March 30, 2010

Living in My Cloud

This weekend, I did something really cool (for me). I got to watch a March Madness game on my TV that CBS wasn’t showing in my local market on my TV, without paying the cable company. Life is full of short victories, and this is one of mine. More importantly, I realized I’m living in the heavenly jukebox I used to talk about in my presentations years ago.

I’ve been actively building my cloud for the last six months, but I’ve been building towards this for the last ten years. The caveat is that the way I’ve built this setup works for me, and one-size definitely doesn’t fit all. I’m lucky to have the resources to build my cloud, and I know most people won’t go to these lengths to get more media. It should all be easier and work better than it does in 2010, but there’s no one really great solution yet (that I know of).

Why a cloud?

It started last August when I decided it was time to investigate a centralized backup solution, a way to listen to our music collection from anywhere, and the ability to listen to different music in different rooms of the house. In my ideal world, I also wanted similar access for video, a way to easily watch internet video (eg, YouTube, Hulu) on my TV, and the ability to stream Netflix to my TV. The offsite storage is important to me (I used to backup to Mozy, but I also want to own my data, and the idea of replicating sensitive documents on servers owned by companies focused on the bottom line (Dropbox, Microsoft Live, etc.) wasn’t very appealing to me.

I did a lot of research and couldn’t find anything that let me do everything, but Windows Home Server software came close, so I purchased an HP Mediasmart EX485 server. As the name implies, the Mediasmart series is designed to give consumers access to their media from anywhere. It comes with Windows Home Server software pre-installed and out of the box, it’s supposed to do the following things:

  • Backup all of the computers on your network automatically on a schedule you set. This includes differential backups and restores.
  • Periodically grab media from all of those computers and copy it to the server.
  • Maintain your router and DNS settings so that your server is accessible from outside of your network.
  • Give you access to all of your documents, files, music, and video from anywhere.

I say “supposedly,” because I’ve never been able to get the media collector to work consistently, and the interface to the music collection is under-described by the term “sucks.” I had to rip most of my CDs for the first time at a higher bitrate, so I just ended up copying files to the server manually in big chunks. I’m also the main person in the house who purchases music, so I can maintain that routine pretty easily.

My Jukebox in the Cloud (so named by Deanna)

The interface problems and lack of functionality were bigger issues, though. For example, there’s no way to get details about songs, rate them, or create playlists, all of which is pretty unforgivable in a product designed specifically for consumers. After further research, I installed Orb, which is some pretty cool, free software that does a big piece of what Windows Home Server does. It gives you remote access to files, music, pictures, and video on the computer where it’s installed, plus you can manage internet radio stations, favorite songs, rate songs, create playlists, and create a dashboard view. Did I mention it’s free? If you have a computer you always leave on, you can emulate some of my setup for free using this software.


My music library in Orb

Where Windows Home Server beats Orb is in its ability to update port forwarding on the router automatically, backup all of the computers on your network, and offer a RAID solution for that storage. I have 400GB+ of files, music, pictures, and video on one 750GB drive, but I was able to drop in a second drive, and the software automatically started mirroring files to it for redundancy. That part was pretty amazing, and I can access all of those files remotely, whether that means at work or in different rooms in the house. Pretty sweet.

Connecting the server to the home system

That was all well and good, but I also wanted to play music without having to queue it up on a laptop first, which meant we needed a way to get the server content to play through the home theater system. Plus, we wanted to start streaming Netflix videos to watch on the TV, as opposed to our computers. I again started doing research, which led me to the discovery that the Xbox 360 that was just sitting on the shelf (we play more Wii than Xbox) was actually a solution waiting for us to recognize it.

Because the server and Xbox are both Microsoft products, they talk to each other pretty easily. This opened up a whole new world for us, because now we could show any picture and play any music or video from the server on the big HDTV and the sound through the audio receiver and 5.1 surround-sound system without the need for a computer in between. In addition, the Xbox gives us that desired access to Netflix, Pandora, and even Last.FM through the existing system. I can also create my playlists in Orb via a web browser and play them through the Xbox. More sweetness.


Watching “Battlestar Galactica” via Netflix’s streaming service through the Xbox on the HDTV

My biggest complaint about this setup is that the Xbox isn’t designed to be a media center, even though it has all of that functionality built into it. This means the interface isn’t very good here, either (no playlists, incomplete display of metadata, long lists to scroll through), but I didn’t have to buy any additional equipment, so that was a big plus. If Microsoft ever decides to spend time working on interfaces, it would have some killer products for the consumer market.

More video

This setup does almost everything on my original list, but I still wanted to be able to watch Hulu through the existing system, and I didn’t want to have to manually download YouTube videos to watch them on the TV. Looking around, I came across the amazing PlayOn software ($40), which was the final piece of our puzzle. By loading this software on the server, we gained the ability to watch Hulu, YouTube, and some custom PlayOn channels for The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and NCAA March Madness games on demand. Really sweet! This piece was a little bit more difficult, but it all works if you follow the instructions.


Picking an episode of “Modern Family” to watch from Hulu via PlayOn through the Xbox to the HDTV

Making it all easier to use

I then tied everything together with a hand-me-down Logitech Harmony remote to make it easy to manage all of the various pieces. The “watch TV” button turns on the TV to the right input, the audio receiver to the right input, and controls the cable box. The “watch a movie” button turns everything on with the right settings to watch a DVD, but pretty much everything else except the Wii runs through the “listen to music” button, because that’s what starts up the Xbox. This is especially helpful because without the universal remote, I’d probably be the only one in the house who’d be able to turn things on and off for different activities. Another big plus is that we can control the Xbox with easy-to-understand buttons, rather the game controller that came with the console. I can’t recommend a Logitech univeral remote highly enough.

Conclusion

For the most part, this is all working very well for us. We listen to our music a lot more, including at work, and sometimes the internet video piece really comes in handy (like during March Madness). We especially like streaming Netflix (which can also be done through the PlayOn software if you don’t have an Xbox). At this point, the biggest issue is that I still need a way to backup the server offsite, but I can’t find a reasonably priced service for this (most companies charge business-level prices because they haven’t yet recognized there’s a growing consumer market). Someone’s going to make a killing offering a consumer backup service for media, but that day hasn’t arrived yet. I’m looking at other workarounds right now, but I haven’t found an ideal solution. (Have you? Leave a comment!)

It’s been a long road to get to this point, but it’s exciting to have all of this geeky functionality working. In the future, I hope to get rid of a lot of paper by scanning it to the server, and I may investigate adding a TV tuner to record programs directly to the server and setting up printing over the internet to our home printer.

How you can do some of this

This is pretty geeky stuff, although most of the process was easier than I thought it would be. It’s also a Microsoft-centric approach, somewhat by accident. I still think Microsoft needs to do a better job with its interfaces before its home server/media center products could go mainstream. However, there are ways to do pieces of all of this easily, without Microsoft products, and sometimes even for free.

  • If you have a computer that you leave on all the time, you can stream music and video or access files from it for free by installing Orb. You can even hook up an external drive to that computer if you need more storage. (It works on Macs, too.)
  • If you have an old computer lying around or can pick one up cheap, you can purchase Windows Home Server for $99 and convert that machine into a home server. I only paid the $500 for the HP Mediasmart server for the convenience factor of having it pre-installed with the software and a 750GB hard drive. If I’d had more time, I might have built it myself.
  • You don’t need an Xbox to get content from the server to the TV/home theater system. Internet TVs and DVD players are on the market (everything will have access to the internet built-in eventually), and there’s middleware like the Roku. Because I was able to get the Xbox working in about 10 minutes, I didn’t investigate which of the other options might be best. Interestingly, TiVO is entering this market with its new TiVO Premiere box, but it’ll still require a monthly fee, which I wasn’t willing to pay. I don’t think it provides access to the user’s collection, although it does bring in all of that internet content.
  • There are also other ways to stream sites like Hulu and Netflix to your TV. You can install the PlayOn software on a regular computer (as opposed to a server) to watch those channels, but you’ll still need the middleware to get the stream to the TV. Of course, you can also just install PlayOn on a computer and watch the channels on that computer, or hook it up to a TV using an A/V cable. That’s what I used to do, but I wanted to be able to use my laptop while watching “TV.” Note that PlayOn will also work with a Nintendo Wii or Playstation 3.
  • Jason Griffey has written about using the Drobo system for backups. I probably would have gone this route if I didn’t also want the remote access to my media files. However, if you’re looking strictly for a backup solution or if you aren’t backup up your data, this is an excellent option.

What else have you tried? How are you building your cloud?


6:54 am Comments (6)

September 25, 2008

A Plug for Marriotts Because They Plugged Me In

Earlier this week, I stayed at the Marriott Metairie hotel in New Orleans, because I was in town to give a presentation for SOLINET. I’ve been staying in Hampton Inn hotels whenever possible lately, because they have very comfortable beds, offer free wifi, and provide free breakfast (all at a great price), so I haven’t been in an upgraded Marriott lately. Let me tell you, though, that if more Marriotts are upgrading to be like the Metairie, I may just be switching, because this was the most awesome, techno room I’ve ever stayed in.

At first, I was just thrilled to see the reading lights on the headboard and the easily-accessible outlets near the bed. And of course there was a nicely-largish LCD TV. These touches are much appreciated, but what actually made me gasp out loud was the A/V panel. Yes, you read that right, the A/V panel.

picture of the A/V panel

Apparently this is part of a service called Plug into Marriott, and it’s a traveling geek’s dream come true. In fact, I’d love to have one of these in every room in my house! The panel has four surge-protected outlets, an ethernet port, an audio-in port, RCA jacks, an S-Video port, a computer video port, and even a memory card reader. This means you can plug in your laptop (to do work or watch a DVD), an MP3 player to listen to music, a digital camera to view pictures, or a camcorder to watch videos. You can even plug in a game console, and in fact they actually encourage this by including this information in the documentation. Equally important, the hotel provides all of the cables, since most of us don’t carry these things around.

picture of the cables

The documentation could use a little help (it tells you to use the TV/video button to get to the different options, but the old remote in my room only had a “function” button that I correctly guessed would do the trick), and the split-screen for working/watching never kicked in, but I was able to watch TV shows on Hulu and listen to music from my iPod through the television set.

picture of the TV screen

This whole concept is a great example of saying “yes” and making things easier for customers, as opposed to saying “no,” which is what most hotels do by disabling the ports on the back of the TV in the room. It’s a good lesson for libraries how easy it is to make the user experience better.

Plug into Marriott screenshot

There’s a directory of “plugged-in” Marriotts on the site, and it looks like there are quite a few of them. I’ll definitely be looking at these as I travel, although realistically, if the rooms cost substantially more and I then still have to pay for internet access on top of that price, I’m likely to stay with my Hampton Inns. Still, this appeals to the geek in me, and I think it shows how digital our media is becoming, as well as how expectations around using that media continue to march forward.