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Sunday, 28 February 2010 14:47

Is it time for a Windows or Linux server in your home?

Increasingly today's modern homes are gaining computing infrastructure to rival many small businesses. Just as a company should consider a server for file and print serving, backups, a web site and centralised e-mail, so too families might like to consider the same. However, what's right? Windows or Linux?

There are many useful applications for a server in your home.

For one, your home likely has a USB-connected printer. While network printers connected via Ethernet and even WiFi are available, the likelihood is much more that families have USB printers connected to a single computer, perhaps the main family desktop.

With parents and students increasingly adopting laptops, not to mention the other computers dispersed throughout the house, invariably this means printing becomes a matter of copying files to a USB stick, queuing up for your turn on the main desktop, and finally then being able to print.

Instead, consider that the printer - or printers - could be cabled directly into a server computer and then shared across the network to all others.

What's nice is that a server need not take up a lot of space. Once it has been set up a good server will be able to happily run unattended, without a keyboard, mouse or monitor. This allows it to be tidily stored away so long as it has power and a network connection to your router.

I picked up an ASUS EeeBox B202 for this very purpose. It's advertised as the world's smallest desktop PC and lays on its side under my ADSL 2 router. Its low profile means it passes the controversial 'wife test', being subtle and almost invisible.

Of course, printing is only one thing. There are many other reasons to install a server.

For another, files and media can be stored centrally. In a business this would be important documents that are worked upon by all. At home, you might choose to store your iTunes or Windows Media collection on a server folder shared out.

This means everyone can sync their iPods or other MP3 players from their own computer, while drawing upon the complete collection located in one central place.

For those more technically inclined, a home server also offers tremendous potential to free you from ISP-supplied e-mail addresses and web hosting.

Specifically, somebody in your family probably has an e-mail address like Change your ISP to another and that address is gone. Sure, you could use or others but for a small price you could register your own domain name, unique to your family.

I talked about this previously, advising how to set up your own domain coupled with free mail and web hosting, but you can take it a step further using your own server.

Instead of relying on somebody else's free host - which may include advertiser announcements on your web page, or bandwidth limitations, or unexpected outages - direct the mail and web traffic to your home server.

This gives unlimited flexibility to create and manage e-mail addresses and aliases, mailing lists, web sites and more.

So with these purposes in mind, what is the optimal home server setup for your household?

The first choice is to buy something already designed for this role. You may have heard of Windows Home Server (WHS); this is Microsoft's product for the family market which allows you to perform printer and file sharing out-of-the-box.

Philip Churchill has a tremendous blog on all things WHS-related which details hardware options plus add-ons, configuration issues and more.

However, WHS is not without its limitations. For one thing, it is not available for retail purchase at all. It can only be legally obtained with the purchase of a new computer. Churchill's blog has information on brand-name WHS releases like ASUS' range based on the Atom processor. Hewlett Packard (HP) and other manufacturers also sell specially-designated WHS machines.

If you'd like something unique you can even purchase a Windows home server in a cigar humidor box - the Home Servidor!

WHS works tremendously for those already comfortable with Microsoft Windows and who primarily want to ensure their home's data is safely stored and backed up. Remote access options permit you to even work with your media and files while travelling or in the office or elsewhere.

However, at the end of the day, WHS is pretty much a vanilla file server. Making web serving and e-mail work isn't straightforward but can be achieved if you're dedicated.

Further, the restricted availability of WHS is a big downer. Mind you, if you can (somehow) obtain the software you'll find tutorials online to make it work on a variety of existing hardware - such as the very ASUS EeeBox B202 I have.

Alternatively, IT professionals - with access to the appropriate Microsoft MSDN or Technet subscription - could quite realistically construct their own home-based Windows Server and Microsoft Exchange platform.

However, for my money, you're best off with a Linux setup.

If you have no prior experience with Linux this need not be frightening; after all, the intention is that once the server is up-and-running you almost never have to work on it. It will sit happily without a keyboard, mouse or monitor and serve up web pages, share files and printers and more.

A compelling advantage of Linux is that the most popular open source web applications were designed on it and with it in mind. This includes blogging platforms like WordPress which will make setting up and running your own blog web site a snap.

HowToForge includes a tutorial on constructing a home server based on Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) although you'd instead opt to use Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) or the coming Ubuntu 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) which will be with us in late April.

Ubuntu 10.04 is going to be a good choice, because it will be designated a long term support - or LTS - release by Canonical, meaning that support is guaranteed for at least three years.

Ubuntu is reputedly the most popular and well-known Linux distribution available today. Much of this is due to the wonderful online community, providing a wealth of support and tutorials.

Let me tell you what I ultimately recommend, however.

For the more technically-oriented and those with the wildest possible imaginations you won't go wrong with Debian GNU/Linux 5.0. Debian is the base that Ubuntu is built on and derives from but offers remarkable flexibility and power.

By using Debian, you can construct a home server from existing and aging hardware to the sparkliest newest purchase you have. You can make a file and print server, a backup system, a streaming media server, a mail and web server, a remote access server and so much more.

Give it some thought. If you've heard Linux is arcane and hard to use then you're out-of-date. While the operating system was once the domain of hackers and geeks (and maybe the same might have been said in the past about MS-DOS) it has evolved in amazing ways.

In fact, even a distinctly mainstream and non-nerd publication like Popular Mechanics has written about how to build a cheap Linux home media server.

What do you think? Are you persuaded to set up a home server? Or, do you have one already? What do you use it for, and what hardware and software platform did you choose?

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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