What’s an article about building a server got to do with audio I hear you say? Well bear with me and I’ll tell you. I’ve spent the last five months doing the audio post production with Pro Tools for a twenty-six part series all in 5.1. This generated terabytes of data. As this had to stay accessible, and more importantly, stay safe for the duration of the project, and indeed well beyond, until it has been released to air or streaming and been through international distribution, I needed a lot of storage on tap.
An Ever Increasing Noise Floor
Although I was running the “live” sessions off four 1TB SSD drives, backing up all that data and keeping copies of any data sent to or from my facility, while retaining enough operating headroom on my SSDs, meant an ever increasing amount of large “spinning rust” hard drives. This meant by the end of the session, I had five 4TB hard drives running in my control room. The noise floor generated made a mockery of all my sound proofing, both of the room and of my host computers.
Gigabit Ethernet Is Your Friend
I set about looking for some form of fast network storage, which would be both expandable but also be capable of connecting my existing hard drives. I already own three NAS drives, one by Synology, one by Qnap and one by Netgear. The Synology and Netgear are at my studio, while the Qnap is at home. The reasons for having three different brands are many and various, but basically boil down to a bang for buck decision, depending on the situation at the time. Gigabit Ethernet is more than capable of providing a relatively transparent connection for a “spinning” hard drive, so it makes sense to move all the noisy drives out of the control room and on to the other end of a Gigabit Ethernet connection.
Build Your Own Is Better Value For Money Than Pre-Built
I have some basic requirements for any NAS system:-
At least four drive bays
Dual Ethernet Ports
Automated Backup / Syncing
Let me qualify these requirements. Four drive bays is a must as that’s a basic level of data security. Mirrored data is far safer than putting all your eggs in one basket. I needed USB3 compatibility to be able to read the various hard drives I have, which come with the now default USB3 connection (and in the case of newer drives, USB3.1). I need dual ethernet ports as I have two wired networks - one purely for my studio and Pro Tools and one outside world facing network. UPS (uninterruptible power supply) compatibility is to take advantage of the “safe shutdown” features offered by modern UPS devices.
An FTP server is also a must nowadays - the amount of times I’ve suffered delays because the cloud based transfer service we’ve used has been on a go slow and worse, completely out of action, meant that I needed my own peer-to-peer solution, without any of the storage limitations imposed and charged for by most cloud based solutions. Lastly, I needed an automated backup / syncing solution. I receive and generate too much data to use things like Google Drive, DropBox or Resilio - I needed to be able to tailor my backup solution to my own requirements.
I was having trouble getting anywhere near that specification for less than £500, even without drives. So I looked into building my own. I originally investigated adapting my wife’s old desktop PC (now discarded in favour of her laptop), but found it was hideously out of date, with only 2 SATA2 ports, USB2 and only one spare PCIe slot.
Here’s what I built -
Intel Kaby Lake Core i3 8100 3.7Ghz CPU with Asus H110M-A/M.2 Motherboard & 8GB 2400Mhz DDR4 RAM, Pre-Built Bundle - £220
Two PCI-e to USB3 7-Port PCI Express Expansion Cards - £50
Corsair VS550 550 W Certified Power Supply - £40
Corsair CC-9011075-WW Mid-Tower ATX Computer Case - £45
Windows 10 Pro - £25
Paragon HFS+ - £20
Virtualhere Server - £40
USB3 Gigabit Ethernet Adapter - £10
This came to a very competitive total of £450 (including UK taxes)
What Do You Get For Your Money?
You get a four core 3.7GHz processor - far more powerful than most NAS systems, 8GB fast RAM - more memory and faster than most NAS systems, 18 (yes you read correctly - eighteen) USB3 ports with direct PCIe connection, four USB2 ports, three PCIe slots - almost totally unheard of on NAS systems. an expandable case, the operating system and the ability to read and write to NTFS, HFS and exFAT drives (on my Synology NAS I had to pay extra to be able to read exFAT). It is somewhat larger than your average NAS system, but with the onboard GPU with HDMI output, you can also access it locally without having to use a web interface. You also get the ability to install a huge variety of third-party software, including enterprise grade backup and FTP solutions. If you wish to remote access the system, there are a variety of solutions for that.
How Long Did It Take To Build?
Honestly, one hour tops, including installing Windows. I was blown away by how fast it came together. Having the processor and motherboard as a pre-built bundle really sped things up, as all I had to do was screw it into the case, connect the power supply, monitor, keyboard and system drive, and away we went. The Windows 10 installation was so fast I almost missed it. I actually thought it had failed as I went away to make a cup of coffee and came back to a black screen. Windows had fully installed, rebooted, and waited long enough to go into screensaver mode in the time it took me to wash a cup and make that cup of coffee. As you can see, this gave me a system with unparalleled access for all my archive drives, no matter what their size or format. This also includes gigabit speed access to shared drives on my “production” systems.
What Tweaks Did I Have to Do?
The main issue was making sure that Windows didn’t power down any of my USB attached peripherals. I had decided to use a USB3 Ethernet adapter to add my second LAN port. Unfortunately I found that Windows was turning it off, once it deemed it to have been inactive long enough. This was simply a case of burrowing down into the System setup, in Control Panel, then selecting the option to stop this happening (which is also one of the Avid recommended optimisations for Pro Tools).
Then it was also a case of going through all the power settings to ensure that the system and its various ports wouldn’t go into “sleep” mode - nothing worse than trying to access your server, only to find it’s gone to sleep…
A Server Is Nothing Without Software
After the physical install, I then had to set about setting up the software that it hosted. This is a longer process when you build you own - most NAS systems come with various useful features pre-installed. However, most NAS systems have their own proprietary operating systems, most loosely based around a version of Linux, tailored to the hardware within the system. And this is their Achilles heel.
When I bought my NAS systems, I was limited as to which third-party software I could install. I quickly found, that due to the same issue that Windows suffers from - the almost infinite variety of hardware configurations, that it wasn’t really that simple to have any form of continuity.
All three brands have subtle variations, and getting the settings right so that all my NAS systems could communicate seamlessly with each other and all my attached computers, became so complicated that in the end I gave up. Windows has a huge amount of software available, both free and paid-for, that can help you set things up. The first software I installed was:
Filezilla Client And Server
I’ve found that Filezilla is the most consistently compatible FTP client for Windows. I have never had any issue connecting to an FTP server using Filezilla. This software is free, including their FTP Server app, which although looking a tad techy on the surface, is extremely versatile and powerful.
You can assign different users to different folders, restrict their access and read/write permissions, and even block certain IP addresses from accessing your FTP Server. Filezilla also has a brilliant user forum, with loads of tutorials and discussions about how to get the best out of their software.
I find the VirtualHere Server absolutely invaluable. It’s simply a case of installing the VirtualHere client on your machine, then pointing it at the IP address of the VirtualHere Server. If you’re outside the local area network (LAN) then you will have to use some form of IP and port-forwarding service, along the lines of DynDNS. Once that’s all set up though, it’s like having any USB device you can imagine, locally connected.
This includes iLoks, which means that I can actually physically lock away my iLok and USB assets. Many times now, I’ve come home from the studio and needed to do a quick update. Using VirtualHere and Filezilla, it’s been quick and easy to “dial in” and sort things out.
Memeo Backup Premium
Having a remote backup solution with loads of drives available is no more secure if you’re simply putting your eggs in lots of single baskets. For true data security, you need your data to be in more than one place at any given time. Even better, if your remote backup allows you to “go back in time”, that is an added bonus.
I use Memeo Backup Premium. This is a kind of consumer version of what is known as “enterprise grade” backup. I already had a five-machine license with spare “seats”, which is why I haven’t included it in the costs breakdown. This is because no NAS system I’ve found so far, comes with a free backup solution.
What I like best about Memeo is that if you need to just restore one batch of files, and don’t need to reconstruct an entire drive or folder structure, you can simply delve into the drive on which your backup is located, and copy it off, without needing to install the Memeo restore software. This has saved my bacon on numerous occasions.
Memeo also is light enough on the host CPU to allow me to run it on my Pro Tools systems without negative impact, plus it can backup to network attached storage without having to have that storage mounted on the host system. If you so wish, you can also backup to the Memeo cloud, but that’s an option I haven’t taken up, due to the vast amount of data I generate.
How Do I Access My Server From The Outside World?
This is where building your own server can be a tad more complicated. A lot of pre-built NAS systems come with setup wizards, which communicate directly with your router using its UPnP (Universal Plug’n’Play) protocol, but with this type of build, if you want outside world access, which you’d need if you want to operate an FTP server, then you’re going to have to set up port forwarding on your router.
Most routers are reasonably helpful in this respect and are pre-programmed with the ports used for most common applications.
How Do I Control The Server Remotely?
There are two ways of achieving this. The easiest way is to install something like GoToMyPC or TeamViewer. While these have minimal setup that needs doing user side, they are often paid-for, to unlock all the features. Yes, TeamViewer is free for “personal” use, but if they detect from your usage patterns that you might be using it for “commercial” purposes, which if you’re charging for your services, you are, they can lock you out.
This is where Microsoft come to the rescue, with their incredibly handy, and free, Remote Desktop Connection apps. These are available on Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android.
I’ve found Microsoft’s solution to be the most like having the computer right in front of you. You can even copy and paste files and text from the host computer to the remote access computer - an incredibly effective file transfer process.
Unfortunately though, it being Microsoft, plus aimed primarily at IT support engineers, it can take a lot of technical setup, both of your router and of the individual computer’s firewall and antivirus, particularly if you have more than one computer on your network that you wish to remote control, even from within the same local area network. Which brings us neatly to:
Both physical and data. We’ve already started to cover data with the Memeo section, and more on that to come, but something extra to consider is physical security - what happens if your premises are broken into? The smaller NAS Systems are really quite portable. Although they of course have Kensington style lock points, nothing beats making formerly portable objects, as time consuming as possible to shift. I am going to be locking all my drives into a well aired but lockable cupboard space and bolting that to a wall, along with my iLoks.
When planning your physical security it’s worth taking a long-term point of view - expect to expand rather than contract. Make sure you have more than adequate power outlets in your lockable space. If nothing else it stops the cleaner unplugging something important to plug in the vacuum cleaner.
Moving on to something that’s been a real issue for Windows users for some time - Antivirus. It’s certainly true that Windows is more vulnerable due to its market dominance, but I have heard an increasing amount of cases where viruses have been passed on by non-Windows operating systems, or indeed where MacOS users have been hit by viruses.
Your choice of Antivirus software is very much down to your own circumstances, but one thing I’d say is don’t overlook it, even if you think your main platform isn’t vulnerable.
What Won’t This Server Do?
I haven’t found anything yet that this rig can’t do. It can even install and run Pro Tools Ultimate 2018.12! Try doing that with a NAS!
This is Pro Tools Ultimate 2018.12, running a 5.1 mix, on an i3 3.7GHz Quad Core with only 8GB of RAM and an integrated Intel GPU. It is admittedly running media off a SATA3 SSD, but it was also able to play video smoothly. Now, I don’t intend to make a habit of using this server for Pro Tools, but it’s great to know that I could enlist it to help out making deliverables or backups if I’m pressed for resources.
Other things I have my server doing are archiving and hosting my music and sound effects library, and DVD collection, and I even have a Twin Tuner DVB HD recorder, able to operate like a Sky-Q or Tivo box, accessible by myself online from anywhere. This server is proving to be way more versatile than any NAS system.
This is not a project to be entertained by the IT faint-hearted. However, if you want a tailor made, cost effective solution, then I would thoroughly recommend finding a tame IT engineer (there are a lot out there), or even do what I did - an awful lot of research, and get building! I’ve also found it immensely rewarding working it out for myself. Best of Luck!