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

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.


Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


  • WD Caviar Green drives used to suffer from premature failure in RAID arrays due to excessive head parking (a ‘green’ feature). Not sure whether this is the case with the current generation of drives, but I had one die in a RAID 5 and when I checked the others, the load cycle counts were huge – they could have failed at any time. The drive’s firmware can be altered using the ‘wdidle’ application to get around the problem.

    • WD don’t recommend Green drives for RAID at all, they have however, released WD REDS for that purpose, they have similar features of WDs high end enterprise RAID drives, but are usually only $10 – $20 more than the green drives.

      Its not just the head parking that destroys Green RAID systems, its generally that Green/Blue/Black drives will keep trying to read a corrupt sector, which in a RAID will cause errors throughout the other drives and end up crashing your RAID, the RED drives however, stop trying to read corrupted sectors sooner, so the rest of RAID doesn’t get affected by it.

      In a word, if you want reliable RAID storage but don’t want to pay for Enterprise class drives, get WD REDS.

      • I’d be interested to see how the red/black/green reliability plays out on higher level redundant storage systems. I’m thinking ZFS and Storage Spaces.

  • The HP n40L is a very capable performer for the home and even small business markets.

    They came under duscussion on the SAGE-au mailing list a couple of months ago and seemed to win against all other comers.
    There is decent support from HP and various communities, which make it not a dead end product.

    • Can vouch for these units. Have one at home, picked it up for $250 and is now stocked with 1TB/2TB drives in all 4 bays. Can’t go past it for a cheap server/NAS and even works alright as a server/NAS/HTPC if you add a sound card…

  • I built my home file server for around $450, mini ITX Atom based board, Lian-Li case which most expensive item at $150, but offers 6 hot swappable drive bays, and full ATX power supply support, 4GB DDR3 RAM, Windows 7 Professional, very capable machine, I can be downloading torrents, uploading stuff via FTP, streaming content from it to my Xbox or PS3 and it doesn’t miss a beat.

  • I wouldn’t mind more info about low-powered NAS options as well. A NAS is fine, but if you start throwing in drives, and the wrong processor, I guess you could be up for $$$ just running the damn thing 24 hours a day….

  • I’ve got a HP n36l running ubunu with 5x2tb drives in software raid5
    Its simple, low cost all in one box that handles downloads, web server, vmhost, sickbeard/sabnzbd/etc works a treat and cost ~$600.

  • Option Three: Get a NAS

    Far easier on the day-to-day “keep it running” stakes. Good ones include download clients and other clever bits. No hassle with seemingly constant Windows updates or messing around with often less-than-user-friendly linux distros.

    Synology makes some pretty good, and value for money, NAS gear.

    • Unfortunately they mostly have a pretty crap track record with recovering from corruption, and/or silent corruption.

      And yes, I know RAID is not a substitute for backups, but if you avoid corruption in the first place you’re already ahead.

  • I built my (second/replacement) home server last year using the Mini-ITX case you have displayed in the article. I found them hard to find, and it was by far the most expensive part of the build. The case was purchased on eBay for nearly $300. Alternatively, I got a motherboard, with on board Atom processor for less than $100, 4 x 2tb green drives (@ $75 each since it was before the Thai floods) and 2gb RAM (literally couldn’t get a 1gb chip!) for about $30.

    I am running Ubuntu, and have the drives set up as RAID 5 so I have some redundancy if a drive fails. It’s been working ever since and only ever has trouble when a storm cuts the power. It’s survived two major lightning strikes (the last one actually killed my router but left the server just needing a reboot) and does everything I could possibly want.

    All up, including shipping, I think it cost be close to $750, but I know it’ll be going for another 2-3 years without needing an upgrade.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!