The Home Server Conundrum

Servers have been in the home for just as long as they have been in the business’ but for the most part they have been confined to home lab’s and to the homes of systems admins, and the more serious hobbyists.

However, with more and more devices entering the modern “connected” home, it is time to once again consider, is it time for the server to into the home. Whilst some companies are, and have been starting to make inroads and push their products into the home market segment, most notably Microsoft and their partners with the “Windows Home Server” systems.

Further to this modern Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices are becoming more and more powerful, leading to their manufacturers not only publishing their own software for the devices, but thriving communities growing up around them and implementing their own software on them, Synology and the SynoCommunity for example.

These devices are still however limited to running specially packaged software, and in many cases are missing the features from other systems. I know this is often by design, as one manufacturer does not want their “killer app” on competitors system.

Specifically what I am thinking of with the above statement is some of the features of the Windows Home Server and Essentials Server from Microsoft, as many homes are “Microsoft” shops, yet many homes also have one or more Apple devices (here I am thinking specifically iPads/iPhones) and given the limited bandwidth and data transfer available to most people, an Apple Caching Server would be of benefit.

Now sure you could run these on multiple servers, or even existing hardware that you have around the house, but then you have multiple devices running and chewing up power. Which in this day and age of ever increasing electricity bills and the purported environmental costs of power, is less than ideal.

These issues could at least be partly alleviated by the use of enterprise level technologies such as virtualisation and containerisation, however these are well beyond the management skills for the average home user to implement and manage. Not to mention that some companies (I am looking at you here Apple) do not allow their software to run on “generic” hardware, well at least within the terms of the licencing agreement, nor do they offer a way to do this legally by purchasing a licence.

Virtualisation also allows extra “machines” to run such as Sophos UTM for security and management on the network.

Home server are also going to become more and more important to act as a bridge or conduit for Internet of Things products to gain access to the internet. Now sure the products could talk directly back to the servers, and in many cases this will be fine if they can respond locally, and where required cache their own data in the case of a loss of connection to the main servers either through the servers themselves, or the internet connection in general being down.

However what I expect to develop over a longer period is more of a hybrid approach, with a server in the home acting as a local system providing local access to functions and data caching, whilst syncing and reporting to an internet based system for out of house control. I suggest this as many people do not have the ability to manage an externally accessible server, so it is more secure to use a professionally hosted one that then talks to the local one over a secure connection.

But more on that in another article as we are talking about the home server here. So why did I bring it up? Containerisation; many of these devices will want to run with their own “server” software or similar, and the easiest way to manage this is going to be through containerisation of the services on a platform such as Docker. This is especially true now that Docker commands and alike are coming to Windows Server systems it will provide a basically agnostic method and language to set up and maintain the services.

This also bring with it questions about moving houses, and the on-boarding of devices from one tenant or owner of the property to another one. Does the server become a piece of house equipment, staying with the property when you move out, do you create an “image” for the new occupier to run on their device to configure it to manage all the local devices, do you again run two servers, a personal one that moves with you, and a smaller one that runs all the “smarts” of the house that then links to your server and presents the devices to your equipment? What about switching gear, especially if your devices use PoE(+) for power supply? So many questions, but these are for another day.

For all this to work however we need to not only work all these issues out, but for the regular users the user interface to these systems, and the user experience is going to be a major deciding factor. That and we need a bunch of standards so that users can change the UI/Controller and still have all the devices work as one would expect.

So far for the most part the current systems have done an admirable job for this, but they are still a little to “techie” for the average user, and will need to improve.

There is a lot of potential for the home server in the coming years, and I believe it is becoming more and more necessary to have one, but there is still a lot of work to do before the become a ubiquitous device.

Written By Justin

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