Airport Extreme: Maximize The Potential for Apple TV

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It's been a while since I have posted on something other than an ancient technology, but today I was browsing around the web trying to find out how I can maximize my use of the Apple TV setup without having to get a new computer. As I did my research, I focused on two Apple devices: The Airport Extreme, and the Apple TV.

The Problem
As it sits right now, the Apple TV can stream video from up to 5 connected computers with iTunes installed, along with having 40 GB of caching space internally. If I were to cache it full of commonly watched videos, it would give me roughly 40 DVDs worth of viewable content. Not bad, but I currently have almost 300 DVDs worth in my collection, and all of which I intend to add to iTunes. That way, they are out of my little son's hands, and more likely to survive. ^_^

So, I need to find a way to store all those videos in such a way as to maximize my viewable content, without spending myself into bankruptcy. I also want to make all that material available across the network, and have it update from multiple sources, if possible.

The Solution
Ultimately I can either have all 5 computers on at once in order to access all the content (which would cost too much in power alone), or I can somehow integrate a Storage Area Network into the home and link all my computers to it. Either one sounds expensive, so let's look at the key pieces of knowledge that is needed in order to accomplish this task:

1. iTunes needs to be able to use another volume other than the install drive.
2. The Storage Area Network would need to have a fast enough connection to be useful.
3. The SAN would need to be accessible by all, yet still provide some security.
4. The Network would need to be secured.

Moving the Location of Your iTunes Library
Because Apple TV doesn't allow an external drive to be hooked up to it's USB port, I needed to find a way to increase the volume of my iTunes library. Yes, my wife has a 250 GB hard drive in her iMac, and I have a 80 GB hard drive in my Power Book, but together we are looking at maxing out the drives without installing any other media. Luckily, I found an answer.

Christopher Breen at came up with this tutorial on how to shift your iTunes play list to an external volume. The examples are very simple, and utilize a setting that I failed to look at in the Preferences. So the quick answer is, Yes, you can move your iTunes play list to another volume to allow for more space on your computer. This would also include a networked volume. Of course, to be useful, it would need to be an auto-mounted volume, but I digress.

So now I know I can move my iTunes off my computer and on to an external volume. That also means that I can move it to a networked volume, providing that the connection to the media is fast enough to perform. So SAN is very possible for using iTunes. This means that my iTunes Library can now be accessed from multiple computers, as long as they all have the most recent iTunes installed. It also means that I only need to have one computer running at a time in order to view that content. But what good is it if I can't afford a SAN?

The SAN Solution: The New Airport Extreme
For those of you who have been following the new Airport Extreme, you may have read that the USB port, while also supporting a printer, can now support an external hard drive. The drive is mountable automatically for Macs (and maybe Windows with the Bonjour Drivers), and it can also support multiple drives through a USB hub. Suddenly, you have a SAN that costs $179.00 plus the cost of the external drives.

I found a 500GB USB drive for $189.99 at Office Depot, and a 1 TB drive for $449.95. Of course, because you can mount multiple drives, you could just mount more than one 500 GB and get your 1 TB capability that way. Either way, it's a really inexpensive SAN that can use 802.11n speeds in a wireless network environment. Now, possibilities have become 1. Cost effective, 2. Secure, and 3. Available to all computers with iTunes.

All totaled, with my Education discount, I can get a 500 GB SAN working for iTunes and Apple TV for $647.99 (plus tax). And the best part about it is the ability to keep the media out of the hands of children.

I hope to have this setup built within a few months depending on funding, so I will report on the project's progress at that point. Currently I know that network media storage is possible for iTunes based on testing I have already conducted. Wish me luck on the rest!