What does my server do?

The heart of a modern day multiroom or automated install is your Server.  Some people don't want a computer running 24/7, but read on and you might change your mind.

At first I wasn't too sure if a computer running windows would be stable enough and I was concerned about power consumption.  But after many days of research and planning I came to the conclusion that a server is a must if you want to take advantage of mobile devices such as the iphone or itouch.

server_in_rack

The picture above is my Intel 4 core server in a rack mount case bolted to my 19" rack.

 

What I use my Server for

 

CCTV

I looked at buying a self contained CCTV pvr or nvr, but found that unless I spent alot of money it didn't quite do what i wanted it to do.  I also wanted to be able to access motion detected using my own scripts, so a computer seemed the only way to go.  The lure of using my Itouch to control my house and the desire for an always on Network attached storage device also meant that I need a computer running 24/7.  I concluded that running a seperate CCTV server would be a waste of time, money and power.

My main concern was weather or not my server had enough power to monitor CCTV and be able to function normally for all other tasks.  10 years ago processing power wasn't good enough to handle all this at once, but time moves on, and now multi threaded processors can easily handle monitoring 8 or so cameras with very little impact on performance or other tasks.  Before I settled on my decision I tested as many camera's as I could on an old AMD 3000 machine i had lying around.  Even that old beast could handle 6 cameras with ease although the processor was on about 30% usage.  I then tried connecting the same cameras to an Intel Dual core chip setup and was very pleased to see that CPU usage dropped to about 12%.  Even whilst i was testing the cost of CPU chips were dropping, so I opted for an Intel quad core processor.  I found my CPU usage then dropped to about 6%.

Network Attached Storage(NAS)

An essential piece of equipment for any home regardless of your setup.  These days most homes have more than one PC and the need to share and store files such as photos, videos and music is a must for most people.  If you have a multiroom audio or video system the need for a NAS is even greater.  What's the point in having an automated multiroom system without any media to play? None, unless you want to be changing CD's or even records!

I use Sonos as my multiroom audio and it requires a NAS if you want to play your own music rather than listen to Internet radio.  Originally I used 2 Buffalo Linkstations to store all my media.  Using the 2nd Linkstation as a backup of the first.  However I wasn't very impressed with the network performance.  It worked well for Sonos, but copying large video files was slow.  I was also thinking about power consumption.  It seemed pointless having 2 power packs burning away for my Linkstations when i had a server running 24/7.

Therefore I installed 2 500GB hard drives in a mirrored RAID configuration into my server.  Instantly I saw a massive performance increase when moving large files over the network and was able to unplug the Buffalo power packs.  In theory the computers power supply should use less power overall than the ineffiecient power packs, but i still haven't measured it.  When i do I'll write it down.

Playing video

Most of us now watch some kind of TV on a computer.  Weather it's BBC iplayer, SkyPlayer, youTube or DVD's you've ripped or downloaded.  If I didn't have a server running 24/7 then maybe I'd use some kind of streaming device, but yet again, that means another power pack, more leads and something else to worry about.

I use my server as my media player.  The server is plugged into my video matrix switcher using 1080p or 720p over component cables so I can channel it through to any room I want.  I used an ATI HD4000 graphics card which decodes HD video on board and the results are amazing.  Even though the server is being used for lot of other things it has no problem in displaying 1080p HD.  Infact, I find it has a better picture and frame rate than my SkyHD box.

Accessing your media in a user friendly way is another subject, but the most basic way is to get a wireless keyboard and/or mouse.  You can also use your mobile devices such as Iphone or Itouch to control it.

X10

If you want logic when using X10 or other automated systems you need a computer running 24/7 or you'll have to put up with dumb X10 controllers which don't understand your script and will only perform simple tasks.  I use a CM15pro USB X10 interface plugged into my server.  The server then controls what signals it receives and sends via the CM15.  There are many software vendors who support X10 but I chose Homeseer.

IR Control

No doubt you'll have some devices which can only be controlled via IR.  A sky box is a prime example.  You would think a company like Sky would have had some kind of IP control by now, but they don't.  Hence, IR although dated is a must for most systems.  I use a Global Cache device which is connected to my network.  The server sends commands to the Global Cache which then sends IR through your choice of emitter.  You can use Homeseer to control your Global Cache but I prefer using MainLobby server as it has a much nicer method of storing your IR codes.

Wireless and Mobile device control

A must for any automated or teched house.  There are several ways of doing this using a computer but I've settled for what I believe is the most flexible across all mobile devices.  A webserver - simple.   I use an Itouch to control everything in my house and it works very well.  Even the wife likes it!   You can of course write your own iphone app or use some of the nice apps already out there, but if you want to control your house from various devices such as iphones, Android phones or just your PC then you'll find writing a web app on a webserver is the best way to go because you only need to write it once.

If you are a webdeveloper or handy at HTML andAjax you'll find this easy. If you're not, I'll try to explain this in more detail in another article.

Anything else you can think of!

As my server has plenty of capacity to monitor and control my house, I've still got plenty spare to use the computer for any other task i might have.  Because it's always on I can schedule tasks such as downloads to occur overnight or use it to process large video files whilst I'm working on my PC without any interruption.  I connect to my server using Microsofts Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) which is included with windows XP.  It makes administering the server easy, but also means you can use it as another PC.  Be careful though, you really don't want to destroy your house control system!

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