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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  • thesandbender - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    It basically throws up a list of everything you could buy without providing any good reasons about why you should or should not. Can you really have the following in a 'buyer's' guide? "the most important factor in long-term HDD reliability is probably luck."

    Things that would have been nice to see:

    1. Comparison of motherboard performance. Is a Dual 1.8ghz Atom enough to manage my RAID-5 array or do I need to pony up for a faster processor?

    2. A real comparison of OS features and performance. This article just basically listed every OS and said "There are some good things... their are some bad things". Maybe benchmark each OS's performance as a SMB file share?

    3. If one of your drive's reports an error... you should probably replace it. If it reports multiple errors, you should almost certainly replace it as soon as possible. Really? You think?

    Most of the articles on Anandtech are pretty useful but this one smacks of a frantic attempt to finish a paper before class starts.
  • djc208 - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    I would agree, especially about the OS section.

    Since a lot of the capabilities and stability of the system will be based on what OS you are running a little more in-depth look at each would have been nice.

    I run and like the original version of WHS. I'm reluctant to move to 2011 since it's lost a lot of it's benefits and added too few new ones as far as I've seen. But if actually discussing OS's it's worth listing what they offer out of the box.

    WHS does still offer easy integration and control from remote PCs, It does still handle client PC backups, and being Windows does allow you to do basically anything a windows PC will do with a little extra work.

    Mine is running SageTV and ComSkip to handle all my DVR/media serving duties, and it has a few other services installed like eye-fi so I don't have to fire up a "normal" PC just to copy the files to the server anyway, just walk in the house and turn on the camera.

    But knowing a little more about what is out there for alternatives would be nice in case I decide not to eventually go to WHS 2011.
  • kake - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    What about using a rack mount style case? For example, right now we're looking at moving our current tower (with 8 drives in it) to this one (or something like it):


    A 24 port hot swap 4U case provides plenty of expansion, ease of access to drives, and it doesn't have to be rack mounted as it comes with feet.

    At 400 dollars, I don't know of anything that provides such a bang/buck combination.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Well, you also need the rack, which itself is going to dump another few hundred dollars on you.
    Consider the Lian-Li PC-V343 (http://skinflint.co.uk/301329 - not sure which markets it's available in) which (with 6 hot swap front ends) also houses 24 hot swap hard drives (or 30, if you use 5-in-3s) and yet costs the same as the rack case, while being able to mount conventional hardware. In the end it will probably be a lot cheaper than going with a rack-mount.

    Of course, if you already have a rack for your switch, router and domain server, then adding 4U's is relatively straightforward. For the home and small office (less than 24 clients), I'm not sure going rack is economical.
  • jrocks84 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    You don't actually need a rack for a single server, you can just put it on the ground. Also the Norco RPC-4224 has the hard drive racks included, with the Lian Li, you would have to buy 4 or 5 in 3 racks, nearly doubling the price. You also have to take into account that the total volume of the Lian Li is nearly 2x as much. Reply
  • MrCromulent - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Good for beginners, but to be honest I expected a little more depth from an Anandtech article. How about questions like:

    - Have all motherboard recommendations been positively tested to run under FreeBSD / FreeNAS? I my experience, FreeBSD is much more picky when it comes to SATA and network controllers than Linux and Windows.

    - How much does (absence of) hardware-accelerated encryption impact transfer speeds on every processor mentioned?

    - How important is ECC RAM? That's the reason I chose an Asus AM3 board for my file server. If you bother setting up a nice checksummed ZFS Raid, I would assume you also make sure your RAM has some parity check as well.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    If you have ECC on the disk, do you still have to worry about RAM?
    After all, data consistency should be given. At worst some cosmic ray will flip a bit of a kernel page and panic/crash, but that's exceedingly rare, and other hardware/software failures are more likely to send you into a crash than that.

    ECC is nice if you actually fill your memory, for example in numerical simulation for engineering, you really don't want a flipped bit to impact the predicted tolerances, but if you already have an integrity check - why worry about RAM (on a fileserver)

    Also, as you said, ECC is expensive: either you have to go AMD and pay for the extra electricty and not get AES acceleration, or you go Xeon and pay twice as much for mainboard and CPU as you normally would.

    Currently I don't see ECC as an economically viable choice.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    From what I read, if you have RAID and don't have a 500+ bucks RAID controller, your RAM will be used for parity stuff. I have read of 2 cases where people had a RAID5 and everything went fine until they all of a sudden couldn't read their data without any prior indication of a problem. Turned out, one of their RAMs was faulty. Haven't read anything of the sort happening with ECC RAM (though that is hardly a good amount of data, I agree ;-)).

    A lot of things are pretty rare, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take action to avoid them, if those actions are not that huge. For me, going the AMD route with ECC didn't cost any more than the Pentium/1155 route described here.
    - Phenom II X4 840 + Asus M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 + 8GB Kingston DDR3-ECC 1333MHz cost 223€.
    - Pentium G620 + comparable Mainboard (ASUS P8H67) + 8GB DDR3 1333MHz RAM cost 159€

    That's a 64€ difference (my system that costs 700€ without the HDDs, so with the Intel route I could have saved ~10%). That wouldn't have bought me a better RAID controller. And again, all the RAID people I talked to have indicated that doing RAID with parity without ECC RAM is akin to data suicide.
    Performance wise there won't be much difference between the X4 and the Pentium if I tax them laxly. But with the 2 extra cores I have the possibility of running more services off my server in the future.
    I'll also undervolt the CPU, so the power consumption will still be higher for the X4, but not by a lot.

    As for AES, I don't need it and you don't get it in any sub 145€ Intel CPU anyway, so that's not any argument if you talk about ECC being too expensive.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    The i5 650 is below 135, actually, the cheapest Xeon is 20 euro more expensive.
    The ECC DDR3 is another ~20 euro more expensive. (in this case for the cheapest 3x1GB triple channel kit)
    And finally, you've got to use a 1366 board, where the same 10 SATA ports are 70 euros more expensive.

    (WTF, you can get an ASRock P55 extreme 4 for 110 euros! That's pretty insane.)

    So, if you do do encryption, and/or want to go 32nm, then the difference is more than a 100 euros.
    On a system that otherwise costs, for these components 275 euros.
    25% more for something that induces a MBTF of over 9000!? (sorry, couldnt resist) - It's okay if you go AMD anyway, but for Intel ECC-ram is prohibitively expensive.
  • Flashfir - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Mine runs at around 26-33C

    Article says best is around 40C?
    Would I be correct in trying to up the hard drive temperatures to that range?

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