Five apps that turn Xubuntu into a home server OS

There’s no need to think of a home server as something scary – it’s basically just a PC connected to your home network that acts like your “go-to” PC whenever you need to store stuff, backup stuff and send stuff around your network.

At the moment, there’s no real specific home server OS based on Ubuntu – Ubuntu Home Server has been started but progress seems to have slowed.

If you’re hanging out to build a home server that can stream video, digital TV, act as a central shared storage box and even automatically back up your PCs for you, there’s only a handful of applications you need to install on top of your Xubuntu or Ubuntu installation.

What are those apps? Here we go.

Streaming Digital TV

1. MythTV – yeah, everyone knows about MythTV. But did you know that MythTV not only captures digital free-to-air TV but can also stream it around your home network? MythTV comes as two parts – a back-end application that takes care of capturing and recording digital TV broadcasts from your PC’s digital TV tuner card; and a front-end application that displays those images.

In a nutshell, you set up the backend on your “home server” PC and load the front-end app on your clients – the only problem with this is you need to have Linux on your client PCs as MythTV only runs on Linux, not Windows – well, not easily anyway.

You set each client’s version of MythTV to point to the server backend’s IP address and when you launch MythTV on the client, the backend will start streaming digital TV over the network to the client. It’s a really cool feature that can enable you to watch digital TV in a room where you may not have a aerial socket.

To install MythTV, just start up a new Terminal sessions and type:

Streaming movies and music

2. VLC – Yep, I’m sure everyone knows about VLC but it has one very cool feature. Like MythTV, you can use VLC to stream video and music around your home network. It works a little differently in that you run VLC on the server and tell it to stream its data to a particular client. You run VLC on the client, tell it to pick up the stream and it plays it.

You can also stream to several PCs at the same time by simply starting up multiple instances of VLC on the server and get each instance to point to a different client. Of course, the more clients you load up on the server, the harder it and the network have to work but there are ways around that too.

If you have a slow network, try transcoding the video/audio first. VLC can do this and by transcoding it down to a lower bit rate, you sacrifice a bit of quality but you send less data across the network and that may make the difference between dropping frames and not.

The good thing with VLC is there are version for Linux and Windows so you can use it with Windows clients and simply store all of your music and movies on your “home server”.

To install VLC on Xubuntu, again, start up a Terminal session and type:

Backing up client PCs and folders

3. BackupPC – this is a great, if somewhat complicated, application that can do automated backups of client PCs. You can schedule weekly or daily backups of the whole client or just a particular folder. Even better, the whole thing can be remotely controlled via your web browser.

You can get back files stored by selecting a “download” option that gives you your selected files as an archive file sent via the network so you don’t have to front the server to get anything – it can all be done remotely.

To install backupPC on Xubuntu, again, start up a Terminal session and type:

Remote access

4. Vino – this is a tiny little remote access server app that comes by default in Ubuntu but isn’t included in Xubuntu. By setting up Vino, you can use the Xubuntu or Ubuntu Remote Desktop application and control your “home server” remotely, as if you were sitting in front of the server with a keyboard and mouse.

Vino works well with the RealVNC Remote Desktop client tool available free for Windows and gives you full control of Xubuntu/Ubuntu.

To install vino on Xubuntu, again, start up a Terminal session and type:

Windows shared folder access

5. Samba – this is the must-have app that gives Xubuntu the ability to read and write Windows folders over a network. You use this to enable Windows clients to share folders on your “home server” so that clients can use it as a central storage server. You can set up shared or private folders with password protection but as with most things, don’t rely on it for super-private documents as most private folders with password protection can be hacked one way or another.

But for sharing space on your home server so everyone can access it from any Linux or Windows PC, Samba is the must-have extension to install.

To install Samba on Xubuntu, again, start up a Terminal session and type:

So there you go – five tools you can install into any Xubuntu PC and turn it into a “home server” that actually exceeds Microsoft’s Windows Home Server operating system in some areas. How do I know these work as a home server? I’ve used these five apps in developing UserOS Home Server, a Linux distro built around Xubuntu 8.04 for the October 2008 issue of Australian PC User magazine.

What’s special about UserOS Home Server is that it provides these features with a desktop OS and LiveCD that’s the same size as the original Xubuntu distro. But with some judicious slicing and dicing, we’ve been able to build UserOS Home Server into a 580MB ISO image on the cover disc, about the same size as the original Xubuntu 8.04 distro.

All you need to do is burn the ISO image to disc, install it, follow the setup instructions in the magazine and you’ll have a home server that can stream digital TV, your movies and even backup your home networked PCs.

Of course, you can load these apps onto other Linux distros as well but I chose Xubuntu because it has the feel of Ubuntu but without the bloat and it’s Xfce desktop environment is faster than Ubuntu’s GNOME. Xubuntu will also run happily on systems with only 256MB of memory, which means its better suited to older PCs you’d more likely have spare and able to press into service in this way.

17 comments for “Five apps that turn Xubuntu into a home server OS

  1. rbouman
    September 26, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Great to see more and more mainstream pc magazines gently pushing the linux wheelbarrow.
    Thanks very much for putting together/mutating this version of xubuntu 8.04.

    I think people would benefit from an additional howto to make the useros server be their print server also. I’m thinking of an article/ step-by-step vid. on how to share your USB printer from the useros server.

    Keep up the good work, and thanks again.

    • darren
      September 26, 2008 at 11:54 am

      That’s a great idea.
      Unfortunately, we just ran out of space in that issue to cover everything UserOS Home Server can do but sharing a printer around a home network is a great use for this OS.
      I’ll look into the idea and pitch it to the “boss”.
      Thanks,
      Darren.

  2. rbouman
    September 26, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    hi Darren,

    couldn’t help myself; i had to give it a try; upshot:
    installed webmin [non-standard package] using apt-get install,and then used it to configure my usb printer [samsung ml-2010].
    Prints fine. the only thing i’m still trying to work out is how to get rid of the ‘access denied unable to connect’ message. Everything prints ok all the same.
    I now have a network printer :-)

  3. Chris Sieben
    September 29, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Hi Darren,
    Tried out your PCUSER HOME SERVER. No major problems, well done all round – works great. My only issue is that I cant get the remote desktop to work. I dont have the REMOTE DESKTOP SETUP option within the menus. Tried to remove vino and re-install but still no option to set access level. As I am a newbie to Xubuntu, any help appreciated. Thanks. Great work!! :-)

    • darren
      September 29, 2008 at 10:54 am

      Damn! That’s shouldn’t have happened… Not that it matters all that much. The menu entry was just a short-cut anyway. I’ll take a look and do a small tutorial on how to rig it up manually in the next day or so.
      Thanks for the kind words, too.
      Cheers,
      Darren.

      • Chris Sieben
        September 30, 2008 at 1:41 pm

        I have managed to find vino-preferences (which I guess the shortcut point to) but now realise this only works if you have logged into the server and manually start a server session. I had hoped that the server was accessible without having to logon or indeed have a keyboard and monitor connected. (Be great to have just a web interface!!)
        I could make it autologon and add the server startup to autostart on logon… maybe this is the short term solution.
        Best if it were accessible before logon :-)

        • rbouman
          October 1, 2008 at 11:08 am

          Hi Chris,

          I also had some hiccoughs/hiccups/probs. with vino. Mainly that it consumed a large amount of cpu cycles. There’s been some updates stating this has been resolved. That’s not been my experience however.
          So I removed vino-server and installed x112vnc instead [using synaptic package manager]. much lower cpu overhead [peak max of 13%, settles ~3%] and [in my experience] stable and solid.

          A ‘gotcha’ for me was dhcp. I’m sure i assigned a static address but it didn’t stick for some reason initially. So what? Because i vnc to an ip address by default, the vncviewer would complain that it couldn’t establish a remote session. When I double checked the ip address assigned to the useros home server and vncviewer-ed to the dhcp address all was fine again. Since then I’ve set a static address to the server so it won’t catch me out like that again.

          Now to the security issue [which is what you’re alluding to]. In a home network situation that really oughtn’t be a problem. Make sure you have an 8 character proper password for your vnc access [and ofcourse password phrase your root equivalent initial user you set up]. Leave it logged on, start x112vnc leave it running and logon with vncviewer from another home lan client.

          If you want a webinterface instead then have a go at installing ‘webmin’. It allows you to do just about everything from the browser. There’s even a java vnc package to let you remote access from webmin also.

          There is a secure alternative which is FreeNX server on your useros home server and NoMachine NX client on your windows machine. check here for more info:

          https://help.ubuntu.com/community/FreeNX
          and
          http://www.nomachine.com/download-package.php?Prod_Id=65

          hth

  4. Hoff
    October 10, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Hey Darren!

    Tried your HomeOS out..Its fantastic.

    Having a prob with shares…. I can’t seem to be able to create folders or copy files to the server from connected PC’s. I can use my usb drive and copy files from it to the server. I set the permissions as per the instructions. I have also reinstalled Samba, but that didn’t help either.

    Any thoughts?
    Cheers

    • darren
      October 10, 2008 at 6:46 pm

      First thing to try is see if you can go the other way – copy from the server to the client PCs. Strange thing to do it may seem but it will tell you if there’s an actual link and which system is likely at fault.
      Are the clients running Windows XP?
      I’ll have a look into it and see if I can find anything.
      For what it’s worth, I’m having problems connecting up the the PC User Labs’ network each day on my Xubuntu notebook – the damn thing keeps forgetting the password!
      Cheers,
      Darren

      • Wayne
        October 16, 2008 at 8:05 pm

        Hi
        I’m also having problems getting samba file sharing going. I have a couple of folders shared, and I can see them and their content from an XP box, I can view images for example, but I can’t write to the shared folder from XP,I get “Access in denied” when I try to add a file. Its probably a userid/permissions issue but its not clear how much authentication is going on, or how to minimize it. I had samba running on a RH5 box 5? yrs ago and it wasn’t very reliable, I was hoping things had improved.
        Hope you can help (with settings in webmin or config files to check/edit),thanks

      • Hoff
        October 28, 2008 at 11:26 am

        Hi Darren,

        Not long after I posted my original message, I did a reinstall – all good!!

        Now I just have to fiddle with XP to get the premissions right.

        Cheers!
        Hoff

        • darren
          October 28, 2008 at 1:35 pm

          That’s good news! Fiddling around with Linux can take a bit to get used to but the benefits are definitely there.
          Cheers,
          Darren.

  5. rbouman
    October 13, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Darren, looks like the spambots are getting to you. time to implement ‘captcha’?

    • darren
      October 28, 2008 at 1:36 pm

      Yep. Done. Using WP-SpamFree and it works a treat. If you’re using WordPress to build a website, I definitely recommend it.
      You can find it in the WordPress plug-in section of the WordPress website.

      • darren
        December 1, 2008 at 9:50 pm

        Since I installed WP-Spamfree, it’s grab over 2700 spambots and not one has got through since. Excellent little plugin!

  6. January 13, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve got Xubuntu 8.04 on an older box, but can’t figure out how to browse our network from it–and it doesn’t show up when I browse the network from other computers running Windows and Mepis. I’ve read several things online that sound like “it can’t be done”–which seems pretty strange to me! Sounds like some people who have commented here are having more success. I have samba common, smbfs and smbclient installed. Wish this part were a little more accessible.

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