Rebuilding My Home Server for 2020 (Part 2)
Flying Nobita
by Flying Nobita
7 min read

Categories

It wasn’t long ago when I finished building my first iteration of my Home Server. I continued tweaking it for the following weeks. This is a long overdue post on the changes that I’ve made to the server.

Table of Contents

  1. New Router
    1. To 6 Or Not To 6?
  2. New Home for Adguard Home
  3. More (free) Storage Space
  4. New Apps
  5. Others
  6. Conclusion & Future Ideas
    1. 1) Sophisticated Wireless Network
    2. 2) Home Automation

New Router

Asus RT-N16; Old router in room died

Asus RT-N16; Old router in room died

The near decade-old Asus RT-N16 router I had in my room finally died. Although its Wi-Fi stopped working for over a year, I was still able to use it as a switch. About 3 months ago, the router suddenly stopped turning on. It turns out that it is common for this router to have a blown-out capacitor and it is a simple case of replacing the capacitor to get it working again. But since I wasn’t sure whether this would fix the Wi-Fi issue, I decided it was time to get a new router.

To 6 Or Not To 6?

I am currently using a Linksys EA7500 (AC1900) as my main router. And I have been wanting to get an upgrade for a while, one which can:

  1. allow higher Wi-Fi speed (i.e. >AC1900)
  2. support band steering (so I don’t need to worry 2 SSIDs, 1 for 2.4Ghz and 1 for 5Ghz)
  3. MESH! (even better if I can add routers and expand the Mesh as I go, like Asus AiMesh)
  4. act as an OpenVPN client so it can connect to a paid VPN service
  5. create separate VLANs for IoT devices (through ethernet and Wi-Fi)

It turns out that now is an awkward time to get a router. Although laptops and phones released this year are Wi-Fi 6 capable (I don’t have any yet), the Wi-Fi 6 routers released so far are very expensive and they don’t necessarily give you the speed boost over Wi-Fi 5 routers (especially for me when I don’t have any Wi-Fi 6 clients).

For example, a popular Wi-Fi 5 router that satisfies my above requirements would be the Asus RT-AC86U, with the Asuswrt-Merlin custom firmware installed for an all-capable full-blown experience. This more than 2 years old router can be had for about USD150.

An equivalent Wi-Fi 6 router, RT-AX88U retails for about USD350! I understand that the RT-AX88U is a class higher than the RT-AC86U, but it’s the best comparison at the time being. (at least until the RT-AX86U becomes available!)

After considering all factors, I found a good deal on a D-Link DIR-882 router that supports 1) AC2600 and 2) beam steering, that was selling for USD95. Although it doesn’t support 3) - 5), I figured that it is cheap enough to work as a switch even if I intent to upgrade all the routers in my home with Wi-Fi 6 at a later date. The Ubiquiti UniFi line up when it supports Wi-Fi 6 would be VERY attractive as it supports 3) - 5), plus a whole lot more.

New router: D-Link DIR-882

New router: D-Link DIR-882

I place the D-Link router in my living room as my main router and moved the Linksys router to my room as a switch and secondary access point.

New Home for Adguard Home

Some keen-eyed readers noticed that I said I installed Pi-Hole on “3” different devices in the first part of my home server post, yet I only talked about 2 laptops in the whole article.

This is because I never mentioned about a failed experiment I did, which was to install Pi-Hole, and subsequently, Adguard Home, on an old Sony Xperia Z1 phone. I will leave the details on how I did this to another post, but I basically installed Ubuntu on the phone and ran the ad-blockers.

Adguard Home running on Sony Xperia Z1

Adguard Home running on Sony Xperia Z1

This worked out nicely for a while as the phone has decent processing power (Snapdragon 800 with 2GB of RAM) and draws very little power (3-7 watt-hours). Adding the fact that this was a piece of electronic junk sitting in my drawer, and you realized you don’t need to buy any Raspberry Pis anymore.

Unfortunately, after 2 weeks, the already worn-out battery finally died and the phone no longer powered on. I was a bit upset as I couldn’t find a cheap source of new batteries.

Luckily, when I was going through my drawer, I found a new Raspberry Pi 0 that I totally forgot about. It was given to me by a friend a year ago and when I found out that it doesn’t have Wi-Fi support, I put it away as I didn’t think it would be useful to me.

Then it suddenly dawned on me that that it supports ethernet with a USB-to-ethernet adapter!

Adguard Home running on Raspberry Pi Zero

Adguard Home running on Raspberry Pi Zero

Getting Adguard Home running on the Pi 0 was such a breeze, at least when compared with running it on the Xperia Z1. I’ve had some occasional lags where it seems the Pi was somehow stuck with processing DNS requests, causing my internet to stop working. It usually fixes itself when I log in to the Pi 0. Perhaps this problem will go away when I upgrade the Pi to a more powerful one in the future.

More (free) Storage Space

As I was going through my tech junk drawer, I also found a bunch of old USB external hard drives. Namely:

  1. 250GB x 1
  2. 500GB x 3

which gives me an extra 1.75GB in total.

4 USB HDDs

4 USB HDDs

These drivers are old, slow and use USB 2.0. Nonetheless, they’re good enough for my usage.

Previously, I connected external HDDs to my laptops, and I find that both laptops would randomly disconnect the USB HDDs. I was suspecting that this might be some kind of power-saving mechanism in Ubuntu, but I couldn’t find the root cause. So instead, I need to find another way of making them accessible on the network.

Both of my routers have USB ports, and I thought of connecting them directly to the router. Unfortunately, the Linksys router has 2 USB ports, while the D-Link has 1. Adding the 2TB external HDD I have connecting to my IdeaPad, I have 5 USB devices.

I tried using a USB hub I have lying around but it didn’t work because the USB HDDs need to draw power from the USB ports. I needed a USB hub that supports a power adapter.

But how much power is needed? Time to buy a USB power adapter!

USB power meter

USB power meter

This USD2.5 is a cool little device that gives me the voltage and current usage of attached USB devices.

Attaching a USB HDD to it gives me:

  Voltage (V) Current (A) Power (W)
Idle 5.17 0.35 1.8
Load 5.17 0.14 0.7

A typical USB hub supports a power adapter of 5V and 2.5A supply. This should be enough to connect 4 USB HDDs.

USB hub & 2 USB ethernet dongles

USB hub & 2 USB ethernet dongles

With the new USB hub I got, I attached all 4 USB HDDs to it and plugged the UBS hub to the Linksys router. Plugging in the 3.5” USB HDD to the other USB port.

All USB HDDs in File Explorer

All USB HDDs in File Explorer

The randomly named directory is from 3.5” USB HDD that has an extra “recovery partition” created by the OS.

New Apps

Heimdal page for tools

Heimdal page for tools

I’ve added a bunch of new tools to help me manage my 2 laptop servers.

Heimdal page for books and media

Heimdal page for books and media

And added a bunch of apps to manage my books and media library.

Others

With the extra ethernet ports on the new router, I switched the laptops from Wi-Fi to ethernet and saw a noticeable difference in the response time and stability of the laptops. Wire still rules!

Conclusion & Future Ideas

After almost 3 months of building and tweaking, my home server has finally reached a satisfactory state. It is very stable and I’m fairly happy with it. The most often used services are watching movies on Plex and reading books from the Calibre Content Server on my phones. Not exactly life & death missions but don’t underestimate the joy it brings either.

There are certain aspects of the setup that I think would be interested to explore:

1) Sophisticated Wireless Network

A setup that would tick all the boxes I mentioned earlier, an appropriate time to do this would be when Wi-Fi 6 truly becomes mainstream.

2) Home Automation

I have been reading up this topic and exploring Home Assistant. The biggest hurdle here is to find the appropriate electronics for my home, from doorbells.