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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  • HMTK - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    We don't even use encryption for our enterprise customers. There's just no point. How easy do you think it is recovering useful data from a RAID member? Not talking about a mirror here but RAID 5/6/10
  • qoonik - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    motherboard: supermicro X7SPA-H-D525 (
    - Intel® Atom™ D525 (Passive cooling)
    - Intel® ICH9R Express Chipset
    - 6x SATA (3.0Gbps)

    ram: 2 x 4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM Kingston
    case: CFI A7879 Mini-ITX NAS/Server Case - 4 Hot Swap Bays
    psu: FSP120-50GNF (FANLESS)
    fan: BeQuiet SilentWings 120 mm PWM
    hd: 1 x WD green 1.5 TB (completing ... )

    Amahi Home Server (Fedora) http://www.amahi.org
  • Rick83 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Gonna chime in here ;)
    motherboard is a gigabyte P55-UD5
    i5 650
    10xSATA + 2x eSATA + 1xIDE + 2xIDE from PCI card
    2x1 GB some-DDR3
    CM Stacker STC-1 (yes, the original goodness!) with 3 4in3 modules
    psu: seasonic 430W with plenty of power adapters
    fan: stock fans all around (120mm per 4in3, one 120mm exhaust, one 80mm top exhaust, no CPU fan), CPU cooler is a scythe Yasya
    hd: 1x 8GB transcend IDE flash module (SLC), 1x 2.5" transcend IDE ssd (SLC), 1x 40GB seagate IDE, 1x 80 gb WD IDE, 1x 80GB seagate SATA, 3x 400GB Seagate SATA, 5x WD 1TB EARS SATA, 1x Samsung 1TB SATA (12 spinning disks, 2 SSDs)
    an optical drive
    a TV-card (though apparently broken...stream coming out of it is corrupted)
    an IEEE1394 CF Card reader
    Setup is 2x RAID1 (second level back up, and dynamic system files, consisting of the small disks) ad 2x RAID 5 (main and back-up array)
    graphics: nVidia 6200 - looking to replace this with something that idles at lower energy - can't stand the card being as hot as it is, with no screens attached.

    Now having lived with that machine for a few years (previously it was running only 7 disks and a sempron single core on it, before that there was a pre-cursor server that was running on different celerons and as little as 32MB of RAM) I am currently looking at options to make the disks more accessible. Something this article doesn't touch on, is with many disks come many deaths. Which is where a hot-plug cage really comes into its own. So I'm on the look-out for affordable backplanes with 120mm fans which I can replace 1:1 with two of the 4-in-3s (my IDE disks will have less use in a hot swap cage ;) )
  • Death666Angel - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    That's a nice coincidence. I just ordered my file server stuff this week and it got here on Friday. So far I just put it together, haven't turned it on, yet (exam stress).
    I haven't read this article, hope my stuff isn't too useless. ;-)
    Just a fyi, here is the system I have:
    - Sharkoon T9, 9 x 5.25"!!
    - AMD Phenom II X4 840 (fake Phenom btw)
    - Asus M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3, which supports ECC memory
    - 2x4GB Kingston DDR3-ECC 1333MHz RAM
    - 2 x IcyDock 5 in 3 Backplane (MB455SPF-B)
    - Intel Gigabit CT Desktop Adapter for PCI-E x1
    - A300 Couger PSU (staggered spin-up ftw! I just hope it works out ;-))
    - Highpoint Rocketraid 2680SGL + 2 MiniSAS to 4xSATA cables

    I'll use 8 2TB HDDs for a RAID5 with Linux Ubuntu, at least that's the plan. I'll also get a UPS soon. I have enough space to upgrade to a second raid adapter (the motherboard has 2 PCI-E slots and I hope the graphics slot will be accepted) and have 15 HDDs in the 9 5.25" trays and I can cram one additional one in there for sure ;-).
  • Rick83 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    That's a big RAID-5.
    Those are pretty risky: Rebuilds take a long time, and are dependant upon all other disks surviving that long.
    If you really want to go the way of 'one big RAID 5', I'd propose to go with 7 disks and keep one as hot spare. That way at least the rebuild will start right as the first disk dies, minimizing somewhat that other disks deteriorate gravely until a replacement disk is there.
    In general I'd stop with level 5 at 6 disks though. Consider Going with two 4-disk level 5's or a level 6 also.
    Ideally of course you'd have two level 5's where one is a regular back-up of the other, but using a different file system.
  • qoonik - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Also consider software protection like flexraid http://wiki.flexraid.com/.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Yeah, my ideal solution was to go with RAID6 where 2 disks could fail (and of course a real RAID controller with a XOR unit and 16 sata ports) but that would have cost about 4 to 6 times the price of the 2680.
    I haven't heard good things about the spare disks, so I would rather go with 2 4HDD RAID5s. But I will do some testing before setting it up, I have 4 empty 2TB drives and will play around with pulling a disk out, having the array rebuilt etc. and then I'll decide which way to go.
    Luckily, the only sensitive, non-easily recoverable data will be my photos and probably some system images which will be backed up regularly. The music and videos can easily be ripped from my collection again. It will be time lost, but not inrecoverable :-).
    As for software RAID, I haven't heard of flexraid. I looked into FreeNAS and ZFS and that wasn't up my ally. Very powerful filesystem, but FreeNAS is too limited to just providing a NAS. I would like to have the option of going full server with this too, hosting different things. And the linux port of ZFS isn't stable as far as I heard, so that was out of the question.
    With the hardware controller I know that I am not OS dependant and all that I read is that in a case of failure, modern raid controllers can also be switched easily by a model from the same maker and not lose any data (which I heard wasn't the case a few years/decades back). :-)
  • alpha754293 - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 - link

    My current system is 10 * 3TB (30 TB raw, 27 TB RAID5). If I go with anything else, I'd have to probably pile LustreFS or some other kind of distributed FS on top of that, which adds to the complexity, and cost, and another system, and power, and complexity in the parity calculations.

    A second server will likely go online and it will run rsync or something akin to that for incremental backups.
  • Lonyo - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    You seem to have missed the perfect board for an Atom based file server.

    6 SATA ports, x16 and x1 PCIe slots (for potentially 2 RAID cards).
    DTX means it should fit in an mATX case (assuming there is one with enough HDD space), or if you are making something custom the footprint shouldn't be too big.
  • qoonik - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    also suggest supermicro X7SPA-H-D525 ( Intel® Atom™ D525 (Pineview-D)
    Dual Core, 1.8GHz (13W) processor, 6 sata,2x RJ45 LAN port, Mini ITX)

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