What is a file server?

Essentially, a file server is a computer that stores files, is attached to a network, and provides shared access of those files to multiple workstation computers.  File servers do not perform computational tasks - that is, they do not run programs for client machines.  Furthermore, they do not provide dynamic content like a web server.  Still further, file servers are not like database servers in that the former do not provide access to a shared database whereas the latter do.  File servers provide access to static files via a local intranet through Windows or Unix protocols as well as over the internet through file transfer or hypertext transfer protocols (FTP and HTTP). 

What can you do with a file server?

The primary function of a file server is storage.  For the home user, one central storage location can increase overall computing efficiency and reduce overall computing cost.  By placing all of your important files in a single location, you do not need to worry about different versions of files you're actively working on, wasting disk space by having multiple copies of less-than-important files scattered on different systems, backing up the right files onto the right backup storage medium from the right computer, making sure every PC in your home has access to the appropriate files, and so on. 

From a system builder's perspective, a file server can also liberate your various workstation computers from having to accommodate multiple hard drives, and decrease overall hard drive expenditures.  With the rise of SSDs, which offer tremendous performance at a high cost per GB, a file server can free workstations from the performance shackles of platter-based disks - an especially useful consideration for laptops and netbooks, where the small capacity of an SSD is often a deal breaker since these mobile computers usually can house only one drive.

A dedicated file server allows every user in a home - whether they're at home or on the road - to access every file they might need, regardless of which particular device they might be using at any given time.  Dedicated file servers also allow you to share your files with friends and coworkers - simply provide them with a URL, a login name and password, and specify what content they can access.  For example, maybe you'd like to share your kids' camp photos with the in-laws - but your cloud storage capacity won't fit all of those photos plus all of the other stuff you have stored in your cloud drive locker.  Maybe you'd like to share sensitive information with a colleague that you'd rather not upload to a server owned by Amazon or some other third party, but the files are too big to email.  Or maybe you'd simply like to access your 200GB library of MP3s while you're holed up in a hotel on business with nothing but your 60GB SSD-based netbook.  These few examples are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the utility of a file server. 

That said, there are alternatives to a file server for all of these needs.  You could dump all of your photos onto a flash drive and give them to the in-laws the next time you see them - but you have to do this every time you want to share more photos - and who knows if you'll get your flash drives back?  You could mail a DVD-R to your colleague - but perhaps a DVD-R's ~4GB capacity is insufficient, and snail mail takes days if not weeks to be delivered.  If you're on the road, you could just bring along your portable external hard drive - which takes up space, and can be lost or stolen.  A file server is a simple, singular solution to all of these problems.  Home file servers do not require enterprise-grade hardware and can be very affordable.  They can also be made from power-sipping components that won't spike your electrical bill.

What considerations are important in building a file server?

Because the primary role of a file server is storage, this is the most important aspect to think about.  How much storage space do you need?  Do you want to share 50GB of photos taken on a point and shoot digital camera?  500GB of music?  2TB of movie DVD ISOs?  30TB of mixed media and work-related files?  Also, at what rate are your storage demands growing, and how easily do you want to be able to expand your file server?

How easily do you want to be able to administer your files?  Many of the more powerful file server operating systems are unfortunately not particularly easy to run for the non-IT professional.  However, there are file server OS's that are easy to run.  What about being able to recover your files in the event of catastrophe?  Placing your files in one computer is tantamount to putting all of your eggs in one basket, which can be risky.  What about security?  Anything on any sort of network is vulnerable to intrusion.  While this guide answers all of these questions, it is aimed at home users and therefore necessarily makes some sacrifices to storage space, administration capabilities, recoverability, and security - simply because home users typically can neither afford nor require professional-grade file server solutions.

Why build a file server instead of using NAS?

Simply put, a NAS (networked attached storage) device is a computer appliance.  It is built specifically to provide network-accessible storage.  NAS devices typically offer easier administration than file servers (some are a few mouse clicks away from plug and play operability), but are often limited by proprietary software, and are neither as capacious nor as expandable as a dedicated file server.  Further, higher-end NAS devices that can house as many hard drives as some of the builds outlined in this guide are more expensive than the file server alternative.  Finally, because they are designed with only one purpose in mind, they are not as flexible as a file server, which in a multi-system home, might need to be co-opted into a basic workstation at a later point in time.  That said, while NAS devices are outside the scope of this guide, they're worth investigating if you're not already familiar with them. 

This guide is laid out differently than my previous builder's guides in that rather than detailing specific systems at specific price points capable of performing specific tasks, it instead discusses options for operating systems and types of components and how these different options are best suited to addressing different needs.  That is, maybe you need a lot of storage space but you're not particularly concerned about backups.  Or perhaps you don't need much storage space at all but want to use a very straightforward file server operating system.  By mixing and matching recommendations to suit your needs, hopefully you'll be able to construct a file server with which you'll be pleased!

File Server Operating Systems
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  • thesandbender - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    It basically throws up a list of everything you could buy without providing any good reasons about why you should or should not. Can you really have the following in a 'buyer's' guide? "the most important factor in long-term HDD reliability is probably luck."

    Things that would have been nice to see:

    1. Comparison of motherboard performance. Is a Dual 1.8ghz Atom enough to manage my RAID-5 array or do I need to pony up for a faster processor?

    2. A real comparison of OS features and performance. This article just basically listed every OS and said "There are some good things... their are some bad things". Maybe benchmark each OS's performance as a SMB file share?

    3. If one of your drive's reports an error... you should probably replace it. If it reports multiple errors, you should almost certainly replace it as soon as possible. Really? You think?

    Most of the articles on Anandtech are pretty useful but this one smacks of a frantic attempt to finish a paper before class starts.
  • djc208 - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    I would agree, especially about the OS section.

    Since a lot of the capabilities and stability of the system will be based on what OS you are running a little more in-depth look at each would have been nice.

    I run and like the original version of WHS. I'm reluctant to move to 2011 since it's lost a lot of it's benefits and added too few new ones as far as I've seen. But if actually discussing OS's it's worth listing what they offer out of the box.

    WHS does still offer easy integration and control from remote PCs, It does still handle client PC backups, and being Windows does allow you to do basically anything a windows PC will do with a little extra work.

    Mine is running SageTV and ComSkip to handle all my DVR/media serving duties, and it has a few other services installed like eye-fi so I don't have to fire up a "normal" PC just to copy the files to the server anyway, just walk in the house and turn on the camera.

    But knowing a little more about what is out there for alternatives would be nice in case I decide not to eventually go to WHS 2011.
  • kake - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    What about using a rack mount style case? For example, right now we're looking at moving our current tower (with 8 drives in it) to this one (or something like it):


    A 24 port hot swap 4U case provides plenty of expansion, ease of access to drives, and it doesn't have to be rack mounted as it comes with feet.

    At 400 dollars, I don't know of anything that provides such a bang/buck combination.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Well, you also need the rack, which itself is going to dump another few hundred dollars on you.
    Consider the Lian-Li PC-V343 (http://skinflint.co.uk/301329 - not sure which markets it's available in) which (with 6 hot swap front ends) also houses 24 hot swap hard drives (or 30, if you use 5-in-3s) and yet costs the same as the rack case, while being able to mount conventional hardware. In the end it will probably be a lot cheaper than going with a rack-mount.

    Of course, if you already have a rack for your switch, router and domain server, then adding 4U's is relatively straightforward. For the home and small office (less than 24 clients), I'm not sure going rack is economical.
  • jrocks84 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    You don't actually need a rack for a single server, you can just put it on the ground. Also the Norco RPC-4224 has the hard drive racks included, with the Lian Li, you would have to buy 4 or 5 in 3 racks, nearly doubling the price. You also have to take into account that the total volume of the Lian Li is nearly 2x as much.
  • MrCromulent - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Good for beginners, but to be honest I expected a little more depth from an Anandtech article. How about questions like:

    - Have all motherboard recommendations been positively tested to run under FreeBSD / FreeNAS? I my experience, FreeBSD is much more picky when it comes to SATA and network controllers than Linux and Windows.

    - How much does (absence of) hardware-accelerated encryption impact transfer speeds on every processor mentioned?

    - How important is ECC RAM? That's the reason I chose an Asus AM3 board for my file server. If you bother setting up a nice checksummed ZFS Raid, I would assume you also make sure your RAM has some parity check as well.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    If you have ECC on the disk, do you still have to worry about RAM?
    After all, data consistency should be given. At worst some cosmic ray will flip a bit of a kernel page and panic/crash, but that's exceedingly rare, and other hardware/software failures are more likely to send you into a crash than that.

    ECC is nice if you actually fill your memory, for example in numerical simulation for engineering, you really don't want a flipped bit to impact the predicted tolerances, but if you already have an integrity check - why worry about RAM (on a fileserver)

    Also, as you said, ECC is expensive: either you have to go AMD and pay for the extra electricty and not get AES acceleration, or you go Xeon and pay twice as much for mainboard and CPU as you normally would.

    Currently I don't see ECC as an economically viable choice.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    From what I read, if you have RAID and don't have a 500+ bucks RAID controller, your RAM will be used for parity stuff. I have read of 2 cases where people had a RAID5 and everything went fine until they all of a sudden couldn't read their data without any prior indication of a problem. Turned out, one of their RAMs was faulty. Haven't read anything of the sort happening with ECC RAM (though that is hardly a good amount of data, I agree ;-)).

    A lot of things are pretty rare, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take action to avoid them, if those actions are not that huge. For me, going the AMD route with ECC didn't cost any more than the Pentium/1155 route described here.
    - Phenom II X4 840 + Asus M4A88TD-V EVO/USB3 + 8GB Kingston DDR3-ECC 1333MHz cost 223€.
    - Pentium G620 + comparable Mainboard (ASUS P8H67) + 8GB DDR3 1333MHz RAM cost 159€

    That's a 64€ difference (my system that costs 700€ without the HDDs, so with the Intel route I could have saved ~10%). That wouldn't have bought me a better RAID controller. And again, all the RAID people I talked to have indicated that doing RAID with parity without ECC RAM is akin to data suicide.
    Performance wise there won't be much difference between the X4 and the Pentium if I tax them laxly. But with the 2 extra cores I have the possibility of running more services off my server in the future.
    I'll also undervolt the CPU, so the power consumption will still be higher for the X4, but not by a lot.

    As for AES, I don't need it and you don't get it in any sub 145€ Intel CPU anyway, so that's not any argument if you talk about ECC being too expensive.
  • Rick83 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    The i5 650 is below 135, actually, the cheapest Xeon is 20 euro more expensive.
    The ECC DDR3 is another ~20 euro more expensive. (in this case for the cheapest 3x1GB triple channel kit)
    And finally, you've got to use a 1366 board, where the same 10 SATA ports are 70 euros more expensive.

    (WTF, you can get an ASRock P55 extreme 4 for 110 euros! That's pretty insane.)

    So, if you do do encryption, and/or want to go 32nm, then the difference is more than a 100 euros.
    On a system that otherwise costs, for these components 275 euros.
    25% more for something that induces a MBTF of over 9000!? (sorry, couldnt resist) - It's okay if you go AMD anyway, but for Intel ECC-ram is prohibitively expensive.
  • Flashfir - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Mine runs at around 26-33C

    Article says best is around 40C?
    Would I be correct in trying to up the hard drive temperatures to that range?

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