Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m ready to take the plunge and build my own home server, but I’m not sure which route I should take. I’ve seen guides for FreeNAS, Amahi and even regular ol’ desktop Linux, but which should I use? Does it even matter? Thanks, So Many Servers

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Dear So Many Servers,

You’re right, there are a lot of options out there, and we’ve written about many of them in the past — but we’ve never really compared them to one another. So, here are a few of our favourite options, and how they differ from one another (so you can decide which is the best for you).

Amahi: Simple And Does Almost Anything

Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

If you’re looking to build a home server, Amahi is probably the place to start. It’s easy to set up, easy to manage, and supports a lot of different apps, including Plex, Crashplan, Transmission, ownCloud, OpenVPN, SABnzbd+, Sick Beard, Couch Potato and many, many more. All the apps are available one-click installers through Amahi’s interface, and most of them cost a few bucks — but it’s worth it for the convenience.

However, if there’s anything you can’t do through Amahi’s interface — or if you don’t feel like paying the one-click installer fee — you can install a more traditional Linux desktop over Amahi’s base OS and do it yourself. So basically, if you can do it on Linux, you can probably do it with Amahi, making it a perfect solution for a wide range of people. If you’re a regular home user, start with Amahi first. Check out our guide for step-by-step instructions.

FreeNAS: Enterprise-Grade RAID Support

Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

FreeNAS is a very popular home server operating system. While it will work for a simple home server, it’s really more geared toward the advanced crowd — to the point where it’s probably not ideal for most users (at least compared to simpler options like Amahi). Its most recent version, 9.3, did away with the low-resource UFS file system in favour of supporting ZFS only. ZFS is a fantastic solution for RAID setups, but it requires a lot of resources — including at least 1GB of RAM per TB of storage you have installed. That can add up to a lot.

So, while FreeNAS has useful plugins for programs like Plex, Subsonic, Crashplan, Transmission, and others, it’s not ideal for most home users. If you plan on setting up an enterprise-grade server in your home, FreeNAS is a great option, but most casual users would be better off with one of the options below. Check out our guide to FreeNAS for the basics.

NAS4Free: Serve Files And Serve Them Well

Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

If you want something similar, but a bit easier to use — and better for low-powered machines — you can try NAS4Free instead. It’s essentially an old version of FreeNAS that’s still maintained by the community, and it’s great for simple or advanced file servers on, say, an old computer. It doesn’t have plugin support like FreeNAS and Amahi, but if you’re just looking to serve files across your network, it’s a decent option. Check out Ars Technica’s comparison of FreeNAS and NAS4Free for more in-depth differences between the two, and our guide to NAS4Free for information on setting it up.

Linux: Familiar, Free And Powerful

Ask LH: What Operating System Should I Use For My DIY Home Server?

If you’re already familiar with Linux distributions like Ubuntu, you might consider just running a Linux desktop as your home server. Ubuntu isn’t quite ideal, but you can use something lower-powered like Xubuntu or Debian, remote into your machine with TeamViewer, and set it up as you would any other computer. You won’t have to learn anything new, and it can literally do anything a Linux desktop could.

Of course, since Amahi has a fully-featured Linux desktop running under the hood, you can do most of this with Amahi too — so there’s little reason to build your own server from scratch unless you want to use a specific distribution, or want a fully customised system that meets your needs and your needs only. It’s also a decent option if you don’t want to make an Amahi account and don’t want to pay for any of Amahi’s apps. We don’t reacommend Ubuntu for this anymore, but our old instructions on an Ubuntu home server should work with many Linux distributions, including Debian.

Other Alternatives

Of course, these are far from the only options out there, but they’re some of the more popular. Developers and IT professionals may also like OpenMediaVault, which is more complicated than Amahi but allows a lot of customisation through its API. Windows users may prefer to just run Windows 8 on a spare computer to share files and pool drives, which is a great option if you want maximum compatibility with other Windows systems.

Of course, if you have money to burn, you might be better off eschewing DIY altogether with a pre-built NAS enclosure, like one from Synology. They will likely be smaller than anything you build yourself, and probably a little easier to set up too. They will also be more expensive, but it’s a good option if you don’t want to put in a lot of work.

It’s not the most detailed comparison in the world, but this should give you a good idea of what to try first. No matter what your needs are, one of these operating systems should be able to fulfil them. So happy experimenting and good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I tried freenas and while it is a fantastic system, i quickly found limitations within it.

    As a standalone NAS server it is probably the best solution, but if you want to do other stuff with your server your are limited. I wanted to run a tvheadend server and this was not possible with freenas, even within a jail as Linux installed inside a Jail wasn’t able to access by PCI DVB tv cards.

    I then discovered Openmediavault and haven’t gone back since. Sure, openmediavault is lacking in ZFS support (although it can be enabled if you know what you are doing) but i dont think it’s that much of a big deal. I build my server with pretty much, spare parts including an old intel c2d 2.2ghz, 3gb ddr2, 2x1tb 3,5″ drives in RAID1 Mirror and two 2.25″ 320gb used laptop hard drives for non risky data that i don’t care about losing.

    It records tv, does all my torrenting, serves as a NAS in the home and i have 3x atom based openelec boxes around the house running xmbc. I can access this remotely to view the epg and set recordings through the web interface or an android app..You can even install a hypervisor plugin such as virtualbox (there is a plugin for that too) in order to run VM’s

    The beauty with openmediavault it is is basically Debian, headless with a dumbed down interface (in fact, i installed debian 7 first and then installed openmediavault from the repositories, so i could run the newest release of OMV. So far it has been flawless, once the initial set up has been completed. Being a linux distro essentially, you can run anything you like on the server that is compatible with linux and there are a multitude of official and unofficial plugins available. I;m actually suprised you didnt put it higher up in your list….

    • I found the same thing, freenas – while great with the whole copy system to memdisk on boot thing – runs up against all sorts of issues when you try and use it as a normal freebsd box by installing other things you want on it.

      I went with a standard FreeBSD install, it’s allowed me to keep pace with updates and make full use of the ports collection without compatibility problems.

  • I’m surprised Unraid didn’t make the list. Been using it for the last 3 months and it works great. As great Docker support.

  • Sure, you could install Linux, FreeNas, NAS4Free, or OpenWRT. Hell, given the requirements the original question gave (I want to build a home network server), you could run Sun Solaris, Mac OS, Android or Windows NT 4.

    The first question you should be asking, and the first question anyone telling you what you should run as your operating system should be asking is: WTF are you trying to achieve by building a home network server? What do you want it to DO? What are you planning on having it SERVE?

    Given the fact that the original poster didn’t say anything about what they’re trying to achieve, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s because they have NFI what they want to achieve.

    For that – I strongly recommend Windows 7.

    • I agree that without requirements the user cannot get a meaningful answer . For my home media server, I tried window 2008, uBuntu , FreeNas , and finally settled on a Mac Mini running OS X server with attached Drobo 5d DAS for storage. I use apple time capsule for local backups and CrashPlan for offsite backups.

      It’s simple to manage , so much so that weeks go by where I don’t log into it except to update Plex with is updated frequently with new feature and bug fixes. Apple updates can be installed whenever you want and are as simple as pie.

      That’s the best General advice that I can give!

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