Streaming Media to your PS3 and Xbox with NAS4Free

So you’ve gotten your NAS4Free box all configured to your liking and you are comfortably using it in your own home. If you’ve read my last article, then you’re also probably enjoying automatic torrent downloading as well. There is so much more you can do with your NAS box and so in this article, I will go over how you can now stream your media files whether they be pictures, music or videos to your Sony Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Now, I personally don’t have a Xbox 360 anymore so I will only show screenshots on how it will look like on a PS3 but the steps should be similar on each system. By moving your media files over to your NAS4Free box, you can now easily stream them to your big screen HDTV without first having to turn on your personal computer. If you haven’t gotten the drift already, a NAS box stays up 24/7. Because this server consumes much less resources and is much more energy efficient than standalone personal computers, you technically shouldn’t see a big spike in your electricity bill. Well, hopefully. With it being on 24/7 in your household, it makes much more sense to dump your media files on it to better allow for centralize access.

While NAS4Free includes a UPnP service called Fuppes to help you get your media files seen on devices such as the PS3 and Xbox 360, it didn’t work too well for me during my limited testing. In fact, I couldn’t get it to work at all! While my PS3 did see my NAS4Free server box, any files I’ve dumped into the configured folders were invisible. And because I’m not a NAS4Free expert to begin with, I was pulling my hair a bit. After some research, it turns out that Fuppes, which is the service that allows other compliant devices to use the NAS box, was unstable to begin with. That brought some relief  to myself because even if I did get the service running correctly, I don’t want to deal with crashes, which of course forces you to read log files and we all know that’s not very fun. So, after more research, I found another simple solution in a client called MiniDLNA.

PLEASE READ BEFORE CONTINUING: After all is said and done, I noticed two major issues with MiniDLNA. First, it does NOT do any transcoding! This can’t really be considered an issue since I probably didn’t read all the information about the service in the beginning and so it was my fault. This means that while your PS3 and Xbox 360 will be able to stream down the files from your NAS4Free box, they will not be able to play them unless the device itself have the built-in capability to do so! To put things into perspective, MiniDLNA just allows your NAS4Free server box to be “seen” by your PS3 and Xbox 360 over the network. That’s it. The rest depends on the electronic device itself. The second major issue I found is that whenever I added new files to my media folders, I had to initiate a “rescan” of the folders. The bad news I found out is that in order for my PS3 to also see those new files, I also had to manually restart the MiniDLNA service as well each and every time I performed the rescan! Credit goes out to this forum post where I got pretty much all the information required to get MiniDLNA up and running.

Installing MiniDLNA onto NAS4Free

At the time of this writing, the latest version of MiniDLNA is 1.0.25. However, for the life of me, I cannot get it to download and install within NAS4Free. You see, we need to add it as a package because doing so forces all the other dependencies for MiniDLNA to install as well. Therefore, in this tutorial, I have to go ahead and install version 1.0.24. You do not have to manually download these files onto your computer.

Here is the package download URL if you use a 64-bit processor:

ftp://ftp.freebsd.org/pub/FreeBSD/ports/amd64/packages-9-stable/All/minidlna-1.0.24_2,1.tbz

Here is the package download URL if you use a 32-bit processor:

ftp://ftp.freebsd.org/pub/FreeBSD/ports/i386/packages-9-stable/All/minidlna-1.0.24_2,1.tbz

You can go over this article to learn how to fully install the NAS4Free operating system onto your hard drive. A user commented that for this to work, he had to perform a full installation of the operating system. I also recommend you to do this as well if you will be working with NAs4Free on a permanent basis.

In your NAS4Free sever box, enter option number 6 to get shell access:

Shell Access

Once you have shell access, type in the following command to have NAS4Free automatically fetch, download and install the MiniDLNA components. I am using a 32-bit so this is what I will type:

pkg_add -R -r ftp://ftp.freebsd.org/pub/FreeBSD/ports/i386/packages-9-stable/All/minidlna-1.0.24_2,1.tbz

Once I hit enter, you should start seeing things getting fetched and installed as such:

Fetching Files

At this point, just let NAS4Free do its thing. Once everything has been fetched and installed, note the last section of the screen. The install process created both a user and group called “dlna” with a specific uid and gid, respectively. In most cases, both numbers will be 933. Jot them down just in case because we will need this information later.

UIDGID

Configuring MiniDLNA

If you can believe it, we have just successfully installed MiniDLNA onto our NAS4Free box! Simple right? Well, now comes the configuration part which getting it right is the most important.

First what I’m going to do is create three directories. One directory each will hold my pictures, music and videos. I will create all three under my mount point of Storage as seen here. You can create the directories by using the File Manager within the web management of your NAS4Free server:

Directories

The second thing I need to do is manually create a folder to hold the MiniDLNA database and log files. By default, this location will be in /var/db/ with a directory name of ‘minidlna‘:

Minidlna Folder

With those two tasks completed, it’s now time to perform the main configuration of the MiniDLNA. Head over the the advanced File Editor under the Advanced menu. We need to load the main MiniDLNA configuration file so press the three dot button and browse to the /usr/local/etc directory. Within, you should see a file called ‘minidlna.conf‘. Select it and hit the OK button at the top. Back in the File Editor menu, hit the Load button and you should now be able to see the contents of that configuration file.

Default Config

Everything we need to get MiniDLNA working and configured to our liking is right here in this file. Ready for the good news? Of course your are! Turns out that in order to get just a basic and functioning MiniDLNA setup, you just need to specify two settings. Yups. Just two. The first setting tells MiniDLNA where it is it should monitor for your media files. As you can see in the very beginning of the configuration file, there is a specific syntax when specifying your media folders. If you’re wondering about all the # symbols, you can ignore them. This usually tells the configuration file to ignore all the text after that symbol. The second setting is giving your MiniDLNA server a friendly name.

First we’ll configure the monitored folders. Go ahead and erase the default folder of “media_dir=/opt”. In my case, I created three separate directories for each media file type. Therefore I need to list them here along with tagging each folder for the right type. Remember, do not include the # symbol in front of your settings! Here is what I will used:

media_dir=A,/mnt/Storage/Music
media_dir=P,/mnt/Storage/Pictures
media_dir=V,/mnt/Storage/Videos

Next, I now need to give my MiniDLNA server a friendly name. This name will show up when we browse in our PS3 or Xbox 360 for the server so you can pretty much name it whatever you want. This setting is directly under the first one. Here is what I will used:

friendly_name=PS3 Eyes Only

That’s it! I now need to hit the Save button to save my changes to the configuration file. All of the other settings are purely optional. Here is how my file looks like after the changes have been made:

Final Config File

Another configuration we need to perform on our NAS4Free box is to tell our server to autostart MiniDLNA each and every time. Head over to System –> Advanced and then click on the rc.conf tab. We need to add a new entry so click on the blue plus symbol. In the Name box, type in minidlna_enable. In the Value setting, type in YES. You can optionally give it a description as well.

Autostart

Hit the Add button and then the Apply Changes button afterwards.

Now it’s time to reboot our server! If you don’t, the next step in the procedure will not succeed.

As for the last step, we need to create a user and group for use with MiniDLNA. When we installed it in the beginning, it created them for us but once we restarted the server, the changes are lost and so we now need to manually create those accounts again for permanent usage. Head under Access –> Users and Groups. First lets create the user. If you remember from earlier, MiniDLNA requires both a user and group account with the name of dlna with a UID and GID of 933 (or whatever number was listed on your screen). So we’ll go ahead and create them. You can leave the password field blank.

User Creation

Here is the group creation:

Group Creation

Once you have completed both steps, reboot your server once more.

Final Preparations

OK, so we’re almost there. Being as this is just my demonstration unit, I now need to dump some files into my media folders. For this I use WinSCP. Of course, if your media folders are already configured as a Windows file share, you can just as easily transfer media files as an SMB file share onto your NAS box.

Transfer

Once I have my media loaded into the correct folders, it’s now time to perform a rescan. A rescan forces MiniDLNA to rescan the media folders you’ve configured in the configuration file for any new files. To execute commands, head over to Advanced –> Command. Type in: /usr/local/etc/rc.d/minidlna rescan and hit the Execute button.

Rescan

Here is the irritating part. For each rescan, I found out that my PS3 would still not see the new files unless I also restart the MiniDLNA service. Therefore, I now have to execute the restart command as well right after the rescan by typing in: /usr/local/etc/rc.d/minidlna restart

Restart

Testing Time!

Finally! We have everything configured! It’s time to actually test this thing out. Again, I don’t have a Xbox 360 (damn you Red Ring of Death!) so my test can only be done on a PS3 (damn you Yellow Light of Death!). Once I turn on my PS3, I should see my MiniDLNA server as so:

Server

Below are screenshots showing that indeed all my media streamed successfully to my PS3:

VideoVideo PlaybackMusic LibraryMusic PlaybackPicture Gallery

In the End…

Well, there you have it folks! I successfully demonstrated how I easily am able to install MiniDLNA onto my NAS4Free box and stream my media over to the PS3. Granted, this solution does have two major drawbacks. Actually, there’s only one drawback, depending on how you look at it. If your existing media is already compatible with the device you will be streaming it to, then you won’t view not being able to transcode media on the fly as a drawback. In most cases, this largely depends on your video files and how they were encoded. If you video files are not compatible, then they will simply not play. You can then either convert them to a compatible format or dump MiniDLNA altogether and look for an alternative method.

The actual main drawback is having to restart the MiniDLNA process each and every time we add new media to our library. While a rescan does allow MiniDLNA to notice the new files, your devices may or may not see them unless you also restart the process. Again, I only tested this on my PS3 so I have no idea if this problem also occurs with other media streaming devices like the Xbox 360. If anyone tries this out, I would appreciate it the feedback. Also, because I am not an expert by any means in this area concerning NAS4Free and MiniDLNA, it can be very challenging trying to solve issues without any outside help.

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Configuring BitTorrent Support in NAS4Free

One of the most awesome thing about setting up a NAS server in your own home is due to the customization aspect. Since the NAS box is considered “yours”, you pretty much own it and therefore, you can do whatever the heck you want to it, of course provided that its possible. In recent articles, I’ve talked immensely about what a NAS server is and whether or not you will benefit from having one in your own home environment. In another article, I went over the details on how you can actually set one up on a Windows network by using the freely available NAS4Free operating system. A comment made by user Ella requested I write an article on how to get BitTorrent configured along with the ability to stream media files to her PS3 and Xbox 360 device within the NAS4Free operating system. Therefore, in this article, I will go over how to do just that. Because configuring BitTorrent to work within NAS4Free is so much easier than installing and configuring it to be a media streamer, I will first write about the former in this article here while the latter will be in the next article.

Having BitTorrent support in your NAS4Free box can be a godsend. Rather than having to leave your personal computer turned on to download the torrents, you can now have your NAS box to do the downloading for you! Because a NAS server is technically suppose to be running 24/7 anyways in your home environment, you can simply offload the download task to it. Granted, most BitTorrent clients do have the ability for you to configure it so that once all of your torrents have finished downloading, to automatically power down the computer so that you don’t waste electricity. However, if you are planning on transferring that data to your NAS server anyway, why not just let your server do the work instead?

IP Configuration

For most users, a router of some kind usually sits between their home computer and devices from the big ol’ Internet. The good news is that this router in most cases will also act as a simple hardware firewall as well. This protects your home computers from the average snoops trying to probe your network. If you didn’t initiate an outbound communication in the first place, then why should your computer answer back to anonymous inbound traffic? The answer is it shouldn’t! With a firewall in place, it can help automatically drop those packets. The bad news is that there will be times when there is a legitimate purpose for having other users on the Internet be able to communicate with you. In these cases, especially when you need to use a service like BitTorrent, you need to configure something called port forwarding. Port forwarding simply tells your router to allow certain types of traffic through the firewall if it is intended for a specific recipient (computer or other type of device) on your home network. Think of port forwarding as an “exception” list.

The very first thing we need to do is configure our NAS box so that it has the proper IP configuration. In other words, we need to make sure that the server is able to connect out to the Internet. For this to work, we need to assign our server a static IP address (preferably) and the correct gateway and DNS IP address of our home network. With your NAS4Free server booted up, select the number 2 option from the console setup window to configure the network IP address.

Network IP Configuration

In the DHCP box, we select NO. Next, we specify our IP address to use. Here, I will be using the 192.168.1.240 address. For the subnet mask, I accept the default of 24. For the gateway address, in most cases, it will be the IP address of your router interface. For most routers, this will either be 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.0.1. Next up is the DNS address. Again, in most cases, you can get away by using your router IP address. If you have a specific DNS server that you want to use (such as Google’s 8.8.8.8), specify it here. Finally, we specify NO when asked to configure an IPv6 address. NAS4Free now has all the information it needs and will begin the configuration. In a couple of seconds, you should see the success message.

DHCPIP AddressSubnetGatewayDNSIPv6Success

Port Forwarding

Now with our NAS box configured with the proper address information, we can now create the port forwarding exception within our router! To log inside your router, you simply type in the IP address of your router interface in a browser window (Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, etc). Again, for most home routers, this IP address is most likely either 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.0.1. Once correctly done so, you will be prompted with a user name and password prompt. If this is your first time logging inside your router, you can type in the factory default user name and password. This varies from router models and manufacturers and so a good place to find this information is from this website. Simply specify your make and model of your router and away you go.

It’s very important that you change the default password to something more secure. Make sure to do so once you gain access inside your router!

Now that you are inside the router, find the port forwarding section. We need to create a new entry for our NAS server. The required information is the application name, start and end port to open, protocol to use, and the IP address to forward to. By default NAS4Free uses the port 51413 for its BitTorrent client. If you want to change this port, you can simply specify a different port number here. When we enable the BitTorrent service in the next step within NAS4Free, be sure to change the port number to the one you’ve picked here. Below is a screenshot of how the end result looks like in my Linksys router:

Port Forward

NAs4Free Configuration

At this point, I’m assuming you already have an up and running NAS4Free server box. This includes correctly importing your disks and configuring your mount points to knowing how to create directories and Window file shares. If you are still new to NAS4Free, I highly suggest you go over my previous article where I go over the details on how to get up and running with NAS4Free in a Windows environment.

Alright, now our last step is to configure our NAS4Free box. Before we actually enable the BitTorrent service, I’m going to go ahead and create a directory to store my torrent data. The awesome part about NAS4Free is that you can have it automatically monitor a specific folder for new torrent files and once it finds one, NAS4Free will automatically start downloading the torrent all without your intervention! For my simple demo, I will create a directory called Torrent. I will use this folder to both hold my torrent data as well as the folder to have NAS4Free monitor for new torrent files. I create the new directory within the File Manager web interface:

Torrent Folder

Within the WinSCP utility, I also modify the permission of this folder so that it looks like this:

Torrent Folder Permission

At this point, I can also choose to create a Windows SMB folder share that points to this Torrent folder along with the appropriate permissions but for simplicity sakes, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I will just use the WinSCP tool to dump in new torrent files in this directory. So next, we turn on the BitTorrent service within NAS4Free by heading over to Services –> BitTorrent. Click on the “Enable” check box (top right corner). There are only a couple of configuration settings required to get it working.

If you’ve changed the port number earlier, here is the place to enter in that port number. In the “Download Directory”, we specify which folder the torrent data should be dumped to. I will specify the Torrent directory I’ve created above. In the “Watch Directory” setting, I will also specify the Torrent folder. This is the folder NAS4Free monitors for new torrent files. You can simply leave the rest of the options to their default at this point. Remember to hit the Save and Restart button!

BitTorrent Config

Testing Time!

We now have pretty much everything configured. Open a new tab in your browser and head over to your BitTorrent management interface in NAS4Free. By default, my address is 192.168.1.240:9091. At the moment, the interface should be completely blank as seen below:

Empty

If you click on the wrench icon near the bottom and click on the Network tab, NAS4Free will let you know if you’ve configured the port forwarding section correctly or not. If everything looks good, it will tell you that the torrent port is open. This is what you want because from now on, when traffic arrives at this port number, your router is smart enough to route it to your NAS box rather than dropping them.

Opened Port

OK, so now is the moment of truth. I’m going to use WinSCP to drop a simple torrent file into the Torrent directory with a simple drag and drop.

Torrent Test

Voila! As you can see below, the torrent has automatically loaded in the NAS4Free BitTorrent client interface all without me having to manuall start it! If you don’t see the torrent at first, simply press F5 on your keyboard to refresh the screen. You can also see that my download speed is very good (this is as good as it gets for me, trust me, sad but that’s how it is!). This lets me know that everything is working as expected. At this point, you can simply shut off your personal computer because the torrent download all takes place on the NAS box rather than on your local computer.

Torrent Autoload

So as you can see, NAS4Free makes it extremely simple for automatic torrent downloads. Simply download your torrent file and drop it in the specific “Watch directory”. Of course in the real world, you wouldn’t have to use the WinSCP utility like I did here (except in the beginning where you need to configure the folder permissions) because you most likely have gotten that folder mounted as a network drive within your Windows environment. Also, please note also that you can manually open torrent files as well as specify a torrent URL location by clicking on the blue folder icon near the top. Enjoy!

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Installing and Configuring NAS4Free on a Windows Network

Alright, so you’ve read my previous article introducing you to what a network attached storage (NAS) device is and you’ve decided to implement such a device on your home network. Awesome! So what’s next? Well, now comes the hard part. Sort of. You see, I’ve done the initial research for you and here in this article, I’ll walk you step by step on how you can simply get a NAS box up and running before the day’s end. Granted, like I’ve said in my previous article, there are numerous steps you have to perform and each step is equally important. One skipped step and you might have a file server not working how you want it to. As another fair warning, following the steps presented in this article will only get you started with NAS4Free. However, you will at the end of the tutorial have a completely functional NAS box with a couple of files shares that will be accessible from the other computers on your home network. There are many, many features that you can implement on your NAS box such as configuring a RAID setup to disk encryption. If you are completely new to NAS4Free and configuring a NAS box in general, this tutorial is meant for you. Once you’ve gotten the basics down, then I would recommend you to research the many other functions that this free operating system provides to enhance the capabilities of your NAS box.

This article is intended to go into how to configure your NAS box. If you want an introduction to what NAS is and whether or not you should use one, then please read my previous article!

What You’ll Need

  • A dedicated NAS box – This computer will be your NAS server. The computer can be as barebones as possible! You do not need a fancy graphics card nor tons of RAM. If it turns on and boots, you’re good to go! Granted, NAS4Free does have a supported hardware list which you can find here. My advice is to just boot the operating system and see where that gets you rather than spending too much time worrying about whether your hardware is compatible or not. I did notice that NAS4Free needed at least 512MB of RAM. It kept rebooting when it only had 256MB.
  • NAS4Free – The FreeNAS operating system is technically the operating system of choice for NAS builders. However, I find that OS to be buggy when I first embarked on this project (it wouldn’t even let me create a single user as it kept saying I didn’t fill out the required fields even though it doesn’t tell me exactly what those fields are!). I then found out that FreeNAS is now operated by a different group of users hence the changes. NAS4Free is a version that is built on top of FreeNAS 7 series. During my experimentation, NAS4Free works magically and that is why I am using it as the operating system of choice for my NAS box. You can download a free copy of NAs4Free here.
  • Management computer – This is the computer that you use day in and day out. We will use it to do the majority of the configuration tasks once we have NAS4Free up and running.
  • WinSCP – This awesome utility allows us to FTP into our NAS box to perform configuration and maintenance. You can download the free utility from here.
  • Hard disk(s) – You’ll definitely need empty hard disks to use with your NAS box to actually store your data. If you are just starting out, feel free to start with a single disk just to get a hang of how NAS4Free works. Once you are more comfortable with NAS4Free, you can easily add additional hard disks in the future for added storage space. In this tutorial, I am assuming you have just one physical hard disk installed in the NAS box.
  • A working network – You obviously need a connected home network to work with data to and from your NAS box.
  • A client computer – This is just a regular computer connected to your home network to test with NAS4Free. You can just as easily use your own management computer or spin up a virtual machine.

My End Results..

The demo I will be showing here is fairly simple. At the end, I will have a fully functional NAS box on my network. I have two users named Alice and Bob that need to store their data on my file server. Each user needs their own private folder where only they are able to access it and no one else. However, they also need a general public folder to share files between each other when the occasion calls for it. Both Alice and Bob should have read and write access to this public folder. On both Alice’s and Bob’s computer, they will map two network drives corresponding to the two folders I’ve just talked about so that they can have access to them whenever they turn on their computer while on the home network.

NAS4Free Installation

  1. Burn the NAS4Free ISO to a CD or DVD.
  2. Connect a keyboard and monitor to your NAS computer. A mouse is not needed as there is no graphical interface when installing NAS4Free initially on the NAS box itself.
  3. Pop the NAS4Free CD into the computer and boot from it. You can change the device boot order by heading into your computer’s BIOS screen.

The beauty with NAS4Free is that it boots and loads very quickly as the operating system is very lightweight. Eventually, you’ll get booted into the NAS4Free boot option menu. Let the timer run down automatically or press the number 1 on your keyboard. This instructs NAS4Free to start in the default installation mode. Here is where you cross your fingers and pray that everything goes well because here is where NAS4Free will probe and inspect your computer hardware. NAS4Free automatically loads a compatible device driver for your detected hardware. Once you get to the screen where you are once again presented with a menu option and you see that NAS4Free has been assigned an IP address, then congratulations because NAS4Free has been completely loaded! If not, then you’ll have to investigate the problem and try again.

Initial BootBoot MenuLive Loaded

While you can run the NAS4Free operating system from a LiveCD (which is what you have at this very moment), I would recommend you to actually install the OS onto your hard drive directly. Trust me, this saves a lot of headache in the long run. Although NAS4Free needs very little maintenance once you get things started, there will still be times when you need to reboot the server or if the system crashes. By installing the OS onto the hard drive, you can save the networking information on future reboots without you have to reconfigure things. To start the installation, press number 9 on your keyboard and then the Enter key.

On the initial screen, choose option 3 and hit OK. On the next warning screen, read the prompt and hit OK again. This is basically telling you that NAS4Free will install itself on the first partition and it will automatically create another partition for you to use as the “data” partition. In past versions of FreeNAS, I believe it was impossible to use the hard drive you’ve installed the OS on as a data drive as well. This lead many users to install the OS onto a USB thumb drive instead. Next, you select the source to install from. If you’ve booted NAS4Free from a CD, this will be your source. Next, pick the drive to install NAS4Free. This should be on your first hard disk. Next, you get to choose how big a partition to install the OS on. The minimum needed is 380MB.  Finally, you get to choose whether or not to create a Swap partition. This partition space is used to help boost systems with low amounts of memory. I chose to not create this partition. Once the OS is installed, you will get a nice warning prompt about how to use your hard disk when you later use the GUI management utility. Basically it’s warning you against reformatting the drive!

Installation OptionsWarningInstall SourceInstall DestinationInstall SizeSwapInstalled

Now that the OS has been installed locally on the hard disk, test it out by removing the installation CD and rebooting the computer. If all goes well, you should end back up at the console setup screen!

Configuring Static IP Address

Technically you really don’t have to perform this part of the procedure. It’s just that it has always been drilled in my head that for any kind of server, it should always be assigned a static IP address instead of getting one from a DHCP server. With NAS4Free however, I do notice that it always assigned me the same IP address upon each reboot.

As with any server or computer on a network where users rely on it for certain services, it’s imperative that we assign the server a static IP address rather than it getting one from your router. However, from my testing with NAS4Free, I noticed that it always assigned my NAS box with the same IP address of 192.168.1.250. To play it safe, I’m going to assign it a static IP instead. For that we press the number 2 on our keyboard.

– First it will ask us if we want to use DHCP. My answer is no.

– On the next screen, I’ll assign my NAS box with a static IP address of 192.168.1.240. You obviously should use an IP address that sits in the range of your own home network IP address range.

– In the subnet screen, I’ll stick with the default of a /24 notation.

– For the gateway address, I will leave it blank here because my NAS box does not need any outside access to the Internet. Usually your gateway address is the IP address of your home router. However, a user commented that his machines could not find the NAS server on the network until he issued a default gateway address. Since there is no harm in specifying one, feel free to go ahead and do just that here.

– In the DNS screen, I will leave it blank as well. Once again, I am on a home network and therefore a DNS server is not required for my machines to find the NAS box. Feel free to enter in an address here. Usually this will be either your router’s IP address or a specific DNS server of your choosing.

– For the IPv6 configuration screen, I simply skipped it.

Finally, NAS4Free will configure the network adapter with the options I chose and lets me know that my server can now be managed via the static IP address. To make sure it sticks, reboot your server and check if the NAS box is configured with the static IP address.

DHCPStatic IPSubnetGatewayDNSIP6IP Address

Time to Finally Get Started!

Still with me so far? Good because things are about to pick up! As far as your NAS box is concerned at the moment, it is all configured and the next time you need to touch the box again is when you need to add in additional hard disks! The second half of this tutorial deals with getting our hard disk ready, adding users and groups, creating directories and sharing out folders. Right about now, we should try and initiate a connection to the NAS box from our management computer. Simply fire up a web browser and type in the IP address of the NAS box in the address bar. If you get the NAS4Free login screen prompt, you can then safely remove the keyboard and monitor attached to the NAS box. The server is now considered ‘headless’.

Throughout your time following my instructions here, I would advise you to pay attention to some of the other features and settings that you come across in NAS4Free. Remember, there’s just too much to list here and so I definitely will not be going over each setting in detail. If something strikes you as interesting, be sure to follow up on it to see if you should apply it to your NAS box in the future.

Login Prompt

Configuring Our Disk

First things first, we need to prepare our hard disk for use. At the login prompt, type in the username and password for a default installation of NAS4Free which is admin and nas4free, respectively.

If you are only performing a trial run of NAS4Free, you can leave the default password as is. However, you should definitely change the default password once you are confident that you will be using NAS4Free for good on your network. You can change the password by heading into System –> General and clicking on the Password tab.

To prepare our disk, head into Disk –> Management. By default, there shouldn’t be any entry listed here. Click on the blue plus symbol located on the far right side. In my demo, I only have one physical hard disk installed and so that will be the one I import here. Fields that are not bolded are not required to be filled out. Therefore, I only select my one disk and hit the Add button.

Import Disk

At the next screen, notice that the changes have not been committed. We actually have to click on the “Apply Changes” button to commit the change. This is how NAS4Free works. Therefore, for the rest of the tutorial, I will not repeat this part so please remember to hit the Apply Changes button if applicable!

Apply Changes

Once our disk has been imported and online, it’s now time to mount it. Normally, we would need to perform a format of the disk but because we chose to install the NAS4Free OS directly onto the hard disk, it did this for us! Therefore, do not format this disk. If you have other blank hard disks, then you will need to format it first prior to mounting it. You can do so by heading into Disks –> Format. You then select the disk and choose to format it with the UFS file system. Because I only have one disk in this tutorial, I can go straight to mounting it by heading into Disks –> Mount Point. Hit on the blue plus symbol.

Here we need to configure a mount point for our disk. Think of a mount point as the starting place to store our folder directories. Users on your network won’t see this mount point though but only the directories created within it. Here are the settings I’ve configured. Make sure in the Partition Number field box, type in the number 2. Partition 1 is where NAS4Free is installed at so we need to leave that alone. For the Mount Point Name, you can use whatever you want. Under Access Restrictions, you can completely leave that part alone.

Mount Point

Adding Users and Groups

Once our disk has a mounted volume point, we can then begin to creating our users and groups. Basically, you should create a user account in NAS4Free for every user on your network. So in my example, I will create two: one for Alice and one for Bob. This allows us to grant granular access permissions on shared folders. However, it doesn’t make sense to grant individual users access to the same folder, which in our case is the Public folder. Therefore, we create groups and make users a part of that group. We then grant folder access permissions using those groups. This works very similarly to Microsoft Windows.

First we create our group. Head over to Access –> Users and Groups. Switch over to the Groups tab and click the plus symbol. You just basically need to give the group a name and description. Since this group is used to grant users on my network access to the public folder, I will call this group Public. Please jot down the Group ID number because we will need this information later in the tutorial.

Group Creation

Now we switch over to the Users tab. Once again, click on the blue plus symbol to begin creating users. I will create Alice here but Bob will be created similarly. Here, make sure to set the user’s primary group to ‘nogroup’ and in the Additional Group field, put them in the group we’ve just created above. In my case, it will be ‘Public’. Once again, make note of the User ID number.

User Creation

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What is a Network Attached Storage Device?

Have you ever wondered if it was possible to store all of your important data away from your local computer’s hard drive and make it available over your home network instead? Have you ever had friends come over and found out that sharing data with them was a pain because you had to turn on your computer first? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could make those data accessible from any computer within your home network? If so, then what you are looking for is something called a network attached storage (NAS) device. Recently, a friend wanted to decommission an old computer he had but wanted to see if it could be put to any other use. The computer was about 5 years old and so although it was still possible to surf Youtube and browse the web on it, he just bought himself a new laptop and so the old computer was now rendered useless. Because him and his wife store a lot of digital media on their personal computer, I explained to him the basics of a NAS device and he pretty much was on-board immediately and that is what I’ll be talking about in this article. Transforming an old/ancient computer into a NAS device is one of the best ways to recycle a computer. You don’t need a whole lot to get started. In fact, it is theoretically possible that you don’t have to shell out a single penny at all to complete the project! In the end, what you’ll have is an always on device on your home network whose sole purpose is to serve you your data no matter what computer you are may be using.

This article serves as an introduction. Mainly, it goes over what a NAS is and some of the questions surrounding whether it is right for your home network or not. In a follow-up article, I will actually go into how you can configure and build your own NAS device to use on your network!

Is A NAS Device Right For Me?

In many organizations, it can be a nightmare for administrators to backup user data because data resides locally on each user’s computer. Instead, what usually happens is the administrators configuring the user’s computer in a way so that their data is stored on a file server somewhere over the network instead. Because those data pieces are now centrally located on one server, the administrators can backup that one server instead of having to worry about the 200 or so individual computers spread throughout the network. When a user logs into a different computer on the network than the one they usually use, their data is right where it should be because they are accessing them on the file server over the network instead of on their other machine. When you build or buy a NAS device for your home network, you’ll get the same experience. Here is a very simple diagram depicting of what a NAS device on a network looks like:

NAS Diagram

So why would you want a NAS on your network? Well, this really depends on how you use and store your data. A simple scenario is if every person in your household have their own personal laptop. Wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone can access a music library stored on a NAS file server rather than having to use USB sticks to transfer those MP3 files manually to each computer? Wouldn’t it be easier if you could share important data with your family members by dumping those files (PDFs, Docs, Excel worksheets, photos, etc) onto the NAS device rather than first having to create a shared folder on your own computer and then having the other members connect to that share to your computer over the network? Basically what we have is what I’ve detailed in the organization scenario above. Your household can now have a central place to store and share data much more easily. If there is no need to share files between different computers in your home environment, then building a NAS might not be the best idea. If however you are looking for a way to centrally manage data on your home network, then a NAS device will do wonders for you. It’s obviously not the only method available and so I’ll now go over some of the advantages and disadvantages of a NAS device on your network.

Pros and Cons of a NAS Device

In no way is this list complete or exhaustive. It’s just some of the things I can come up with at the moment I wrote this article.

The Good News:

  • By using the FreeNAS operating system, we have a completely free way of turning that old computer you have sitting in the basement into a dedicated file server.
  • You now have a centralized location for storing your data on your home network. This works well when you have a lot of users on your network. Also, rather than relying on each individual to backup their own data on their own local computer, you can now automatically do that on your NAS by configuring a simple RAID 1 mirror. A mirror is basically an exact clone of the original hard disk. If the original data drive fails, the mirror takes over.
  • Sharing files is now easier than ever. Because the data you want to share is not stored on your local computer, other users on your home network can now access the data over the network (provided they have permission to do so). This means that you no longer have to purposely turn on your computer just to share data.
  • Because your NAS device is within your home premises, you have a peace of mind that your data is not stored on someone’s else servers. If you are still paranoid about giving Google or Microsoft access to your precious data, you can use your NAS device to store your content instead and still be able to access them from anywhere.
  • A NAS box can be scale up. When you need more storage, you can simply add more hard disk drives. This does depend on the hardware of your NAS box though.

The Bad News:

  • By introducing a NAS device on your network, it introduces a new complexity element because it is now one more device you have to personally manage and maintain. Although FreeNAS is a free operating system, it can still be daunting for some to configure initially and I’m warning you right now that there are a lot of steps you need to perform in order to get your NAS box configured with folder shares. The good news is that once you’ve got everything configured, you can technically just leave the NAS device on its own without having to physically touch it again.
  • Because a NAS server relies on your network in order to be of any purpose, it now introduces a single point of failure: the network itself. If you have a power outage for instance, although a user might still be able to use their personal laptop, they won’t be able to access their data on the NAS server because both your home router and the NAS server itself is shut down.
  • Your network is everything. Because users are now accessing their data over the network rather than locally, things will seem slower. This is not a problem for small data files such as MP3s, photos, Word and Excel documents but for big data files such as streaming over a 1080p high definition movie, your network better be able to handle the extra load or else you will hear complaints! As more users in your household simultaneously access and stream data over the network, the more strained your network will be. If this is the case, you’ll need to upgrade your network such as to a gigabit ethernet instead of the older 100Mbps type.
  • Your NAS server, although very cool and personal, it can be inflexible. If you’re out and about with your laptop, how will you access the data on your NAS file server back at home? You can setup FTP and whatnot but that just increases the complexity. What if your location have no Internet access at all? Then that means you’ll be stuck in the mud unless you configure offline caching of the shared folder. This again adds complexity due to you now having to mess with file syncing and if you are going to do this, then it might not make sense to have a NAS setup to begin with.
  • Remember, with a FreeNAS box, you have yet another device on your network that remains operational 24/7. That means you’ll have a bigger electricity bill at the end of the month! The good news is that with FreeNAS, the operating system is completely stripped of many elements and so it is very lightweight. You also can adjust power management features to conserve electricity. Also, the FreeNAS box will be headless. That means all you’ll have in the end is just a computer running without any keyboard, mouse or monitor attached to it! All configuration tasks is to be done on a separate computer over the network.
It’s important to note that just because you have a NAS file server doesn’t automatically mean that you should now dump every single data file on that server! You should devise your own strategy. For example, if you have a 50GB music collection, storing that collection on the NAS server makes sense if you want to conserve disk space locally for more important data that you absolutely must have with you at all times.

So Where Does Everything Fit In?

If having read all that and you’re still a bit confused, here a couple of questions you might have regarding NAS and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.

  1. “What’s wrong with just using a USB drive?” – Nothing! If you are more comfortable with just plugging in a simple and cheap USB drive to use as a storage device, then by all means go for it. Remember, a NAS server isn’t really a new technology. It just allows you to access your data via a different method. In the end, data is data and it doesn’t really matter where you store it but rather how you access it when the need arises.
  2. “Wouldn’t everyone dumping data on the NAS box be messy?” – Well, that depends. The best way to combat this is to come up with a simple folder scheme. For example, each person in your household could get their own personal folder. You can then create a separate folder for general sharing. This way, everyone gets their own private folder and for data that needs to be shared with everyone else, they can be dumped into the sharing folder. In my demo, this is exactly what I will be setting up. Also remember that with a NAS file server, the hard drive that you use to store data is the same hard drive that you use on your local computer right now. You can create folders and sub-folders for example just like you can right now on your own local hard disk. However, how you create them is just a tad bit different.
  3. “Is the learning curve steep?” – If you are the person responsible for setting up the FreeNAS server, then yes, there is a pretty steep learning curve. What I will demonstrate here is how to get up and running with FreeNAS and how to share folders on your network. Luckily with FreeNAS, you actually have a graphical management interface to configure the file server. Once your FreeNAS box has a static IP address configured, you will perform the majority of configuration tasks within your browser on a separate computer. Also, once the FreeNAS box is up and running, it generally doesn’t need any further maintenance. You literally set it and forget it.
  4. “How easy will it be for users in my household to use the file server?” – Generally speaking, once you have the FreeNAS box configured and up and running, each user in your household will just need to map the network folder(s) to their computer. Going with the folder scheme above, each user will have a minimum of two network mapped folders. The first will be their own personal folder. The second will be the general sharing folder. You can configure it so that with each computer reboot, the mapped network folders will be persistent so the user will not have to map a folder each and every time they log in. From there, they can use the mapped network folder just as they would a regular hard drive but just for the fact that all data stored within is dumped onto the FreeNAS server instead of on their local computer.
  5. “How secure is FreeNas?” – I have to admit that I personally do not have a lot of experience with FreeNAS in general and the version I am using in this demonstration is not the newest version I believe (I have a reason for this). From what I gather though, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about just as long as you do not have the need to open up the server for outside access. If not, your NAS box does not even need an Internet connection at all as it just works over your Local Area Network. If you also do not have a need to protect the traffic on your local network, then you also shouldn’t have anything to worry about as well. Once you do need to provide outside access to your FreeNAS box and a need to secure traffic on the local network, then things become more complicated. In my demo, I’m keeping things simple and assume that you are just setting up a NAS box on your secure home network. The demo is not meant to showcase FreeNAS and what it can do in a business or professional environment!
  6. “Um, why can’t I just create a folder share on a Windows computer instead of dealing with a NAS?” – Although a simple folder share in Windows does allow you to share data with others over the network, that connection will be disconnected once the computer hosting the share is turned off. With a FreeNAS server, the computer/device is available on your network 24/7 and so folder shares are contiguously accessible.
  7. “So why can’t I just leave a Windows computer on 24/7 to act as the NAS server?” – Technically you can but it’s not really advisable to do so mainly because Microsoft Windows is a full blown operating system. It is known that even if you don’t do anything on the computer and leave it idle, it can still consume system resources. This of course leads to higher electricity usage and a more unstable computer over time. With a dedicated NAS server, the OS used to host the server is dedicated to one role and one role only: to serve and host your data. All other unnecessary functions and roles are stripped away or inactive. That’s why a FreeNAS box is much more stable and reliable.

Now that I’ve gone over what a NAS is and the reasons for why you should and shouldn’t deploy one on your home network, its time to actually go ahead and build one! In the next article, I’ll will go over how you can use an older version of the FreeNAS operating system to turn your old computer into a dedicated network storage system on your home network! I won’t promise it will be easy as there are definitely a lot of steps to follow but hopefully you’ll stick with it till the end.

You can find the second part of this article on how to actually build your NAS box here!
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Remotely Control Windows from Your iPhone!

So a good friend recently came down for a visit. Being the tech geeks that we both are, a lot was discussed on recent technologies, gadgets and the such. One of the things he displayed that stood out to me, although nothing new, was being able to remotely control his laptop back at his home directly on his iPhone. Again, remote desktop is nothing new and I’m sure there are dozens of iPhone apps out there that can already do this. But when he told me that he could do all this for only $.99, I was shocked. I’ve never had a big need to access my computers at home remotely since Dropbox allows me access to my files from any computer. But for the price of just $.99, it was really hard to resist! Not only are you able to just access your files but remote desktop allows you to pretty much do anything you could on your computer/laptop right on your iPhone or iPad! That includes streaming videos, listening to your entire music collection without having to load it onto your phone first and even as far as playing video games! Of course, I ultimately gave in to pressure and decided to try it out for myself. I sure as heck spent a lot of money in the past for products that cost a deal of a lot more so what’s $.99 to me?!

Splashtop Remote Desktop

The name of the app and service is called Splashtop Remote. For a limited time only, you can get the iPhone or iPad app for just $.99 in the Apple Store. Regular price is at $4.99. In my honest opinion, that is still a extremely good deal.

You can download and find more information about Splashtop from here. Also note that there is a free version for download as well. However, this free version limits each session to only five minutes before cutting you off. This is an excellent way for you to test Splashtop first before plunking down your hard earned $.99! If you want a absolutely free alternative to control your desktop computer with your iPhone or Android device, take a look at TeamViewer’s smart phone app.

There is two pieces of software to make the magic happen. The first is the streamer piece, which you’ll install on your computer or laptop. This piece is completely free. The second piece, which allows you actual access to the remote computer, is the Splashtop app which you can currently download from the App Store. There is also a version for Android based devices so don’t feel left out!

Splashtop Streamer

So first, we’ll install the streamer piece. The download currently weighs in at a little under 9MB. The current supported operating systems includes Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and the Mac. The streamer installs effortlessly. In fact, once you accept the EULA, the installation proceeds automatically. After two welcome screens, you’ll be asked to configure a password which will allow access to this computer remotely with the Splashtop app. As usual, you must make sure that this password is strong and cannot be easily guessed. Once you’ve set the password, that’s it! The streamer piece is now ready to accept incoming connections! However, there are still some other important pieces of information we need before being able to make a connection.

WelcomeSecond Welcome PagePassword CreationFinished

The Splashtop Streamer application will sit in your system tray from now on waiting for incoming connections. Open the application on your computer and you’ll see some very important information. Let’s go over each one (except the About tab).

In the Status tab, you’ll see your computer’s IP address. If you are behind a router, this IP address is most likely an un-routable IP address (should usually start with 192.x.x.x). This means that you can only use this IP address to connect to this computer if your iPhone or iPad is also connected to that same network segment. For example, if you are upstairs in your bedroom connected to your home Wi-Fi connection, you can use this IP address within the Splashtop iPhone app to connect back to this laptop or computer sitting in the living room downstairs. Once you travel elsewhere, say when you’re at work, you cannot use this private address. For that to work, you’ll need to use your public IP address instead. I’ll talk about this later.

Steamer Status

The second tab is Settings. You’ll be allowed to configure whether the Splashtop Streamer application starts automatically upon computer startup, signing in to your Google account for more connection management options, and whether or not to redirect sound of the remote computer to the client (your iPhone). In most cases, the default settings should suffice.

Streamer Settings

On the Security tab, you’re allowed to change the password.

Streamer Security

Under Network, you’ll see the current network port used for incoming connections. This setting is very important. Think of this port as a door. You can assign a different network port for Splashtop incoming connections as long as it’s not already in use. Splashtop will also use the next two consecutive port numbers from the one you have designated. When you initiate a connection to your remote computer using the Splashtop app, it needs to know which “door” or port to enter through otherwise it would get lost. For many, the default port should suffice. If you want a little more security, go ahead and assign it a different port number. When you use Splashtop on a different network segment than the remote computer, you’ll need to configure port forwarding and these port numbers are needed. I’ll go over this part towards the end.

Steamer Network

Splashtop iPhone App

Once you’ve got the app installed on your device (free or paid version), fire it up. Immediately, Splashtop will scan your local area network for any computers configured with the Splashtop Streamer application. This saves you the hassle of having to manually type in the IP address and port number. But remember, the computers will only show up if you are on the same network segment as it. Prior to making the connection, you’ll definitely want to configure the resolution used on your device to view the remote computer. Simply click on the blue arrow next to your remote computer and hit the Advanced button. My laptop’s screen resolution isn’t that big so that’s what I’ll be using.

Once you’re ready, tap on your remote computer’s icon to initiate the connection. You’ll then be presented with the password screen. Type in the password you’ve configured earlier in the Splashtop Streamer application. When you’re through, you should then be presented with the Hints screen. This screen shows you how to access your remote computer using your device. Close that screen out and you’ll be presented with your remote computer!

Computers FoundSplashtop ResolutionSplashtop HintsSplashtop Desktop

Usage

From my usage so far with Splashtop on my iPhone 3GS, I can definitely say it works as expected. However, it’s always difficult to navigate your way around a full size computer, laptop or desktop, from such a small screen. I would think that the experience would be 10x better if the device used to access the remote computer was on the iPad instead. Expect to be zooming in/out of your screen a whole lot. Please remember that the windows and applications you open on your remote computer stays the same. Their buttons and text don’t somehow magically re-size themselves to be easier to press or to be read on your device. There are a lot of videos on the Splashtop website submitted by users showing off the remote desktop component in action. Check them out in the Videos tab of this webpage.

Speed wise, I’m pretty shocked at how well Splashtop performs. Of course, there is going to be some lag between what happens on the remote computer and your Splashtop device. Even in your home network under the perfect conditions, there still will be some lag. Accessing my remote laptop with a 3G connection again was very smooth and very workable. I wouldn’t want to stream a movie through that connection but for editing files and doing other types of trivial tasks, Splashtop definitely excels in that area.

You must also remember that when you connect to your remote computer, the processing is done on that computer and not on your Splashtop app device. Splashtop is in charge of streaming whatever is on the screen of the remote computer to your device. For example, you can use Splashtop to connect to your remote laptop at home and have it convert a 1080p video file to 720p using your favorite media converter. The processing is performed only on that laptop. However, once you begin watching that video, it’s Splashtop’s job to sync whatever’s on screen. Even though the movie plays fine on the laptop, it might skip when you’re watching it on your iPhone because your connection might not be able keep up with streaming that huge amount of data.

Using Splashtop Outside of your Network

One of the major uses of Splashtop is allowing you access to your computer when you’re not at home. However, for that to work, you’ll need to do some configuration, especially if you’re behind a router of some sort. What I displayed above worked easily because my iPhone was connected to my home Wi-Fi router and my laptop was similarly connected to the same network segment. Once my iPhone travels outside that network, it will no longer be able to access that laptop. Here is where things get iffy for many users. You’ll need to program your router so that it will allow a Splashtop incoming connection to our remote computer. For that, we need to perform port forwarding. You can read more about how to do that from article link below in the Wake-On-Lan section. Here is a quick rundown:

To successfully configure port forwarding, we need our public facing IP address, our remote computer’s private IP address and the network port Splashtop uses for incoming connections (default is 6783-6785). I’ve also configured a port forward for the WoL packet to that same computer’s private IP address (default port is 9 for WoL).

Splashtop Port Forward

Next, we create a new computer listing from within our Splashtop app. All we need to tell the app is the name of the computer (could be anything you want) along with the public IP address on which this computer can be found in the big wide world of the Internet (remember, we are trying access this remote computer from *outside* of our network). If everything went correctly, you should be able to connect to the remote computer via your 3G data connection or from a different wireless network. When you initiate the connection, the packets will get sent to our router. The router knows that this connection uses ports 6783-6785 (remember the doors?). It then consults the port forwarding table. It sees that anytime a connection is coming in from those port numbers, route/forward that connection to the IP address listed in that table (in this case, it’s to our remote computer). The connection succeeds. If port forward was configured incorrectly, the router will not know how to forward the packets/connection and will drop it instead.

Custom Connection

Wake-On-Lan (WoL)

With every remote desktop technology, WoL always gets mentioned because it plays such a big part. Being able to access your computer remotely from anywhere in the world is awesome but in order for the remote computer to accept incoming connections from your Splashtop app device, it needs to be turned on! Do you really want to leave your computer turned on 24/7 each and every time you leave the house just in case you might have a need to remotely connect to it? I highly doubt it. WoL is a feature that allows you to wake your computer up from a suspend state (sleep, hibernate, shutdown). A special network packet is sent to your router and that in turn gets sent to your WoL enabled laptop or computer. Because the network card is still functioning even if the computer is turned completely off, it can still process this packet and wake the computer up. It sounds really good on paper but it doesn’t always work as it should. I’ve written an article dedicated to this subject matter here. I highly suggest you to read it over if you will be using Splashtop on the go.

In the End…

Seriously, how can you not like Splashtop after reading about it? If you purchase it right now, you’ll have the ability to remotely control your computer on your iPhone for just $.99. That’s less than a cup of coffee or a bottle of soda. It might however take some time for you to configure Splashtop to work correctly outside of your home network. Also, the biggest issue right now in my eyes is WoL. It’s a distraction because for many people, WoL works sometimes but not others. But whatever the case may be, I’m sure there were a ton of things you’ve regretted buying that costs more than $.99. Definitely give Splashtop a try and impress your non-techie friends!

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Remain Anonymous While Surfing the Web!

There was always a need for some users to remain anonymous on the Internet. They don’t want their identity to be known. I don’t really care what those “needs” are but you get the point. One of the biggest determining factors on tracking who did what on the big wide Internet world is by something called an IP address. If you researched about anonymous internet surfing before, you’d no doubt come across something called an IP address each and every time. Everyone of us, and yes that includes you reading this article right now, has a different IP address that uniquely defines our presence on the web. This IP address gets assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which is the company that routes your Internet data to the web such as Verizon, Oceanic Cable, Comcast, Clear, Earthlink and the likes. Here’s what you have to understand. Every time you visit a website or pretty much whatever it is you do, your IP address is needed to communicate with that resource. In many of these instances, your IP address might actually get recorded or archived.

So why should we worry about trying to be anonymous on the Internet? The answer is you don’t have to. Honestly. The old saying is if you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you hide or be afraid? Let’s ask ourselves why should we care if Microsoft found out we visited our Hotmail account on specific day or why Google should care as much that we searched for alternative search engines? The reason is we shouldn’t. But what about other things such as accessing a website on how to make bombs or how to hack the government computers? Well, that’s certainly a different story! But the saying still goes that if you don’t do anything bad on the Internet, you really shouldn’t worry all that much about remaining anonymous. So, what the heck is this article for?

There are other uses for remaining anonymous on the Internet even if you have nothing to hide. One of those main reason is none other than security related! Don’t think about when you’re connected to your home network. Think about times where you connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot or any other network that was not your own. How do you know that network is not being snooped by strangers? For example, Starbucks and McDonalds offer free Wi-Fi connections for their customers in an attempt to bring in more business. Because anyone is allowed to connect to that hotspot, what makes you so sure that the guy sitting way back in the room isn’t actively running some sort of packet sniffer to sniff your data?

Hotspot Shield to the Rescue

One of my favorite security tool used when accessing public networks has got to be Hotspot Shield. This nifty utility not only allows you to access the web via a different IP address but it also creates a secure virtual private network (think of a tunnel) between your computer and their servers. This basically defeats the middleman (guy sitting by himself at the back of Starbucks) trying to sniff your data even on a open Wi-Fi connection because they can’t penetrate that tunnel. Website requests that you make route to Hotspot Shield’s servers rather than where it was originally intended for, which in most cases would be the ISP of the network. Think of Hotspot Shield as our trusted middleman. Requests we make would go to their servers and then they re-route that request to the actual destination using a different IP address than what we had originally. The request is granted and is routed back to Hotspot Shield’s servers. Hotspot Shield then finally routes it back to us. The process continues until the connection to Hotspot Shield is closed. The process I’ve just described relates to how many proxy servers work in general.

How to Use

You can download Hotspot Shield from here. I’ve read that Hotspot Shield imposes a 3 gigabyte bandwidth limit per user, per month.

Once installed, you should see a red shield icon in your system tray. This indicates that Hotspot Shield is not enabled and that your Internet traffic is flowing as usual to your ISP. To check if Hotspot Shield indeed works, I suggest you find out your current IP address by visiting this website. Note your current address.

Hotspot Shield Icon

Current IP

To enable Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the icon and select the Connect/ON option. Hotspot Shield will begin work right away by opening a new page on whatever default browser you are using at the moment. It will let you know the steps it’s performing such as assigning you an IP address and whatnot. Once the request has been completed, Hotspot Shield will then take you to their home page and from then on, your data will be routed through to them.

ConnectAssigning

Once connected, you’ll also notice that the Hotspot Shield icon now turns to green to properly reflect its status. You can check on your status at anytime, such as your current VPN address being used and how much amount of data has been routed through Hotspot Shield, by simply right-clicking on the icon and selecting Properties. Next, click on the Details link and you’ll see the appropriate data.

Details

Simply revisit the website I’ve shown earlier to find out your current IP address. It should have changed since activating Hotspot Shield.

IP Changed

Another method to test Hotspot Shield is by using a built-in Windows command line utility called Tracert. This handy utility allows us to trace the route a packet takes to its destination. Below, you’ll see two pictures. The first is shown the places my packet will travel to to get to Google.com without Hotspot Shield enabled. The second picture shows what happens with Hotspot Shield enabled. You can clearly see the first few entries of the second picture that my packet took a completely different route than the first. It seems as if it completely bypassed my default ISP routers/servers to get to the same destination. (Click them to enlarge)

Default RouteEnabled Route

To deactivate Hotspot Shield, simply right-click on the green shield icon and select Disconnect/Off. In the resulting webpage that follows, click on the big red Disconnect button and that should do it. The icon will then return to the red color and your traffic will flow as usual to your original ISP.

Bypassing Limitations

The other use of a proxy server such as provided by Hotspot Shield is to bypass limitations set upon your current network or IP address. For a lot of companies, the IT administrators purposefully block sites such as Facebook, Twitter or other time-wasting sites from ever reaching their employees desktop. A simple method employees found to bypass this limitation is to use a proxy server. Just because the administrator says that the Facebook’s IP address range, say 1.2.3.*, is blocked doesn’t mean that the address 11.10.9.8 which belongs to Hotspot Shield for example, is blocked as well. Since the employee is accessing Facebook through that proxy server with a different IP address, he/she should be able to access the site. I say “should” because there are ways for the company to detect the use of a proxy server and if you’re caught, well, I’m sure you know of the consequences.

A friend of mine travels a lot. I remember him begging me to help him access his Facebook account while in a certain country, which blocked access to that site. I recommended to him Hotspot Shield and it worked like a charm. In the country he was in, the government I’m sure banned all of the IP addresses belonging to their country from accessing Facebook. Because Hotspot Shield’s servers resides elsewhere and the government didn’t put a ban limiting access to that service, my friend was able to access Facebook once he enabled Hotspot Shield. Of course, I warned him not to brag in public or let any government official see him accessing the site because he might get arrested or who knows what. Point is, a proxy server can help bypass these limitations.

Have you ever stumbled across a online service where it discontinued your access to that service if you’ve been using it after a certain amount of time? A good example of this is from a online video service called Megavideo. They allow regular users to watch 72 minutes of videos and after that, force them to wait a certain amount of time before being able to continue. That or pay for a premium membership. How do that they do? Well, of course by IP address! Hotspot Shield immediately eliminated the “waiting” and allows the user to resume watching. After their 72 minutes is up on the Hotspot Shield IP address, they simply deactivate it and continue watching back on their original IP and so on. Clever but of course, my advice is if you love a service, then pay for it!

Video Limt

Cautions When Using a Proxy

It’s very easy for me to write about how awesome Hotspot Shield is. But there still lies a very important question that needs to be asked: How can we trust Hotspot Shield with our data?” My answer is you can’t. Therefore, you must use Hotspot Shield along with any other proxy service at your own risk. Surely there must be some people behind the scenes working for Hotspot Shield. Can we really trust them? Remember, our data has to go somewhere in order to reach its destination. Just because you want to visit a website doesn’t actually make the website appear on your screen as soon as you hit enter. A lot of things happen in the background, especially the route a packet takes from your computer to the ultimate destination. My advice stays the same as always. If your business can be put on hold, then do it. Is it really that important for you to buy that item on Amazon while on Starbuck’s open Wi-Fi network (even with Hotspot Shield enabled) than if you waited half an hour till you got home? Is it really that important that you check your banking statement using a public hotspot you’ve just connected to as opposed to doing it at home at a later time? I assure you your bills will still be there!

In the End…

The reason I vouch for Hotspot Shield as opposed to other proxy services is mainly due to speed and how it seamlessly integrates with Windows. With other proxy services, you usually access them via a web page. These are useful for viewing static sites and whatnot but once you need to watch videos or perform other tasks on that website, it can become difficult. Hotspot Shield doesn’t really affect the way you browse the web once it’s enabled. You’ll see advertisements but that can easily be taken care of by a ad-blocking software. Because your data is routed elsewhere, it makes sense that your browsing speed be hindered. While I noticed this for the many proxy services I have tried, especially when trying to download a larger file, Hotspot Shield remained relatively fast. This alone makes me recommend the product to other users who are looking for a security solution when accessing public hotspots.

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Did You Know You Can Make Your Own Network Cables?

One big money saving project is when a user takes the initiative to create his/her own networking cables. Almost every electronic device now days can be connected to the web and to do that, you’ll need a networking cable. Wireless networking does help eliminate the physical wiring but every true geek knows that a good ol’ wired connection is the way to go! This is especially true for devices that require a constant connection to the Internet with the least amount of interference as possible, such as when playing games online on the PS3 and Xbox 360 gaming consoles. Learn how to save money by creating your own networking cables for your network connected devices.

The next time you head to your local electronics store, notice the price you would have to pay for pre-made network cables. It can be pretty ridiculous. Usually, the longer the cable length, the higher the price By learning to create your own networking cables, you can solve two major problems. First, obviously, you’ll save big bucks. You’ll usually be able to buy a big spool of barebones networking cable for a cheap price. Secondly and equally important for many is the fact that you can tailor the cable to the exact length as desired. Learning to create your own network cables also has other uses as you’ll be able to modify existing networking cables you already own. For example, if you already own a pre-made 50ft network cable but now want to split up that cable to use for devices in smaller rooms, you can do just that!

If creating network cables is really not to your liking, don’t worry. Online stores stores such as Monoprice, Amazon and eBay allows you to purchase networking cables for very cheap prices as well. I guess the main point of this article is to get you to think that you do not necessarily have to purchase networking cables at your local electronics store for high prices. There are alternatives and you should definitely seek them out if you want to save money!

Parts

What You’ll Need:

Network Cable (Cat5e should be fine)
RJ-45 Crimper Tool
RJ-45 Modular Plugs
Network Cable Tester (Optional, but highly recommended)

– Depending on your cabling needs, you can either purchase a big spool of network cable (for example 1000ft) or you can purchase smaller cables such as in 50ft or 100ft length and then split them up however you want to.

Spool

– The main tool you’ll be using to create your network cable is the crimper. This all-in-one tool allows you to strip, cut, and crimp your cable. You don’t need a fancy crimper so please do not spend a fortune on one. Remember, our main goal here is to save money! Once again, Monoprice comes to the rescue. You can buy their crimper for less than $6!

Crimper

– The RJ-45 modular plugs is the cap that goes onto the end of each cable. It looks very similar to RJ-11 plugs (used for telephone cables) but they are a little bigger in size. Usually, these comes in bulk when you purchase them and that is good because if you’re just beginning to make network cables, you’ll most likely make mistakes on your first couple of tries. Once you crimp the cable to the jack, there’s no going back! The only way is to cut it off and restart again. The plug must then be thrown away. Monoprice sells a 100 for less than $5.

RJ54 Plug

– A network cable tester isn’t required but they can easily allow you to see if your network cable has been made correctly without you having to actually plug the cable to a device/router etc. Once again, if you will be purchasing one of these, don’t spend a fortune for it! This Amazon listing has one for about $6. If you have made a mistake on one end of the cable, the tester will easily show that to you. Without it, you’ll have a much harder time figuring out which end of the cable you’ll need to re-do.

Tester

The Process

Once you have all the required parts, you can begin making your own network cable. Because it is really difficult explaining the procedure in words alone, I’ll only be giving a high level overview of what needs to be done. However, you can watch the Youtube video at the end to get a more precise look at what needs to be done.

1. One of the most important procedure before creating the cable is to actually measure the distance between the device that needs Internet access (computer, PS3, Xbox) and your router. The important part here to remember is to always make the cable a little longer than necessary! This gives the cable a little breathing room. If the distance is 10ft, you don’t want to make a cable exactly 10ft in length! Give the cable a couple of extra inches. Also, if you make a mistake after crimping the cable, you’ll need to start over and that means more cable is wasted. Remember to factor this in when cutting your cable.

2. Once the desired cable length is measured out, use your crimper to cut the cable. With the crimper, carefully strip the outer shielding of the wire to expose the actual wires within it. Also, do not strip away too much of the outer shielding because you’ll only have to trim the wires later on. If you do not strip enough of the shielding away, then it will be too short and you’ll have a hard time inserting it into the plug. Once the outer shielding is removed, you should see a bundle of twisted colored wires.

Wires

3. Untwist the wires and straighten them out as much as possible. You’ll now need to rearrange the wires in a certain order. Going from left to right, the order (by color) is: orange/white, orange, green/white, blue, blue/white, green, brown/white, brown.

Coloring

4. Once you have the wires arranged as above, you can now insert them into the RJ-45 plug. Each wire should align into each slot inside the plug. This part is the hardest because as you are inserting the wires, they could get rearranged resulting in the wrong wire going into the wrong slot. If that happens and you crimp the plug, you’ll have to start over again. Luckily, most plugs are clear so you can see if the correct wires are indeed in the right slot. Also, you’ll want to make sure that the wires are inserted in fully as possible. If at this point there is a lot of bare wire showing under the plug after the wires are inserted, you’ll want to trim it down. It’s actually OK if part of the cable shielding gets inside the plug as well. The picture below is an example of how it should NOT look like:

Bad Strip

5. Once you have made sure that the correct colored wires are in place inside the plug, you can now crimp it. Simply insert the plug into the crimper. Make sure to insert it all the way in. Once everything is in place, crimp it down by squeezing the handle. You’ll want to give it a good squeeze but definitely try not to go overboard! This crimping process is what allows the gold connectors to splice and connect into the wires themselves.

Crimping

6. Once you have crimped it down, take it out and gently pull on the cable to make sure that each wire is tightly in place. Nothing should wiggle! At this point, you’ll need to repeat the stripping, cutting and crimping process on the other end of the cable.

7. Once you have both ends created, test it on your network cable tester if you have one. The lights should light up from 1-8 on both ends consecutively and in order. If for example a light jumps from the number 3 to number 5 or whatever, the cable is worthless and you’ll have to start over on that end again. You’ll need to use the crimper to cut the cable directly where the plug ends and then re-do the process until you get it right on both ends. If you don’t have a cable tester, then your only way to test it is by actually using the cable on a device. Obviously if the device connected with your newly created wire can connect online, then the cable works. If not, you know what you have to do! This is where a cable tester comes in handy because without it, you’ll have a hard time determining which end of the cable needs to be redone.

Here is an excellent Youtube video explaining the entire procedure in details (user has disabled video embedding).

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