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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  • EnzoFX - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    What about something for a mostly Mac environment, and the occasional Windows system.
  • DesktopMan - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Anyone looking for a setup with many HDDs should take a look at port multipliers. You can get external cases for the HDDs, which saves your PC from a lot of heat. Connect using one ESATA cable per 5 drives and you don't need many ports either. (Just make sure they support port multipliers.)
  • mongo lloyd - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    "It is impossible to hear active HDDs inside this case even when you're sitting just a few feet from it (even the notoriously loud VelociRaptors)."

    Maybe if you're half-deaf. And if you put 10 of them in that case, even your 97-year-old grandma would hear them.

    Don't be fooled, a 5-10 disk cabinet will be rather loud and you probably don't want it near your person if you are sensitive to noise. No way around that.
  • Rick83 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Just skimming the CPU page, I see a problem: None of these CPU's accelerate encryption in hardware.
    Encrypting your hard-disks should be standard procedure, especially on a file server. You never know what someone may use against you, and in the case of a disk failure, you won't have to worry about sending in a disk with readable data on it.
    Without hardware acceleration though gigabit ethernet may not end up being saturated, especially on the truly low end zacates and forget about atom...

    My recommendation is the sandy bridge i5 2390T. Should be trivial to cool passively if there's enough fans to keep the chassis below 50°C.
    Alternatively, there's VIA - but those nanos are somewhat harder to obtain in the retail channel (and even the 2390 is pretty hard to get)
    And finally, something not touched on: first gen core i5 CPU's on old socket 1156 boards. As those go EOL good deals can be had, and there's no clear power savings advantage in sandy bridge.

    RAM wise, 2GB is a huuuuge amount for a slim OS.
    I'm running 2GB on my machine, and never hit swap -ever- and that's even though I am runnig gentoo and compiling my own kernels and running multiple other services besides samba and nfs.

    Finally on boards: with a good deal you can get those SATA ports on the board on the cheap. Paid only 150 euro for my p55-ud5 last year, as it as going EOL. Bonus is you generally get a better featured board as well, so I also have IEEE 1394 and dual LAN.
  • DanNeely - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Encryption is also one more factor to make things harder when everything goes wrong at once and you're trying to recover data. I'd rather write off the cost of the disks if they fail than impair my catastrophe recovery options.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    That's why you have backups.
  • DanNeely - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    If your backup is still intact, not everything has gone wrong yet...
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    That's the point of the back up so, so that it's impossible for everything to go wrong.
    If everything goes wrong, there's usually a pretty big design flaw somewhere.
    The impact of encryption is relatively negligible, excepting the performance impact.
  • don_k - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    That is why the article recommends a quality PSU. The enterprise space has 48 disk monstrosities, 10, even 20 drive home file server is perfectly possible - get a good PSU.
  • chbarg - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Excellent comment.

    Recently I built a W2008 server with an AMD processor without encryption support in hardware and I was surprised by the high CPU utilization by Truecrypt. In contrast, my laptop has an Intel CPU with encryption support in hardware and Truecrypt barely loads the CPU.

    I use LUKS encryption in my file server at home for safety.


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