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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  • jtag - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Exactly so: hdparm --make-bad-sector

    This is "Exceptionally dangerous. Do not use this option!!" according to the man page, which goes on to say "This can be useful for testing of device/RAID error recovery mechanisms."
    Reply
  • pvdw - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    The best case I've found for a 4+ HDD SFF home server is the Lian Li PC-Q08. For me sound and size are most important.

    http://www.silentpcreview.com/Silent_Home_Server_B...

    BTW, Linux has some significant advantages over WHS when used for more than just a file server. But I'll leave those for you look up.
    Reply
  • pvdw - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    BTW, I forgot to mention some things about my configuration.

    Linux RAID-1+0 far copies
    Automated local backups using hard-links
    Auto-rotation of backups
    Auto-rsync to single remote backup
    VPN Server (not finished setting up yet as has become a lower priority)
    Print Server
    Torrent server (Transmission)
    Webserver (web dev environment)
    SSH

    Most of that is more than you'll need, but I'd definitely recommend at least RAID1 and auto-backups for a file server.
    Reply
  • bobbozzo - Wednesday, September 07, 2011 - link

    A hard-link 'backup' won't protect you if the file is modified or corrupted. Reply
  • jacob733 - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    I set up a fileserver system based on H67 some time ago. Turns out there is a bottleneck somewhere so the SATA throughput is shared between multiple channels. When filling all the channels with magnetic storage, the total throughput is much lower than expected. My old NForce4-based system is actually much faster in this test, but it only supports 4 SATA channels so I can't use it for this.
    Perhaps Anandtech could add a test that fills all the SATA channels instead of just putting a single SSD on the first channel?

    I would also like to warn about stuffing more than 5-6 disks into the same case. Putting more disks in there will take the combined startup current to the extreme, which will seriously reduce the PSU lifetime. Also, it doesn't help to get a larger PSU for this, since these PSUs are segmented, and all the extra wattage goes to support extra graphics cards and perhaps a large CPU, while the rails used for disks are kept fairly constant.
    Whenever I have had a HDD crash in a system with many disks, I have later been able to track it to voltage fluctuations due to a dying PSU.

    /Jacob
    Reply
  • pvdw - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    Hard drives use the 12V line(s), which are the same ones used by graphics cards. Western Digital Green 2TB drives (WD20EARX), use a peak of 1.75A each. So you won't exceed the 20A+ current supplied by a good PSU.

    The biggest problem is that so many PSUs are rubbish!! Since most customers look at wattage and not the build quality of a PSU, they're conned into buying the wrong one. A good quality 300W PSU would easily run a 6-disk home server. I'd recommend something like the Seasonic S12II or M12II, or the Nexus Value 430.
    Reply
  • Powerlurker - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    The problem is that it's virtually impossible for a consumer to assess the build quality of a PSU before buying it. Reply
  • bigboxes - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Yup. I use a Seasonic S12 430 to power my 9 drive file server. Rock solid. Runs 24/7. Got tired of having HDDs die due to the bad PSU so I invested in a quality one. I also use a APC 1250VA UPS as well to add to the system's reliability. Reply
  • Iketh - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    you know, reading through these comments, I'm liking my idea more and more...

    use a cheap laptop and daisy chain the hell out of 2.5" hdds... yea
    Reply
  • Iketh - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    excuse me, I should clarify that by daisy chain = powered hub Reply

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