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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  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I guess it's not open source, and the free version has little in the way of support, as well as little deployment, compared to the standard RAID implementations.
    I'd stick with something proven and stable, especially if I trust it with storing all my data.
  • 3DoubleD - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 - link

    While it is not 100% open source, I would say the meaningful bulk of it is. Unraid is based on a stripped down version of Slackware. Moreover, the abundance of plugin's, are developed by the community and completely free. When compared to WHS, there is really no comparison.

    In terms of support for the free version, I received ample support on the Unraid forums while testing out the free version. This included support from both expert users AND Limetech employees. Payment is not a requirement for browsing or posting on the forums.

    Finally, you question the stability of the system without any justification. Do you justify this based on the size of the user base? In that case, the original WHS was REALLY stable... oh wait what was that about the file corruption problems?

    I've been using Unraid for 2 years and I can attest not only to the stability of the software, but also to the hard work of the Limetech employees and enthusiastic user base. Nothing is released without being heavily tested.

    Still, you should never rely on one system to protect all of your data, regardless of the software or hardware you are using. Unraid protects you against hard drive failure. You still need to make backups of critical data. I wouldn't trust any system with the only copy of my data.
  • arswihart - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    I think a survey of the best pre-configured NAS boxes from the likes of QNAP, Synology, and others, would be a nice follow-up to this great article. Reply
  • Hrel - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Kind of surprised you didn't mention UPS or surge protection. Yes choose a good power supply. But plug that power supply into a UPS and since UPS's have inadequate surge protection plug that into a high quality surge protector. How good do you think it is for your hard drives to randomly shut down every time the power goes out?

    I personally use a small 60 dollar APC UPS plugged into a Belkin surge protector rated at about 4000 Joules. I have my computer and file server set up to power themselves down properly when being powered by UPS. That was there are never improper shut downs.

    Finally, in my experience FreeNAS works fine on 1GB of RAM. (I've never tried less). Only reason I could think to have more than that is if you're streaming HD video.
  • JohanAnandtech - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    "Only reason I could think to have more than that is if you're streaming HD video. "

    Filesystem caching does wonders for the performance of a fileserver. I would definitely use 4 GB.
  • tiro_uspsss - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Why wasn't ECC RAM mentioned?
    Please don't give the excuse 'its too expensive' - it isn't - suck it up.
    Given that the file server stays on 24/7(?) & is holding data, ECC is a no-brainer!

    Oh & for anyone interested I know a way to get 4 cores, 2GB ECC+REG RAM, 2x GbE Intel server mobo for ~USD$60 & it'll take ~100W from the wall socket @ load. Only downside to this rig config is: 32-bit only, E-ATX mobo & only 2 expansion slots (PCIEx8 & PCI-X). PCIEx8 is enough for a RAID card tho. Mobo has 6 SATA ports.
  • imaheadcase - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    ECC is not needed is why. Servers don't need error correction since its just for storage and not actually doing work. Reply
  • HMTK - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    For something that runs 24/7 you DO consider ECC. Just in case something happens in memory and gets written to disk in a corrupt state. Reply
  • WillR - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Sorry, but the first half of page 3 about CPUs is poorly written.

    "My preferred Atom home server motherboard/cpu combo is the ASUS AT5NM10T-I, a passively-cooled, Atom D525 "

    Links to a deactivated product. And then it's obviously not preferred when you say

    "it is difficult to recommend the Atom-based solution given Zacate's substantial performance advantage."

    Even though AnandTech's own Bench charts for the two contradict this claim. http://www.anandtech.com/bench/Product/328?vs=110

    The two are nearly identical performance wise. I'd personally reiterate the lack of hardware encryption and suggest more power for the user that likes having the future option of utilizing SW RAID with parity. Neither are quite powerful enough to handle that task while trying to saturate a gbit LAN.

    I personally consider purchasing a copy of WHS to perform the function of a simple file server as absurd. For what purpose? To have your XBox 360 work with it out of the box?

    To add to the absurdity, I'd suggest:
    6 SATA II ports, dual high quality NICs for some redundancy, and IPMI.

    Intel Xeon E3-1220
    as dual core Xeons are nearly extinct.

    $15-40 worth of Kingston or Crucial ECC DDR3. 1 GB is plenty for a file server, but 4 is so cheap these days even with ECC that you might as well buy some OS level cache.

    IMHO, if you're going to suggest parts for a server, suggest server parts even if it's for a home user/office. Also, IMHO, for anything less than what's needed by a rig such as this, the user would probably be well served by a NAS unit or even a router with support for sharing an external hard drive on the LAN and FTP to the world via the router's own firewall and port forwarding. Using the Atom or E-350 is quite possibly the overkill scenario for those just needing to share 1 drive between 2-4 PCs 24/7, yet underpowered when trying to accomplish high performance data transfers and data security. As a RAID 0/5 backup server they'd be adequate.
  • HMTK - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    ++ Reply

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