I decided to setup a media server at home to host and share media with anyone on my network. Here’s how I did it.
Original diagram of home network components and proposed configuration, some of the parts shown have not been completed yet.
There were a number of reasons I took on this project. I have a ton of music and movies so I’d like for my roommates and anyone else on my network to be able to access my media without any hassle. I also wanted a chance to play around with a Raspberry Pi – a small computer with an arm based processor that’s available online for about $30 – It can be used for all sorts of things but perhaps the most popular use for it at the moment is as a media player for home entertainment. As long as I was doing this, I figured I would take the opportunity to get some practical hands-on experience with Linux server configuration and virtualization software. I used VMware vSphere ESXi, a free virtualization application recommended by some of my coworkers and Ubuntu. At one point, I intended to use Centos, a popular Linux Distribution based on Red Hat, but configuring Samba on it turned out to be even more of a nightmare than usual so I finally gave up and decided to use Ubuntu and I would certainly recommend it for a project like this if you want to use Linux and you aren’t already more familiar with another distro.
Dell Slimline PC
3 TB Hard drive
The first step was to configure my server. I purchased a Slimline Dell X940 on ebay for about $70, installed a 3 TB drive, and installed Esxi. Esxi is system level virtualization software meaning it doesn’t run on top of any other OS so, once it’s installed, the box is pretty much useless until you install the remote management software on another machine. I set up the Vsphere application on my Windows 7 machine and was able to provision a virtual server and allocate space to it. Using the virtual shell in Vsphere I was ready to install an OS.
I should mention here that when I attempted to install a 64 bit OS I got an error message because my cpu didn’t support 64 bit virtualization. I found some info that suggested it was a BIOS issue and I realized that I did not have the latest bios so I had to figure out how to update it without an OS I ended up booting in to DOS from a flash drive with the latest bios stored on it and installing it from DOS. After getting the BIOS updated, I was still getting the same error message and I discovered that my CPU, a Core 2 Duo, did not include VT support. I actually ended up ordering a used one with VT support on eBay for about $30 that allowed me to install a 64 bit OS. The whole ordeal was probably unnecessary; I’m not really doing anything that would require a 64 bit OS but it was satisfying nonetheless.
As I mentioned before, I wanted to set all of this up using CentOS but, even though I am more familiar with it, switching to Ubuntu made this whole project much easier-mostly due to my lack of knowledge but also because I had better luck finding information online for Ubuntu configuration. I installed Ubuntu Server , configured the server for ssh access so that I could access it using putty, and set up authentication keys so I could use Pageant for authentication.
SAMBA is an application for Linux that allows Linux machines to talk to Windows using the SMB protocol. This is what I would be using to allow the Raspberry Pi and machines running Windows to access the media on the server. It turned out to be a nightmare to configure, which I’m not even going to get in to, but after fighting with it for a whole weekend, I got pretty comfortable with it. Since all of this is only accessible on my network, I’m wasn’t too concerned about security; I’m pretty confident in my router to handle that at the network level. I set up 2 users: one for me with full read write access to all of the shares and and a second with read only access for everyone else. This way, people could access and download content from the server but could not add or delete anything. I also set up a public directory in case anyone ever needs to upload anything to the server. I tested it out and everything worked; anyone on my home network using Windows is able to log in to the shared directory and access all of it’s contents.
Great! I could finally play with the Raspberry. The Raspberry PI ships as a board so I ordered a clear laser-cut case online to protect it. I already had an SD card for the software, a micro USB cable for power and an HDMI cable for the display. There are a number of Linux distributions for raspberry dedicated to running XBMC, a modified version of X-box media center that is available for multiple platforms. I used Rasbian, a Debian based distribution that launches right in to XBMC. Once I was in XBMC and connected to my network, I was able to connect to my SMB share using the XBMC interface and pull in all of the movies I had added. XBMC has an excellent theme-able interface and it automatically scrapes the web to pull in posters, descriptions, dvd covers etc. for movies and shows based on file names and displays information such as file format. The official XBMC app for Android allows me to browse content and remotely control XBMC from my phone. I recently upgraded to a Galaxy S4 so my old Galaxy S is now a dedicated remote for the Raspberry.
In the end, everything worked and that’s the most important thing, right? I’ve obviously omitted a lot of details about my configuration specs but Google is much more suitable source for finding such information from more qualified individuals. I’m still certainly not an expert and I’ve probably even used some of the terminology in this post incorrectly. I’ve documented all of this mostly so that I can look back at it in the future and analyze my mistakes. Overall, it was a great learning experience, and as I continue to learn, I’m sure I’ll realize that there are probably better ways to do all of this. “Dude, just go buy a Roku.”