Ask LH: How Can I Build A Home File Server?

Dear Lifehacker, I like the idea of having a networked backup, streaming and torrenting machine using FreeNAS or Ubuntu, but I’m not sure what hardware I should use to build it. Any suggestions? Thanks, Simple Server

Dear Simple,

A home file server can be extremely useful for backing up your computer, streaming media and other tasks. If you have an old computer lying around, that will often work fine — you don’t need massive amounts of processing power. If you decide to build, you have quite a few choices.

We won’t lay out specific builds, but here are some ideas that you can use as a starting point for your build. For more information on picking out components, check out our Night School lesson on the subject.

Home Server Basics: Bargain Hunting Is Key

Unlike regular desktop computers, home servers don’t need a lot of power to run. In fact, if you’re using something like FreeNAS, you’ll be fine with even the lowest-powered desktop processors on the market today. That means you’re better off bargain hunting than worrying about performance — the cheaper, the better. Just make sure you’re buying from solid, reliable brands.

For hard drives, I usually go with one of the “green” models, since they’re low-powered and quiet to operate. Good choices include Western Digital’s Caviar Green line, Samsung’s EcoGreen line, and Seagate’s Barracuda Green line. The number of drives and their capacity depends on your needs. I generally like to keep my drives separated by purpose, so I have a 2TB drive for my media, a 2TB drive for backup, and a 500GB drive for torrenting.

Option One: Small, But More Cotsly

If you plan to build something as compact as possible, you’ll want to go with a motherboard that uses the Mini-ITX. At the time of this writing, the cheapest Mini-ITX motherboards are around $80, and the cheapest compatible processors are similarly priced. RAM will be about $30, depending on how much you want (2GB is fine for a FreeNAS machine; 4GB is a good choice for Ubuntu).

So far, that isn’t too expensive. Unfortunately, Mini-ITX cases are what makes this build more costly. You can get server-oriented, Mini-ITX case/power supply combos for as little as $50, but they only come with one drive bay. If that’s all you need, then this is a great option — but it doesn’t leave you any room for expandability, and if you have multiple drives, you’re out of luck.

A multi-drive server case will be more expensive, running from $150 up. That said, modern designs are small, quiet, and have room for multiple hot-swap drives. Without drives, this kind of build can cost you up to $300. If you have the money to spend, this is the best route.

Option Two: Bigger, But Cheap

If you’re on a tight budget, you can aim for the cheapest parts available. That means going for the MicroATX form factor, which is a bit bigger than Mini-ITX. The processors and motherboards are only slightly cheaper, but the cases generally cost much less. If you have multiple drives, you’ll be able to fit as many as you want in a MicroATX case without a problem. Just make sure you have room in your house to store it, since it will be closer to the size of a computer tower (albeit a small one).

It comes down to a choice between cost and size. You need to decide which is more important to you, and then pick your parts based on that. See our Night School guide to building a computer for a more in-depth guide on picking compatible parts and putting the whole thing together, and be sure to also check out our home server guides for FreeNAS and Ubuntu to get an overview of everything you can do with your new machine.


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