What is a Home Server and Why Should I Have One?

Ashley_Buckwell
edited December 2023 in PC Tech

Have you ever thought about how your home network setup could be improved with a home server? It’s not necessarily the most straightforward process, but it's a fun way to put your old hardware to use or to further develop your computing skills. Also, if you set up a home server, there are a lot of cool things you can do with it. If you’re thinking about building a personal server of any kind, keep reading to learn more about the benefits.

What is a home server?

Home servers are computing servers located in private residences that provide services to other devices inside or outside the residence over a local network or the Internet. They can be any computing device that is able to connect to a network, store data, and serve media files in a home environment. Residences are not typically home to more than a dozen or so devices, so home servers do not usually require significant computing power and can often be implemented with repurposed, older computers. They can be anything from a fancy yet costly high-end server to an old computer that acts as a central location to store all your data. Home servers often run headless, meaning they can be administered remotely via either a command shell or a graphical user interface.

Typical services of home servers include the following:

  • File and printer serving 
  • Web serving (on the local network or over the Internet) 
  • Media center serving 
  • Account authentication 
  • Web caching 
  • Backup 
  • Remote development tasks 
  • Bitcoin node hosting

Most people use home servers to play media files on their TV or to be central storage devices for all household members. The advantage of centrally storing your files is that everyone in the household can access them. Also, you only need to back up a single device and don’t need to pay a monthly subscription for cloud storage.

IT professionals often use a home server to hone their computing skills, and programmers may want to test scripts or programs in a safe nonproduction environment or offload long-running build jobs or development compute to a machine other than what they’re working on. Users can deploy virtual machines and create local domains on home servers and test various services.

Basic hardware and software components of a home server

You probably have at least some if not all of what you need to run a home server. And even if you don’t, a basic server build won’t set you back more than a few hundred dollars. At a high level, here’s everything you would need:

  • Computer 
  • Internet connection 
  • Network router 
  • Ethernet (CAT5) cable 
  • Hard drive 
  • Server software (Nextcloud) 
  • Operating system (CasaOS or StartOS)

Different types of home servers

The three main types of home server build are as follows:

  • Network-attached storage (NAS) devices. NAS devices are low-power prebuilt devices consisting primarily of a hard drive, network card, and power supply in an all-in-one solution. Their primary purpose is to provide networked storage services to other devices on a local network.
  • Repurposed older computers. Computers and laptops that have been replaced by newer devices are often still highly capable machines. It costs nothing except your time to repurpose them for use as home servers, and they can be highly versatile depending on how you set them up.
  • Custom-built devices. Other cheap home server alternatives to NAS devices are custom-built servers. By using single-board computers, such as the Raspberry Pi or Odroid, you can build your own home server for an acceptable price tag. You also have full control over the software you use.

Home server or cloud storage: which is better?

So what are the benefits of having a home server? How does it compare to storing all your data in the cloud? Consider the following:

  • Privacy. “Your privacy is only with you,” as the saying goes, and therefore it is up to you to keep an eye out for your own safety. You have no idea how or by whom your data will be held on the cloud. By contrast, with a home server, you’re in charge of your data and can choose who you share it with.
  • Security. Security is your responsibility when you run a server, and it’s up to you to ensure that your data is safe. This can be challenging but effective if done right. With a cloud service, however, you’re forced to trust your data’s security to a third party.
  • Speed. Your server’s performance can vary based on the hardware you’re using. With a cloud service, however, no matter how good their equipment is, a slow Internet connection will mean slow connection.
  • Risk. Natural disasters could cause your server to fail, resulting in the loss of all of your data. In this case, cloud storage, which is often distributed across data centers in different geographic locations, may be a safer option.

What are the downsides of owning a home server?

  • Cost. If you go with a NAS device, your upfront cost could be relatively high, and even with custom-built home servers, you still have to spend money on several items. You buy the server hardware and also spend time to set it all up. You also have to pay for the electricity it will use, although this will usually be minor. If budget is your main limiter, repurposing older computers might be the best option because you can literally just use an old laptop or desktop and get away with only electricity as the extra cost.
  • Maintenance. This is a measurable pain for users running home servers. Hard drives (even solid state drives) eventually fail, and fans slowly degrade over time. You may have to clean out dust buildup every few months. You will have to upgrade the hardware itself every few years if you don’t want to be stuck with old and slow parts from your parents’ generation. Furthermore, software updates don’t always take care of themselves. You need to manage application installations and updates, and occasionally figure out what it is that crashes your server on the last day of every month.
  • Heat. CPUs run hot. If you’re running a home server 24/7, the room it’s in is going to get hot. This can be advantageous during winter, but summers can be brutal if you don’t have air conditioning. On top of that, if your server is not dissipating heat properly, it may be thermal throttling and affecting performance; something to monitor for.
  • Noise. Most home servers make at least a little noise, primarily because of the fans needed to keep them from overheating, but also because any moving part will make at least a little noise, including hard drives (make sure you use a solid state drive if you have the choice—these are silent and fast). If your home server is located in the same room you sleep in, you will be very aware of its presence when trying to sleep.

Home server alternatives

Consider the following alternatives if a home server setup seems like it might not be right for you:

  • Google Drive used to be just storage. But then Google took its online office suite—Google Docs—and pasted it together into Google One. Now, you get 15 GB of free storage and an excellent office suite by just having a Google account. It’s good enough that many business users are now using it as their complete cloud-based office.
  • OneDrive is baked into Windows, and the two systems work well together. As far as a Windows user is concerned, OneDrive is just another directory in the File Explorer. Anyone can use it on the web, with a desktop app for Mac and earlier versions of Windows, and with OneDrive apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and even Xbox.
  • Dropbox came first, so it’s no surprise that it’s so popular. Sure, Dropbox Basic’s free storage is only 2 GB, but you can use it on any platform. You can get your files from Dropbox's website, desktop applications for Mac, Windows, and Linux, the native file systems, and the iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire mobile apps. It’s easy to set up, and it syncs files with ease.
  • iCloud is perfect for Mac, iPhone, or iPad users, and it offers 5 GB of free storage to anyone who owns an Apple product. You can use iCloud to automatically back up all data from your Apple devices onto its servers. However, 5 GBs won’t cut it for serious backups. You’ll want to upgrade to one of three iCloud+ plans: $1 a month for 50 GB, $3 a month for 200 GB, or $10 a month for 2 TB.

Setting up a home server is straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and a terrific learning experience all at the same time. If you do a little study and put in a little effort, you can transform your home network into a data hub for your family and friends. Stay tuned for next week’s article where we go over how to build your very own home server

Ashley is a technology writer who is interested in computers and software development. He is also a fintech researcher and is fascinated with emerging trends in DeFi, blockchain, and bitcoin. He has been writing, editing, and creating content for the ESL industry in Asia for eight years, with a special focus on interactive, digital learning.

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