How to utilise a gig – Project 1: Home Media Server [Part 1] – Hardware and Software

Before reading this article, I should admit that I’ve had the Plex server for a number of years.  The additional features afforded by the Gigabit WAN link are primarily for sharing media  outwit the local network, with family and on remote devices (Apple TVs in the case of this article).

So as I wrote in my last article, the next few weeks will chronicle some of the services that you can enable using the higher speeds afforded by gigabit connectivity.  This first article is a how-to on setting up a Media server.

So let’s take a look at some of the background as to what you might want a media server for, what facilities it can offer, what we need to buy and costs of software.  At basic a media server is a computing box, window, linux or OSX based, which runs dedicated media server software, and allows connected devices such as set top boxes, tablets, phones or Smart TVs to connect to it.  The media is loaded onto the servers storage, and when browsing to the device via app/plugin the service behaves much like your own personal Netflix.  The key difference is you have the actual media files, ripped/downloaded etc and have full control.. The more feature rich implementations also offer facilities for playlists, programme art etc.

So how do we do this?

Software/Media Centre Platform

The first question is the media server software that we are going to use. There’s plenty on the market.  Two of the most popular are XBMC and Plex, and whilst the applications come from a similar root, they achieve their aim in very different ways.

XBMC is very much a media player whereas Plex can be best thought of a client-server model, where you run a server with your media (this could even be your laptop) and then use a client on end devices (Apple TV/ Roku / Xbox One / SmartTVs).  Whilst XBMC is more configurable, and xxl_plex-logo-1200-80more feature rich, it is definitely not as stable, or s well supported as Plex.
The company behind Plex also offer paid subscriptions which make sharing your server remotely over the web, and various out tasks more easily achieved.  It’s for this reason that I moved to Plex some  years ago, and don’t miss XBMC or it’s stability/complexity issues.

Because of this approach we are going to dedicate a box to the task of running the media server, our Plex server will house all our media, and run the software to power the endpoints which in our case will run Plex client on  Apple TV4s.

Hardware

So with our software chosen, the next consideration is the “box” on which we’ll run our Plex Media server.  Your choices here are much more various.

Mac Mini in hands

2012+ Mac Mini- it’s really this small

My box of choice is unsurprisingly a Mac, and whilst I am frequently accused of bias when it comes to hardwire in this case the selection is justified.  The Mac Mini (2012-) is one of the smallest, neatest and feature rich boxes that you can use as a media server.  It can be specified up to quad core i7 processors, 16GB of RAM and can have multiple 1gigabit networking ports.  On top of that it comes with built in wifi, and runs a fan less design.

Front and back of boxes, small but plenty of expansion options!

Front and back of boxes, small but plenty of expansion options!

As you can see by the pictures on the left here, it’s really small, with a one piece design.  Even nicer is the fact that there’s no bulky power supply – just a simple infinity connector.  On the back you’ll find a multitude of ports to connect network cables, USB3.0 and thunderbolt devices, meaning you are spoilt for choice on how to about adding storage as your media server grows, be that network or direct attached disks.

New the boxes range in price from £400-1000  depending on the specification.  The i5 processor versions are dual core, whereas the i7 versions offer quad core processing.  Memory wise all the boxes will take 16GB RAM, and given the prices of RAM these days, a bump to 16GB should be the first thing you do.   The box can take internal drives, and there are various options to install 2 disks, more on that later.

I’d recommend shopping around on eBay or Gumtree, just as an example I found these two example:

Gumtree – 2012 i5 2.5Ghz with 4GB RAM for only £295

Ebay 2013 i5 2.3Ghz with 8GB RAM for only £349

Either of these boxes will be ideal, and the memory upgrade is now under £60 for 16GB and can be found here at crucial.com.

So that’s us got our hardware for around £350.  One wee note, if you are planning to run the server headless (if you want to pop it into a cupboard and hide it away) then due to a quirk on a lot of Intel based boxes, you’ll want to buy one of these HDMI dongles.  What does this dongle do? – Not to get to in depth, if your Mac (or PC) detects that it doesn’t have a monitor plugged in, it will not enable hardware acceleration of graphics, this results in f_cked up image display when you remotely access the box. Just know if you want it headless order one of these dongles.

Installing PLEX

First give your Mac Mini a fixed IP address.  You can do this easily by going into the control panel.  This means you’ll easily be able to troubleshoot if you have any errors further down the line.

If you’ve used a Mac before, installing Plex is exactly the same as any other Mac application. Head on over to Plex’s site and download the latest Media Server software.  You’ll get a DMG which you want to copy onto your Server box and install.  You’ll know that it’s installed as you’ll get an icon that look like a right pointing arrow in the top bar of your Mac (next to the clock).

There’s a few good housekeeping tasks – such as setting power management to keep the disks spinning for an hour, and disable any auto sleep functions.  I also tend to set the Plex Application to start open on startup (just in the case you should loose power).  If you only have a single user login for the server, then you can also set the box to login automatically (not the most secure but manageable).

A decent Mac Mini (post 2012) with 16GB RAM and Core i5 or above will happily serve a large household – I have managed to run 16 1080p streams to end devices, and transcode (will be explained later) to multiple iPads and the server still wasn’t running at anything close to 100percent CPU.  Better yet, because we’re using OSX we can add server functions and have this box perform other tasks for us.

In Part 2 of this walk through we’ll configure Plex, import Media and view the library from a client.

 

Things to do with high-speed net – connected home

So still loving the new service, but as I said in my last post, I’m now interested in exploring and sharing some of the new facilities that high speed connectivity can offer.  I’ll start with a couple of housekeeping points

  1. From my selfish perspective, I’m referring and qualifying all these “what you can do” articles on the Hyperoptic product that I am lucky enough to have.
  2. Many of the outcomes will be repeatable on other products (Infinity / Virgin cable etc) however results may vary.
  3. The biggest differences are likely to come from the asymmetric nature of many of the competing services – you’ll need to check how the differences of your particular service affects the outcome.
  4. You’re going to want 40+ meg on the downstream and a minimum of 10 meg on the upstream to even bother with most of these services.
  5. 1meg upstreams need not apply!

So – first things first, what about using all this super cool goodness to build a kickass media server.  I’ll be going over the basics of that in the next article!

Well it’s here – Hyperoptic and it’s immense

If you’ve read the blog for any amount of time, or even if you have stumbled onto it recently, then you’ll know that a big project in my life has been trying to improve the poor state of broadband provision in the budding in which I live.  As I’ve already touched on, I don’t live in the boonies, in a new city (with aluminium cables) or really a place that has any excuse to have poor broadband provision.  Even with this said, and given the fact I live in central Glasgow ( a very large city) I am unable to get anything beyond 17Megabit from BT.  Taking matters into my own hands I petitioned our residents association in the building and have successfully had Gigabit broadband (ultra band?) fitted from Hyperoptic.  First fit was in December, and Fibre was brought in late January.  On Wednesday ( 30th March) – we went live, and oh boy!

Here’s a speed test from 9.00AM on Thursday.  I was interested to see if there were any contention issues at peak – and hitting 750mbit a second down and 880 up is very close to perfect.  In fact even at these peak times I’m able to run these tests time after time (10 in fact) and hit the same results.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 09.23.52

 

 

 

 

 

Better than that, at off-peak times (3am) I have managed to hit at 940mbit down / 970 mbit up – incredible.

So that’s the headline figures out the way, so now what?  And that’s a good question.  Things to cross off-

  • iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon are all instant, as in YouTube 4K.
  • Downloads are as fast as the server can give you (50mbit – 100mbit on the better ones).
  • Content Distribution Network (CDN) backed services are ridiculous (hard to measure) – for fun downloading an album or playlist from Apple Music to have offline is nearly instant!
  • There’s no slow down EVER!
  • Zero Packet Loss (eat that Sky!)

I’ll be doing some other experiments with this amazing new service in due course, VPN, site to site, Plex serving.  That to come, I’m off to download more of the web! 🙂

 

 

Journey to Gig/Gig broadband with Hyperoptic

I live in the centre of a major Scottish city, which has according to wikipedia has an urban population of 1.75 million people.  That’s no small number of people.  I just assumed when I bought my place, that being in a large new development that when infinity began rolling out that it’d be available pretty much after launch.  Well thanks to the mystery of BT Planning, I’ve sat for the last 5 years and watched as promised date after promised date has slipped.

Late in 2014 it became abundantly clear that BT had no interest in enabling us, all the vague excuses piled up and I realised it was going to have to be a DIY approach for our building.  First the facts- our building is just over 7 years old, is a steel frame building with inbuilt ducting and services and false ceilings.  All these things make it super easy to install services.  Secondly, the location and pricing of the building means that there’s a lot of young professionals, and home workers (i.e. a captive market).  To me it made no logical sense that the building hadn’t been enabled (I’ve actually come to get information that makes me believe it’s not a technical reason but a planning/political reason holding us back).

So i began my search, which in all honesty I was expecting to be fruitless.  I mean- if BT the largest telecoms group in the country can’t get us cable who can!  My first port of call was Virgin, where I reached out and got positive noises from they cable my street team.  I registered my interest, had a few neighbours do the same, and had good conversations with one of their outreach managers on twitter.  After 6 months though we had no committal, no in person engagement and weren’t going anywhere.

Frustrated I looked at the market again and came across Hyperoptic – a company which on paper our building was purpose made.  I have to confess that due to travel I didn’t make the first approach, but a neighbour picked up the baton and made the initial contact.  I got re-involved in summer of 2015, after which time I assumed the role of Hyperoptic Champion for the building, and pushed the project.  I started by joining our residents association, primarily for a single task (i.e. getting the fibre fitted) and began to work with the excellent John McCabe at Hyperoptic.  Our residents association really lacked social media skills, a domain name and a Facebook forum later I had the ability to outreach to folk and begin campaigning.

I started by speaking to neighbours I new in person, however it’s a big development so I probably only knew 20percent of the folks in the development. Hyperoptic require residents to register interest on their page, and have a very transparent tracker.  To assist I was sent marketing flyers and materials, which allowed me to do a mail drop.  I took the basic materials, and made them a bit more personal by branding and explaining a few things on an accompanying letter.  I mail dropped them in early September, and by the end of that same month we were showing the adequate number of registrations to move forward.

Hyperoptic were true to their word and surveyed the building, reporting back that they’d be able to fit the service with no issues.  The only fly in the ointment was the lack of service hatches in the ceilings outside the units. Hyperoptic offered a solution of installing these hatches and picking up the cost. (The truth being that we should have had these in anyway).  As is typical we had the doubters who though that these small hatches would “spoil the look” but to be frank I never accepted that given that we have smoke detectors, lights and so forth already there.  Anyway, a vote sent out by the factor saw no significant objection and we were green light to get the way leave signed to get Hyperoptic in and fitting.

The internal cabling is high quality Cat6e, I’m not 100percent sure of the switch infrastructure but effectively the fitted network should be able to support 10gigs and beyond (technology permitting).  Cabinets were installed in the basement levels where the switches are housed, and cat6E cabling was run first below in the carparks, and then up through the 3 blocks of the building (10 storeys).  The install is first class, to the point where in a straw poll of folks visiting my house I said- do you notice anything? – to which the answer was – what?

Fibre install has been a bit of a bear, with the contracts (BT) wasting dates, and making delays, however we have the fibre into the basement, and jointing is to go ahead.   I’m already confident this service will have massive benefits to our residents.  To go from a 14meg internet connection which is beginning to struggle to support multiple over the top media services, to a symmetric 1gig service is going to be a huge change, and I’m going to blog about how it affects the day to day of what and how we utilise media.   Stay tuned for more articles.