Monday 17 December 2012

Cutting the (virtual) cable...

I've come to a realisation.

We currently subscribe to $ky+HD standard package (no movies or sports) and pay around €44 for the privilege. Since moving to to Windows Media Center for TV viewing, we have circumvented some of the restrictions of the set-top satellite box such as limited storage space and dual-tuner limits. However, I'm still paying that €44 p/m, and it's going up.

What's more, in setting up favourite channels in WMC, we've come to realise how few of those channels we actually watch to any great extent.

There's very little beyond what's available on freeview / saorview that we actually view. So, what would happen if I packed in $ky? I'd miss the occasional Sky Arts concert and some first run sci-fi on Sky 1. Wife will miss food/style channels & kids will miss some of their channels. But that accounts for about 5% of our total viewing.

Monday 10 December 2012

One little box...

New Linksys Modem/Router
So I had a call from my wife on Friday while I was at work;

"The TV isn't working, most of the channels are black"

Oh-oh. I'd sold the migration from set top box to WMC on a number of grounds, including ease of use. I was not helped by the fact that the weekend I migrated, my Satellite supplier updated the EPG UI, for the better.

Anyway, I figured there might be an issue with the software on the MediaServer and gave her the nuclear option of rebooting. That didn't work so I said I'd have a look when I got home.

On inspection, it did indeed seem that many of the TV channels were black with only free to air channels playing properly.

During setup, I knew this happened if the DVBLogic end of things was not set up correctly, the dreambox was down or one of several other things was preventing the dreambox helping decrypt the channels.

I immediately thought there was an issue with the card entitlements renewal. The dreambox is supposed to take care of this but it seemed like about a month since the migration to WMC and I thought it might need a night  in it's old home in the satellite box.

Next day, still no joy. I popped the card back in the dreambox and checked entitlements. All was well. Something else must be wrong...

Monday 5 November 2012

Taming the Octopus

Well, Microsoft finally released Windows Media Center for Windows 8 and with it I set about my seeing if I could get TV working on MediaServer and HTPC.

I'm still a little frustrated that I need to maintain the server to manage storage and feed the living room TV while having  a separate machine drive my home theatre.

That being the case, I spent a LOT of time researching Virtualisation and what's possible. It turns out that PCIe passthrough is now possible. With a correctly specified motherboard and cpu (VT-d supported), it's possible to pass PCI and PCIe devices directly to VMs when using Xen or KVM on linux. (no support in Hyper-v on windows yet)

In theory, I could set up 3 or 4 VMs on one box. Two could be media players driving living room and HT via separate video cards. A third could be my unRaid with a multi-channel SATA card passed through for native speed/access and the 4th could be by NZB appliance.

In theory.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Remote Tribulations

Following on from the reconfiguration of MediaServer8, I needed to build an HTPC to drive my home theatre.

The theatre comprises a Pioneer VSX-2011 receiver driving a 7.1 speaker array consisting of 2x B&W CDM-1NTs, a CDM-CNT, 2x B&W DS6 diploes as surrounds and a pair of B&W DM601 S3s as rear surrounds. Sub is a Velodyne CHT12. Sources are a Pioneer DV565A CD/DVD/SACD/DVD-A player and a SqueezeBox. A Sony VPH-1271QM CRT throws a picture onto a 110" screen.

All of this looks and sounds great despite being particulalry old school (not an HDMI socket in sight!!). The only thing missing is a way to playback video material from the Plex Media Server running on MediaServer8. I had previously connected the server directly to the projector but that was problematic in the the same computer was driving the living room TV and we couldn't use both simultaneously.

Time for a new HTPC build!

MediaServer8 v2

So it's been a little while since I've had a chance to update here on progress due to work & family commitments. And there has been progress.

Last time, I was contemplating Windows8 as a media server instead of what has now become Server 2012. The rationale was mostly around cost and better software/driver support in the desktop OS.

The first problem I had was that all my data was stored on Storage Spaces in Server 8 beta. Some changes were made to Storage Spaces rendering RC and RTM versions incompatible with beta versions. So, I had to copy all my media data across to my trusty unRAID setup, install Windows 8 RTM, set up storage spaces and copy it all back again.

Saturday 28 July 2012

So I'm Thinking...

So, Microsoft have confirmed the SKUs for Windows Server 2012 and the entry level version, Essentials, is intended to replace Small Business Server and Home Server.

I've been looking at the feature lists and I think I've got a problem. Essentials does not include Hyper-V. Without that, I cannot run my nzbapp appliance or any other VMs. And that kind of removes one of the key advantages of using Server OS at all.

Also, the price of €425 for the essentials OS has been announced. That's a little steep, methinks.

So now I'm thinking, maybe the Windows 8 Client OS will work ok after all. It does come with Hyper-V, has storage spaces included, will likely have much better driver support out of the box and will run Windows Media Center which might work well for my TV viewing needs and would allow for a setup similar to that described at

Saturday 7 July 2012

Industry Catch Up

So, it's been a while since I've had a chance to post. Mostly because the system is now bedded in and works surprisingly well so I've not had to tweak too much,

There are a couple of irksome issues, the worst of which is that the network connection on MediaServer will often (every few days) fail and require a full system restart. I've not got to the bottom of this but suspect network drivers.

Things are moving pretty fast with Microsoft. They've replaced Server 8 beta with a release candidate and changed the name to Server 2012. There goes the name of this blog! At least it looks like it might be released before the end of this year.

I'm not going to update to the RC because there's no direct upgrade path from beta, there are issues with migrating parity storage spaces from Server 8 beta to Server 2120 RC and there's no guarantee that there will be an upgrade path from RC to final.

So, I'll be waiting for the final product to come out and considering  new server build if the pennies permit (move from core2duo to i5 or i7, maybe)

Microsoft have also indicated just four versions of server 2012; Datacenter, Standard, Essentials & Foundation. Apparently Home Sever is no more and a lot of the previous Home Server functionality is rolled into Essentials. Assuming Essentials comes with Hyper-V (I'm really loving running all my media utilities in nzbapp), I think that's the one I'll be building MediaServer8.1 around!

Saturday 14 April 2012

Performance Test Metrics

One of the principal negatives I've been reading about Storage Spaces is the poor performance of parity-protected volumes. Having used UnRaid for some time, I'm quite used to the performance limitations of parity-protection and am quite happy to live with this in my use case (serving media files) as it's mostly about reading data and the benefits of parity protection in terms of maximising disk space usage and resilience are important factors to me.

However, I'm interested in the performance I'm getting and finding ways of improving access speeds and so have conducted some tests to benchmark the current system and have a way of determining the efficacy of any future improvements.

Friday 13 April 2012

UnRaid is a tough old cookie

The Reconfigured UnRaid
Having migrated my data to my sparkling new MediaServer8, I wanted to reconfigure my UnRaid server to transfer some of the 1TB disks to the Windows Server 8 box and replace them with smaller 500GB drives I had lying around.

As part of this process, I also downgraded the hardware from an i3 based CPU & motherboard to an old Dual Xeon config with PCI-X SATA card.

So, having removed three of six 1TB drives from the UnRaid system and replaced them with the 500GB drives, replaced the CPU & motherboard and completely changed the way the drives were connected to the system, to my utter amazement, the UnRaid system booted perfectly on the new hardware and furthermore, a lot of my data was still accessible!

Of course, anything that resided on the 3x removed drives was gone but a remarkable amount of stuff was still there. In fact, it proved somewhat difficult to erase the entire system and get back to a fresh, empty UnRaid.

I'm impressed that the system was so resilient and am happy to continue using it for my work archive now that I've seen how it reacts to catastrophic events!

Thursday 12 April 2012

Comparing directory contents using PowerShell

In transferring files to and from Windows Server 8 storage spaces, I found myself needing to compare source and target directories to determine if any had not copied correctly.

I could have used something like WinDiff but having been using Linux for a while, thought there should be a command line way to do it :-)

Here's what I found to work;
$d1 = get-childitem -name -path F:/from/directory -recurse
$d2 = get-childitem -name -path T:/target/directory -recurse
compare-object $d1 $d2

I'll just be a minute dear....

This should have been easy!

Some things are supposed to be easy but are not. This is one of those things!

My task was to extend my storage pool on Windows Server 8. What should have been a 5 minute operation turned into days of hacking and frustration. But I got there in the end.

My motherboard provides 6x SATA connectors on the board itself along with a single (2 channel) PATA connector and some free PCIe slots.

To get the server up and running, I had connected 3x 1TB drives to the onboard SATA ports and had configured them in a Storage Pool. The OS was installed to a 500GB IDE drive and a DVD ROM was also on the IDE channel.

This ran great but when I set about adding drives to extend the storage pool, things started going seriously downhill.

Friday 6 April 2012

Whole House Audio - Step 1

SqueezeBox Radio
As noted, I've bought into the Squeezebox line of audio playback devices. I started with Squeezebox back when it was a Slimdevices product. It's subsequently been bought out by Logitech who've let it languish and there's a big question mark over it's future. However, I like it, it still works and there's a few reasons I'll keep using it;

  1. I've invested in some hardware (Squeezebox II & Squeezebox Radio)
  2. The SqueezeServer (now Logitech Media Center) Software is flexible & mature
  3. There are software players available as well as the command line SqueezeSlave

Based on all of the above, I'm happy to stick with the system for my DIY whole house audio set up and want to get it configured on the MediaServer8. First step is getting the SqueezeServer software installed...

Thursday 5 April 2012

Intel Graphics really do leave a lot to be desired

Sapphire HD 4350
In the Plex setup post, I noted that I'd observed some stutter on content being played on this machine. In viewing more content, I realised it was actually pretty bad, SD content would have skips and stutters on long pans, zooms & tracks. HD content would hardly play at all, dropping a lot of frames.

I'd configured the machine with the onboard X3500 graphics which provide HDMI and VGA outputs. With the HDMI connected to my Sony Bravia and with the latest Intel drivers, no settings in driver control panel or inside Plex seemed to have any affect.

I decided to try a discrete video card to confirm whether or not it's a problem with the intel video chipset.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Random Linux Notes

In working with linux systems and VMs as part of this project, I've learned not to use exclamation marks as part of user passwords on windows machines you hope to connect to from Linux command line!

Also, here's a really useful command for listing the size of directories in the current directory;

du -hx . |grep ^[0-9.]*G | sort -rn| head -n 100

(replace the '.' with the path to any other directory you want to list)

Monday 2 April 2012

PLEX is go

So I've installed Plex Media Server (v0.9.5.3) and Media Center (v0.9.5.2) and all is working, but not perfectly.

Installation was painless and I let the server re-index all the media as I didn't feel like transferring databases and the like.

Clients running on other machines play perfectly, even insanely high datarate HD content.

However, the kids watched a movie using the client on the server itself connected to our lounge TV (via hdmi). I noticed some shudder & jitter on slow pans and zooms. When next accessing the Server Manager, I noticed 17 performance issues reported, all of which were CPU threshold related with Plex reportedly maxing out the CPU.

100% CPU usage is apparently normal when transcoding media according multiple posts on Plex forums. However, I would not expect the Plex Client to need to transcode media - unless I'm missing some codecs  on the machine.

I'll need to look into this a little more.

Sunday 1 April 2012

My First VM

With the server up & running, drivers sorted, storage spaces set up and data transferred, it's time to start adding applications.

The rather refreshing Maraschino front end to NZBAPP

First up it's the old partnership of Sickbeard and Sabnzbd. Both have windows .exes available and both installed and launched no problem. I transferred my sickbeard config.ini and database from my UnRaid install and did a mass update to repoint the path to the show directories. Surprisingly, this all went very smoothly and with Sabnzbd set up through it's wizard, I was ready to roll.

Or was I?

Saturday 31 March 2012

Start Up

The basic hardware for the project is an ASUS P5E-VM motherboard with an Intel Core2 Quad processor Q6600 and 6GB RAM.

The CPU is rated 2.4GHz but overclocked to 3.0GHz.

This system was the basis of a Hackintosh project for a couple of years but now repurposed to MediaServer8.

The Quad core processor should lend itself well to Hyper-V and the onboard X3500 video with HDMI output will serve for playback without the need for an  additional PCIe graphics card.

There are 6x SATA channels on board and a single IDE channel.

Friday 30 March 2012


Here's what I'm attempting to achieve with this project;

Centralised Storage for media files

I currently use UnRaid for this and it works great and will continue to use my unRaid box for archive storage. However, there are some things UnRaid just won't do or does not do well (eg audio playout, virtulization).

This is going to be implemented via Storage Spaces using a parity configuration (slow write but normal read performance and best use of disk space with resilience enabled)

Thursday 29 March 2012

Why Server 8?

A couple of years ago, I'd tried out Windows Home Server (WHS) and used it in a similar configuration to that proposed (single multi-function box to manage data storage and playback).

I liked it at the time and the main reason I moved away from it (to unRaid) was because it could not be easily configured to store OSX Time Machine backups. (UnRaid offers this capability through full AFP support).

The release of Windows 8 consumer preview caught my attention with the addition of the Storage Spaces feature. Reading on this led me to Server 8 Beta and the additional features such as ReFS etc.

The main reasons for considering server at this time are;
  • Robust OS for maximum uptime
  • Storage Spaces Support
  • Hyper-V architecture facilitating compartimisation (and stability of core system)
  • Windows versions of all apps and drivers for hardware I intend using are available
  • Extensive system reporting facilities

It's likely that even if this all works, cost will become a factor when Server 8 is eventually released. Will I be willing to fork out €600 or more?

Maybe an updated version of WHS will be announced but in any case, it's a consideration for the future.

Wednesday 28 March 2012


An Early HT Iteration
So, we need to start somewhere and I guess the beginning is as good a place as any: 2000 was a significant year. 

Recently married, my wife and I were moving from a city suburb to our more remote hometown where we had purchased a 1930s house and were embarking on an extensive remodeling. 

We had always been big movie fans but there was no cinema in town and the closest was a 20km drive. With a child on the way we knew our movie-going days would be limited so the idea of a home cinema was born.

One Box To Rule Them All

What's this all about then?

With the release of Windows Server 8 Beta, I'm interested in testing the viability of consolidating a number of currently discrete domestic systems onto the platform for the purposes of establishing a stable, unified whole-house media storage and playback system.

I intend to use this blog to document ideas, procedures, problems and solutions along the way. If nothing else, it will allow me collate all those links and articles I come across along the way. Maybe it will help someone somewhere. If it does, let me know by commenting!