While the focus of this guide is hardware, it's worth first briefly discussing home file server operating system options. 

Windows Home Server 2011

Microsoft launched its latest version of WHS earlier this year.  It can regularly be found for $50 or less when it's on sale.  Of all the file server operating systems available, WHS2011 is the easiest to both set up and administer for users familiar with the Windows series of desktop operating systems and less familiar with Unix or Linux.  If you've installed and configured Windows XP, Vista, or 7, you can install and configure WHS2011 with a minimal (or even no) extra research.  The downside to this ease of use for the home file server novice is, of course, cost - WHS2011 is not free.

FreeBSD and FreeNAS

FreeBSD is, of course, free.  Because it is a Unix operating system, it requires time and effort to learn how to use.  While its installation uses an old text-based system and its interface is command line-based, you can administer it from a Windows PC using a terminal like PuTTY.  I generally do not recommend FreeBSD to users unfamiliar with Unix.  However, if you are intrigued by the world of Unix and are interested in making your first foray into a non-Windows OS, setting up a file server is a relatively easy learning experience compared to other Unix projects.

FreeNAS is based on FreeBSD but is built specifically to run as a file server.  It features an intuitive, easy to use web interface as well as a command line interface.  Both FreeBSD and FreeNAS support ZFS, a file system like NTFS and FAT32.  ZFS offers many benefits to NTFS such as functionally (for the home user) limitless file and partition size caps, autorepair, and RAID-Z.  Though it is aimed more at enterprise and commercial users than consumers, Matt wrote an article that has lots of useful information about ZFS last year.

Ubuntu and Samba

Ubuntu is arguably the easiest Linux distribution for Windows users to learn how to use.  Unsurprisingly, then, it has the largest install base of any Linux distro at over 12 million.  While there is an Ubuntu Server Edition, one of the easiest ways to turn Ubuntu into a home file server is to install and use Samba.  (Samba can be used on not only Ubuntu, but also FreeBSD.)  Samba is especially useful if you'll have mixed clients (i.e. Windows, OS X, and Unix/Linux) using your home file server.  Though FreeNAS certainly works with Windows clients, Samba sets the standard for seamless integration with Windows and interoperability is one of its foci.

Succinctly, WHS2011 is very easy to use, but costs money.  Installing Ubuntu and Samba is not particularly difficult, and even if you've never used any type of Linux before, you can likely have a Samba home file server up and running in a morning or afternoon.  FreeNAS is arguably a bit more challenging than Ubuntu with Samba but still within a few hours' grasp of the beginner.  FreeBSD is potentially far more capable than WHS, Ubuntu/Samba, and FreeNAS, but many of its features are mostly irrelevant to a home file server and its learning curve is fairly steep.  When properly configured, all of the above solutions are sufficiently secure for a typical home user.  Most importantly, all of these options just plain work for a home file server.  An extensive comparison of each OS's pros and cons in the context of a home file server is beyond the scope of this article, but now that we've covered a few OS options worth your consideration, let's get to the hardware!

Introduction to File Servers CPUs, Motherboards, and RAM
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  • praeses - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I'm doubtful it is the most widely used platform for home users, but it does offer some pretty attractive features such as spinning down individual drives in the array, mix and match sizes, and isolated data loss with multiple drive failures. It seems like a better "drobo" and its not necessarily just a NAS as this article is trying to distinguish from. Reply
  • nevertell - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I wouldn't use any cpu that isn't able to transcode 1080p streams, as that would be the best use of such a box. If I use a ps3 to watch movies, I can setup a mediaserver on the box so every media file is available for every device in my network. While you can get ffmpeg to be used as a transcoder, the formats you can transcode using a gpu are limited. Reply
  • Rookie_MIB - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Running two file servers at home right now - one is a media server:

    Cooler Master full tower case
    Antec 580w power supply.
    Gigabyte 785 board (5 sata, 2 ide ports)
    Phenom II x2 550
    2gb memory
    1 x 20GB WD system drive (IDE - basic boot drive)
    5 x 2TB Western Digital green drives (RAID5 SoftRAID)
    FreeNAS 8.0

    Been running for a few months now and no problems whatsoever. I have the drives running the standard RAID5 and haven't had any dropouts, rebuilds, anything. I had to upgrade it as I was running out of space on the previous setup:

    Antec full tower
    Antec 400w power supply
    Gigabyte P4 board
    Intel P4 @ 2.4ghz
    No-name 4 port PCI raid card (SiS chipset)
    1 x 40GB WD drive (system drive)
    3 x 1TB Western Digital Green drives (RAID5 SoftRAID)
    FreeNAS 7.0

    That system was running for a few years with -no- issues beyond some reboot problems due to compatibility with FireWire which I finally tracked down (it would hang on reboot repeatedly if it ever shut down), but I never ran into problems with stability or corruption of the drives.

    All in all, I tend to find that FreeNAS is a very solid solution if you're looking for a budget build. The only downside is that some of the older hardware is nowhere near as power efficient as some of the newer stuff such as the NAS enclosures running ARM hardware or the newer AMD stuff (I rule out Atom builds as well, they're vastly underpowered) running the E350's.

    If I were to build a 'complete' system from the ground up I'd really look at a full enclosure (plenty of room for space) with an AMD ITX board with an E350 chip (5 sata plus an expansion card for 4 more sata ports). That would give you 1 boot drive, 8 file drives, 24tb of space which would probably draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-45 watts for the drives and around 30 watts for the system board/processor.
    Reply
  • Sapan - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Hi guys, I am new to file severs so this may sound like a dumb question but I really need to know the answer:

    Currently I have 4 external hard drives (1TB, 1TB, 2TB, 3TB) each one about 75% filled and growing, and I wish to move all of that data to a home file server so I can access that data wherever I am and without having to plugin a hard drive every time. I plan to use 4x3TB
    for the server but my question is when I setup a file server using windows home server 2011, will the drives show up as just one big drive (like Raid 0) or just 4 separate drives where I still have to manage HDD capacities? Because right now I have a lot of free space on each drive but they are separate and not as useful as they would be together. Also would it be easy to add another drive to my setup? Would it just join the pool of storage or show up as a separate drive? I know I could use RAID but again I am a novice and I worry about RAID's reliability and expandability. I hope my question makes sense? Thanks
    Reply
  • jtag - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    If you use RAID0, then any one drive failure will cause you to lose everything. Essentially RAID0 is the opposite of redundancy, each drive becomes a point of failure, decreasing the reliability of your array. Read this wiki article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID before you do anything. RAID0 should only ever be used to maximize performance, such as with swap partitions, never use it to store anything even remotely important.

    Some RAID schemes can be very reliable, for example a RAID6 will survive 2 drive failures, and with hot spares will automatically bring back redundancy by re-building onto those spares while you obtain replacements for the failed devices. That said, a RAID6 won't survive a fire, theft or user error, so you still need to make backups of anything important. Also the more drives you add (that increase capacity) the less reliable your RAID becomes, because each drive adds a new point of failure.

    Software RAID, such as is used in Linux, can allow for expandability. I started my current home RAID as a RAID1 (mirror) of two 2TB drives. I added a third drive and using a handful if commands, grew and reshaped my array into a RAID5. Since then I've added three more drives and a second SATA controller card, and now have a RAID6 with a hot spare - essentially I added three drives to gain one drive of extra capacity.

    I don't know how to do any of this in software under Windows, but I would expect/hope it would be possible. Being a novice means you're going the have to learn a lot before you do anything critical. My advice would be - make backups before you do anything, and run tests on non-critical/spare systems.
    Reply
  • lamontagne - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - link

    I was previously planning on buying a Synology ds1511+, but after reading this article, I've been considering the building a WHS2011 file-server route to the tune of almost $300 cheaper.

    I've got 5 1.5TB hard drives and would get an SSD for the operating system.

    I want to run a RAID 6, and build a mini-itx system as described, but I've been trying to figure out if I can have the RAID span across separate controllers (ie. mobo and PCI-E controller card). From your comment, it appears that this is a possibility.

    Before I spend a bunch of cash, can you please confirm that fact for me...
    Reply
  • billdcat4 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Did you mean the G620T? It has a 35W TDP and a slim heatsink like the one pictured.
    I have a G620 and it came with the full height heatsink.
    Reply
  • imaheadcase - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Unless you got something specific WHS won't do, no real reason not to get it. You can get it free if you are in college, and even then its only $50. Drop in the bucket for a server.

    I've built 10+ of them for people and not a single complaint. Restores just work, use it for media streaming, you can back up to cloud from it if you want, great add-ons, etc.

    The MOST important thing of a server imo is the case. They are SO hard to find in the right config you want. Esp since lots of people use WHS next to media centers.
    Reply
  • lamontagne - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - link

    WHS... free?

    That's great news. Do you know where to look for that?
    Reply
  • Eiffel - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    A great way to create a file server for those of us in the UK is to purchase an HP Microserver D36L (£130 or less after HP rebate).

    This machine comes with 1 GB of ECC DDR3, an AMD Athlon(tm) II Neo N36L Dual-Core Processor, and can take up to 6 SATA-II drives (or more with PCI cards or USB adapters). It doesn't include an operating system, but comes with a starter disk (250GB only)

    Mine is set up with Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, 4 old 500GB WD500AAKS drives in Raid 5, plus a 2TB drive and an 80GB system drive... Performance is excellent as throughput is very close to Gb Ethernet's specs. There is also a growing base of WHS2011 users (atlhough some more memory -ECC or not- is needed for optimal results)

    For redundancy, the easiest solution is to get a second D36L ;-)
    Reply

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