Media files, data synchronisation, and remote backups, oh my! Home computing has advanced to a point where it's practical to run your own home server, and we're running down the five best tools for the job. The following server implementations cover a broad spectrum of solutions ranging from install-it-and-forget-it to tinker-your-way-to-perfection and everything in between. Photo by Rudolf Schuba.
FreeNAS is by the far the most bare bones home server software in the top five. More specifically, FreeNAS is an extremely minimal distribution of FreeBSD. How minimal, you ask? You can run FreeNAS off a 32MB flash drive. Designed to be an absolutely skeletal operating system to maximise the resources devoted to storage FreeNAS is great for when you want a simple operating system that leaves every hard drive bay and disk platter wide open for file storage goodness. Despite being so slim, FreeNAS is still feature packed, including support for BitTorrent and remote web-based file management via QuiXplorer; it even serves as the perfect iTunes music server. You can boo FreeNAS off nearly any media: hard drives, optical discs, floppy disks, and flash-based media. It has support for both hardware and software based RAID, disk encryption, and management of groups and users via local authentication or Microsoft Domains. Even an old dusty Pentium III can become a headless file-serving powerhouse with the addition of a basic $20 SATA PCI card to pack it full of modern hard drives, thanks to FreeNAS's scant 96MB of RAM requirements.
Ubuntu Server Edition shares the ease of use that has catapulted its desktop-edition sibling to popularity. The automated LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) installation makes installing the core components of a robust server a walk in the park compared to manually configuring each component on your own. While configuring Ubuntu isn't going to be as easy as grabbing a pre-configured Windows Home Server off the shelf at your local store and plugging it in, there are a wealth of applications to help you integrate your Linux0based home server with the rest of your network. It won't be as straight forward as using Windows Home Server or a Time Machine backup, but Ubuntu is more than powerful and capable enough to handle all your media streaming, remote back up, and file serving needs.
Apache is the only entry in the top five that isn't a completely stand alone server package. Apache is, however, open source and cross platform; it support a dozen operating systems; and it's the backbone of many of your fellow readers' home server operations. Because of its widespread adoption and extreme compatibility with a variety of platforms, we're including it here. No matter what operating system you throw on your home server, you're almost guaranteed that you can run Apache on it.
Why use Debian for a home server? There are over twenty five thousand software packages available for Debian, and the operating system supports 12 unique hardware architectures. There's a a slim-to-none chance you've got a computer that can't run it. Like Ubtuntu—a Debian derivative by the way—you can configure this flexible operating system to do nearly anything you can imagine, from serving media and remote backups to running your own web server with a wiki and running your own mail server. Like other Linux distributions, Debian can be used to run a low-power and headless server when run without a GUI and using remote administration. Along with FreeNAS, Debian is a prime candidate for turning an aging computer into a quiet, tucked-in-the-basement server.
<br /If your home is filled with Windows-based computers, it's tough to go wrong with Windows Home Server. It isn't free, and until recently you couldn't even buy it separately from the home servers sold by Hewlett Packard and others—but even though it has the distinction of being both the only commercial and closed-source software package on the list, that doesn't mean you should dismiss it out of hand. Windows Home Server stands definitively as the most Average Joe-friendly server implementation on the list. Not only is it the only server package you can buy pre-configured and installed in a ready to go off-the-shelf server, but Microsoft has gone out of their way to make the experience of using Windows Home Server as transparent and painless as possible for the end user. In fact, many Lifehacker readers expressed the "It just works" sentiment when logging a vote for Windows Home Server. Once you have all your computers connected to your Windows Home Server, you'll have a centralised backup location that supports up to 10 remote PCs and indexed remote file storage. Printers are shared and there is easy to use remote server access to log into your archives from anywhere in the world. Files are no longer lost in a mass of drives, add a few terabyte drives to a Windows Home Server and you'll never wonder if that movie file is on the F, G, or H drive again. Windows Home Server spans drives using Drive Extender so that files are located in a single folder namespace, sans drive divisions. The most recent update of Windows Home Server even adds an option to backup the server itself to external drives for extra data redundancy.
If you have tips or tricks for running a home server, sound off in the comments below. Many readers will be considering running a home server for the first time after reading over the top contenders above, so your experience (and accolades) could help them find a home server package that works for them.