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When you're serious about working from home, you need a home server

With so many cloud storage options, why would you consider a home server? It turns out there are some surprising pitfalls to relying solely on cloud storage, especially if you're working or running a business from home.

Cloud storage seemed like such a good idea at the time. Nearly all the major public cloud vendors were offering unlimited cloud storage to home users and small businesses. Not only were the offers for unlimited storage, but prices were reasonable, in the range of $10-60/month.

Many small business owners, myself included, jumped at the opportunity. Remote access to data, while a bit worrisome from a security point of view, was a viable disaster-recovery option. Offsite backups were another benefit. And, back in the pre-pandemic world, we were all so mobile that cloud accessibility was a welcome feature.

But then it all started to go off the rails.

The unlimited storage options were rescinded -- leaving users scrambling to find a way to rehome the terabytes of data stored in the cloud that now exceeded cloud plan limits. Some vendors continue to offer large cloud storage capacities, but at a considerably increased price. 

Instead of public cloud storage being a stable option, it became a new source of stress. Home servers can help, providing large storage capacity for a comparably inexpensive price. With a home server, you can utilize a hybrid storage option, optimizing storage for both cloud and on-premises, and allocating your storage depending on the type of projects or files you're working with.

In the wake of COVID, home servers are beginning to seem like more of a necessity than a luxury.

In February 2020, only about 16 percent of Americans worked from home. But then came the pandemic. Fast-forward to October of 2020, just nine months later, and 58 percent of Americans worked from home either full or part-time, according to a Gallup poll.

Now, home technologies aren't just for freelancers and home-based business owners; they're for displaced corporate workers, too. The COO of a national home improvement supplier told me, "We have had to do ten years of digital transformation in ten weeks."

While you can use some home servers for a lot of secondary activities, including serving web pages and managing email, in this article, I'm going to focus on home servers as centralized storage devices. Storage management can be a big challenge, especially when at home.

Using a home server

A home server is a centralized storage resource on your home's LAN. Even if you have just one laptop, a home server can be helpful as a way to store files when you run out of capacity on the device. 

Yes, you can plug in an external drive. But those can sometimes get misplaced, and you're still going to need to back them up. It's much more effective and convenient to have a centralized resource that is reachable from any device on the internal network.

Home servers can also be a destination for backups. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of home servers is that they can be configured to use RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks). RAID allows you to create a volume from a batch of drives. If any one drive fails (and they do!), no data is lost. All you do is remove the failed drive, insert another, and the RAID completely rebuilds the volume. Over the years, I've had a few very scary days when I woke up to find failed drives. Thankfully, my server RAIDs have always had my back and I haven't lost any data.

If you have more than one computer at home, a home server can help you keep everything in sync, too, and let you work on projects from any machine in the house. If you have multiple family members, you can use a server to share family documents. If you're like my wife and me, who run our firm together from the house, you can use your server to manage all your business documents, as well.

We have about a dozen shares, or volumes, set up for specific purposes. We have a share for bookkeeping data, one for scanned manuals and books, another for client projects, various media-related shares, a share dedicated to backups, and more. We'll cover the very important topic of backups in our next article, so stay tuned.

Let's talk server hardware

Server hardware comes in a wide variety of capabilities and prices, ranging from this $499 Dell PowerEdge T40 server up to server farms capable of running Facebook.

Before I go deeper into hardware options, it's time for a disclosure. This article appears in a ZDNet Multiplexer blog, which is sponsored by Dell. Therefore, I'll be sending you to Dell resources in this article. I've been buying and using Dell products for a couple of decades now. I'm fully comfortable sharing these recommendations with you, as long as you understand that it's sponsored content.

The PowerEdge T40 comes with 1TB of storage, which is relatively little for a modern business. But it has three drive bays, which means there's room for a boot drive and a two-drive RAID. You could add two of these 10TB, $367 Toshiba drives to the T40 and have yourself a very capable starting server.

When you're picking out a home server, keep in mind that you don't need a massively powerful CPU. Most servers come with a 1GB Ethernet connection and that's usually fast enough, especially since most home users will connect over slower Wi-Fi. It's for a similar reason you don't really need SSDs in your server; you won't be sending data fast enough to fully utilize their speed.

In fact, one approach might be to repurpose your current desktop PC as a server, and then go out and buy yourself a sleek new desktop. If your desktop PC has room for a few extra drives, it's perfect. Personally, I've been eyeing the XPS 15 i7 with 32GB of RAM and a GTX 1650 Ti graphics card. But that's me.

But if you want to consider a more powerful class of servers, take a look at the Dell PowerEdge T440 Tower Server. These are intriguing in terms of their expansion capabilities. 

One of these can store up to eight 3.5" SATA drives or 16 2.5" drives. I wouldn't necessarily go the 2.5" route, because even though there are more drives, max capacity is only 61TB. Whereas, if you go with 3.5" drives, you can store 128TB. That should certainly get you by for home server storage.

If you want to expand into running virtual machines, you can run dual Xeon processors with up to 28 cores per processor, and depending on your RAM choice, go up to a 1TB RAM configuration. In other words, you can grow a lot with this server. 

Wrapping up

If you run your business from home, having a home server makes obvious sense. But what if you normally run your business from an office? Should you equip your employees with home servers?

That really depends on the employees and what their jobs entail. If your employees are producing video, absolutely consider home servers, because backups will be a problem. In my next blog post, I'll show you why video production and home broadband often don't play well with each other -- and why a home server can be the answer.

Also keep in mind that if you place a Windows server in an employee's home, you can do some pretty powerful home-to-office server communications entirely within Windows Server's secure and trusted environment.

There are a lot more options for replicating a small data center at home, and we'll be covering those in future articles. You can also visit Dell Technologies Advisors to learn more about server solutions from Dell.