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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  • noxipoo - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    i'm looking for alternatives to drobo or the more expensive NAS devices so some raid card recommendations along with all the things that one needs would of been nice.
  • bamsegrill - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    Yeah, some raidcard-recommendations would be nice.
  • Rick83 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    MY RAID card recommendation is a mainboard with as many SATA ports as possible, and screw the RAID card.

    For anything but high end database servers, it's a waste of money.
    With desktop boards offering 10 to 12 SATA ports these days, you're unlikely to need additional hardware, if you chose the right board.

    Otherwise, it's probably wisest to go with whatever chipset is best supported by your OS.
  • PCTC2 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    But there's the fact that software RAID (which is what you're getting on your main board) is utterly inferior to those with dedicated RAID cards. And software RAIDs are extremely fickle when it comes to 5400 RPM desktop drives. Drives will drop out and will force you to rebuild... over 90 hours for 4 1.5TB drives. (I'm talking about Intel Storage Matrix on Windows/ mdadm on Linux).

    You could run FreeNAS/FreeBSD and use RAID-Z2. I've been running three systems for around 5 months now. One running Intel Storage Matrix on Windows, one running RAID-Z2 on FreeBSD, and one running on a CentOS box on a LSI2008-based controller. I have to say the hardware has been the most reliable, with the RAID-Z2 in a close second. As for the Intel softRAID, I've had to rebuild it twice in the 5 months (and don't say it's the drives because these drives used to be in the RAID-Z2 and they were fine. I guess Intel is a little more tight when it comes to drop-out time-outs).

    A good RAID card with an older LSI1068E for RAID 5 is super cheap now. If you want a newer controller, you can still get one with an LSI2008 pretty cheap as well. If you want anything other than a giant RAID 0 stripe (such as RAID 5/6/10), then you should definitely go for a dedicated card or run BSD.
  • Rick83 - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    I've been using 5400 rpm disks and mdadm on linux for quite a while (6 years now?) and never had a problem, while having severly sufficient performance.
    If disks drop, that's the kernel saying that the device is gone, and could be jut a bad controller.
    I've been on three boards and never had that kind of issue.
    Windows is a bit more annoying.
    Also, your rebuild time is over the top.
    I've resynced much faster (2 hours for 400GB - so 10x faster than what you achieved. While also resyncing another array. Sounds like you may have a serious issue somewhere)

    The compatibility advantage of software RAID outweighs any performance gain, unless you really need those extra 10 percent, or run extreme arrays (RAID-6 over 8 disks, and I might consider going with a dedicated card)

    I think it might be the Intel/Windows combination that is hurting you - you might want to try the native windows RAID over the Intel Matrix stuff. Using that is the worst of both worlds, as you have the vendor lock in off a dedicated card and the slightly lower performance of a software solution.

    Of course, you also mentioned mdadm, but I've never had a problem with that, with a bunch of different disks and controllers and boards.
    I guess in two to three years, when I upgrade my machine again, I will have to look at a SATA controller card, or maybe sooner, should one of my IDE disks fail without me being able to replace it.

    I think you may just have been unlucky with your issues, and can't agree with your assessment :-/
  • Flunk - Sunday, September 4, 2011 - link

    I agree, I've used the Windows soft raid feature a lot and it trumps even hardware raid for ease of use because if your raid controller dies you can just put your drives in any windows system and get your data off. You don't need to find another identical controller. Performance is similar to matrix raid, good enough for a file server.
  • vol7ron - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Wouldn't a RAID card be limited to the PCI bus anyhow? I would suspect you'd want the full speed that the SATA ports are capable of
  • vol7ron - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Even with 5400RPM drives, if you have a lot of data you're copying/transfering, you could probably saturate the full bandwidth, right?
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    PCI is wide enough to support gigabit ethernet, so if you don't have too many devices on the bus, you'll be fine until you have to build a RAID array.
    With PCI-X and PCIe these limitations are no longer of relevance.
  • Jaybus - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    There are plenty of PCI-E x4 and x8 RAID cards.

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