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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  • masterbm - Thursday, September 08, 2011 - link

    If was to build to today I would think about uses i3 or low-end i5 sandy-bridge. The cpu was pick because at the time I thought it was the best bang for the bang for what I need it for. The machine has not let my down yet. My back file server ie older media center box houses the old drives from increase the need for more space. The 750 has stayed because it has the size needed to handle is responsibility/. All drive have certain things that hold and when it get filled it is upgraded. Reply
  • MartenKL - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    I would like my WHS2011 do realtime transcode of 1080p streams with 5.1 channel sound to my xboxes and ps3. Would the 2500T suffice? Reply
  • noxplague - Sunday, October 02, 2011 - link

    First, I think most of these comments became focused on SMB/Midmarket type concerns. This guide was clearly aimed on the pro-sumer looking to solve his data proliferation issues. Not everyone needs enterprise style RAID.

    With the help of this guide I build the following WHS 2011:
    Fractal Design Array R2 Black Aluminum Mini-ITX Desktop Computer Case 300W SFX PSU
    Foxconn H67S LGA 1155 Intel H67 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s Mini ITX
    Intel Pentium G620 Sandy Bridge 2.6GHz
    2 X HITACHI Deskstar 7K3000 2TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s 3.5" (RAID1)
    Kingston HyperX 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3

    Here are some of the scenarios I have enabled with this build:
    Adobe Lightroom 3 on a Mac and on 2 PCs - this is really handy because I can store all photos on the server and have the library on each computer link to the 1 version of the truth. The only limitation is I cannot edit photos on the road that are back on the server.
    iTunes - I have an Apple TV and iPad, carefully configuring iTunes on the server and on my clients I am able to download to have files on the server and still sync/stream everything to my different devices.
    Zune & WP7 - ditto the above. I need to solve the album art issues across all of these devices however.
    Mac - They have no problem accessing the files and RDC works just as well as on Windows.

    Current problem: The only scenario that isn't working well is playing any WMV from the server. The "streaming" is painfully slow. This does not make sense to me because Quicktime videos on the server play on the Macs without a problem over wifi. Movie streaming to the Apple TV is seamless as well.

    My server is connected to my Apple Airport extreme (4th generation) via Gigabit ethernet.

    I found the guide helpful in finding good parts, in particular the case. I wish more time had been spent on scenarios and use cases with the server. Also the HDD section was useless. What would be much more practical would be advise on a decent setup. I decided to use the Intel RAID 1 with identical drives, but I have lots of questions about how to best maintain these and also the best way to consider adding new drives when needed. I'm trying to figure out an automated way to monitor the SMART status and have my server e-mail me if any drive has an issue. An brief overview of different backup methodologies would've been useful as well. Another useful discussion would be on UPS systems and how to configure your server to power down in the case of power loss.

    Thanks for the guide and hope to see more on this topic in the future!
    Reply
  • pacomcfriendly - Saturday, October 15, 2011 - link

    This has been the best OS experience I've found for my own home fileserver. Its built on opensolaris, super easy to work with, free, and zfs / zpool is fantastic. Reply
  • wiz329 - Saturday, December 10, 2011 - link

    This is a very beginner question, but what is the best way to access such a file server over the internet?

    I am looking to either use NAS or build such a home file server to store media. Over LAN, it seems pretty straightforward, just connect to your router. How would you go about accessing/streaming over WAN?
    Reply
  • marcus77 - Saturday, October 06, 2012 - link

    euroNAS would be also worth looking. They are offering storage software that is more for business use but they also offer technical assistance which is nessesary if something goes wrong. Also they have some advanced features such as storage cluster. http://www.euronas.com Reply
  • Amar7 - Monday, December 03, 2012 - link

    Mr. Throckmorton,

    Great File Server Build Guide... Any update to hardware suggestions? Some of the parts are no longer available. Would love some ideas on a budget home file server.

    Much thanks.
    Reply
  • buxe2quec - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    I would put in the list of possible operating systems also NexentaStor, it'a a very polished OpenSolaris/Illumos based NAS distribution free for personal use. Reply
  • war59312 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Would love a 2012 update for this guide? Reply
  • StoatWarbler - Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - link

    I'd love to see a 2013 update, especially for tower cases which can take a bunch of hotswap drive racks (My current ZFS array has 20 2Tb drives + 2 SSDs + OS drives. Yes, I'm barking mad and I enjoy it.)

    Why hotswap? Because opening a case to retrieve a failed drive is troublesome (case has to have access cleared to it, risk of pulling wrong drive on a running system, etc.)

    On the subject of controllers: A good HBA (and SAS expander) are far better than using hardware raid controllers. Modern PCs have more than enough horsepower to push checksum calculations and it means that drives are portable between controllers.

    I know about the cube cases out there such as Lian Li's D8000 - but afaik this doesn't allow for hotswap drives.
    Reply

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