How to Install a Home Server

I had someone ask me at work the other day how I managed the tons of photos and media files we accumulate each month. I explained how we used a home server as a hub to connect backup drives and other devices. There are many reasons beyond my uses why someone would want/need a home server, so I thought I this would be a good article to write.  Note:  I am using the term “home server” as a generic term and not referring to the Microsoft product called “Windows Home Server.” A home server can be based on any operating system you want including Windows Server, a desktop version of Windows such as XP, or even Win7, or you can go with something less mainstream such as Linux.

I’m not going to go into a deep dive, but below are the high-level ideas on setting up your own home server.  Without writing a book, these steps should get you started.

Why would you need a home server?

  • To centralize a printer/scanner
  • To run scheduled backups from your workstation computers
  • Share common files between multiple PCs
  • Free-up space on your laptop or desktop PC
  • Create a media-server
  • A place to put unsightly wireless gear

We use our home server for several reasons:

  • Our house doesn’t have a dedicated office, so we de-cluttered our living area by placing the server in a closet. As mentioned above, it’s an ideal place to hook our printer and scanner.
  • For our photography business,we owe it to our customers to make sure their wedding images are safe. Thus, we connect external drives to the server and run scheduled backups. On top of that, we syncronize two backup drives so that the images always exists in multiple locations.
  • Out closet is a central location for all coax and ethernet (Cat-5) cable.  This is a great place to put our cable modem and wireless router. Out of sight!

Select a Location:

There are several factors to consider when selecting a server closet:

  • Location: If your house or apartment is small, then location is not critical.  However, if you have a LARGE house then consider a central location.  Of course this only applies if your wireless router is in the closet.
  • Keep it cool!  The more equipment you stuff into a room or closet, the hotter it is going to get.  The last thing you want is your server to overheat. A small fan may be required to exchange outside air with hot closet air.
  • Power:  You will need power and most closets don’t come wired.  I was somewhat fortunate that my closet is in the utility room which is off the garage. I was able to easily run an extension cord and surge protector without setting off the wife’s ugly alarm.
  • Shelving: It’s not a good idea to keep your equipment on the floor if you have carpet.  This impedes heat dissipation and could cause extra static. It’s also not a good idea to stack equipment on top of each other.  Put in shelves for your server, monitor, disk drives, and whatever you decide to cram in.
  • Wiring: As I mentioned before, I picked my closet because that’s where I had ran all my Coax and Cat-5. This made it very simple to get my cable modem and wireless router out of sight.  If you use something else like DSL, you should look for a nearby phone jack.

Selecting Hardware:

This may seem counter-intuitive, but you do not need to use your best hardware as a server. You want to save your best hardware for the machines you use everyday as your workstations. Use what’s left-over for your server since you will possibly go days without even seeing this machine. For my server, I used my dad’s OLD Compaq desktop. I had to add a USB 2 card to support our external drives, but other than that, it’s straight from the factory.

Selecting the Server Operating System:

Don’t get hung up on the term “server.” You can use any operating system (even a desktop OS) that you are comfortable with which allows file and printer sharing.  You would think with my old hardware that I opted for a slimmed-down, GUI-less Linux distribution. However, I had an unused copy of Windows Server 2003 that I wanted to try. The install went very smoothly, but took about an hour. Believe it or not, the machine is very usable (this is probably due to the componentized nature of Windows Server).  I’m using Windows Server 2003, but you can use XP/Vista/Win7, Linux, whatever. There is also a new product from Microsoft called Microsoft Home Server. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet, but the idea is that it is loaded with tons of automated tasks for backups, file recovery, etc… For now, I’ll stick with my poor-man’s version.

Once you’ve got the server installed (see the next section on network settings), you will want to make sure it is fully patched. For Windows, Visit Microsoft Update and apply the latest patches/drivers before you begin using the server.

Networking:

In my “server closet” I have my server, a scanner, a printer, four external backup drives, a cable modem, and my wireless router. (Like I said, I am using the server to consolidate clutter to one out of sight area.)  You will need to make sure you have connectivity between the server and your client machines before you attempt any file sharing or transfers. For simple home installations connect the server to one of the Ethernet ports in your wireless router. During the server install process, the simplest option is to allow an IP address to be assigned to your server automatically through DHCP. In corporate environments, servers typically have a hard-coded IP address but you won’t need this since you will be accessing your server via its name most of the time. So, be sure to assign the server a simple name which you can remember. In my house, mine it is called “server.”

Once everything is connected, all the software is installed and patched, you need to test basic IP connectivity:

  1. From the client machine, click on Start > Run
  2. Type “CMD” in the run box and hit enter. You will be presented with a command prompt.
  3. Type “PING YourServerNameHere” and hit Enter.

If your PC responds with a series of successful pings, then you have established proper connectivity. If you get a message like “Host not found” then there is a networking problem. IP troubleshooting is a topic to itself that I won’t go into here. However, make sure the server and the client have the same Subnet mask and Default Gateway by typing “IPCONFIG /ALL” in the command prompt of each machine.  Sometimes home routers get confused when new machines are added and IP addresses change. You may want to shut down all computers, unplug your router, wait a few minutes, then start the router, then all the machines connected to it.

Since you’ll now be sharing files across a wireless network, security is a must. Follow your router instructions and make sure you secure your network with a “Network Key.”

Sharing Printers:

Note:  This got incredibly simple with the Windows 7 Homegroup feature. However, the following instructions still work with all versions of Windows:

If you are not using a Win 7 server and Win 7 clients, then these are the basic steps for sharing a printer:

  1. Plug the printer into your server. In Windows, you’ll hear the “bing-bong” confirming a USB device has been detected.
  2. If Windows (or your preferred OS) doesn’t have a built-in driver, then it will prompt you for one. Supply the driver. (You do not need to install all the junk that comes with printers. You simply need the driver.)
  3. Print a test page from the Printer section of the control panel to confirm it is working.
  4. In the printers section of Control Panel, right-click on the printer you just installed, and select “Sharing.”
  5. Select “Share this Printer” and assign a name that makes sense. (For example, “HPLaserJetColor”)
  6. Click “OK” and you’re done sharing.

You must install the driver on your client machines now:

  1. From the client: Start > Run
  2. In the command prompt type \YourServerName  (you must include the backslashes)
  3. A list of shared printers and folders will appear. Double-click on your new printer.
  4. The driver will install automatically and you’re done!

Sharing a file folder is a similar exercise. Right-click on the folder you wish to share, assign a name, and assign appropriate read vs write permissions.

Other activities you can do with a server:

  • Use a backup tool to schedule backups. I use SyncBack which will be documented in a later post.
  • Install a scanner. All scanned documents can be saved to a shared folder on the server and accessible via your client machines.
  • Off-load all those large photos, videos, and music files from your laptop. Your media can live in multiple places, and cool new products like Windows Live Photo Gallery can keep track for you. (See my list of free software for info on Windows Live Photo Gallery). When you want to access a photo from two years ago, you may not know which machine the photo is on, you simply click on the thumbnail and it appears from your network.
  • You could even use a DVR on your server to record TV shows for playback on your laptop later. (You’ll need a TV tuner and DVR software for this. I use Windows Media Center as one of my DVR.)
  • Run an internal web or mail server. Not sure, why most home users would do this, but you can easily do it. Most operating systems have built in web servers.