Sharing iTunes libraries

Anthony Caruana
6 April, 2010
View more articles fromthe author

In October 2001, many laughed at Steve Jobs’ latest brainchild – the iPod. How could a US$400 device that could only store and play music help the flailing tech company rise back to prominence in a market that seemed to have passed it by? Well, almost a decade later, the iPod is the best-selling music player on the planet and Apple’s iTunes Store sells more music than any other outlet in the world – 10 billion songs as of the end of February.

However, all that success has led to a new problem: How do we store and share media within our homes and manage that library in a household with several iPods and iPhones, an Apple TV and several Macs?

Our iTunes library is rapidly approaching 1TB in size. As well a huge library of music either purchased through the iTunes Store or ripped from our CD collection, we have many movies and TV shows, home videos and podcasts. All of this needs to be accessible to an iPhone, two iPod touches, two iPod Shuffles, an Apple TV, three Macs and a PC.

The storage issue

With a library that is growing towards 1TB, holding the library on one of the Macs simply isn’t practical because of the obvious issue of disk capacity. As well as the raw size today, our library isn’t getting any smaller so a solution that can easily grow is essential. While the latest iMacs are truly excellent computers, they’re not easy to upgrade.

That’s why we’ve gone for a networked solution. There are many different NAS, or network attached storage, units on the market, so our recommendation would be to shop around for a unit that supports gigabit Ethernet, offers fast performance and can be easily expanded.

Our network uses a Thecus N5200 loaded up with five 1TB disks configured as a RAID5 array. This gives us a total available capacity of 4TB. The missing terabyte is a redundant drive. In the event that any one hard drive in the array fails, there’s no data loss as the spare picks up the slack.

There are desktop solutions that offer two hard drives in a redundant array but their capacity is limited. Also, most of these rely on being connected to a Mac to be accessible. A NAS, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on a specific computer to be on in order to be accessed. Also, most NAS units include an iTunes server built into them. While it’s not really suited to sharing a library for syncing to iPods and iPhones, it’s an easy way to stream media around your network.

While buying a NAS that can support several drives might cost more now, there’s no need to fill all the drive bays at the time of purchase. For example, with our unit we could have started with three drives and then added more as needed.

Having chosen a home for our iTunes library, we needed to move the library from a specific computer to the NAS. This is not a difficult operation but can take several hours.

Start by creating a folder on the NAS for your iTunes content. It’s important that you ensure that you have read and write privileges to the folder. Then add the folder to your user account’s startup items so that the folder is connected to your computer before iTunes starts. This is important as iTunes can easily ‘lose’ content if the folder it expects the content to be in isn’t there when it starts up.

Open iTunes and go to Preferences > Advanced. Change the iTunes folder location and make sure the ‘Keep iTunes Music folder organised’ and ‘Copy files to iTunes Music Folder when adding to library’ checkboxes are selected. Hit the OK button and you’re nearly done.

Still in iTunes, go the File menu and choose Library > Organize Library. Select the ‘Consolidate files’ option, click OK and iTunes will move all your media from its current location to the new one on the NAS. Depending on the size of your library and the speed of your system this may take several hours.

Once the process is complete, right-click (or control-click) several items in your library and ensure that they are on the NAS and not your local hard drive. Once you’re happy that your library has been copied to the NAS you can remove the content of your iTunes library from your Mac’s local hard drive. As well as making your media more easily accessible, it’ll liberate some disk space for you.

A NAS is not a backup

There are two types of hard drives – those that have failed and those that will fail. Although a NAS is probably a more secure and robust storage solution than a regular hard drive it is not a backup solution. NAS units can fail, and when they do the data on their disks can be difficult to retrieve – particularly if the manufacturer uses a proprietary file system.

Whenever you make an iTunes purchase, iTunes prompts you to make a backup to either DVD or CD. It’s not ideal as a TV series purchased in high definition might use a couple of discs. However, it’s worth doing to protect your purchases.

Those backup discs ought not be stored with your computer. After all, if the computer is damaged in a fire or other disaster then it’s unlikely that some DVDs or CDs will survive. If you have an office that’s away from home, keep the backups there. Or, perhaps swap backups with a friend so that you look after theirs and they look after yours.

Home sharing

In our setup, we’ve designated that one Mac is going to act as the master library for all the others. We’ve chosen this approach as it does away with the need to set up complex file permissions on the NAS. It also means that we can easily take advantage of iTunes 9’s new Home Sharing feature. One thing to remember though – no matter how you choose to share your media, Apple’s Fairplay DRM only allows up to five computers to be authorised to play back your purchased media. Music you’ve ripped from your own CDs is not subject to this limitation.

The first step is to enable Home Sharing on all your iTunes libraries. In order to use Home Sharing you’ll need to make sure you’re running iTunes 9 or later.

Launch iTunes, go to the Advanced menu and select ‘Enable Home Sharing’. As long as all your computers are on the same network they’ll appear in the ‘Shared’ section of iTunes’ navigation menu. We suggest giving each library on your network a unique name by going to the iTunes preferences and changing the library name. So that no-one in our household became confused, we designated the central library, that acts as the media source for all others as ‘Main’.

When you click on the shared library for the first time, you’ll be prompted to provide the username and password used for your iTunes Store account. This won’t give anyone the ability to use your account to shop – it will simply authorise them to access and play purchased music from your library.

Libraries that are accessed over Home Sharing can be used in two different ways. First, you can browse through the music, movies, TV shows and other types of media, double-click and stream the content from one computer to the other. However, Home Sharing also makes it simple to transfer media between commuters. Simply choose a file in a shared library and drag it into your local library.

One last thing: If each person in the home has their own iTunes Store account, then you’ll need to make sure that everyone is authorised to use content that’s shared between accounts. Apple’s Fairplay DRM allows for up to five authorised users.

Multiple iPods

Once your iTunes libraries are talking to each other over Home Sharing it’s time to start looking at how your iPods and iPhones integrate into this environment.

There are two different approaches that can be employed.

The simplest way is to designate one system as the iPod sync station for the household. Each person can create a set of playlists according to their preferences and musical taste and then use iTunes’ sync options to send specific playlists to each iPod.

This is the easiest approach but it means that the library system needs to be accessible to everyone. Also, if more than one person wants to connect their iPhone or iPod at the same time then you’ll need multiple connectors.

A more elegant approach is to allow each person to sync their library with their own system. Home Sharing allows you to copy content easily between libraries on the same network. Simply drag and drop all the content from the main library to the system that will be used for syncing. As well as music and other media, this approach works for apps, podcasts and anything else in your iTunes library. The only downside is that you can drag content out of a shared library and not into it. That means purchases made outside the main, central library will need to copied to the main library from the main system.

Once each ‘satellite’ library has all the content required, sync the iPod or iPhone to the new library.

Integrating the Apple TV

An Apple TV is really a network-enabled iPod. At the moment, the largest hard drive Apple offers with the Apple TV is 120GB. Although that seems like a lot, just one high-definition movie will be in excess of 3GB and a standard 22-episode television series will chew up over 30GB.

We’d suggest that you set your Apple TV up to use streaming rather than local storage. That way the Apple TV’s drive won’t get full and you’ll have access to your entire library.

The other advantage to keeping your Apple TV’s disk clear is that if you buy or rent movies from the Apple TV, there’ll be plenty of space for them so you can start watching your new content as quickly as possible.

And don’t worry – any content you buy on the Apple TV will automatically sync back up to your main library.

For streaming to work really well, we advise using gigabit Ethernet for wired connections and 802.11n for your wireless. While the older and slower standards will work (we’ve tested them just to be sure) there is a noticeable difference.

For example, a feature-length movie takes quite a lot longer to load when using 802.11g instead of 802.11n.

Unfortunately, for an Apple TV to access a shared iTunes library, the main system needs to be left switched on with iTunes running.

If there’s content you want available for the times that your main Mac is powered down, you can synchronise that content to your Apple TV by changing the sync settings in iTunes.

Setting your Apple TV to stream content is straightforward. Connect your Apple TV to your LAN (local area network) and add it as a device in iTunes, following the instructions that came with the device.

Then, on the summary screen in iTunes, choose the Custom Sync option and make sure that the ‘Show only the synced items on my Apple TV’ option is deselected.

Doing this will ensure that your entire shared library can be seen and accessed from the Apple TV.

Choosing a NAS for iTunes

A NAS looks like a complex piece of technology but it’s really a computer, running an operating system that controls some hardware, not unlike your Mac. Choosing a NAS requires careful consideration. Here are a few things to look out for:

Capacity. Don’t buy a NAS that can hold your current library. It’s likely that over the next couple of years the amount of digital media you have will only expand, particularly if you buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store. Start with enough capacity for your current library plus plenty of headroom.

Expansion. This is almost always a pay-off with cost. The more drives a NAS unit can house, the more it will cost. If you can manage it, go for a unit with at least four drive bays. Even if you only load it up with two drives now, adding another drive will expand its capacity.

Noise. This is often forgotten. If your NAS will be stored on a desk then shop around for a quieter unit. Running several drives and the fans required to keep them cool can make some NAS boxes sound like a helicopter landing on your desk.

Understand RAID levels. It might sound complex, but the way drives are configured in a NAS matters. Do some research to understand the difference between RAID 0, 1 and 5 in particular.
iTunes server. Not every NAS includes an iTunes server. While many say that they are ‘Media Servers’ this isn’t quite the same thing. The Digital Living Network Alliance, or DLNA, defines a set of standards for sharing media files but Apple doesn’t play by those rules, preferring to create its own system.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us