to any PC or server in the domain. If you change your domain userid password on any client PC, it is updated immediately in the server's accounts database.

    The only drawback is that each client has to be the Professional version of Windows, the Home editions cannot participate in domains (that's because MS considers servers and domains to be business and they can be charged extra for the "pro" version of Windows).

    To answer your last question, and existing local accounts are just that: local accounts, and have no authority or permissions on the server, unless you go through the process of granting each one access. Much easier to switch to using domain accounts.
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    May 29, 2013 1:47:11 PM

    mbreslin1954 said:
    The key difference between a domain and non-domain (workgroup is meainingless now-a-days) is that the domain keeps global userids in a global accounts database.

    (Etc., etc., etc.)


    Very informative explanation, thank you. But my main question still isn't answered - how are applications and data on an account altered/changed, or how are they managed differently when a client joins a Windows domain? I get that, for any computer in a domain, I can walk up to the computer, enter the same user name and password, and successfully log onto that computer. But what if I do 90% of my work on one computer, and all my Word, and Excel, and PowerPoint files are on that computer's local hard drive (not to mention browser history, plugins, bookmarks, etc.)? Does all that data somehow magically appear on the other computers in the domain? What about the photo editing/managing software my wife uses? Does it somehow become available on my other computers?

    I'm guessing, since you haven't answered these specific questions, that all data and software remains local to the machine that it was put on, and that if I want it to be available everywhere, I have to do something special (like sync all files to the file server portion of the home server), but I just want to be absolutely clear about what does or does not happen to my data and applications when one of my client PCs joins a domain.

    Can Macs join Windows domains?

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    May 29, 2013 2:00:33 PM

    Applications and data are not altered/changed. Applications are usually installed on a client PC. Server domains are all about a centralized accounts database and sharing stuff from the server (printers, files, etc.). It really has nothing to do with changing applications or data (aside from permissions on served data).

    Yes, local data remains local data. Unless it's put on the server and shared, it remains wherever it is.

    I doubt Macs can participate in Microsoft domains, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to say for sure.
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    May 29, 2013 2:24:27 PM

    mbreslin1954 said:
    Applications and data are not altered/changed. Applications are usually installed on a client PC. Server domains are all about a centralized accounts database and sharing stuff from the server (printers, files, etc.). It really has nothing to do with changing applications or data (aside from permissions on served data).

    Yes, local data remains local data. Unless it's put on the server and shared, it remains wherever it is.

    I doubt Macs can participate in Microsoft domains, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to say for sure.


    Thank you! [runs off to continue setup process...after lunch, that is.]
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    May 30, 2013 5:33:17 PM

    One more hiccup - I've gotten accounts set up, computers connected to the server/domain, backups set up, media shared, etc.

    I'm now trying to setup web and VPN access, and have run into issues. The box is connected to a Linksys wireless router, which is sitting behind my 2-Wire gateway modem/router (AT&T U-Verse). I had to go with this 2-router setup a year or so ago, because I wanted to setup access to OpenDNS, but the 2-Wire gateway doesn't allow its DNS entries to be changed.

    The Linksys router supports UPnP, but despite that, the Server tool that auto-configures everything needed for web access is returning several errors, including:

    "There may be more than one router on your network"

    and

    "Anywhere Access to your server is blocked"

    When I look at the router IP address in the dashboard, it's showing the 2nd router's local IP address, as opposed to the gateway's IP address. I know that the web server portion of the configuration was completed properly because I can access the remote access website from my local network, but not from a remote location.

    Any pointers about how to properly finish the configuration so I can get to my files remotely?
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