One of the stranger phenomena I have observed working in the tech, is the faith folks gives people who work “in” the industry related to all things technology. If Scott works as a developer or Sally works as an administrator then both Scott and Sally are granted super hero status amongst their family, friends, and neighbors when it comes to technology matters in everyday life. Nowhere did Scott or Sally take part in an armed forces swearing in ceremony – we just give them this status because they are “computer people”. Have a computer problem? Call Scott. Is the WiFi not working today? Walk down and knock on Sally’s front door. Surely Scott will jump at the chance to stop hacking custom ROM’s on his gray market mobile phone purchased on eBay and Sally won’t mind taking a break from applying the latest alpha build of DD-WRT on her home router. I mean this is what Scott and Sally do for fun right?
All kidding aside, I am taking a small break on this post to share How I do IT @ Home. Overall I am fairly content with how technology works in my home based on infrequent complaints from my spouse, reasonably content young children who live in a home without cable or satellite TV, and the simple fact that I have not (so far) lost any irreplaceable digital assets of value such as my family photos. For the hard core geek reader you may scoff at some of what you see and by all means drop a comment with linkage to alternative solutions. Remember our shared mantra “screencaps or it didn’t happen”.
Most likely lots of stuff. Hopefully most of it is actually yours! The internet of things has invaded our homes through TV’s with Linux running inside, bathroom scales that record our weight and BMI, and thermostats than adjust for us and post the data to the cloud. Here’s my home network at this instant – rather busy and this is with a number of devices in sleep or standby. If you are curious what is running and connected to your home network there’s an app for that.
The IP addresses are NAT’d obviously so I am not too concerned with getting hacked based on this information. There’s quite the radio frequency (RF) party going on in my house right now. We have Linux devices (my TV, my router) alongside Windows 7, 8, and RT devices alongside mobile phones and who knows what else. In your home from an technology perspective it’s all about the network. In practical terms this means choosing a good home router and choosing a decent internet service provider.
In my geo, I have a choice of four traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) today excluding more exotic options such as mobile wireless or satellite. At my previous address I had only two options. Choice of ISP in the United States is mostly a function of where your house physically sits and a number of other strange factors such as what lives underground (copper wires, fiber optics), when your place was built, local or state regulations, so forth and so on. Regardless choosing the right ISPs in my experience boils down to just a few factors:
First a bit on speed. You have two flavors of speed: upstream and downstream bandwidth. The latter is most important for 99% of the users out there who mostly consume internet content. If you are the reader with rack mount servers in the garage or you are running a private cloud in your basement, investing in more upstream bandwidth is probably worth the cost. For the rest of us it’s just not worth the extra dollars. The unit of measure for bandwidth is going to be either Kilobits per second (Kbps) or Megabits per second (Mbps). Note the small ‘b’ in the units of measure. Getting a glossy advertisement in the mail detailing too good to be true $9.95 a month 2Mbps internet sounds like a really good deal. However this is really a maximum of ~200Kilobytes or 200KB (big B) per second under ideal conditions. This is pretty slow internet. So how much bandwidth do you really need? It depends. Let’s jump ahead a little bit and take a look at what bandwidth is needed to stream a high definition (HD) movie over the internet.
Zoinks! On average I am consuming ~480Kilobytes (big B) per second watching a single streaming HD movie. That translates to almost 5Mbps (small b) in ISP speak. Suddenly that $9.95 a month offer for 2Mbps internet isn’t looking so good. The good news is that most streaming media services will adapt to what bandwidth you have available but the bad news is that often the result looks just terrible with limited bandwidth. Now consider that this is just one device in your home using this bandwidth. What if someone is playing Xbox upstairs or streaming another show from a tablet or taking an online course in a chat room with video conferencing (all things that happen simultaneously in my home). Sometimes your home router can help sort out this mess (more on this later) but the moral of the story is to think about what you will consume and how many devices will simultaneously consume bandwidth. Earlier you may have suspected that myself and my family are “cord cutters” meaning we don’t have traditional cable or satellite TV in the home. As a result we use A LOT of streaming media and often in an overlapping fashion.
Ken’s totally arbitrary downstream bandwidth selection decision matrix criteria:
Careful readers may have noticed the very thin yellow graph along the bottom of the graphic above. That is my upstream usage. Watching this HD movie I was average 12Kilobtyes per second or approximately 4% of my available 3Mbps upstream bandwidth. Whatever speed you buy it’s still often difficult to tell if you are getting what you paid for at least all of the time.
Who’s lying and who’s telling the truth? If only it were so simple. Both the speed tests above were taken from my primary PC at home.
So once you have decided on an ISP and a data plan the next important decision is selection of a router. Now for some folks you may find you are “locked” into using the equipment that your ISP provides you (whether you want to or not). If this is the case for you then this section isn’t worth reading but for the rest of you there are a few key factors that will make all the difference in choosing a home router.
Deciphering the alphabet soup of available WiFi protocols nearly requires a degree in radio frequency engineering. Gigabit WiFi is available now (802.11ac) but at this point this gear is expensive and requires a significant investment on the router and the clients (network adapters). Remember both the router and clients must have 802.11ac capable hardware for this magic to work. Today we are lucky if most devices support some form of 802.11n technology (which bonds a number of 54Mbps channels together). My recommendation is go with ‘N’ capable devices and to select a router that allows you two run two WiFi networks simultaneously on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands. The buzzwords to look for are descriptions like ‘dual band simultaneous networks’ that allow you two have two separate networks – one WiFi network on the 2.4Ghz spectrum and a second on the 5Ghz spectrum. So why segregate your devices across two WiFi networks?
To illustrate my point below is comparison of a file copy for a large file between two devices in my home at the same location but using different networks on different WiFi spectrum.
2.4 Ghz Network
5 Ghz Network
As you can see there is almost a 30% difference in throughput for the same file being copied between devices in the same location simply using different WiFi networks on different spectrums (for the geeks the maximum ‘N’ WiFi connection for 2.4Ghz between these locations was 100Mbps versus 144Mbps for the 5Ghz spectrum).
Lastly a word on placement of the router. I have a challenging environment for WiFi. There are four levels to my home the bottom two of which are partially and fully underground. Having experimented with various locations across the house my recommendation is to keep the router as close to the ‘middle’ of your home as possible as well as keeping the router ‘up high’ within a room. Aesthetics aside dedicating a small picture ledge or shelf for your router can yield excellent and consistent coverage throughout the home. If you have WiFi signal quality issues at the edges, many modern routers will allow second or third routers to be added as “repeaters” further extending the range and effective throughput. As in all things in life YMMV.
Back in the ‘old days’ I was a big fan of home servers. I used all versions of Windows Home Server to store documents, pictures, and videos sharing these files across my home. Microsoft eventually phased out the home server products in favor of SOHO focused Windows Server 2012 Essentials. This product is really amazing but it’s not intended for home use. There are many dedicated hardware options available that are more or less home Network Attached Storage (NAS) solutions. There is nothing wrong with these devices other than the fact that most can only expose simple file shares or limited media sharing. So it occurred to me why not just dedicate a low power Windows 8 machine as my ‘home server’ and media hub? This is quite doable and there are features of Windows 8 that make the idea even more appealing.
Storage spaces was introduced with Windows Server 2012 / Windows 8 that allows combining individual disks into a ‘storage pool’ providing high availability to your data as well as performance and ease of expansion and device replacement. If you lose a hard drive simply remove it from the storage space and add a new one. If you run out of space add a new drive to the existing storage space. For the WHS v1/v2 users out there, storage spaces is essentially ‘drive pooling vNext’.
So what we have above is a Windows 8 ‘server’ with two 3TB drives pooled together into a storage space that is ~2.71 TB in size. High availability is provided by establishing a two-way mirror (three-way mirrors are available for the truly paranoid as are one-way mirrors for the just plain crazy). If I lose one of the two drives in the Storage Space I can replace it without losing data and if I run out of room I can expand the storage pool by adding a new drive.
I also am using a 128GB SSD system volume that allows the Windows 8 ‘server’ to come in and out of sleep quickly. The mean time between failure (MTBF) for the SSD is also higher than a traditional spindle based hard drive and the power usage of the SSD is lower. Lastly I have an external USB3 hard drove plugged in for a tertiary backup (more on this later). All of this quietly runs, or more often sleeps, in the corner of my home office.
Power usage for the gear that runs in my home is a major concern of mine. Today many devices run perpetually 24x7 wastefully sucking down power and racking up electric bills not to mention impacting the environment. Since the Windows 8 ‘server’ is the technology hub of my home, it made sense to let this PC stay powered on only when some client device elsewhere in he home was also powered on. If all of the client devices went to sleep, the Windows 8 ‘server’ would eventually go to sleep as well. This and more was all made possible via a clever 3rd party product call “Lights Out Green IT for Windows 8”.
This software allows you to optionally install clients on your Windows PC devices. These clients tell the Windows 8 ‘server’ that the devices are online and request the ‘server’ not go into sleep mode. Once a configurable interval passes and no clients phone home, the server will go to sleep (and be resumed once a monitored device wakes up). Further the software allows non-Windows devices to participate by IP address monitoring. If a device with IP address XYZ is awake the Lights-Out server software will keep the ‘server’ online. There are many other scenarios supported such as time based windows for server uptime and downtime.
So now that we have a good ISP, a fast and reliable WiFi network on decent gear, a central digital asset hub, and we’ve minimized space heaters in the house, how do we expose the content what we have to other devices in the home? This section could be a blog series in and of itself but I have settled, right now, on a wonderful media server product called ‘Plex’. There is a much better write-up for Plex over here but I will give you the gist of what the software provides.
Plex is a media server and client that can share your videos, your pictures, and your music to almost any client device out there. Plex deals with the nitty gritty such as ‘on the fly’ transcoding to a format the client device wants or supports. Even more exotic protocols such as Bonjour are supported by the media server (for music devices of the fruit flavored variety).
Windows 8 Modern UI Plex Client
Windows Phone 8 Plex Client
Whether your device is based on Windows, or Android, or iOS, or even something proprietary chances are there is a Plex client available. The software just works.
If your are more concerned with traditional file sharing amongst your Windows devices its easy to overlook the HomeGroup . This feature of Windows has been around since Windows 7 and allows homes PC’s to behave almost as if they are on a corporate domain with respect to file sharing. PC’s join the HomeGroup via a key generated from the first device that created the HomeGroup . Once the HomeGroup is established sharing files becomes as easy as right click –> share with –> HomeGroup (read or write).
Any contextual menu from Windows Explorer will now give you the option to share the file or folder with the entire HomeGroup in just one right click and select operation (even with specific users who are members of the HomeGroup).
/Done. It’s just a thing of beauty isn’t it? The fine print here is that all devices must be Windows 7 or higher PC’s (including Windows RT devices). If you have older Windows devices or other operating systems in them mix there are tried and true alternatives to HomeGroup for file sharing.
And now for my favorite home IT subject! BACKUPS. Backups are like seatbelts and bicycle helmets. We all know we should use them. Backups protect us from ourselves yet somehow we always seem to forget to take them. It’s easy for this to happen. Digital assets are all over the place. We have pictures on our phones, on our PC’s, on our tablets, on thin fragile flash memory IN our cameras or ON the kitchen counter, not to mention a zillion other music and video files strewn all over the place.
There is no foolproof easy button out their to prevent the potential for data loss of important digital stuff. However, like defense in depth there are a number of steps anyone can take with a family to minimize the chance that you will lose something digital that can’t easily be replaced.
On the Windows 8 ‘server’ I employ three layers of data protection. If I lose data from this PC then it’s most likely because the zombies are coming.
For those wondering SyncToy can be scheduled to run at a specified interval. Instructions are conveniently located in the Help menu.
[Update 9/7/2013] A reader pointed out “SyncBackFree” which is a actively developed freeware alternative to SyncToy which hasn’t been updated since 2009. Quickly I can see a couple of features this product has that would be useful over SyncToy such as emailing logs and restore capabilities (versus xcopying pieces parts of the SyncToy directory backup manually). Thanks Judah!
Then congratulations! I have left quite a few details out of my home IT equation but this is the gist of the major pieces parts. I won’t fib and say this wasn’t a bit of work to setup. Significant trial and error was involved. You are reading this from a person who has a flying saucer (below) bolted on his roof just so he can watch live sports on TV from time to time.
Over all the solutions described in this post ‘just work’. Little interaction is needed on my part which frees me up do more important things in life like being a parent! In future posts I am hoping to describe some of the smaller niche pieces of my Home IT solution such as:
Thanks for reading.