Have you ever wanted to create a file server to link multiple TVs and to store all photos, movies, and videos into a centralized file server?
In this updated guide, I will cover the steps needed to setup your own Network Attached Storage (NAS server) to store all your media files in a home cloud.
Let’s dive right in.
What’s in this guide
What you will need
It is useful to think of your home theater as a modular setup with a separate front-end and back-end.
Here is a summary of recommended products needed:
- Custom-built HTPC or NVIDIA Shield TV as a streaming media player.
- Synology DiskStation DS216j or DS416j as a NAS storage.
- WD Red hard drives to store your media files.
Home Theater PC (HTPC)
Your main front-end should be a super silent Home Theater PC (HTPC).
The front-end does not need to have any storage for media files, TV tuners, or DVD/Blu-ray drive.
If you plan on using back-end applications like Plex Media Server to store and transcode your media on the fly, then I would recommend that you build a media server yourself as it is going to be the most cost effective approach.
DIY media server will do all the heavy lifting such as recording live TV, scraping metadata, and transcoding video files and online video streams. It is also a much more affordable solution than buying a powerful commercial NAS server as a media server.
I use my Windows 10-based value HTPC as a media server to record, store, and stream all media files with Argus TV, MCEBuddy and Plex software. Then, I use Plexbmc Kodi add-on on my living room and bedroom HTPCs to access all recorded TV shows from my media server (running Plex).
Network Attached Storage (NAS)
NAS (Network Attached Storage) is an abbreviation of the term network attached storage, which is a file server that can be accessed over a home network as opposed to a single computer access.
In other words, a NAS server allows you to share media files between several computers and portable entertainment devices.
To make sure I have reliable backups for the most important files such as my documents and photos, I use a Synology Network Attached storage with hard drives mirroring all files to both hard drives all the time.
Then, I map network folders from the Synology NAS to my computers to access all documents and photos. I’ve also added photos folder from the Synology NAS to my Plex Media Server so that I can view photos as seamlessly as other media files such as recorded TV on other devices.
Here is an example why backing up your media files is so important. A couple of years ago my Synology NAS server turned into a degraded mode and I lost all the files inside one of the two hard drives. The failed HDD was only two years old.
The degraded mode is where the volume is in an “unsafe” state where my data is available only on the other healthy drive. If the other disk fails, then my volume will crash and all data will be lost.
Fortunately, my NAS has a RAID 1 feature, which means that it is mirroring data between two hard disks all the time. Therefore, for me, the failed HDD was not an issue, as I simply needed to replace the failed HDD with a new one without any interruption to the availability of the files on the NAS server.
Digital Media Receiver (DMR)
Finally, you can extend your media experience to other rooms by adding digital media receivers such as NVIDIA Shield TV (my recommendation), Amazon Fire TV, Roku streaming player, Apple TV or Raspberry Pi.
These affordable media streamers are particularly good as secondary devices, for example, in your kids’ room or bedroom.
I also often take my Raspberry Pi 3 with me when traveling to holidays so that my family can enjoy watching movies and recorded TV shows even when we are on the road.
Keep in mind that you do not need to buy everything immediately, but you can add new modules later over time.
After trying a network hard drive with my old Ethernet router I realized that both wireless and 100MB Ethernet felt quite sluggish especially if I wanted to work with HD video and Blu-ray files.
After buying a new gigabit router, the network hard drive read and write speed felt about the same as using my computer’s own internal hard drive.
So, upgrading your home network to 1000MB Ethernet really makes a difference, particularly as gigabit routers are not so expensive anymore.
Make sure to connect the gigabit router with the Cat6 Network Ethernet Cable to your HTPC to make sure you will benefit from the high transfer speeds.
1. Get a network attached storage
There are several sharing NAS devices available in the market with different speeds and set of features.
Just choosing the NAS manufacturer is confusing to many. They all seem to offer almost all the right combination of features but not quite.
I have been using Synology DiskStation 2-Bay Network Attached Storage for years (latest model is DS216j), and it has been working very well.
Due to photography hobby, my media library has grown significantly, so I recently to upgraded to bigger and more powerful Synology DS916+ 4-bay model.
So, it is good to think about your requirements, whether 2-bay model is sufficient for you or should you opt for 4-bay model immediately.
Synology is quite expensive and might feel difficult to use for networking beginners, but it offers excellent throughput speed and nearly all the features you could ever need from a network hard drive.
If you have a Mac, you can also use Synology as a Time Machine. Synology also provides good backup software for Windows.
One simple, but important feature that many external hard drives do not have is that Synology shuts down the hard drives after a certain period of inactivity. Then, it automatically turns hard drives on if you search any data from the hard drive.
Lacking this functionality can be very annoying with external hard drives as you will need to turn them on separately when you need to access data.
So, for many users Synology 2-Bay DS216j model is a great choice.
If you would like to add more hard drives in the future, you should check out the Synology DiskStation DS916+ 4-Bay Storage Array.
2. Install the hard drives
Many people have difficulty choosing right kind and size of hard drives for their NAS.
Remember that most of the time the NAS servers do not include hard drives, so you need to buy them separately.
A couple of years ago I replaced my old Seagate 1 TB hard drives with Western Digital Green hard drives as one of the Seagate HDDs failed. This incident reinforced the importance to have at least two hard drives mirroring the data all the time.
But should you choose WD Green or WD Red hard drives?
WD Red drives cost slightly more compared to WD Green drives, and WD Red drives have a 1 year longer warranty (3 years) compared to WD Green drives (2 years).
I’ve had WD Green hard drives running constantly for the past 3 years without any issues. However, WD Red drives may provide better reliability in the NAS environment, and you will get an extra one year warranty.
Both options are fine, but nowadays WD Red is the only viable option for NAS due to discontinuation of WD Green hard drives.
Learn more about the latest pricing of WD Red hard drives.
Hard drive size also depends on your needs and budget, so choose any size between 2TB – 6TB. The larger drive you choose the more gigabytes per dollar you will get.
Buying two or more hard drives can feel a little costly, but remember that losing your data will be extremely costly.
Installing HDDs to Synology Diskstation is very easy.
You just need to unscrew a couple of screws, connect the power cable and SATA cable, and then put the screws back in place.
In few minutes, I was ready the start the server.
3. Manage storage spaces
Synology has made mapping a hard drive very easy on Windows machines with their Synology Assistant software. This is particularly useful for beginners who do not know how to map network drives in Windows.
Storage Manager allows you to manage your hard disks and storage spaces, expand your storage capacity or create resilient data volumes.
It is important to use more than one external hard drive to store your backups. If your backup hard drive fails, you will lose all your media collection. Thus, I recommend having at least two hard drives in RAID operation.
RAID is an abbreviation of the term Redundant Array of Independent Disks. RAID storage technology allows you to combine multiple hard drives together by distributing the data across multiple disks. There are several RAID levels depending on how many hard drives you have in use.
Here are the three common RAID levels:
RAID 0 allows you to have the maximum amount of storage, but you will not have a backup of the data if one of your HDDs fails. For example, if you have two 2 TB drives, the total array size is 4TB and you will have 3.72 TB of usable storage.
RAID 1 allows you to mirror data between two hard drives, so if one HDD fails, you still have the data secured on the other drive. However, if you have two 2 TB drives, your total array size is only 2 TB, and you will have will have 1.86 TB of usable storage. This way if one hard drive fails, you still have another copy.
RAID 5 stripes both data and parity information on three or more HDDs. It is very popular RAID level as it has relatively good performance level and it will work fine even if one hard drive fails in the array. If you have five 2 TB drives, your total array size is 8 TB, and you will have 7.45 TB of usable storage.
In my 2-bay server, I use the RAID 1 level as it provides much greater security compared to the RAID 0 even if I lose 2 TB of storage.
4. Create media structure
In the Synology Disk Manager, shared folders are directories where you can store and manage media files and folders.
After you have formatted the volume, it is time to create the folder structure and set user access rights to the folders. I chose to create separate folders for each media type such as Music, Photo, and Video.
The additional folders include Backup and Documents folders for my desktop computer and Web folder for my Web server (local website development e.g. for this website).
When I moved my media library to a NAS server, I spend some time in planning on how my media library would look like on the network hard drive.
Here is an example folder structure for media collections:
I’m using iTunes to organize my music collection and I wanted to make sure that it would update files automatically to the network drive. So I deleted the old iTunes music library and imported a new library from the network storage. Remember to change the default saving folder to NAS as well.
If you are a serious music collector, then you should definitely check out a software called MediaMonkey. MediaMonkey will help you automatically organize and rename files on your hard drive into a logical hierarchy based on attributes such as artist, album, track title and track number.
Some people like to store photos based on event names. However, I favor a bit more simple structure, organized by year, month and genre. The month categorization is used for general and family photos while the genre categorization is used for highlighting the best photos in genres such as nature, landscape, close-ups and so on.
I use Adobe Lightroom to manage photos from my DSLR camera, so I changed the default folder as the one in the network storage.
If you want to sync mobile photos to NAS server, I would recommend using an app called PhotoSync on your iPhone or Android device.
Here are the steps on how to use Photosync app with Synology Diskstation:
- In order to configure WebDav for Synology, go to “Control Panel” > “WebDAV” > “Enable WebDAV” and click “Apply”.
- Buy and install Photosync app.
- In the Photosync app, choose “Settings” > “Configure” > “WebDAV” > “WebDAV 1”.
- In the WebDAV settings menu, set your NAS server’s IP address, WebDAV post number and login name and password.
- In the WebDAV settings menu, set your NAS server’s IP address, WebDAV post number and login name and password. Click “Done” to save settings.
- Next, choose the “Destination Folder” in your NAS server and modify other settings according to your preferences.
- Now, you can press the sync button to synchronize your photos to your NAS server.
It is better to have as flat of a video folder structure as possible (of course depending on the size of the collection). I’m categorizing videos into four subcategories: Children’s videos, home videos, movies and TV recordings.
Children’s videos and TV recordings have subfolders for each TV show so that it is easy to store all the episodes of a TV show into one folder.
Home videos are categorized by year as I’m not shooting so many home videos that I’d need subfolders by month.
Movies are categorized into two subfolders: HD (High Definition = Blu-ray quality) and SD (Standard Definition = DVD quality).
5. Configure NAS with your media center
Once you have copied all the files to the NAS drive, it is time to configure the server with the media center software. You can do the following steps in most popular media centers such as Kodi, Windows Media Center, Plex, Emby and Media Portal.
There are three main sharing protocols you can use to stream media files from the NAS: NFS (Network File System), SMB (Windows File Sharing, Server Message Block) or UPnP (Universal Plug and Play).
Many people are asking which one to choose and my recommendation is to use NFS as it is much faster especially when using lower performance front-end HTPC devices.
If you are using a fast computer over Gigabit Ethernet home network, you will probably not notice any difference between SMB and NFS. For many people SMB is fast enough.
However, if you are using a slower HTPC such as Raspberry Pi or wireless network connection, I would strongly recommend using NFS sharing protocol.
First, you will need to enable NFS sharing protocol on your Synology NAS:
- Go to “Control Panel” > “Win/Mac/NFS” > “NFS Service” > “Enable NFS”.
- Go to “Control Panel” > “Shared Folders” > Select the folder you want to modify permissions and Select “Privileges” > “NFS Privileges”.
- Click “Create” and type * as “Hostname” and set Privilege “Read only”.
I will use Kodi media center as an example of how to create a video folder share with the network drive:
- Select Video from the Kodi home menu
- In the files view, select “Add videos…”
- Select Browse
- Scroll to the bottom of the list and select “Add Network Location…”
- Choose the “Protocol” as “Network File System (NFS)”
- Browse for new share on your home network e.g, 192.168.1.39
- Select the “Shared folder” on your NAS e.g, Movies
- Enter a name for this media source, e.g, Movies
- Click OK
- In the “Set content” menu select what type of media this directory contains (e.g, Movies)
- Click OK
- Answer “Yes” to the Change content question.
- Depending on the size of your media library, it will take a while to scanning for new content.
Have you made sure that your media files are safe if the unexpected happens?
Having a separate Synology NAS server, media server and front-end media streaming devices allows me to have more flexibility and reliability.
Sure, it costs a bit more to set up this kind of home media system, but if you are doing HTPC as a hobby, this may be a good solution for you.
You should always have your backups in at least two different HDDs. The most practical way of achieving this is with a NAS server such as the Synology DiskStation.
Here’s what you need to know before buying your first NAS
I made a free NAS checklist for you that will help you to find out what you need to know before buying your first NAS server.
If you have time and are willing to learn, building your own NAS can be fun. Here is a DIY NAS guide for more advanced users.