CAPS v4 Cortes is like no other CAPS server to date. The server isn’t designed to connect directly to an audio system via USB or AES/EBU. Cortes is a server in the truest sense of the word. It’s designed to serve music to a single zone or to multiple zones over Ethernet, be a workhorse for all types of file operations such as format conversion or resampling, run network diagnostic tools if needed, and be the most flexible music server in the CAPS stable of designs. Cortes is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) replacement.
The impetus to design a NAS replacement such as Cortes came from computer audiophiles' changing playback methods with the addition of many more network based players, and my own desire for a more flexible server that enabled me to install almost any piece of software available. Running several network based audio players in my system lead me to realize they are all different and function best with their own special software configurations. One DLNA renderer may work best with MinimServer and another may function best with JRiver Media Center. Using a traditional NAS limited my options to A) Installing MinimServer by jumping through a ring of fire while wearing a gasoline soaked suit (NAS units without the MinimServer package require a difficult installation), B) Using the built-in NAS DLNA media server application that likely doesn’t support gapless playback, DoP over Ethernet, any has terrible library browsing capabilities, or C) Install JRiver Media Center on a PC and map a drive from the PC to the NAS to serve up the music stored on the NAS. There are other scenarios and possible installation configurations, but this description should get my point across. As much as NAS vendors would like their products to appear as solutions for all media storage needs, NAS drives have serious limitations that can be overcome with a different solution. Thus, I designed Cortes.
Cortes, just like any other computer isn’t perfect and suffers from it’s own limitations. For example, the Windows operating system is often seen as unstable, buggy, and less secure than its competitors. Fortunately, I’ve been running a Cortes server for months and haven’t run into any of the commonly perceived issues associated with the operating system. Windows can be a surprisingly stable OS when used as a network server setup like Cortes. Another limitation of the Windows OS is the requirement for more powerful hardware than a typical Linux based NAS. I like to flip this around to suggest that users of Cortes will actually prefer the increased horsepower as opposed to traditional NAS drives with ARM or Atom based processors and less memory than the new iPhone 6.
This added horsepower may seem like a waste of resources if all the server does is share music over Ethernet. If that’s all this server did I would agree the horsepower is unneeded. However, over the course of the last decade I’ve used my NAS drives to do much more than serve music. For example, creating 24 bit / 176.4 kHz PCM versions of all my DSD material required me to use JRiver Media Center running on my PC to pull the files over the network, convert the DSD to PCM, and copy the files back to the NAS. This is so inefficient and time consuming. Using a Cortes server the DSD and PCM music remains on the same drive on the local PC. This uses the power of the Cortes CPU, the greater RAM capacity, the faster hard drives, and the blazing fast hardware RAID controller. Another area where Cortes’ added horsepower is terrific is analyzing a music library and making mass changes to metadata. Using Cortes and JRiver I selected my entire 50,000+ track library and instructed JRiver to analyze the dynamic range on every track. Sure the entire process took a while, but there’s no way I would have even attempted this using a traditional NAS system. I also like to include a bit more information in the title of my albums than the simple album name. This enables me to determine if I’m selecting the PCM, DSD, high resolution, or a specific master of an album before even tapping it on my iPad. Once I had my entire DSD library in a high resolution PCM format (I also kept the original DSD content) I selected all the new tracks and had JRiver Media Center append the suffix “PCM from DSD” to every track’s album title. Using all the Cortes horsepower the whole process was done in the blink of an eye.
The flexibility to install nearly any application on the Cortes server can’t be overestimated. This is great for both consumers and application developers. For example, MinimServer currently has 18 different versions available for installation. The need for all these versions stems from different software and hardware requirements of NAS units and desktop computers. Even with 18 versions there are NAS units such as those from Thecus that MinimServer doesn’t support. Software and hardware fragmentation is a problem that hurts everybody. I've been running my Cortes server for months with JRMC, MinimServer, Devialet AIR, TIDAL, Sonos, Logitech Media Server, Twonky, and UPnP Tools without a single issue. Not only are these applications installed and running, but the installation and configuration of them was simple. Cortes makes NAS software configuration seem quite archaic. Running JRiver Media Center on Cortes not only enables use of all its UPnP/DLNA capabilities, but also enables the user to manage his library with ease. Too many people think that switching to a network based player will relieve them of the need for a computer because the music will flow form a NAS. However, without a good music management application such as JRMC the user is stuck with bad metadata or possibly no metadata. Plus, there’s nothing better than running JRMC on the actual computer that stores the music, i.e. Cortes.
In addition to music related applications I recommend installing apps like Developer Tools for UPnP. Included in this suite of tools is a program called Device Spy. This program lists every UPnP device on one’s network and is capable of probing all the devices and listing their capabilities. This app is very helpful if one is having issues with a UPnP server, renderer, or control point. During Cortes testing I had an issue where the server couldn’t find all the renderers on my network. i was unsure if this was an issue with JRiver Media Center or the renderer or something else entirely. I opened Device Spy and saw the same issues that I saw through JRMC. This enabled me to rule out JRMC and focus more on the server itself. I made several configuration changes, each time using Device Spy to rescan my network. The problem was related to bonding two network cards into one large aggregated virtual device. Once I disabled link aggregation, Device Spy listed all the UPnP devices immediately.
The Cortes motherboard, a SuperMicro X10SL7-F ($243), is much more of a server class component with a longer life span than previous CAPS servers and popular desktop computers. This board has many great features that suit a NAS replacement perfectly. The X10SL7-F supports Intel® Xeon® E3-1200 v3 processors that are much more geared toward data crunching than the Core i7 series of CPUs that have integrated video for multimedia playback. Thus, I selected the Intel Xeon E3-1241 v3 (BX80646E31241V3) ($273) as the Central Processing Unit (CPU) for Cortes. Both this CPU and the motherboard also support ECC or error correcting code memory. This type of RAM detects and corrects common types of data corruption. Cortes features 16GB of Crucial (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM ECC Unbuffered DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Server Memory (CT2KIT102472BD160B) ($358) Random Access Memory (RAM). The SuperMicro X10SL7-F board supports up through 32GB of RAM should one wish to increase from the specified 16GB. The board also features Dual Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports via Intel i210AT. These port support link aggregation to increase throughput to 2GB full duplex if needed, although I experienced some DLNA related issues when enabling this NIC bonding feature. Storage options on the X10SL7-F board are perfect for a NAS replacement. The board offers 2x SATA (6Gbps), 4x SATA (3Gbps), and 8x SAS2 (6Gbps) via LSI 2308 hardware RAID controller. Such a configuration enables the OS to reside on a 6Gbps SSD on one, more average, controller and all the music data to reside on the LSI 2308 server class hardware controller. The Cortes server features a single Samsung 850 Pro 128GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-7KE128BW) SSD ($130) for the operating system and two Seagate Desktop HDD 6TB 6Gb/s 128MB Cache 3.5-Inch HDD (STBD6000100) ($300 ea.) for the music. The 6TB drives are configured as a RAID1 / mirroring set. Thus, if one drive fails no data is lost and no backup needs to be restored. A new drive must be put in place, but no further configuration or data restoration is required. Should one wish to backup his music inside the same chassis it’s possible to install up to four hard drives on the 3Gbps controller enabling a fairly quick and easy data backup. There are more secure ways to backup, but this way is pretty easy and even recommended more than the unbacked up method most people use. Another fairly good method of backup with the Cortes server is an external drive via the X10SL7-F’s USB 3.0 ports. The last piece of the X10SL7-F motherboard that I absolutely love is the integrated Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) 2.0 with KVM and dedicated LAN port. This interface enables the user to connect to the server via web browser and access it as if the user was physically at the server with a keyboard, monitor, and mouse. The IPMI even enables the user to connect to the server when the power is off, get into the BIOS, and restart the server if the operating system hangs. It’s a great feature for the Cortes server because this server is likely to sit in a back room somewhere out of easy reach. My Cortes server resides in another room and without any keyboard, monitor, or mouse connected.
The computer case I selected is the Corsair Graphite Series 600T ($160). During my research phase I tried smaller cases, but always had issues squeezing the components into the case. I found no purpose for using the smaller cases and settled on this mid-sized Corsair case that’s very easy to populate and looks half-way decent in person. The power supply I selected is the Corsair Professional Series 760 Watt Digital ATX/EPS Modular 80 PLUS Platinum AX760i ($185). It’s my current belief that the power supply of a network server has no baring on sound quality of a network based music player unless the PSU is feeding garbage back into the power line that isn’t isolated form the audio components. I like the Corsair AX760i because of its DSP controlled monitoring and performance. This PSU makes on-the-fly adjustments for tight voltage regulation, 80 PLUS Platinum efficiency, and stable power. One additional component I added to the design is a Corsair Hydro Series Extreme Performance Liquid CPU Cooler H80i ($86). I like these coolers because, like the PSU, they enabled performance monitoring and adjustments via an application. The H80i is liquid cooled, fan-assisted, but never needs any maintenance associated with other liquid cooling solutions.
Like all CAPS v4 computers, Cortes runs on Windows 8.1 Professional 64-bit. I use the professional version because I connect to the server recently with Windows’ built-in Remote Desktop capability. It works great and doesn’t require an additional third party application for remote control of the actual server. The UPnP server I use most often on Cortes is JRiver Media Center because of its all encompassing capabilities and its great integration with JRemote for iOS.
This combination of hardware and software make Cortes as stable as a Linux based NAS, but endlessly more flexible. As always, my component selections aren’t the only selections that will make a successful server. Members of the CA Community are encouraged to use Cortes as a platform from which to experiment. Users not needing 6TB of drive space can obviously scale back on the cost of hard drives. Please be careful when purchasing memory, as I went through a couple different memory models that made the server un-bootable. Those readers seeking a complete solution should be pretty happy with Cortes just as it’s designed. I encourage members of the community to post questions, concerns, and comments below.
A Note About Sponsorship
Before going further I'd like to thank JRiver for sponsoring the entire CAPS v4 project. Researching and purchasing all the parts for CAPS servers takes time and money. In the past I spent over $10,000 just trying different motherboards, memory, SSDs, cases, etc… This time around I thought it would be prudent and a win-win for everybody if I obtained sponsorship for CAPS v4. I sought sponsorship from a handful of companies and before the "ink" on the email was dry JRiver stepped up to sponsor the whole project. This sponsorship enabled me to take the CAPS project further in a shorter period of time than I would have been able to on my own. The bottom line is that members of the CA Community benefitted from this sponsorship. Without this benefit to the entire Community I wouldn't have sought sponsorship. Period. Also, JRiver had no input on the design of the servers' hardware or software. Prior to contacting JRiver I had already decided what playback applications would be used for the CAPS v4 project. I also didn't let JRiver know this software decision, thus avoiding any semblance of impropriety. Again, thanks to JRiver for supporting CAPS v4 and the CA Community.
Motherboard: SuperMicro X10SL7-F
Tools: UPnP Developer Tools
Music App: JRiver Media Center