Category Archives: Technology

Choosing Media Server Software

Some years ago on my home network, I set up a Media Server on an old Windows PC, as I wanted to be able to stream some stored home movies, music and photographs to Laptops and TV screens around the house. The TV Screens had WDTV Live units (~ AUD$100) connected to them which were hardwired to the network, so they could play the content being streamed.

The Serviio Media Server was great (free, effective, easy), but the Windows PC (Win10 Pro) not so much. I started to run out of hard disk space as I transferred files across plus the Media Server would always go non-responsive every time Windows wanted to update itself (all too regularly).

Raspberry PiThen came my January 2017 holiday project, where I decided to relook at the $50 Raspberry Pi as the much more powerful model 3 had been released. It occurred to me that this unit, with a big fat portable Hard Disk attached could make a fantastic Media Server.

Most of the introduction to Raspberry Pi articles I read usually talked about using the free minidlna as a media server, so I thought I would start with it. Installing it was a bit fiddly and it was hard to determine where the issues lay when it wouldn’t work properly. For instance, the media server worked, but had no content. Or I couldn’t log into the samba share over the network (which was not strictly at minidlna problem). Eventually I uninstalled it as:

  • minidlnaI had to log into the Raspberry Pi and use a text editor on the config files to make changes (always time consuming and a little dangerous).
  • It was completely rubbish at tracking what was on the disk. All too often its directory would be corrupted showing file s that were no longer there (as I had moved them), or not showing files that were there, for reasons I couldn’t fathom. Eventually I gave up trying to solve this as it was too frustrating.
  • The third issue was that it presented very little to the DLNA client other than a complete list of media files, or the files categorised into their folders. Our needs (the wife’s) included knowing “What have you just been viewing” and “what’s just been added” which weren’t options.
  • I was also a little concerned that the project governance for minidlna was weak (eg minidlna is called its previous name everywhere, but you can only download minidlna) which could lead to heartache when updating it downstream.

The second crack at it was installing Plex. Plex had lots of great reviews, so I had high hopes. Mind you, you tend to get the reviews you look for. Eventually I uninstalled it as:

  • PlexIt has lots of system defined options for presentation in the client, (eg By Album, by Artist etc) but you can’t configure them or turn them off. This means I have about 10 options I don’t want and can’t have the ones I do (the Recently Added folder)
  • The licensing agreement of Plex is of concern – it appears you give them a right to use any content you load into Plex in anyway they like (whether you have the right to do this or not). Others online also seem concerned about this.

Finally, I installed Serviio, which I hadn’t realised previously you could run in a Linux environment. For some reason It generally doesn’t appear in Media Server reviews for Raspberry Pi. Serviio runs over Java and is a little complex to build as you must install java first (already there on Raspbian Jessie for Noobs), ffmpeg and finally Serviio. Once in it was easily configured though a nice interface via the web browser. However I did tweak some config files to name the server in a way that suited me. In summary:

  • Serviio Serviio seems to track changes on the hard disk without error.
  • Offers my wife the menu options she want’s which is “Last Viewed” and “Just Added” and can hide all the rest of the options.
  • Finally, Serviio doesn’t seem to offer any creepy licensing requirements either (from a non-lawyers reading of the EULA).

Winning. At this stage I’m keeping it.

A Home Music Server for AUD$352

Every now and then I like to re-connect with my geek roots.

Raspberry PiSo a couple of years ago I bought the boy a Raspberry Pi computer  which pretty much sat there collecting dust  after the initial outing.  It appears playing games on the computer doesn’t translate to wanting to find out how the computer works.  Sigh.  But on to my story.

The Raspberry Pi was pitched as a very low cost, credit card sized computer that is powerful enough to do some interesting things whilst getting you interested in computing.  I had purchased one of the first releases for the for the boy (A Raspberry Pi Model 1 B +).

Over the summer I decided to crack it out and see what I could make it do.  Turns out I could bend it to my will, but it was a little slow and frustrating, so I bought an updated unit and it was fine.  The new Raspberry PI 3 B model (faster with more USB connections, Wifi and Bluetooth).  I planned to turn it into a Music Server.  My costs for the project were:

  • $54 for the computer (more like a pack of cards, than a credit card!)
  • $12 for the power supply (I wanted to use theirs, not a spare)
  • $11 for a good looking plastic enclosure
  • $16 for a 16GB SD Card (for the oeprating system)
  • $259 for a WD My Book 4TB external powered Hard Drive (for my music)

So $352 all up (HDD from JB Hifi, Raspberry Pi and accessories from RS-Online)

With the Raspberry PI all the software was free, but you had to learn how to use Raspian, the preferred version of Linux that I installed on it.  I have almost zero experience with Linux, so it was a little daunting.  But installation was easy, you download the operating system to an SD card (like you stick in a camera), then stuck it into the raspberry PI (with monitor, keyboard and mouse connected) and booted it up.  Pretty much all instructions are online and fairly simple.  The main steps were:

  1. I configured the operating system to give the unit a name and install VNC software, so I don’t have to have a monitor and keyboard connected, i just use my laptop to connect (some call this going headless).
  2. I removed software I didn’t need to save space (the office and mathematica products).
  3. I setup the HDD to be accessed by the Raspberry Pi and make sure it got mounted in the same place in the directory structure every time.
  4. I setup Samba, the file sharing software, so that I could copy files across my network onto the new computer’s HDD.
  5. I allocated the computer a static IP address on my network, so I could always find it.
  6. I installed MiniDLNA as the media server software.

Note One.  all of the above was done by someone who had almost no familiarity with Linux or the Raspberry Pi (Im mainly a windows man).  I think the key to being able to do it,  was slowly building a manual using a GoogleDocs Document, with each of the commands and my commentary.  So that I could learn along the way and repeat the steps when I had to wipe the SD card and start over.

Note Two.  I haven’t indicated any of the commands or configuration changes I had to do.  That was all online and easily found with a google search.  What wasn’t,  which I had to figure out, was the steps and their sequence, to make it all work!

The Result:

  • A media server on our network full of music we have bought, that can send it to any device such as our network speakers.
  • A tiny footprint with a the computer the size of a pack of cards, and the external HDD being small.
  • Less noise and heat being generated in the house, by removing a big computer that needed a fan to keep it cool (it was slowly dying).
  • A low cost replacement, that is easy to repair!
  • Around 8 hours of my time invested, but as Im more familiar and recorded all the steps, so I can build another Raspberry Pi to do the same job in under an hour.

Quite chuffed with myself.  My next project will be using a Raspberry Pi to turn an old laser printer into a wireless Laser printer using the Raspberry PI wirelessly on my home network and hiding it away behind the printer.

So Raspberry Pi has evolved enough to be useful.  No longer just a learning tool!

Why Free CRM makes me happy

I got an email from FreeCRM today. Free means that it costs nothing (but if you want the really good bits you have to pay $US14.95 per month per user!).

CRM means customer relationship management or, in plain English, a database of customer details, records and contacts that does cool stuff such as remind you to call people back, or report on what your sales pipeline looks like.

It’s great for doing things such as sending out personalised emails to every sales manager you know that barracks for Collingwood but hasn’t been “boned”.

FreeCRM, as its name implies, provides a free CRM system on the internet. I think that a free CRM system is a pretty cool thing because my friend the business broker says lack of customer records is one of the main reasons a business might be unsellable (and no, the debtors ledger doesn’t count as customer records).

Anyway, in today’s email said: “FreeCRM.com has had 99.99% uptime in 2005, and will give you a rebate if we do not hit at least 99.9% uptime.”
Marketers for the IT industry decided that uptime was a fancy way of saying “it’s working”‘ — the converse of downtime, which means “it’s broken or I turned it off”.

So I wondered what the difference might be between 99%, 99.9% and 99.99% in practical terms. As the Americans say: I did the math. Using trusty Excel, I worked out there are about 31.5 million seconds in a year (31,536,000 in a usual 365-day non-leap year). Uptime of 99% implies downtime of 1%, or 87.6 hours per year — a bit over two weeks. Unacceptable. Uptime of 99.9% means 8.76 hours of downtime — a third of one day a year isn’t too bad. Crank that uptime up to 99.99% and it means just 52.56 minutes of downtime — less than a lunchbreak — in a whole year. Yahoo!

I must say I was quite astonished to think that the difference between 99% and 99.99% is effectively two weeks of work time. So I am pretty happy with FreeCRM’s performance. Mind you, a rebate of zero dollars is still zero dollars.