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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  • TheeVagabond - Thursday, September 29, 2011 - link

    Seriously, people's responses... like they must be rolling in the money. Overkill much, what kind of home data do people have. Reply
  • DanNeely - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    With the cheapest 10GB nic's on newegg being almost $500 each it's still far too expensive for the typical home network. You'd also probably want a significantly more powerul system than what was described in the article. Feeding a 10GB NIC generally eats an entire core of a XEON chip. Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Our measurement show that a 10GB NIC needs even more than one core. 14% of 12 2 GHz Xeon cores, that is about 3.4 GHz of Xeon power.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/4014/10g-more-than-a...

    Described in desktop terms, that means that you need at least one of Core I5 2400 system just to power your 10G cards. And you probably need more.
    Reply
  • DanNeely - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Ooops. Guess i skimmed that article too fast; didn't realize it was a hex-core chip. Reply
  • DanNeely - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    10c/kwh is roughly $1/wattyear, so it'd only take around a year for the lower powered Intel box to save more than the AMD equivalent. Reply
  • yottabit42 - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    No mention of OpenFiler as a NAS distribution?

    It's based on a funky, little-known Linux distribution, but I found it much easier to setup and more advanced than FreeNAS. I've been using it for years to host 10 TB of RAID-5 storage and 2 TB of RAID-6 storage, served via FTP, Samba, and rsync. Both arrays are soft-RAID, too. Virtually no problems ever, even with frequent power outages and using XFS as the filesystem (prone to corruption with power outages due to high degree of caching).
    Reply
  • HMTK - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Yep. I also like OpenFiler. Easy to set up NFS and iSCSI if that's your thing. Reply
  • whaler_99 - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    I am surprised as you mention WHS and FreeNas, as well as drop the Drobo and such name around, that you did not look at unRAID. This is a solution a lot of us are turning to - a basic system license is free, and a 20 drive data system with parity and cache runs you $150 for the license. And can run on pretty much whatever you have laying around. You can start small and grow big. Definately worth a look. Reply
  • jnmfox - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    +1000

    unRAID is easy to use has great community support and like was mentioned is free and can be put on leftover hardware. For basic media storage it is one of the best options for a file server. unRAID doesn't have the limitations of RAID, you can use any combination of HDs and add more as needed, data is protected via the parity drive so you don't have data duplication giving you more HD space.
    Reply
  • 3DoubleD - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    + another 1000

    Unraid is awesome. It is a shame that it was left out of this review. It has to be one of the most flexible solutions out there. It is super easy to use, yet offers an unlimited amount of customization. The community support is fantastic as well.

    As far as DIY home storage server software goes, I think it's the best around.
    Reply

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