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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  • chippyminton - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I work with this sort of hardware but have gradually come to the conclusion that this is overly complicated, expensive and utterly pointless at home. In a way it's a bit oldschool in it's thinking.

    I now use 2 extremely cheap Western digital "my book" live 3TB drives. These cost only $20 or so more than the drive itself and all are more or less full linux machines wrapped around your storage; shell access is easy. These 2 drives simply rsync to each other (or any other PC) for redundancy automatically - in fact they are in different rooms so offer better protection than a RAID array in case of theft, fire etc.. These give about 35MB/s on a gigabit network (that's megabytes) each and therefore cope easily with anything at home.

    Best of all they spin down and only draw 2W each (even when operating top out at 12W). The whole system took maybe and hour and a half to set up and has run flawlessly for 6 months. If one fails I can swap it with the same or A.N Other Linux machine.

    And what is it discussing RAID performance? What are you guys doing? This is a domestic guide not a datacenter primer. Just how many full-hd streams do you need? I really don't recommend RAID solutions for long term data storage in the home after a decade or so of using them. RAID is about uptime, not data security (OK and in some terms performance).

    This was brought how to me when I had to recover some data on an NVRAID array. Basically the only way we could do it was find a secondhand mainboard and build up a whole new PC which was a major PITA. I'd stick to software RAID within the OS at home if you really must use it as it's far easier to recover. It's not like the professional environment with a service contract whereby a man turns up with a NOS new raid card that went out of production 15 years ago and saves the day.

    Repeat: RAID is not backup. RAID at home is more often a weakness not a strength.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I think this article falls short of the standard Anandtech level of professionalism I've come to expect. Maybe it wasn't meant to be that in depth. But for me, this is nothing more than a preview to a file server guide.

    No mention of ECC, no mention of RAID pros/cons, specific RAID hardware, no mention of UPSs and networking technology, no mention of back planes and subsequently no mention of all-5.25" tray cases, no WOL or 24/7 mentioned.

    For my taste, this is an okay first look for people who have never put together a computer system. But for everyone else, you just stated what they already knew. Kinda disappointed now. :-( But I hope you will follow this up with more in depth reviews. :D
  • Reikon - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    I thought so too. The content covered is mostly obvious and it seems written for, to put it nicely, a less technically-adept audience. The writing style also seems to be like those lower quality sites that fish for hits instead of providing quality insight.

    And it's not just this article. A lot of the newer authors don't seem to have the writing capability or insight that the main writers that Anandtech had before. I don't want to name names because most (none?) are clearly as bad as this one, but Anand should pick his writers more carefully. It makes the site's quality look like it's slipping.
  • Malih - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    maybe Buyer's Guide is better title instead of Builder's Guide.
    This Guide just tells you what components to buy/use.
  • dealcorn - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    The consensus view on the Debian and Ubuntu forums is that Atom is a great home server chip. In the rest of the world, few care because no one wants to learn Linux at home.

    I understand why you dismissed the overpriced office NAS devices but a heads up should be given regarding the coming deluge of affordable home NAS devices. A home NAS is an end run around the fact that nobody at home wants to learn Linux. It does everything you want using a browser: nobody has to know its Linux. From a software perspective, the overpriced but cute $140 SilverStone DC01 is a precursor of the coming deluge of affordable home NAS devices. ARM and Intel are about to go to war in the home server market and will do anything to be properly positioned to slit the other's throat in a gentlemanly way. Expect free bundled NAS functionality and a better selection of the ports you want as that is what happens in competitive markets. If ARM has it's act together, my expectation is that comparable functionality in a less attractive case will be available for half the money in your choice ARM or Atom platforms within a year. Life is about to get real good in the bottom third of the home server market.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Like he said, NAS is a great and easy way to get storage space for your home system. But they don't offer any good upgrade ability if you need more storage (4 HDD NAS systems are about the highest affordable options, after that, DIY storage becomes cheaper), they often don't offer the best performance (still mostly good enough for HD streaming) and they don't offer anything but storage space. Want to run an email server later? No can do. I have also heard a lot of people say that you shouldn't do RAID with NAS systems.

    Since this is a file _server_ guide, I think he made the right decision to not go in depth with regards to NAS. He did mention them and told the viewer to read up on them if they never heard about them. Good enough in my book.
  • rowcroft - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Been buying these for a while and they run great. Nice package and surprisingly quiet.

  • grg3 - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    One of the best operating systems for a file server is Linux. One of the best Linux distributions currently available is Ubuntu. However, one of the best and easiest to configure file server installations, is Turnkey Linux File Server Appliance http://www.turnkeylinux.org/fileserver.

    Based on a minimal installation of Ubuntu, Turnkey Linux File server can be up and going in a matter of minutes. Put it on just about any hardware you like and it will ready to serve files. I have seen it work on a virtual machine, an old desktop and server packed with disk drives. Setting up raid is a breeze using Webmin raid configuration and because it is Linux software raid, you are not dependent on a specific controller.

    The files can be accessed via Samba, SSH, Web based file manager, or Webmin. Try it! You have nothing to lose.
  • HMiller - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    Just as an example, I picked up a Dell PowerEdge 2900 with dual 4 core CPUs, 16 GB ECC RAM, Perc5i RAID Controller, 10 hot swap drive bays, dual server grade gigabit NICs, redundant PSUs, and Dell Remote Access Controller for remote screen control outside the OS. Total price on eBay was $790 with shipping. I even got 10 36gb 15,000 rpm SAS drives. 4 of those small drives make an OS drive similar in speed to a low end SSD, leaving space for adding 6 2TB drives for RAID5 data storage. I get 110MB/sec file copies, and 250MB/sec transfer speeds within the RAID volumes. Gigabit Ethernet is my bottleneck.

    It is loud, so you need a basement or place away from people, but you get a lot more for you money than with junky low power consumer parts.

    Windows 2008 R2 is what I am using, but most Linux distros would be fully supported as well. I think this will last longer and perform a lot better for similar or lower cost new hardware.

    Consumer hardware has always seemed to struggle with heavy disk and network load in my experience, regardless of it's stated specification. Mainboard disk controllers with 6 or 8 sata ports mostly behave like junk if you actually populate all their sata ports.
  • crótach - Monday, September 05, 2011 - link

    i thought it was the most widely used NAS raid platform for home users?

    also the choice of motherboards is quite narrow. what about some supermicro itx boards with 6 sata headers, to me that would be a perfect match for the fractal array r2 case with 6 hard drive slots :)

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