Tech Expectations

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Centralize, protect, and serve all your media

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Like most folks, we are now buried under the weight of multiple generations of digital music, photo and video. In our case, 13 years of it.

We’ve had 2 generations of digital cameras, a digital camcorder (remember those?), 2 generations of smartphones, Apple AAC format, MP3s, DVDs, Blu-rays, and digital movies purchased from multiple different stores. We’ve had five generations of Mac OS X and countless versions of iTunes and iPhoto. And we’ve never had the time and patience to figure out an end-to-end strategy to manage all the content we’ve generated.

Businesses usually spend the time to address this for their data. They try to centralize the data to make it easier for different users to access it. They manage the centralized data through its lifecycle so that it is faster to access when it is most needed, protected so it is quickly retrievable when it is most valuable, and replicated in a secondary site in case of disasters.

Having worked in the storage market for about ten years, I knew what needed to be done, but the data kept growing, and my “free time” kept shrinking. Fortunately, the tools have gotten significantly better (with some caveats). A relatively low key end of year vacation was just the thing I needed.

First, here’s how my environment looked:

Home media - before

 

Seem crazy? I’m betting that what you have in your home isn’t all that different when you have two adults (that have worked in any typical corporate setting) and two kids (that are the subject of much of the content generated). In short, it was a mess. Data on many devices. Some data copied in many places. Some data stored in only one device. Data stored on devices that were on the verge of dying. Data that never made it to new devices. Music that never got played. Music that needed to be plugged into different speaker systems and docks to be played. Photos and videos that were only seen once (really cute ones too). Photos and videos that were never really seen at all. And worst of all, semi-consistent backup of a subset of the data and no offsite disaster protection, even for the most precious stuff.

My plan:

  • Consolidate all important information onto centralized storage.
  • Delete and wipe information from older computers and storage so they could be either retired or trashed.
  • Connect the centralized storage to improve and simplify access to my music, video, photos and documents.
  • Implement a basic information lifecycle to ingest new stuff, protect data locally (for fast recovery) and protect data remotely (for disasters)

Step 1. Consolidation

  • I chose a two-bay NAS (network attached storage) for my centralized storage. It had to support Mac and Windows. It had to support at least 2 disks for local redundancy (I know how often hard disks fail) and at least 2 terabytes of usable storage (equivalent to 400,000 photos or songs). It had to be able to “backup” to the cloud. It had to be quiet and low power because NAS is meant to stay on all the time like wireless routers. It had to have some media capabilities. And it had to have usable, expandable software. I went with the Synology DS214 and two 3TB drives (Western Digital Red NAS drives).
  • I moved my 100GB music library to the NAS and pointed iTunes to it (this works pretty well). I also moved about 150GB of ripped movies to the NAS, so they can now be used by multiple devices.
  • Unfortunately, you can’t do the same with iPhoto (iPhoto doesn’t allow you to store photos and the iPhoto database over a network), so I’m keeping photos on the new house laptop and backing up the whole thing using Apple Time Machine, also to the NAS (this will shortly eliminate the need for my USB hard drive). I’ll be on the lookout for a photo and video manager that will support the Mac and networked storage.

Step 2. Clean up

  • I manually cleared out an older NAS and copied the stuff I wanted to keep into the Synology. I did the same on an older Mac (almost ten years old!). I’m in the process of moving wedding photos and video from CDs and video tapes to the NAS as well.

Step 3. Connect everything

  • The Synology has built in DLNA/UPnP support, which means my Playstation 3 can see it and serve videos, music and photos to my TV. This is controlled through the PS3, so now we can see most everything on the big screen without hooking up a computer.
  • The Synology has a music app for iOS that allows you to either play directly from the device, or act as a remote to play music through the USB port on the Synology. I discovered that I could hook a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) from the USB port on the Synology to my old (but very good) receiver. Now I can use the music app to control what is being played through my receiver in the living room, all wirelessly. A nice Behringer DAC cost $30. The only other way that I could see doing it would have cost $300 and would have added another box that I didn’t need.
  • I’ve also used the Synology video app to watch movies on my iPad. It’s nice to be able to stream directly from the NAS, and have bandwidth left over for my wife to stream Netflix from the Internet (since I’m using only local wireless bandwidth).
  • Since we’re well served by my movie collection and Netflix, and since all new TVs support digital over-the-air signals, we also decided to get rid of cable TV. I spent $35 on an Amazon Basics antenna and we were off and running in about 30 minutes. We’re saving $60 a month for something we only used for sports. It’s too early to tell if the trade-off was right, but it looks good so far.

4. Protection

  • Finally, I protect our main computer using Apple Time Machine to the NAS. Apple Time Machine does incremental, continuous backups of the data on a computer, so you can roll back to any point in time. Very advanced. I separately created an archive of all our home videos and photos and used a different app on the NAS to upload it all to Amazon Web Services Glacier. AWS Glacier is a very low cost cloud service to store data for long term archiving. It’s inexpensive because their business model is geared towards ingesting and storing the data at low cost, but charging more for retrieval. That’s just fine with me as an insurance policy. I’ll be willing to pay if I ever need to get this stuff back. I’ve also heard good things about Crashplan, but my NAS doesn’t support it.

How things look now:

Home media - after

  • Fewer boxes
  • Much better connectivity and access
  • Proper levels of redundancy and protection
  • Lower monthly bills
  • A strategy for future growth

Caveats and lessons learned:

  • Knowing what I know now, I probably would have paid a little more for a 4-bay NAS with an x86 processor. It’s a longish story, but it would have given me more room for storage expansion and some additional software that has only been written for x86 such as XBMC (a media server) and Crashplan (another cloud backup provider).
  • Apple’s ability to connect to networked storage has actually gotten worse over time. Fortunately, I’m mainly using backup and streaming protocols between the Mac and the NAS, so it’s not that bad, but anyone trying to actually work on the Mac using the NAS as the storage repository would be stuck in the mud. Fortunately, my day job has been building just the solution for that…
  • A better wireless network seems to be helping. I upgraded to the new Apple Airport Extreme before this project. It supports 802.11AC, which is three times faster than the previous standard. It may not reach the touted 1.3Gbps (ridiculous by the way), but it feels appreciably faster on my Macbook (which supports 802.11AC), and seems to support streaming from the NAS better, as well as simultaneous activity from more than 2 devices.
  • This was not a trivial project, but it is doable with planning. The biggest time sinks are deciding what should be deleted, and moving stuff that needs to be kept. The overall project took a week of a few hours each evening.

Need more detail or info? Don’t hesitate to comment!

Leo
@lleung

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Author: Leo Leung

I’ve been a designer, marketer, product manager, and mental health counselor (and often a blend of all of four) at Scality, Oxygen Cloud, EMC, and United Way. I'm currently a Product Manager for the Oracle Cloud Platform. I’m fascinated by great products, great experiences, innovative businesses, and the stories behind them. I’ll write about them at www.techexpectations.org

5 thoughts on “Centralize, protect, and serve all your media

  1. Thanks, Leo. This is very helpful! A couple of questions:
    1. like what you did conceptually; just trying to figure out whether there’s a cheaper way to do this AND avoid having to junk a perfectly good computer. Instead of buying an expensive NAS, could you have accomplished the same result using an older computer as the NAS and then using Apple TV to play music/videos from your “NAS”? My music/video collection may not be as large as yours so that might help.
    2. Is your layout scalable so that if you were to say add another TV or stereo, everything would still work as intended for the new equipment?
    3. What software worked well for you for ripping videos? Did you move your movie collection to iTunes like you seem to have done for music? (Sorry if this is already answered above; I didn’t read every single word)
    4. Seriously? No football? Even with the Patriots playing potentially going to the Superbowl? 🙂

    • 1. A NAS is just a purpose-built file server. Any computer can act as a file server, but they usually use more power, and aren’t as good at file serving (from a management perspective). If you want to turn your computer into a basic file server, you can just turn on file sharing for Windows or Mac. If you want to reformat your machine to be better at file serving, I’ve heard good things about FreeNAS for the home, particularly because it supports additional media software like XBMC. Apple TV is a bit of a problem, because it requires an iTunes “server” to feed it. It can’t just read any file format. That usually means you need a Mac with iTunes to be the server. But, it seems like the FreeNAS community has figured out a solution. I can talk you through what you need to do if you want to go down this path. And my company’s software can probably help as well. 😉
      2. If I were to add another TV, I would go with one that supported wireless and DLNA (to see the media server), so everything would work just fine. Same thing goes for another stereo component. For super portability, I still use a USB/Bluetooth self-powered speaker that I can take anywhere and connect to my iPhone.
      3. I use HandBrake for videos. It works well for most movies, but it’s always a cat and mouse game.
      4. The digital antenna is working pretty well so far, with the exception of Fox Network (which I can mostly live without). The same broadcast restrictions applied for cable, so I’m not losing anything as far as live games go. Go Pats!

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