• A solid home network on the cheap

    Synology DS111 NAS

    It seems like I've spent a little more time lately than I would like recovering failed hard drives for people. How I do it is a topic for another complete article, but there's also a common thread and question involved with these recoveries. The common thread is no files are backed up, usually people had a USB drive, but never took it out or hadn't backed up to it for quite some time. Even worse was using the USB hard drive as their main datastore. The question I always hear after saving the irreplaceable pictures and data is, "How can I keep this from happening again?" In this article I want to explore a few options of building a solid home network on the cheap. The avenues to get it done can vary, but the solution to the data loss problem is common, back up to the network and have it be automatic, or it will never happen.

    To really put it all together, I think you first need to assess what your needs for the home network are. For most home users it's backing up data, pictures and music on PCs and Macs, as mentioned above. Serving music and video to network media players is probably another big need. Accessing files remotely without a whole lot of configuration is probably another need. The last requirement is not needing a network administrator at home just to run it all.

    Old Compaq Presario

    I had an old PC sitting around when I started looking at setting my network up. I spent a lot of time trying about everything I could think of on it just to use it for the sake of using it. I had it as open-source router, it was a FreeNAS and OpenFiler NAS, it was a Squeezeplay box, and finally ended up as Vortexbox for my network media serving solution. If I had to give any advice here, it's don't get caught up in finding a use for the old PC. Many of them take A LOT of power compared to new technology, they're slow, possibly not all that dependable, and often features aren't as solid as out of the box solutions.


    I'm lucky in that my old Compaq Presario only consumes about 50W at idle, which is low compared to many desktop machines, but still high compared to the 20W of the low power server I put together. Still, at $0.143 per kWh that 30W isn't enough of a difference for me to take it out of production when I look at time to recoup expenses of a new build. The reason the old PC is perfect for the Vortexbox is the fact that there is no out of the box solution that does everything the Vortexbox does. The Vortexbox needs next to nothing for CPU and can get by easily on 1GB of memory. If I had to do it again and couldn't find an old PC with low power usage I might consider repeating my low power server build for the Vortexbox. I won't go in to detail about the Vortexbox, but you can read what I use it for here and look at the official Vortexbox site, it's free.

    Synology DS111 NAS

    Personally, for my backup solution, I chose a Synology DS111 NAS and have sold various others on it. Why Synology? Performance is great, it's feature-rich, and it's been rock solid. With their Beta 4.0 they've introduced Cloud Station, which allows you to access files remotely without router configuration. It also has a DLNA media server, Logitech media server, an iTunes media server, a Surveillance Station and many other features. The file sharing configuration, in my opinion, was a lot more refined and user-friendly than any of the open-source NAS offerings. That said, it's a diskless NAS and getting in to one is more expensive than some comprehensive solutions where the drives come with them. Be careful with the diskful solutions however, they're not readily upgradeable and, should you have any problems, it's not supported to open them up.

    Karen's Replicator

    Many people have asked me, "why only a 1-bay NAS, don't you want the extra security of multiple drives?" The answer is no, I don't. All of the original files are on local computers around the house, which sleep when not in use. A couple times a week my low power home server wakes them up, has them check their current files against the NAS, and then syncs any changes. I use Karen's Replicator for this, but Synology has their own software, and there are various other software out there that do the same thing. The jist of it is that, with the backup, the files are now in two places. Another drive in the NAS would be a third-level of redundancy. It would quite possibly just be more heartache for me with the extra heat and possibilities of hardware failure, not to mention the expense.

    Habey case for low power home server

    I have a low power server for the home. It's not necessarily needed, but I like having a computer that can stay on all the time for various pieces of software that potentially need to be on all the time. It's also nice to have a computer no one else uses so I'm not fighting some coupon software disabling the modlet software and such. In my build I used Server 2003, but there's really no reason not to use an inactive copy of XP for this as it supports 10 concurrent connections. With a big enough drive the low power home server could take the place of the NAS, I chose to have a separate NAS for the added features and for the uptime and lack of ongoing maintenance. Windows updates are annoying to say the least, the NAS just works once set up, and hasn't required a bit of maintenance since.

    Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH

    Lastly, to put this all together you really need to look at router selection. When I put my network together I didn't know about SmallNetBuilder, but I suggest you look there when picking one out. There are plenty of reviews over there and lots of information, including the Router Performance Charts. The amount of information over there is probably a little overwhelming if all you want to know is "what router should I buy". To throw in a few points, choose one with gigabit ports as the cost difference is small and some of your devices will surely be gigabit, use that to your advantage. Consider one with dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) service in case of wireless saturation in your area. Run a few diagnostic tools to try and see what you are up against and make some choices accordingly. The router I chose was the Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH, it's not dual band, but I later got an off-brand Edimax BR-6475ND on a NewEgg ShellShocker for the 5GHz spectrum and it works beautifully. I also have used the Buffalo router in several "my wireless sucks" consultations and have had no complaints. If you read Buffalo's forums you may think otherwise based on some responses there. I strongly feel it comes down to analyzing what you are up against in your neighborhood and making wise choices accordingly. I also make it a point that nothing in our house goes on wireless unless absolutely necessary, leaving the bandwidth solely for laptops and phones, sometimes this means using powerline networking.

    With the suggestions I put forth here I believe it's possible to have a solid home network for not a lot of money. All 4 pieces would be a comprehensive solution, I don't believe all are necessarily needed as there is some redundancy, but it worked for us and how we needed them. Heck, if you really wanted to go cheap, the Vortexbox works with SMB file sharing and you could simply back up files over to it, not much security on that though.

    Vortexbox - old PC, 2TB hard drive, gigabit network card, SATA interface card - $250 (hard drive prices have increased dramatically due to flooding in Thailand)

    Synology NAS and 2TB hard drive - $200 + $229

    Low power home server with inactive copy of XP - $224ish

    Router - dual band - $50 - $150