Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Headless, Household Server

Many of you are aware that The Nearctic Spider Database and all the other goodies I have been fussing with are hosted off a machine in my basement. I presented its design and capabilities at the last ECN meeting in Indianapolis, IN. The student with a server in his basement drew a few chides and chuckles, but I suspect it made many stop & think. A few in attendance were wary of such a home-grown project. Back-ups? Theft? Damage? Flood? These same issues are faced by web hosting companies. As long as you have a reasonable solution to all these (e.g. scheduled and off-site storage of back-ups), and you periodically have a look at your web logs to assess traffic and bandwidth such that your Internet service provider doesn't pull the plug on you, what's the big deal? Databases and websites are portable. It would take perhaps an hour to remotely transfer the whole she-bang to another machine. What I also hope transpired from that meeting is an understanding that this stuff doesn't require rocket science and a massive team of database and web engineers. Just a bit of time and patience. So, this post is an introduction to a do-it-yourself, headless (no monitor), household server. If you have a ton of images and data that you haven't figured out what to do with, what are you waiting for?

Hardware: Any old PC will do so long is it has a reasonable amount of oomph and you can jam it full of memory. There are lots of local Mom & Pop computer stores that will sell you a brand new PC for less than $500. Remember, you don't need an Operating System (more below) and you don't need a'll just need to borrow one for the initial install. What you do need though are: 1) a good, name-brand power supply unit, 2) a bare-bones, read-only CD-ROM, 3) a quiet case with good ventilation, 4) minimum of 2GB RAM, 5) A 2.4GHz processor or more (too much more is just a waste of energy), 6) a motherboard with onboard network connection & video, and 7) a couple of hard drives (size depends on your needs).

Software: Ubuntu Server Edition for a fully-functioning LAMP install as a free download that you can burn to CD. LAMP = Linux, Apache, MySQL database, and PHP for programmtic delivery of web pages. The Ubuntu community is very active and can help troubleshoot issues you may have with installation. With a reasonably well configured machine (cutting edge hardware is best avoided and unnecessary), you ought to be able to get a bare-bones LAMP install, ready for data import in an hour or so.

What you also need is a hardware router and a home Internet service provider that is reasonably lax when it comes to hosting stuff on their pipes. Some purposefully block Port TCP 80, the channel web traffic travels on, but many others recognize the stiff competition out there for customers and consequently, turn a blind eye. Since your home Internet protocol address might very well be dynamically-assigned, you can make use of free services liks DynDNS & configure your router to automatically send an update to this service should your provider assign you a new IP.

There's more to it than this of course (i.e. database development, web page design and delivery & remote access from another PC on your home network), but these are the basics. If you want a visual step-by-step, Falko Timme has a nice article on

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