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Bringing down the house… network

Filed in: media, personal, projects, Sun, Aug 14 2005 21:53 PT

The only constant is change.

This is true, at least, for my home network. I’m doing a little housecleaning

Athlon 64, Gentoo Linux
Media server. Contains a Hauppauge PVR-250 MPEG-2 recorder board. Runs (or ran) MythTV and stores all of my ripped MP3s and movies. The AMD64 port of Gentoo, while very good for standard Linux apps, is maddening when used as a MythTV server.
Vaio SR-17, Windows XP Pro
Intended as my sometimes Windows machine, I managed after many hours to get XP to run on it, but it ignores its keyboard and touchpad when I plug in any peripherals.
Xbox, GentooX
It works, but at 64MB of RAM, it’s not what you’d call beefy. Compiling the MythTV client took four days.
PowerBook G4, Mac OS X Tiger
I love my Mac, but it pretty much guarantees I won’t have a seamless media experience.
Athlon XP, Windows XP Home
Print server. Also not my property: it’s Kristen’s desktop. (Not that we own a desk anymore.)
PowerBook G3 Wallstreet, Mac OS X 10.1
It’s got a pretty display. Too bad it can’t run anything.
It’s a TiVo. Enough said.
Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket Loox 720, Windows Mobile 2003 SE
It’s networked, has remote access software, and plays media files. I gotta work it in somewhere.

I aspire to ownership of a network that does everything I want with everything I have, without need for another purchase. Sure, I could get a Media Center PC, but then I’d have to deal with a different set of hassles, and wouldn’t get closer to my goals, which are that every machine:

  • can run Linux, Windows and Mac apps, both command-line and GUI, either locally or via remote connection
  • can print
  • (including the Pocket PC) can access media files or watch live TV from the media server
  • can access video from the TiVo
  • can run an Ajax-capable browser

This has proven to be quite an engineering chore. The Vaio, which has a broken PC Card cage, can only be connected to the network via either a USB wireless card or a direct FireWire connection — and when either is attached, the keyboard and mouse go AWOL. So it’s not a very useful Windows box. In fact, it’s barely a useful cat-warmer.

The Linux machine, stable as it is, doesn’t make my life much easier, either. Upgrading the kernel means usually breaking the ivtv driver needed for MythTV, which means I have to go ask some brilliant guys very nicely for a patch to get back up and running again. The front-end functionality, which allows client machines to watch recorded and live TV remotely, works great — when the server is working. Except for the PowerBook, where it crashes. So that sends us back to the drawing board.

I had thought of upgrading the wife’s PC to XP Pro so I can run my Windows apps using Remote Desktop Connection (RDC). Then, I’d just fix the Vaio, fix the Linux server, and then go back to scratching my head as to how to get everything to play together. But then, I had an epiphany: something that would meet my needs, get me much closer to my wants, take a few big but easy steps, and has more boxes and arrows than an IBM site map. So, here’s the plan:

  1. The Linux server goes to… Windows XP. (Hold on, we’ll get back to Linux in a bit.) I will turn on RDC. I will install Media Portal, which will record shows from the capture card; Orb, which will let me watch shows from outside the home network, including in low-bandwidth situations; and any other hip, cool media app that only works on Windows. I will install TiVo to Go, which will let me transfer files from the TiVo to DVD. I’ll share my MP3 collection via iTunes and Bonjour (formerly Rendezvous). And I will set up shares for my MP3s, DVDs, and recorded TV.
  2. The Vaio goes back to Linux. I’ll pull the hard drive, install a Linux distribution onto it from a desktop machine, then reinstall the drive. The box will get the wireless adapter; the FreeNX Server, which allows low-bandwidth remote connections; and a copy of the NX client, which works with both VNC and RDC.
  3. The Xbox will run Xbox Media Center, which happily munches on nearly any media, served from any kind of share, now including iTunes Bonjour shares.
  4. The PowerBooks will each get an NX client.
  5. The TiVo will get a shiny new hard drive with a shiny new kernel and a program called “vserver”, allowing me to run TivoTool, which plays recorded shows inside the iTunes interface.
  6. The older PowerBook will get a copy of XPostFacto, which allows older Macs to run newer versions of OS X (and which people should have seen as a sign that OS X on x86 wasn’t going to be that hard). It will run iTunes, including the podcasting features, and not much else.

There’s really nothing needed on the Pocket PC side, since it has what it needs to be a good streaming client. I already keep a playlist of Internet radio stations that I can listen to in any room.

I’m only missing one piece to this puzzle, though what I’ve set out will get me most of the way there. I need a streaming server which can transcode on the fly to feed media at multiple bitrates to the clients on my local network. If I can get a 256kbps transcode of existing files, then the old PowerBook and the Pocket PC can be live media clients, as well. Anything that can stream Windows Media, Real, QuickTime or MPEG is sufficient to feed all of my clients.

A leading candidate is VLC, which does all of the above and runs on anything. I may just need to write a Web app to spawn VLC instances to meet the bandwidth parameters of my selected clients — which sounds really hard, but I think it’ll be pretty straightforward.

All of this stuff may seem like overkill, and it totally, totally is. Don’t try this at home. It’ll give you a headache. But I’ve had that headache for about five years now, and it’s time to release the pressure. I’ve always been proud to be just a little bit ahead of the mainstream when it comes to what I can do with computers for home entertainment purposes. If this system works the way I want it to, I think I’ll be about two years ahead of what will be common.

What’s hard for a geek like me to deal with these days is how much work it takes to stay that far ahead. Everything is just moving so fast.

Anyway, updates to follow. If it all works, I’m going to have kickass visual aids.

5 responses to “Bringing down the house… network”

  1. Steve says:

    wow, you are nuts! good luck with it tho

  2. Jeremy says:

    sounds great!!! I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time!!! GOOD LUCK

  3. Dennis says:

    Cool/! I am actually working on a similar project and is thinking of using VLC with XP… however my TV card (Avermedia Avertv 98) is quite old and somehow vlc cannot capture from it. I think Orb doesnt support it either…

    and i am now considering mythtv coz i believe the bttv driverset in v4l could give me some hope…

    Good luck for both of us.

  4. Dennis says:

    By the way i have a p3 1g w/ 512 (which plans to go suse)
    and a desktop w/ amd 2100+ with winxp and an ibook (i love my ibook) 600MHz

  5. clivado says:

    hello, i have a site a website about music, can i place a link to your wesite from mine?

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