Carpe Diem: 6 July, 2020

Smart Home Server Equipment

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Welcome back and happy Pi day! This post is very fitting.

So you want to get your home automated or just “smarter” and you’re ready to buy some equipment. In this post, I’ll walk through some of the criteria in deciding equipment to use, the equipment that I purchased to get my smart home started, and offer some insights based on my experiences. If you haven’t seen it already, check out my earlier post on first steps on tackling your smart home.

With my setup, I elected to run Home Assistant (HA) as my smart home back-end. As mentioned in this post, HA seemed like the best fit for me. While HA can run on many platforms, I elected to run my install on a Raspberry Pi 3. I’ve included the equipment I use below along with some considerations on how to choose hardware that will best fit your needs. HA will run on many platforms.

Equipment I use:

Server Considerations:

  • Processing power – what are you looking for this home server to ultimately do? HA does not require much power at all, but perhaps you are looking to run a media server that will transcode media to mobile devices on the fly. For me, I’m just looking the server to run HA, so I didn’t need much additional power. If it turns out that I do, I can offload tasks from my Pi and onto a more powerful server that is on demand.
    • Heat – related to processing power, the more powerful the machine. The more heat will be created. Keep this in mind if you want to tuck your server in a small enclosed space.
  • Cost – This is a big one for most of us. This goes hand in hand with processing power – more power is more expensive. Costs fall in 3 categories:
    • Upfront Costs – how much will the server CPU, storage, and other required parts costs to purchase? The Pi is a no brainer here – getting set up with the Pi itself, power supply, case, and storage for less than $50-100.
    • Operating Costs – Electricity. Remember that a smart home server will need to run 24/7. Powering a Raspberry Pi will cost a few dollars a years – under full load it only draws a few watts. Comparing this to a high end server,  it’s no comparison.
    • Replacement Costs – if the entire Pi dies somehow (though with no moving parts and low power consumption, this would be rare), it only costs $30-$40 to replace. If the power supply dies, only $5-$10 to replace. Compare this to a desktop computer where each part is going to be $50-$100 to replace.
  • Reliability – you want something you can depend on. This comes in two forms:
    • Hardware – how likely is the hardware to fail? typically the more power consumed and the more moving parts, failure is more prone. However, I’ve worked with desktop computers that ran 24/7 for 10+ years without major issue, so this point shouldn’t be a large concern. Regardless, a Raspberry Pi is lower power and has no moving parts.
    • Software – I use a Windows computer for 75% of my computing needs. However, I’m becoming more and more annoyed with the updates and restarts needed. While manageable, it adds a layer of annoyance. A Raspberry Pi (typically) runs on Linux. Linux is very powerful, very stable, but is not as user friendly as other OSs. With the amount of guides and prepackaged material out there, running on linux is pretty easy.
  • Size – this was a minor consideration for me but still a consideration. Having a server that fits in your hand means you can put it just about anywhere.
  • IO Features – A Pi has HDMI, 4 USB, Ethernet, SD Card, Bluetooth, and WiFi built in (there are a few more ports not listed but not as commonly used).  Just about everything you need.
    • Peripheral compatibility – make sure your hardware and software is compatible with the devices you plan to add. For example, I’m using a z-wave and Zigbee USB stick that is compatible with Linux – I’m not sure if it’s compatible with Windows.
  • What’s already available – Last but not least, consider what you have lying around the house. An old laptop is enough to get your feet wet. You could even use your main PC, but it will need to be running 24/7. When you are ready, you can upgrade.
On my next post, I’ll detail some of the setup of the Pi, Home Assistant, and USB Zigbee + Z-wave USB stick.

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