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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  • GTaudiophile - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    I would be curious to know which type of RAID you all run. Perhaps we could do a poll?

    I assume that the three most popular types of RAID are RAID 0, RAID 5, RAID 1.

    I personally use RAID 1 and wonder why people poo-hoo it so much. I use it strictly as a backup+file hosting solution.
    Reply
  • GTaudiophile - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    I should add ZFS to the list as well...

    RAID 0
    RAID 5
    RAID 1
    ZFS
    Reply
  • compudaze - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    ZFS is a file system like EXT4, UFS or NTFS. RAID-Z [or RAID-Z1] could be considered the ZFS equivalent of RAID-5 while RAID-Z2 would be the ZFS equivalent of RAID-6. Reply
  • jtag - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    For my (Linux) storage server I have a RAID6 with a hot spare. I started with RAID1 of two 2TB drives on this machine, added a third drive and converted to RAID5 with a reshape command a year later, then added two more drives and converted to RAID6 with another reshape, and finally added a hot spare a few months ago. The machine itself had a CPU upgrade (single core to two core) and a SATA card added when I moved to RAID6.

    There's nothing wrong with RAID1, it depends on your application - it didn't really make sense to continue with RAID1 when I started expanding my storage array, but my /boot partition is a small RAID1 at the start of all 5 active drives; if any drive fails, my machine should still boot. Grub (or I suspect any boot-loader) can't boot from a striped software RAID array. My Windows workstation is configured with a (hardware) RAID1, which paid off pretty quickly as one drive failed within weeks of getting it. My latest build has an SSD boot drive, so no RAID at all there.
    Reply
  • Slaimus - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    For a server that is expected to have long uptimes, a benefit of running the Athlon II is that it is the only one in the review that supports ECC memory. Intel forces you to buy a Xeon to get ECC support.

    There is a reason all business file servers have ECC memory.
    Reply
  • Vepsa - Tuesday, September 06, 2011 - link

    I used to use WHS v1, but when DE was removed from WHS 2011 I went looking for an alternative. I settled on Amahi. Runs on top of Fedora 14 (until 16 is final). Great product, fast & does more than just serve files.

    http://amahi.org
    Reply
  • sligett - Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - link

    A newcomer to the "file server" OS stable is Resara Server. They offer a community version (free) as well as a supported version. See resara.org or resara.com. It's available as a VM or for Ubuntu. Administer it from Windows, Mac, or Linux. I'm using it for my Windows 7 clients. Reply
  • dalmar72 - Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - link

    Unraid is also very simple to setup, it does cost money once you get past 3 drives, but not having to deal with hardware raid, and if you do lose more than one drive in an array, you don't lose everything. Alos you can grow the array at any time. Reply
  • somedude1234 - Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - link

    I wanted to build a proper NAS to displace the expsnding pile of USB and eSATA attached HDDs that was becoming unmanagable. At the same time I needed to build a triple-head workstation. With VMware ESXi I was able to build a single system that does it all.

    Operating System / Storage Platform: VMWare ESXi / NexentaStor Community Edition (VM)
    CPU: Intel Xeon X3440
    Motherboard: SuperMicro X8SIA-F
    Chassis: Antec 900 v2
    Drives: 5x Samsung F4 HD204UI (data), 1x OCZ Vertex2 60GB (ESXi OS drive)
    RAM: 16GB (4x Kingston KVR1066D3Q8R7S/4G)
    Add-in Cards: Promise SATA 300 TX4, AMD Radeon 6850
    Power Supply: Seasonic SS-560KM
    Other Bits: Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro (USB Sound Card)
    Usage Profile: Home NAS, streaming media server, video transcoding, primary workstation

    Virtual Machines:
    - NexentaStor Community Edition (VMDirectPath for the on-board SATA controller)
    - Ubuntu 10.10 (32) running PS3 media server
    - Windows 7 Ultimate x64 (VMDirectPath for the AMD Radeon 6850 and one of the on-board USB controllers)

    The 5x Samsung 2TB drives make up a RAIDZ1 in Nexenta which is exported back to ESXi via NFS and to the rest of the network via CIFS. The Antec 900 lets me upgrade to a total of 15x drives over time by using 5-in-3 backplanes. At that point I'll install a SAS controller and pass that through to the storage VM.

    This is well overkill for just a file server, but for my needs it's been perfect. As an added bonus, I can reboot the Windows 7 workstation and/or Ubuntu VM's without affecting network access to the big data shares.
    Reply
  • masterbm - Thursday, September 08, 2011 - link

    One thing I did is I built my file server into a Media center pc. Actually the original version was for just media center pc. The old version still functions as bedroom media center 1 tv tuner no hd.
    My build which has been running for almost 2 years nonstop is
    amd 620
    Gigabyte board am2+ with amd 780 chipset.s
    4 gb ddr 2 800 (2 2 gb sticks)
    zalman butterfly cooler for cpu.
    1 250 ide 7200 for boot drive( still using the orinigal format from the old machine)
    1 ide dvd drve
    4 2tb sata stoarge drives
    1 750 gb drive for music and tv record data
    2 ati 650 tv tuners both have ditgial cable box connected to them and the rf adatapter to run boxes) also both hd inputs are connected. Thought the rf adapter would be unstable but after some setup issue work fine for 4 months now.
    usb remote control.
    wireless keyboard and mouse
    then connected to 5.1 amp optical
    then connected to 1080 tv via usb using the onboard 4200 graphics (128 side port memory)
    I very much love this setup cpu has plenty of horse power to do media center play hd content effortless.
    I also enable muitlply rdp connections so I can admin box though another terminal. Or setup to encode videos.
    Reply

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