January 03, 2009

My Media Server environment

When my good friend Ben Betts sent an email to a group asking them about their process for building a home media server, I figured it was time to document my environment for my blog.


  1. Take all of my CDs and DVDs and store the discs far away from the media room. Reduce clutter!
  2. Watch or listen to any piece of media I had wherever I was, in a consistent format that every device in my house could play.
  3. Easy enough to use that my daughters could flop on the couch and get something playing within 30 seconds.


I've encoded all of my CDs in Apple Lossless format. I debated FLAC v. ALAC for some time, but there were almost no portable players that could handle FLAC, but every recent iPod handles ALAC. I would have preferred the open FLAC route, but it was not to be.

I use iTunes on my Mac Pro. My music is stored on a separate internal drive. My music collection is about 220GB in size, and grows pretty rapidly due to ALAC. I sync backups of this drive and the iTunes Music folder onto my ReadyNAS NV+ 4TB (see backup section below).

My kids have their own iTunes setup much like mine, with much smaller music collections. iTunes doesn't support multiple user environments, so we're forced to maintain our own collections.

My Mac Pro is connected via optical (Toslink) to my Onkyo receiver in my office, which has 5.1 speakers attached via in-wall wiring. It sounds great. I've got an AirPort Express in my living room, so I wirelessly feed that receiver and the 5 speaker setup in that room. I use a iPhone 3G 16GB for portable playback, and have a copy of all my non-ALAC music on my PC so I can feed my Microsoft Zune 30GB. The Zune was refurbished and therefore cheap, plus I can develop games for it ;-)

I recently stripped the FairPlay DRM off all of my purchased iTunes Store tracks, and will not purchase music from Apple again until they stop putting DRM on music. I'm buying from the Amazon Store now. 256KB MP3 songs for less money than Apple's Store. What's not to like about higher quality for less price without DRM?! I buy about three singles a week and a couple of albums a month. I love music!

The problem I'm dealing with now is that I've had the iTunes database corrupt itself twice over the last two years. I've got ~11,500 songs, and have personally cleaned most of the metadata and added cover art (>= 500x500 pixels) and some lyrics. When the database goes south, I lose metadata not embedded in the song file (play counts, rating, last played). Been thinking about reviewing the ID3 spec to see if there are fields for this that Apple isn't using, or using a custom format that I embed in the comment field to store this data. I realize Apple and other music app vendors don't want to embed this data in the music file to prevent me from moving between Music (Store) apps quickly (customer retention), but when you lose data, portability seems like the least of your worries.


I recently started encoding all of my DVDs for digital storage. I've been using Handbrake on my eight core Mac Pro, which easily hits over 110fps on most encoding jobs. I make two digital transfers of each DVD, one for iPod/iPhone playback and one for TV playback.

I encode video in H.264 with a .m4v/.mp4 container, targeting ~2000Kb/sec with two pass encoding for TV playback. I chose that data rate based on playback quality and ability for 802.11g to wirelessly stream that stream to remote receivers. For the iPhone, I encode using Handbrake's standard iPod/iPhone preset. For TV, I encode using a derivative of Handbrake's Xbox360 preset, adding a second AC3 audio track. I want to protect the high quality audio, though I can't find a media receiver that can decode it (yet). Hint, hint, Xbox guys ;-)

The iPod encoded movies come in between 550MB and 700MB, and the TV encoded versions come in around 1.7GB.

My video files go to a ReadyNAS NV+, which then serves up the files via uPnP video service. My XBox 360 in my office is hardwired to my Gigabit switch, so I've got plenty of network bandwidth to stream files from the ReadyNAS to the 360. I watch all my movies digitally now in the office. I've got another 360 and a Playstation 3 in my living room, with a AirPort Express (802.11g) extending the range of my network. I wirelessly stream movies to both the 360 and PS3, but in this respect I'm having problems. I still have significant bandwidth issues via 802.11g, and the PS3 is all but useless in streaming video. I could upgrade to 802.11n, but the 360 and PS3 are both 802.11g based.

I've got a large collection of HD-DVD movies that I can play on my Xbox 360's HD-DVD player, and recently transitioned to Blu-ray discs for my PS3.

We dropped DirectTV about six months ago, mostly so I could experiment with OTA HD and Internet content delivery. The other factor was I hated the DirecTV interface. With the coming Tivo DirecTV box, I'll probably go back. I've got a eyeTV hooked up to my Mac Pro for OTA recording, and that works pretty well. I don't get NBC due to antenna issues, so we watch those shows via Hulu on the Xbox 360 via PlayOn!.


The MacPro is the master source for all music. I use ChronoSync to keep a backup copy available on the ReadyNAS. I know I could serve the house from that backup using the ReadyNAS's iTunes Media Server service, but haven't done that yet. I keep another backup of the tracks and ITunes Music folder on a backup disk in another location in the house, and a final copy on a offsite disk that is updated twice a year.

The master source for video is my ReadyNAS. I keep another copy of my Hollywood movies on a drive in my PC.

Future Upgrades

I just got a second generation Drobo to attach to my Mac Pro to back up the ReadyNAS NV+. I debated attaching it directly to the ReadyNAS via USB, but my previous backup system used a single USB drive attached to the ReadyNAS and the USB transfer performance was terrible. I'd rather use Gigabit Ethernet (jumbo frame enabled, ~40MB/sec write and ~50MB/sec read between ReadyNAS and Mac Pro) and Firewire 800 to backup the ReadyNAS. I've got tons of older SATA drives lying around, so Drobo was a natural upgrade.

I'm waiting for MacWorld next week for Apple to hopefully announce a new Mac Mini. If they do, I'm tempted to get one and attach it directly to my office receiver and TV, so I can try out Boxee. I really like the XBox 360 streaming capabilities, but a Mac would even be better ;-)

I've tried displaying photos on my TV, and it only works so well. Might experiment with this again in the future, but no current plans. My photo architecture would be the subject of its own blog entry ;-)

I'm looking at either a hardline Ethernet connection or Powerline connection to get more bandwidth to my living room so I get skip-free playback in that room.

I'm still trying to find the best OTA HD antenna. I've got a problem because the Bay Area has two TV towers that are 180 degrees apart (opposite sides of the Bay). I get perfect reception from one, which has every channel but NBC, and no reception from the other, which has NBC. Still working on this...

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