What is a file server?

Essentially, a file server is a computer that stores files, is attached to a network, and provides shared access of those files to multiple workstation computers.  File servers do not perform computational tasks - that is, they do not run programs for client machines.  Furthermore, they do not provide dynamic content like a web server.  Still further, file servers are not like database servers in that the former do not provide access to a shared database whereas the latter do.  File servers provide access to static files via a local intranet through Windows or Unix protocols as well as over the internet through file transfer or hypertext transfer protocols (FTP and HTTP). 

What can you do with a file server?

The primary function of a file server is storage.  For the home user, one central storage location can increase overall computing efficiency and reduce overall computing cost.  By placing all of your important files in a single location, you do not need to worry about different versions of files you're actively working on, wasting disk space by having multiple copies of less-than-important files scattered on different systems, backing up the right files onto the right backup storage medium from the right computer, making sure every PC in your home has access to the appropriate files, and so on. 

From a system builder's perspective, a file server can also liberate your various workstation computers from having to accommodate multiple hard drives, and decrease overall hard drive expenditures.  With the rise of SSDs, which offer tremendous performance at a high cost per GB, a file server can free workstations from the performance shackles of platter-based disks - an especially useful consideration for laptops and netbooks, where the small capacity of an SSD is often a deal breaker since these mobile computers usually can house only one drive.

A dedicated file server allows every user in a home - whether they're at home or on the road - to access every file they might need, regardless of which particular device they might be using at any given time.  Dedicated file servers also allow you to share your files with friends and coworkers - simply provide them with a URL, a login name and password, and specify what content they can access.  For example, maybe you'd like to share your kids' camp photos with the in-laws - but your cloud storage capacity won't fit all of those photos plus all of the other stuff you have stored in your cloud drive locker.  Maybe you'd like to share sensitive information with a colleague that you'd rather not upload to a server owned by Amazon or some other third party, but the files are too big to email.  Or maybe you'd simply like to access your 200GB library of MP3s while you're holed up in a hotel on business with nothing but your 60GB SSD-based netbook.  These few examples are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the utility of a file server. 

That said, there are alternatives to a file server for all of these needs.  You could dump all of your photos onto a flash drive and give them to the in-laws the next time you see them - but you have to do this every time you want to share more photos - and who knows if you'll get your flash drives back?  You could mail a DVD-R to your colleague - but perhaps a DVD-R's ~4GB capacity is insufficient, and snail mail takes days if not weeks to be delivered.  If you're on the road, you could just bring along your portable external hard drive - which takes up space, and can be lost or stolen.  A file server is a simple, singular solution to all of these problems.  Home file servers do not require enterprise-grade hardware and can be very affordable.  They can also be made from power-sipping components that won't spike your electrical bill.

What considerations are important in building a file server?

Because the primary role of a file server is storage, this is the most important aspect to think about.  How much storage space do you need?  Do you want to share 50GB of photos taken on a point and shoot digital camera?  500GB of music?  2TB of movie DVD ISOs?  30TB of mixed media and work-related files?  Also, at what rate are your storage demands growing, and how easily do you want to be able to expand your file server?

How easily do you want to be able to administer your files?  Many of the more powerful file server operating systems are unfortunately not particularly easy to run for the non-IT professional.  However, there are file server OS's that are easy to run.  What about being able to recover your files in the event of catastrophe?  Placing your files in one computer is tantamount to putting all of your eggs in one basket, which can be risky.  What about security?  Anything on any sort of network is vulnerable to intrusion.  While this guide answers all of these questions, it is aimed at home users and therefore necessarily makes some sacrifices to storage space, administration capabilities, recoverability, and security - simply because home users typically can neither afford nor require professional-grade file server solutions.

Why build a file server instead of using NAS?

Simply put, a NAS (networked attached storage) device is a computer appliance.  It is built specifically to provide network-accessible storage.  NAS devices typically offer easier administration than file servers (some are a few mouse clicks away from plug and play operability), but are often limited by proprietary software, and are neither as capacious nor as expandable as a dedicated file server.  Further, higher-end NAS devices that can house as many hard drives as some of the builds outlined in this guide are more expensive than the file server alternative.  Finally, because they are designed with only one purpose in mind, they are not as flexible as a file server, which in a multi-system home, might need to be co-opted into a basic workstation at a later point in time.  That said, while NAS devices are outside the scope of this guide, they're worth investigating if you're not already familiar with them. 

This guide is laid out differently than my previous builder's guides in that rather than detailing specific systems at specific price points capable of performing specific tasks, it instead discusses options for operating systems and types of components and how these different options are best suited to addressing different needs.  That is, maybe you need a lot of storage space but you're not particularly concerned about backups.  Or perhaps you don't need much storage space at all but want to use a very straightforward file server operating system.  By mixing and matching recommendations to suit your needs, hopefully you'll be able to construct a file server with which you'll be pleased!

File Server Operating Systems
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  • praeses - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I'm doubtful it is the most widely used platform for home users, but it does offer some pretty attractive features such as spinning down individual drives in the array, mix and match sizes, and isolated data loss with multiple drive failures. It seems like a better "drobo" and its not necessarily just a NAS as this article is trying to distinguish from. Reply
  • nevertell - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I wouldn't use any cpu that isn't able to transcode 1080p streams, as that would be the best use of such a box. If I use a ps3 to watch movies, I can setup a mediaserver on the box so every media file is available for every device in my network. While you can get ffmpeg to be used as a transcoder, the formats you can transcode using a gpu are limited. Reply
  • Rookie_MIB - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Running two file servers at home right now - one is a media server:

    Cooler Master full tower case
    Antec 580w power supply.
    Gigabyte 785 board (5 sata, 2 ide ports)
    Phenom II x2 550
    2gb memory
    1 x 20GB WD system drive (IDE - basic boot drive)
    5 x 2TB Western Digital green drives (RAID5 SoftRAID)
    FreeNAS 8.0

    Been running for a few months now and no problems whatsoever. I have the drives running the standard RAID5 and haven't had any dropouts, rebuilds, anything. I had to upgrade it as I was running out of space on the previous setup:

    Antec full tower
    Antec 400w power supply
    Gigabyte P4 board
    Intel P4 @ 2.4ghz
    No-name 4 port PCI raid card (SiS chipset)
    1 x 40GB WD drive (system drive)
    3 x 1TB Western Digital Green drives (RAID5 SoftRAID)
    FreeNAS 7.0

    That system was running for a few years with -no- issues beyond some reboot problems due to compatibility with FireWire which I finally tracked down (it would hang on reboot repeatedly if it ever shut down), but I never ran into problems with stability or corruption of the drives.

    All in all, I tend to find that FreeNAS is a very solid solution if you're looking for a budget build. The only downside is that some of the older hardware is nowhere near as power efficient as some of the newer stuff such as the NAS enclosures running ARM hardware or the newer AMD stuff (I rule out Atom builds as well, they're vastly underpowered) running the E350's.

    If I were to build a 'complete' system from the ground up I'd really look at a full enclosure (plenty of room for space) with an AMD ITX board with an E350 chip (5 sata plus an expansion card for 4 more sata ports). That would give you 1 boot drive, 8 file drives, 24tb of space which would probably draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-45 watts for the drives and around 30 watts for the system board/processor.
    Reply
  • Sapan - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Hi guys, I am new to file severs so this may sound like a dumb question but I really need to know the answer:

    Currently I have 4 external hard drives (1TB, 1TB, 2TB, 3TB) each one about 75% filled and growing, and I wish to move all of that data to a home file server so I can access that data wherever I am and without having to plugin a hard drive every time. I plan to use 4x3TB
    for the server but my question is when I setup a file server using windows home server 2011, will the drives show up as just one big drive (like Raid 0) or just 4 separate drives where I still have to manage HDD capacities? Because right now I have a lot of free space on each drive but they are separate and not as useful as they would be together. Also would it be easy to add another drive to my setup? Would it just join the pool of storage or show up as a separate drive? I know I could use RAID but again I am a novice and I worry about RAID's reliability and expandability. I hope my question makes sense? Thanks
    Reply
  • jtag - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    If you use RAID0, then any one drive failure will cause you to lose everything. Essentially RAID0 is the opposite of redundancy, each drive becomes a point of failure, decreasing the reliability of your array. Read this wiki article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAID before you do anything. RAID0 should only ever be used to maximize performance, such as with swap partitions, never use it to store anything even remotely important.

    Some RAID schemes can be very reliable, for example a RAID6 will survive 2 drive failures, and with hot spares will automatically bring back redundancy by re-building onto those spares while you obtain replacements for the failed devices. That said, a RAID6 won't survive a fire, theft or user error, so you still need to make backups of anything important. Also the more drives you add (that increase capacity) the less reliable your RAID becomes, because each drive adds a new point of failure.

    Software RAID, such as is used in Linux, can allow for expandability. I started my current home RAID as a RAID1 (mirror) of two 2TB drives. I added a third drive and using a handful if commands, grew and reshaped my array into a RAID5. Since then I've added three more drives and a second SATA controller card, and now have a RAID6 with a hot spare - essentially I added three drives to gain one drive of extra capacity.

    I don't know how to do any of this in software under Windows, but I would expect/hope it would be possible. Being a novice means you're going the have to learn a lot before you do anything critical. My advice would be - make backups before you do anything, and run tests on non-critical/spare systems.
    Reply
  • lamontagne - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - link

    I was previously planning on buying a Synology ds1511+, but after reading this article, I've been considering the building a WHS2011 file-server route to the tune of almost $300 cheaper.

    I've got 5 1.5TB hard drives and would get an SSD for the operating system.

    I want to run a RAID 6, and build a mini-itx system as described, but I've been trying to figure out if I can have the RAID span across separate controllers (ie. mobo and PCI-E controller card). From your comment, it appears that this is a possibility.

    Before I spend a bunch of cash, can you please confirm that fact for me...
    Reply
  • billdcat4 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Did you mean the G620T? It has a 35W TDP and a slim heatsink like the one pictured.
    I have a G620 and it came with the full height heatsink.
    Reply
  • imaheadcase - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Unless you got something specific WHS won't do, no real reason not to get it. You can get it free if you are in college, and even then its only $50. Drop in the bucket for a server.

    I've built 10+ of them for people and not a single complaint. Restores just work, use it for media streaming, you can back up to cloud from it if you want, great add-ons, etc.

    The MOST important thing of a server imo is the case. They are SO hard to find in the right config you want. Esp since lots of people use WHS next to media centers.
    Reply
  • lamontagne - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - link

    WHS... free?

    That's great news. Do you know where to look for that?
    Reply
  • Eiffel - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    A great way to create a file server for those of us in the UK is to purchase an HP Microserver D36L (£130 or less after HP rebate).

    This machine comes with 1 GB of ECC DDR3, an AMD Athlon(tm) II Neo N36L Dual-Core Processor, and can take up to 6 SATA-II drives (or more with PCI cards or USB adapters). It doesn't include an operating system, but comes with a starter disk (250GB only)

    Mine is set up with Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, 4 old 500GB WD500AAKS drives in Raid 5, plus a 2TB drive and an 80GB system drive... Performance is excellent as throughput is very close to Gb Ethernet's specs. There is also a growing base of WHS2011 users (atlhough some more memory -ECC or not- is needed for optimal results)

    For redundancy, the easiest solution is to get a second D36L ;-)
    Reply

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