Setting up a home server running an open-source operating system is a popular and useful activity. Useful in what ways, you may ask. You could use it to run a website (I use a home server to power my world travel website, luxagraf.net), collect and send e-mail messages, store your OpenID credentials or serve your music around the home.
As you can guess, we have a great many tutorials on Webmonkey for getting the most out of that machine in your closet. But here are some guidelines for the hardware side of it.
- Before You Start – Alternatives
- What you’ll need
- The computer
- Repurposing a used computer
- Buying a server
- The Connection
- The Router
- The Monitor and Keyboard
- Everything in Its Place
- The Operating System
- Suggested reading
- Suggested readings
Before You Start – Alternatives
Setting up a home server can be a lot of fun and a great learning experience. But, depending on what you want to use it for and how good your connection to the Internet is, a home server may not be the best alternative. If your aim is serving web pages reliably or otherwise delivering information outside your home to friends or customers, it makes more sense to put the server into “The Cloud” – in other words, in a commercial data center. This saves nyou the worry and hassle of keeping it running or dealing with interruptions to your home’s power, cable or DSL service. “Cloud Computing,” or renting just as much of a server as you need on an hourly or monthly basis, is becoming quite popular for web companies or growing businesses, but the rates are inexpensive enough that you should consider it as an alternative to a home server. There are many cloud computing companies, ranging from Amazon Web Services which requires that you learn their command line interface to initiate a new server, to ENKI which offers personal support for getting you up and running. This isn’t the place to go into detail, but you can learn more by Googling “Cloud Computing.”
What you’ll need
To build your own server, you need just a few components, some or all of which you may well have already:
- A computer
- A broadband network connection
- A network router, with Ethernet (CAT5) cable
- A monitor and keyboard (just for the first few steps)
- A CD/DVD drive/burner will be handy if you plan to use the server for media.
A server doesn’t have to be particularly powerful. eBay runs on mega-thousand-dollar Sun computers, and Google uses thousands of machines to power its search. But for personal use, a server needs considerably less horsepower than your average desktop computer. While other computers busy themselves with complex tasks like despeckling photographs and calculating missile trajectories, your home server has a much simpler task: receiving requests for data and then sending that data as requested. Your server won’t use much processing power, especially without a graphical interface to worry about. A machine with 64MB of RAM and a 300MHz processor can make a perfectly good server; with slightly more robust specs, it can handle almost anything you’ll throw at it.
An old machine can be turned into a server with minimal effort. You may already have a perfect machine for the job sitting in your attic. Or a relative or a friend might want to get rid of her older desktop; or you may well be able to pick up a suitable model cheap or free from a swap meet, a classified ad, or online equivalents like freecycle.org and craigslist.org. Alternately, you can buy a new machine to use as your server. Each approach has its advantages.
The reasons you might not want to use an old machine include:
Old hardware can be unreliable. Sometimes replacing bad RAM or putting in a new heatsink will fix the problem, but sometimes a computer just crashes every few hours, regardless of what operating system is installed. Time to donate or recycle it.