Home server project (part 2)

In an earlier post, I talked about putting together the hardware for my home server project, next I needed to load an operating system. This is where I ran into a few problems…

As my laptop runs Linux Mint day-to-day, a Windows server was never a consideration. Naively, I assumed there would be a raft of linux-based NAS or home server distros which I could install and be streaming episodes of Spaced to our Chromecast within hours.

I had a checklist of non-negotiable requirements:
– NAS file storage
– scheduled backups
– Plex media server
– Bit torrent
– Minecraft server for our son

I thought the hardest part would be choosing. On the face of it, I could be forgiven that assumption. The web is awash with reviews and suggestions – Amahi, OpenMediaVault, FreeNAS, NAS4Free, Rockstor, etc.

As a clear favourite in a lot of the web reviews I read, after some moderate to severe procrastination I eventually decided to try Amahi first. I expected to find an Amahi ISO to download, but the instructions for Amahi 8 required Fedora 21 to be installed first. Err… OK. Off I popped to Fedora.

The user is then expected to enter bash commands to install Amahi over the top of the Fedora Server install – I’m fine with that, but I imagine it could very off putting for someone with limited or no Linux experience.

Whilst waiting for Fedora to install, I signed up to Amahi and created my ‘hda profile’ (HDA apparently stands for home digital assistant), which seems like a very useful feature. However, a scan through the Amahi Apps (after creating an account) suddenly revealed that practically every ‘essential’ app is charged for – a bit of a cheeky surprise, but not a deal breaker. The way this is only revealed after creating an account, however, is somewhat disingenuous and sets the old ‘rip-off alert’ sirens going in my head.

After that, I noticed that several of the apps I wanted are still in beta, and the beta testing program has been closed to new testers. However, Pro account users can have ‘early access’ to beta apps for $7.95 per month – this was all starting to smell somewhat fishy, and I realised that the monthly charge option plus paid apps would quickly mount up. I don’t have a problem paying for software, indeed I’ve paid hundreds for pro-audio or office apps over the years, but I was starting to wonder what other hidden costs would materialise after I committed to an Amahi setup. Plus, I had no guarantee that everything would work as I wanted it to.

In the end, the choice was made for me when typing one of Amahi’s install commands generated an error every time. Onto the next…

Rockstor was more promising; built on CentOS, an ISO image available to download, easy to install and configure, quick to get up and running. It’s built over the top of BTRFS as the file system, with the benefits that brings, such as snapshots, checksums to guard against bitrot and SSD optimisation, etc. Plus, the web UI is gorgeous!

Rockstor also offers plugins, Docker containers called Rock-Ons, which seem to work very well. Rockstor is the only system on which I progressed to the point of getting Plex up-and-running, easily achieved with the Plex Rock-On. The selection is limited right now, but once the Rock-Ons platform is fully stable, I would anticipate a flood of existing Docker container projects being forked, adapted and tweaked to expand the range of Rock-Ons.

So, why didn’t I stick with Rockstor? The Bit Torrent Rock-On on offer is Transmission, which I just can’t get along with – a shame because Transmission seems to be the default torrenting app on so many Linux distros. Transmission was an irritation, but the deciding factor was that, try as I might, I just couldn’t get Rockstor to find one of my unformatted hard drives, and that it didn’t seem possible to plug in an external USB3 hard drive to transfer media files (as the external drive was formatted as NTFS not BTRFS). However, I was still hugely impressed by Rockstor’s features and wiped it somewhat reluctantly – I suspect I’ll be back in a few months to give it another try.

So that’s as far as I got this week – next, I’m planning to give OpenMediaVault and FreeNAS a whirl. If neither of those work for me, a DIY NAS on Ubuntu Server will probably be my fall-back.

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