Home Network Shopping


Selecting the right components for home networking has never been easier


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System builders now have the prospect to tap the revenue and service opportunities surrounding building, deploying, and maintaining a home server. Not too long ago, the thought of a server for the home market would have seemed ridiculous. But with networks and multiple PCs becoming commonplace in the home, a server starts to make a lot of sense. Add in new technologies -- such as media-center PCs, smart home components, and digital libraries -- and a server becomes a must.

There are a few things a system builder needs to consider before dropping a server in the home environment. First, the challenges of a home environment are different than those of the typical business. For example, don't expect a home to have a dedicated computer room, much less a wire-management system or the typical infrastructure found in a business. While that may sound obvious, these issues can create complications for systems builders following best practices for business environments.

Also, to determine how to configure the unit, system builders will need to consider the location of a home server. Odds are good that the server will take up residence in either a home office or living room, where it shares space with the home audio-visual equipment or stereo system. These relatively tight locations make certain requirements attractive, such as compact size, efficient cooling, and low noise levels. Also, the system should be pleasing to the eye.

With these requirements in mind, I chose for this Recipe an Aria case (model LS968) from Antec. The $129 (MSRP) Aria is a cube-shaped case that, while little bigger than an Xbox, can still house several components. The Aria case measures just 7.9 inches high by 10.6 inches wide by 13.2 inches deep. The case weighs in at around 10 pounds, including its 300-watt power supply. The case can house nearly any MicroATX-sized motherboard. It offers an integrated 8-in-1 card reader (CF I/II, MS, MS Pro, SD, MMC and MicroDrive) on the front of the unit, along with two USB 2.0 Ports, two audio ports, and one IEEE 1394 Firewire port. The case includes a low-speed 120 mm fan that offers quiet cooling. The case is designed for easy assembly: The side panels are easy to remove, as is the top panel. The drives are accessed by a swing-up cage that greatly simplifies drive installation. The unit can house one external 5.25-inch drive and three internal 3.5-inch drives, and it provides enough space for four full-height PCI expansion cards. Here's a look at the Aria case from the front, rear, and inside:

The next element on our home-network shopping list is a motherboard. Because this system will function as a relatively light-use server, system builders can lower their costs by selecting a relatively inexpensive system board and processor. To keep my costs low, I selected an Intel D865GLC, which incorporates onboard video, SATA 150 hard-drive support, and integrated 10/100/1000 Ethernet. The Intel board also supports hyper threading, an 800 MHz bus, DDR400/333/266 SDRAM, USB 2.0, three PCI slots, and six-channel audio. At an MSRP of $135, the board proves to be a bargain, especially considering the feature set. Here's a look at this board:

With costs still in mind, I selected a 2.8 GHz Celeron processor, with an MSRP of $135. This motherboard-processor combination proved to be more than adequate for the tasks of a home server. Here's a photo of the Celeron CPU:

For system memory, a pair of Kingston KVR400X64C25/256 256-Mbyte memory modules ($65 each MSRP), for a total of 512 MB of RAM, fit the bill. With servers, the general rule with RAM is "more is better." But if cost is an overriding concern, most system builders could get by with 256 MB of total RAM. Either way, here's a look at the Kingston memory module:

For any server -- home or otherwise -- reliable storage is a make-or-break component. With that in mind, I selected SATA (Serial ATA) disk technology, which combines reliability and good performance. While SATA has not unseated SCSI as the undisputed performance king, the technology offers more than adequate throughput for most any server.

Another important area is backup. Here, the big concern is that most home users avoid backup chores. As such, they leave all their valuable digital content vulnerable to loss if a drive fails.

For a bit of low-cost insurance, I opted to use a pair of SATA drives, arranged in a mirrored (RAID 1) configuration. Specifically, I chose a pair of 250 GB MaXLine Plus II SATA drives from Maxtor. With a street price of about $300 each, these drives proved to be one of the more expensive options for our home server. System builders looking to lower their costs could go with EIDE/ATA drives instead. Here's a look at the Maxtor SATA drive:

My final hardware choice was an optical drive, and it was not an easy one. There are a lot of options on the market: CD RW, DVD ROM, DVD R/W, even a plain old CD reader. Three questions should drive that selection: Will the optical drive be used for backup purposes? Will the system be used to play movie DVDs? And will MP3 files be stored and burned to CD on the system?

For the cost-conscious, a plain DVD-ROM will fit the bill. But I decided to throw caution to the wind. I selected a drive that can do almost anything: Teac's 8X DVD /-R/RW (Model DVW58G) drive. At $129 (MSRP), the Teac drive proves to be an economical choice. The drive supports DVD-R (8x recording), DVD-RW (4x recording), DVD-R (4x and 2x recording), DVD-ROM (12x reading), CD-R media (40x recording), CD-RW (24x recording), CD-ROM (40x reading), Buffer Underrun Prevention, and Digital Audio Extraction (40x). Here's a look at this versatile little drive:

With hardware out of the way, my next step was to select an operating system. This can prove to be a complicated process, as that there is no "one size fits all" solution for a home server. First, system builders should ask themselves what is expected from the home server. Will the server act only as a data repository? Or will advanced features, such as running a Web or e-mail server, also be needed?

For this Recipe, I went with the more-is-better approach. I decided to make the server as robust as possible, though without breaking the budget. I chose the open-source route and, more specifically, a Linux distribution. Considering the numerous Linux distributions on the market, I wanted one that was both easy to install and easy to use. I chose a distribution from Xandros.

While Xandros's products are billed as desktop operating systems, all the distributions offer shared-folder capabilities. Key features for a server include remote desktop sharing, shared-folder support, Windows and Mac file compatibility, support for CD/DVD burners, and more. Xandros also offers the ability to easily add other open-source software packages. I chose Xandros's entry-level distribution, Xandros Desktop OS version 2 Standard Edition, which covers all the basics for use in a home server. It's a bargain at just $39. (Xandros also offers other distributions with more features, though at higher prices.) Here a couple of screen shots from this Xandros OS:



Of course, Xandros isn't necessarily best choice for every system builder. For those who are truly Linux-savvy, a free distribution, such as Debian or slackware, might be best. Other system builders may prefer to use a Linux competitor, such as FreeBSD, or a Microsoft product.

As part of selecting an OS, system builders should take into account the level of support offered with a particular software product. They should then gauge the time needed to install and configure the operating system. Once a system builder combines those elements with cost and feature set, they should be able to pick an operating system that delivers on its promises.

Once the operating system installed, there are several steps left to perform, including setting up shared folders, perhaps a shared printer, and remote desktop access. All these elements will vary based on the OS and the intended installation. But system builders will be best served by providing the basics for their customers right out of the box.

FRANK OHLHORST is Technology Editor at CRN.

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