How to Set Up a Home Media Server- Complete A-Z Guide

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When it comes to wanting to stream media content to your devices, there’s a couple of options. If you don’t have a big collection of your own media, then you usually have to rely on streaming services for the different types of media you want to stream. For those of you that have been accruing a collection of media over the years and want to be able to stream it on all your devices, then you’ll likely need to set up a home media server. If you don’t know how to build one, but want a simple step-by-step guide on how to set one up, you’ve come to the right place.

Do I Need a Home Media Server?


This question tends to pop up a lot when people talk about getting a home media server. The reason it comes up a lot is because some people don’t realize the complete benefits offered by a home media server, and this leads them to question how much benefit they can get out of one.

In reality, a home media server isn’t just a storage system that can be accessed by any authorized device on the Local Area Network. The first benefit of the home media server is actually data consolidation. If you’ve got multiple desktops with different media files on them and want to keep them all in one place, in some cases it can be difficult to do it with a single device. Home media servers offer an expandable storage platform, meaning even in the event you hit max capacity with your current storage amount, you can expand.

The biggest and best selling point of home media servers isn’t even the data consolidation with expandable storage. It’s actually the ability to stream your media on a range of devices, potentially from anywhere depending on how you set up your server. Plex, for example, offers the ability to stream to a wide range of devices, even when you’re out of the house.

Step 1: Acquiring Hardware


Setting up a home media server that can store all the data that makes up your media won’t be free, most of all because storage is going to be essential to the process. The hardware you’ll need revolves around being able to contain all the data your collection has accumulated, as well as making sure it can be accessed from all of your compatible devices (we’ll cover that later on in the guide).

Network Attached Storage System (NAS)

NAS

Here we’ll be focusing on buying an enclosed NAS system, as although building one is an option, the results of this are often inferior without a massive budget. These wonderful gems are used for a massive variety of reasons, from businesses and enterprises using them for commercial data storage, right through to tech enthusiasts using them for an array of projects. One of the best reasons for using Network Attached Storage Systems is because they’re scalable. After the initial setup, you can add more storage as you accrue more data.

When it comes to finding the right NAS device for you, the amount of space you need at present needs to be considered. You’ll also need to determine how much storage space you think you’re going to need by the time you’ve finished accumulating your media collection. Most users will be fine with 2 drive-bays, as you can get HDDs with up to 4TB each in them. The vast majority of people won’t need more than 8TB.

Hard Drives

Storage, much like data, is a necessary part of life in today’s modern world. Your phone, computer, tablets and games consoles all have regular internal storage, so you can expect your NAS system to be no exception.

When it comes to picking up the right hard drives for your media server, there are some things you’ll want to consider:

  • NAS Certified or Regular Drives – NAS certified hard drives are specially designed to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Regular drives without certification were designed to be used for computers that are turned off more than on. While using regular drives is still possible provided they’re your standard 3.5 inch drives, but running them 24/7 drastically reduces their lifespan, and when that happens you’ll lose the data on the drives that die.
  • Backup Drives are Recommended – As you can imagine, losing all of your data can be a nightmare, especially without backups. This rings true for media filled drives more than any others because media typically requires large amounts of storage space. If you’ve got 2 terabytes of media on your media server drive and it dies, without a backup you’ll have to replace it and transfer the data over again. This could leave you without a media server for some time.
  • Uniformity is King – When you’re procuring hard drives for your media server, identical drives will perform better both individually, and as a unit. If you’re using multiple drives in your NAS, then it’d be wise to look up how RAID works, especially if you enjoy reading about technology. Learning about RAID can help minimize risks, improve performance and avoid data loss through redundant storage.

Step 2: Hardware Installation


After acquiring your NAS and a number of drives equal to the amount of bays your NAS has, it’s time for you to get all the hardware setup. We’ll cover the stages of hardware setup below:

NAS setup

  • NAS itself – The first thing you’re going to want to do is unbox your NAS unit and place it where it’s going to live. You’ll want a good amount of ventilation in a cool room, as most computing hardware hates dust and heat.
  • Power Supply – The best way to do this is to place the connection to the NAS next to it without plugging it in, and doing the same with the plug and the power outlet it’s going to be using. This way, when the other steps are complete, it’ll only take a few seconds to plug it in.
  • Hard Drives – Now is the time to insert the hard-drives into the bays of the NAS. It’s not just as simple as sliding it in, as you need to connect the data cable beforehand. The data cable is how the information travels between the NAS and the hard-drives.
  • Internet – The vast majority of home NAS devices use a wired internet connection. Keep in mind, your NAS’ internet connection potential is only as good as the category of Ethernet cable connecting it. It’s advised to use Cat6 where possible, failing that Cat5e. To connect the NAS to the router, you simply need to connect one side of the Ethernet to the NAS, and the other side to your router.
  • Other – Always look at the manufacturer’s guidelines that come with the NAS. There’s always a chance that other steps need to be taken before the NAS is completely set up. If your manufacturer doesn’t stipulate further steps, then the hardware end of your NAS is good to go.

Step 3: Configuration


When you’ve finished with the hardware setup, you’ll likely need to configure the NAS and its settings. This usually involves things like RAID settings, which refers to how your data is stored. Unless prompted by the NAS, the only thing to worry about is RAID. We’ll be explaining the only two RAID settings you’ll need below:

RAID Stripe Mirror

RAID 0 – Disk Striping

Requiring a minimum of 2 hard-drives, striping works by writing data to two drives simultaneously. It provides a big increase in performance by allowing you to write to 2 or more hard-drives at the same time, but there’s a big downside. If data on one of the disks gets corrupted by either a partial or full failing of a disk, all of the data that’s on the other drive(s) becomes corrupted and therefore useless.

This is inadvisable for home NAS devices being used as home media servers. The reason for this is that with most NAS devices for home use having only 2 drives, when one fails you won’t have any media to access, as only half of each file was written on the good drive, no file is accessible.

RAID 1 – Disk Mirroring

Mirroring is much more recommended. What’s written on the first drive is written on the second in exactly the same way. This means that even if one of the drives fails, the other still has everything on it for you to view or listen to at your leisure.

It’s much more recommendable because you can switch out the drive that fails when you’ve both realized it failed and had the time to do something about it, then replace it with an identical drive. The new drive will automatically start mirroring the other drive, writing the data for all the files on the other drive to itself.

The key thing to remember about both of these RAID settings is that they both have advantages and disadvantages, and they both require at least two drives to be in their bays. Those with a single bay in their NAS needn’t worry about RAID configuration at all.

NAS Setup

When you first setup your NAS, you’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s setup instructions. Usually you’ll either be prompted to setup login details, or you’ll be given the initial login details where the username and password are both “admin”. After you’ve completed the setup, you’ll be able to access the NAS’ interface through a web browser using the local address.

In order to access the interface using the local address, you’ll need to enter its local address in the URL bar. When you’ve accessed the interface for the first time, it’s advisable to have a look around and get to grips with the interface. By getting used to navigating the different menus, you’ll find the later steps easier.

Step 4: Data Migration


When you’ve acquired your hardware, installed it, and configured your NAS, it’s time to start the transference of data that makes up your media files onto your NAS device. In plain English, it’s time to transfer your media files onto the NAS. If you follow the manufacturer’s instructions correctly, then you’ll see your new NAS on your file explorer and be able to send files directly to your NAS from there.

Something to keep in mind is that it can take a long time to transfer huge amounts of data, especially across your Local Area Network. Once you’ve queued up lots of media from one device to be transferred over to the NAS through your LAN, you should check if your NAS has a USB port. A lot of NAS devices have a USB port that you can use to transfer data from your device to the NAS.

The downside to using the USB port is that you either need to move your devices close enough for your USB to USB cable to connect to both devices, or purchase a much longer USB to USB cable. You can use an external hard drive as a sort of middle-man, transferring from a device to the external hard drive, then from the external hard drive to the NAS, but if you don’t already have an external hard drive, it’s not worth buying one solely for transferring data to your NAS.

Step 5: Choosing the Right App and Installing It


Your NAS is only a centralized data hub without an app to allow the extra functionality that media server apps can bring. There are plenty of apps for you to choose from, but before installing any app onto your device, the best advice you can hear is to make sure your NAS is compatible with the media server app you want to use.

Plex

We’ve found an app that just screams compatibility, not just on one end, but two. On the NAS end, Plex is compatible with a range of brands in the NAS field. This includes your industry leaders like Synology, QNAP and Western Digital, right through to brands known for other things like SeaGate and Netgear. On the streaming end, Plex is compatible with a whole host of devices, including computers, mobile devices, streaming service hardware, and with Plex Pass you can even stream to your Playstation or Xbox One console. There’s also the option to stream to VR headsets and streaming set top boxes like the Nvidia Shield.

Installing Plex

Installing Plex on the NAS can be done in a couple of simple steps. The first thing you need to do is download the Plex App appropriate to your NAS device. Then you need to follow the instructions set out by the manufacturer of your specific device. Usually you’ll access these instructions through the web, so make sure you know exactly what model of NAS you have.

In order to install Plex to your NAS, the first thing you need to do is log on to a computer that’s connected to the same Local Area Network as the NAS. Then you’ll want to open up your internet browser and enter your NAS’ address into the URL bar. After entering the address, you’ll need to log in using the details you chose earlier on. You’ll then be taken through to the NAS interface. While you’re inside the interface, you’ll want to go to the package manager.

Although you can install the app directly by searching for it, most of the time the version of the app found through package manager is an outdated version. To get the newest version, open a new tab on your internet browser and go directly to the Plex Media Server Downloads Page, then use the dropdown menu to choose the appropriate NAS manufacturer. After you’ve selected your manufacturer, you’ll be greeted with the “choose package” button. If you don’t know what processor you have in your NAS, then just use Google to do some research. Once you know which processor you have, you’ll know which package to download.

When you’ve downloaded the correct package, go back to the tab with the NAS interface, then select manual download from within package manager. Then click the “browse” button. Now you just need to go to the download section, select the file you downloaded a second ago. It’ll bring you out of the file browsing menu and back to the manual install menu where you can just click next. Then all you need to do is follow the install instructions and you’re good.

Step 6: Library Population


Once installed, your Plex library needs to be populated. With Plex there are usually two folders that should be created. The first is “TV Shows” and the second is “Movies”. In order to populate these libraries, you’ll need to use the data that you’ve migrated over. The catch is that the media file names need to be in the right format in order for Plex to be able to automatically populate your libraries with them.

TV Shows

TV Show files need to be renamed to the name of the TV show, followed by a space, a hyphen, a space and then S00E00, with the numbers being correct for the file.

Movies

Movie files need to be renamed to the name of the movie, followed by a space, followed by the year of release in brackets.

It’s best to keep in mind that after the initial setup, the naming requirements change a bit when adding files after the setup wizard has done its thing. For more information, it’s best to visit Plex and click “articles” under the support section at the bottom of the page.

Step 7: Download the Apps and Enjoy


It’s been a lot of effort and a little difficult to go from not knowing what a NAS is right through to having a fully set up media server, but you’ve now done it. What you need to do is download the app for all of your compatible devices, then enjoy it. You’ve earned it.

Final Thoughts


The best advice that we can give you is to do your own research when it comes to acquiring a NAS. Beware, some models of NAS are diskless. This means that they have a certain amount of internal storage, but once they’re full you’re out of luck. At the time of writing, hard drive sizes for internal storage top out at about 4TB. Keep this in mind when picking a NAS, and decide how many drive bays you’re going to need accordingly.

There are other apps out there to set up a media server other than Plex, but none that have such a high level of compatibility while also having the ability to transcode. By transcode, I mean so long as your NAS has a high enough level of performance, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got an AVI file on your NAS and try and play it on an otherwise incompatible iPhone (not typically able to play AVI files), it’ll still work.

FAQs


Q: How do I setup my own server?

A: Simply follow the steps above. You’ll need to find the right NAS for you, but that comes down to how much storage you need. Keep in mind, if you use RAID1, your net storage is half of what you put in the NAS because it keeps half as a backup in case one of the drives fails.

Q: Do I need a server at home?

A: Realistically it depends. If you have room for one and you don’t want to be paying a monthly fee to a provider, then one at home is probably best.

Q: How does a home server work?

A: The home media server works by keeping a central store of all of your media that you can access and stream from any compatible device. If you use the steps above, it’ll essentially be an on-demand streaming service that has everything in your collection on it, provided there’s enough storage.

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