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Issue: 74 - Feb 16, 2015
Your Own Personal Server
By: Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA
Robert Malinowski, DVM, MA

~~The term “computer server” has a tendency to strike fear into the hearts of men and women, conjuring images from decades past of mammoth computers occupying entire rooms and being maintained by a swarm of people in white jackets.  Even today, servers are usually seen as existing in the realm of IT professionals, beyond the reach of mere mortals and everyday users of smart phones and laptops.  Luckily, the versatile object known as a server is now within the reach of most average people.

So, what is a server anyway and what can it do?  Well, I like to think of the computing world as consisting of producers and consumers.  Most people are familiar with the consumer end, which is accessing the data on your device (desktop, laptop, phone, etc.).  You visit a web page, download a document or stream a music file.  The whole other half of the internet exists on the computers that host and deliver (serve) the files to you.  You may be gorging yourself on a plateful of Facebook images and posts at the Internet restaurant but behind the scenes, the data chefs are busy preparing those treats in the kitchen, and countless farms are raising those ones and zeros to satisfy your ever-growing appetite for information.

These days, there’s a big push to put everything on “the cloud”.  Most of the time, this is a pretty reasonable solution.  Your files are safely stored on some server far, far away.  A meteor could take out your entire neighborhood but you’d still be able to watch that video you recorded of little Billy taking his first steps (assuming that you avoided the meteor).  I’m sure you’ve heard of the major cloud service providers: DropBox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and Amazon S3 just to name a few.

However, there are times when you may want to avoid the cloud and keep your data contained to your own private network.  You could have private data from your business that you don’t want out on the internet (despite the cloud provider’s assurances that it will be keep safe).  You may live in an area where a fast internet connection is just not available.  You may have a very large amount of data (multiple terabytes) that would be difficult and/or time-consuming to transfer to a cloud service.  Whatever the reason, there are several easy to use server solutions that could help to make your life easier.  In addition, they’re packed with some extra features that make things more interesting.

I’ve been using what’s called network attached storage (NAS) devices for several years now.  These small servers have evolved to provide far beyond simple file storing capabilities.  Some big names in this area include Synology, Drobo and QNAP.  I’m partial to Synology devices since they’re easier to use and have the most add-ons.  More information about Synology NAS devices can be found here: https://www.synology.com/

At a basic level, a Synology NAS server lets you store all of your files on one central location on your home or business network.  Think of it as a large hard drive that everyone in your group can access.  Depending on your budget, the total amount of storage on your server can be quite large.  Synology has units that hold one hard drive, as well as some that hold two, four, five, or even twenty-four drives.  This type of device can grow with you as your storage needs change.  You can start off with a few terabytes of storage and potentially scale all the way up to a mind-numbing 72TB with some models.

In addition to basic file storage, the Synology server can be connected to the outside world, enabling you to access your files wherever you go.  You could be traveling in China and still be able to “call home” to your server and retrieve that spreadsheet, PowerPoint presentation or video file that you forgot to bring with you.   If you really want to keep your data safe, you can set up automated backup jobs to send some (or all) of your data to cloud providers such as Amazon, Microsoft, Google and DropBox.  It’s really the best of both worlds.

The really fun stuff can be found in what are called Add-on Packages.  These are extra software programs that give your server the ability to host your audio and video collections, share your photos with friends and family, or host a web site directly from your server (to name but a few extra functions).  My personal favorite is probably a package called Surveillance Station.  This amazing add-on let you connect digital video cameras to your server, effectively transforming it into your own personal security system.  You can view live video from your phone (or most other connected devices), schedule recordings and be notified when events occur, such as a camera being activated by motion.

With your own server, the possibilities really are endless.  At a minimum, a server gives you a private, high-capacity location on which to store your files.  You don’t need to worry about internet connection speeds, or companies getting hacked and compromising your data.  Beyond the basics, servers can be expanded using Packages that add all sorts of new functionality.  Explore one of the options described above and suddenly your DropBox folder and that USB thumb drive won’t look so cutting-edge.