Home media setup

Every so often, I’m asked about how I have my home entertainment center set up. Usually, I grab the nearest whiteboard and marker and then diagram it out, because it can be somewhat difficult to explain just by speaking… I think, however, I should be able to jot it down in text with the aid of some pictures!

First of all, meet Kagami, the hub of my home network…

Kagami, the WHS

Some of you may be wondering “What? That’s it? That doesn’t look like anything special…” and on appearance alone, you would be correct. Kagami is the only off-the-shelf desktop computer I own (and in fact the first one I’ve owned in many many years) and is a Dell PowerEdge SC440. The base machine cost me about $250 to purchase from Dell without an OS and I’ve pretty much left her stock. There are, however, a few major additions, namely in the area of storage. At present, Kagami carries 4 hard drives: 2 750GB Samsung Spinpoint F1s and 2 1.5TB Seagate Barracudas. Judging by the manufacturers’ capacity figures, she carries 4.25TB worth of storage space (the “real” number is actually around 4.1TB, using computer interpretation of the number of bytes in a kilobyte).

The other reason Kagami is special is that she isn’t using a run-of-the-mill operating system. She’s running an OEM copy of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, which allows me to backup and maintain all of the other machines in the house.

WHSKagami is a Windows Home Server, complete with a bunch of storage

Pretty much all of my media (music, videos, pictures, and DVD images) is stored on Kagami and important irreplaceable data such as pictures are duplicated across multiple drives.

Next, meet Chikane. She’s my primary machine and serves as the powerhouse for all off the important tasks I do from day to day (like surf the internet, check email, and do photo processing). On the outside, she looks far more interesting…

Chikane

As my pride and joy, Chikane has all of the best toys, including a quad-core Intel processor, 8GB of RAM, and 750GB of hard drive space. She also sports a media card reader and two CD/DVD RW drives. Another important feature to note is that she carries a TV tuner card that has the capability of receiving digital television broadcasts. This allows me to record and store high definition content from over the airwaves. The extra CPU horsepower also allows me to rip and convert DVD content, though the majority of what I do is convert existing DVDs to flat images for storage on the server. For TV shows, however, I usually elect to rip the individual episodes for storage (more on that later).

In addition to the main computer, I also have two media center PCs in the house. First is Belldandy, the “older sister” of the group. I originally built Bell in the summer of 2004 as my primary machine in college and has stayed with me all of these years. With the advances in computing power, her 2.4 GHz P4 CPU is a far cry from the 2.4 Ghz quad core found in Chikane, but she does give enough for decoding DVDs and playing back standard definition content. With some coaxing, she’s even been known to play HD content and even used to be my HDTV recorder.

IMG_4618IMG_4619

Despite her age, she still runs Windows 7 gracefully and outputs 720p picture to the TV. However, due to the fact that she’s connected via wireless, she’s severely limited in bandwidth and often has trouble streaming anything of a medium to high bitrate (like DVD images).

Lastly, we come to Konata, the primary media PC in the house. She makes herself at home in the living room and is hooked up to the main entertainment system in the house.

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Konata was built specifically as a media PC, and features all of the parts to match. I’d picked out a low power output dual core CPU and paired it with a motherboard based on the ATi 780G chipset. This combination gives me a relatively cool running machine that has enough horsepower to decode high definition video and Blu-Rays without the need for add on cards. To top the package off, I also installed an LG BD/HD-DVD reader.

Earlier, I mentioned that my format of choice for DVDs was straight uncompressed images. Using a combination of Windows Media Center and a piece of software called Media Browser, I’m able to create an extremely rich library browsing experience and have access to my entire DVD collection without ever having to grab a disk from the shelf. I store all of my DVD images and videos on the home server, point Media Browser to those directories, and it (with a little help from me) grabs the associated metadata from the internet and creates an extremely rich browsing experience (see above). Cover art, plot synopsis, and actor information is pulled down and displayed. In addition, since it is integrated directly into Windows Media Center, I can then take advantage of Media Center’s capabilities to play DVD image files. It’s as if I had the disk inserted into the drive!

That’s a quick run around my home media set up. Hopefully it was simple enough to understand!

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8 thoughts on “Home media setup

  1. How is Windows Home Server in storing data and making backups? Can it also make system images of the regular computer’s connected to it?

    Might be interested into building one myself then. Tried the backup feature in Windows 7 RC (which runs beautiful well so far) but that failed (took forever).

    • WHS can make backups of any Windows machine connected to it. The restore features works really well in the case of a drive failure, but it is designed to go back to the same machine (except for HD size, which it supports for moving to a larger system drive).

      It does token-based backups, so if multiple machines on the network have the same file (i.e. a system file), then it only backs up one copy. The rest are tokens that point to that file.

      If a machine drive fails, you can restore to the new replacement drive. It can’t be restored to a machine with different hardware (well, it can, but the results wouldn’t be pretty).

  2. You have hit the nail on the head here for me. I have been thinking about getting a Dell server and such for media backup so I have got a few questions for you.

    Based on your description so far, it doesn’t sounds like you are running any kind of raid array. How does your WHS handles backup and stuff? I am really interested in building something like your Kagami.

    • Windows Home Server takes a “home appliance” approach to home backup and file server. It was designed to be easily maintained and upgraded by the average Joe (as demonstrated by the multitude of WHS appliances on the market today). When you add a drive, the server adds the storage into the existing drive pool. It essentially creates a spanned disk for data storage. You can then create folders on the drive array for your storage needs (though there are a few precreated folders like music, photos, video, and users).

      It doesn’t RAID functionality, though you do have the option to turn on duplication for certain folders. This will duplicate your files in that folder across different drives to help you recover that data in the event a drive is lost. I think of it as a pseudo RAID1, but only for folders I select.

      As for home PC backups, it does token-based differencing backups of your home networks (as long as they are Windows clients). If a machine goes down, you can boot up with the recovery CD and restore the backup from the server. The token-based system helps save space as it only stores one copy of each file regardless of how many machines on your network have them. This applies to documents, photos, and even OS files.

      If you want to learn more about WHS, I’d suggest heading over to http://www.wegotserved.co.uk, which has a lot of information on what people have done with their servers. There’s a large amount of add-ons that extend the functionality of the base WHS (like things to control UPSes, x10 add-ons, console tweaks, media servers, etc.)

      The beautiful thing about WHS is that it is designed to be completely headless and administered from the WHS console I showed above. 🙂

      • I would just like to come back here and info you that I have built my first WHS. I have carefully evaluated my options between a RAID 5 stack and a WHS and eventually went with the Drive Extender technology. I have even attempted a disaster recovery procedure by pulling the system drive out and let server recovery to rebuild all the tombstones which worked out. I’m going to blog about it when I get all the pieces in place.

  3. I am looking into setting something up like you are currently running. I noticed you have a tv tuner card in Chikane. Are you able to stream this live tv to the other pc’s you have in the house?

    • Unfortunately not. If you have multiple PCs that you want to have access to live TV, I’d recommend looking at something like the HD Homerun, which is a network based ATSC/ClearQAM tuner.

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