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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  • HMTK - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I've got one and it happily runs Windows Server 2008 R2, even as a domain controller and Microsoft Security Essentials for AV. Only 1 GB RAM but that's enough for simple file storage. I still have 2 bays free if I need more than the 2 TB mirror I have now. And it has an eSATA port I think. Reply
  • tmensonides - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I have a readynas atom as a file server, but have been toying with building an atom based system as 1: A backup for the readynas and 2: a webserver for my wifes business blog (photography)....her blogsite maybe gets 50-75 hits and a max/good day.....

    Could an atom bases syatem handle that with out super crappy load times?
    Reply
  • bobbozzo - Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - link

    If you're using wordpress, it can be pretty slow on low-end hardware, but 75 hits is nothing. Reply
  • HMTK - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Who's going to have a 10 Gb switch at home? Please get real. Most SMB's don't even have that. Why not go full 8 Gb fiber while you're at it :-) Reply
  • alpha754293 - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    @HMTK

    12x IB EDR FTW!!!!

    (what's up? long time no talk.)
    Reply
  • futurepastnow - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I'm just going to post the specs of the file server I built a little over a year ago:

    Windows Home Server (original edition)
    Athlon LE-1660 45W processor
    2GB DDR2 RAM
    Gigabyte 740G mATX mobo
    Six WD Greenpower 1TB drives
    Antec Sonata case
    Corsair 400CX PSU

    I originally tried to build a lower power WHS box with an Atom processor, using a PCIe card to add more SATA ports so I could run all six drives. Performance was not satisfactory, drive indexing and balancing took way too long, and (because of the PCIe card) I got no warning that one of the drives was filling up with bad sectors before it died. And due to the slowness of the Atom, not all of my 2+TB of data had yet been duplicated across the six drives.

    I replaced it with a very cheap K8 CPU and the cheapest motherboard that had six SATA ports built-in and was from a brand I trust. The Athlon is much faster, although a lower-clocked dual-core would have been better. There are better options for those building today, anyway. I'm still very happy with the server in its current form.
    Reply
  • Malih - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    What about underclocking+undervolting the overheated but cheaper Athlon CPU, that would make it quite power efficient and lower in temps compared with the Pentiums in that regard.
    I'm hoping some tweaking tips like this in a Builder's Guide article from Anandtech.
    Reply
  • GTaudiophile - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    In the OS section of the article, he writes:

    "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.)"

    I am confused by this a little bit.

    SAMBA is by no means exclusive to Ubuntu or any other distro. In fact, I use SAMBA shares through FreeNAS and it works quite well. I just think the article alludes (to the lay-person) that SAMBA is somehow exclusive to Ubuntu and it is not.

    Secondly, why does the article not touch on NFS at all? From what I understand, NFS is faster and more reliable than SAMBA.
    Reply
  • Braumin - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    For the average person, WHS 2011 is just the easiest way to go. If someone is moving up from a NAS, then they don't just want file storage. WHS offers great and pain free PC backups with image based restores, a great remote access page with full SSL, and it is dead easy to configure and use.

    I think the comments have gotten a bit out of hand with various RAID incarnations that people have. Most people don't need RAID. They need centralized file storage, and then need a backup. WHS does both. It also supports RAID if you really need it.

    I have to say, I would rather see a bit more in depth on this topic. It is important for many people these days since everyone seems to have at least two computers per house, if not more.
    Reply
  • semo - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    I think that an article of such nature should go in a lot more depth in regards to backups (strategies, equipment and best practices). Reply

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