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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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