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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  • chippyminton - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I work with this sort of hardware but have gradually come to the conclusion that this is overly complicated, expensive and utterly pointless at home. In a way it's a bit oldschool in it's thinking.

    I now use 2 extremely cheap Western digital "my book" live 3TB drives. These cost only $20 or so more than the drive itself and all are more or less full linux machines wrapped around your storage; shell access is easy. These 2 drives simply rsync to each other (or any other PC) for redundancy automatically - in fact they are in different rooms so offer better protection than a RAID array in case of theft, fire etc.. These give about 35MB/s on a gigabit network (that's megabytes) each and therefore cope easily with anything at home.

    Best of all they spin down and only draw 2W each (even when operating top out at 12W). The whole system took maybe and hour and a half to set up and has run flawlessly for 6 months. If one fails I can swap it with the same or A.N Other Linux machine.

    And what is it discussing RAID performance? What are you guys doing? This is a domestic guide not a datacenter primer. Just how many full-hd streams do you need? I really don't recommend RAID solutions for long term data storage in the home after a decade or so of using them. RAID is about uptime, not data security (OK and in some terms performance).

    This was brought how to me when I had to recover some data on an NVRAID array. Basically the only way we could do it was find a secondhand mainboard and build up a whole new PC which was a major PITA. I'd stick to software RAID within the OS at home if you really must use it as it's far easier to recover. It's not like the professional environment with a service contract whereby a man turns up with a NOS new raid card that went out of production 15 years ago and saves the day.

    Repeat: RAID is not backup. RAID at home is more often a weakness not a strength.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I think this article falls short of the standard Anandtech level of professionalism I've come to expect. Maybe it wasn't meant to be that in depth. But for me, this is nothing more than a preview to a file server guide.

    No mention of ECC, no mention of RAID pros/cons, specific RAID hardware, no mention of UPSs and networking technology, no mention of back planes and subsequently no mention of all-5.25" tray cases, no WOL or 24/7 mentioned.

    For my taste, this is an okay first look for people who have never put together a computer system. But for everyone else, you just stated what they already knew. Kinda disappointed now. :-( But I hope you will follow this up with more in depth reviews. :D
  • Reikon - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    I thought so too. The content covered is mostly obvious and it seems written for, to put it nicely, a less technically-adept audience. The writing style also seems to be like those lower quality sites that fish for hits instead of providing quality insight.

    And it's not just this article. A lot of the newer authors don't seem to have the writing capability or insight that the main writers that Anandtech had before. I don't want to name names because most (none?) are clearly as bad as this one, but Anand should pick his writers more carefully. It makes the site's quality look like it's slipping.
  • Malih - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    maybe Buyer's Guide is better title instead of Builder's Guide.
    This Guide just tells you what components to buy/use.
  • dealcorn - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    The consensus view on the Debian and Ubuntu forums is that Atom is a great home server chip. In the rest of the world, few care because no one wants to learn Linux at home.

    I understand why you dismissed the overpriced office NAS devices but a heads up should be given regarding the coming deluge of affordable home NAS devices. A home NAS is an end run around the fact that nobody at home wants to learn Linux. It does everything you want using a browser: nobody has to know its Linux. From a software perspective, the overpriced but cute $140 SilverStone DC01 is a precursor of the coming deluge of affordable home NAS devices. ARM and Intel are about to go to war in the home server market and will do anything to be properly positioned to slit the other's throat in a gentlemanly way. Expect free bundled NAS functionality and a better selection of the ports you want as that is what happens in competitive markets. If ARM has it's act together, my expectation is that comparable functionality in a less attractive case will be available for half the money in your choice ARM or Atom platforms within a year. Life is about to get real good in the bottom third of the home server market.
  • Death666Angel - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Like he said, NAS is a great and easy way to get storage space for your home system. But they don't offer any good upgrade ability if you need more storage (4 HDD NAS systems are about the highest affordable options, after that, DIY storage becomes cheaper), they often don't offer the best performance (still mostly good enough for HD streaming) and they don't offer anything but storage space. Want to run an email server later? No can do. I have also heard a lot of people say that you shouldn't do RAID with NAS systems.

    Since this is a file _server_ guide, I think he made the right decision to not go in depth with regards to NAS. He did mention them and told the viewer to read up on them if they never heard about them. Good enough in my book.
  • rowcroft - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Been buying these for a while and they run great. Nice package and surprisingly quiet.

  • grg3 - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    One of the best operating systems for a file server is Linux. One of the best Linux distributions currently available is Ubuntu. However, one of the best and easiest to configure file server installations, is Turnkey Linux File Server Appliance http://www.turnkeylinux.org/fileserver.

    Based on a minimal installation of Ubuntu, Turnkey Linux File server can be up and going in a matter of minutes. Put it on just about any hardware you like and it will ready to serve files. I have seen it work on a virtual machine, an old desktop and server packed with disk drives. Setting up raid is a breeze using Webmin raid configuration and because it is Linux software raid, you are not dependent on a specific controller.

    The files can be accessed via Samba, SSH, Web based file manager, or Webmin. Try it! You have nothing to lose.
  • HMiller - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    Just as an example, I picked up a Dell PowerEdge 2900 with dual 4 core CPUs, 16 GB ECC RAM, Perc5i RAID Controller, 10 hot swap drive bays, dual server grade gigabit NICs, redundant PSUs, and Dell Remote Access Controller for remote screen control outside the OS. Total price on eBay was $790 with shipping. I even got 10 36gb 15,000 rpm SAS drives. 4 of those small drives make an OS drive similar in speed to a low end SSD, leaving space for adding 6 2TB drives for RAID5 data storage. I get 110MB/sec file copies, and 250MB/sec transfer speeds within the RAID volumes. Gigabit Ethernet is my bottleneck.

    It is loud, so you need a basement or place away from people, but you get a lot more for you money than with junky low power consumer parts.

    Windows 2008 R2 is what I am using, but most Linux distros would be fully supported as well. I think this will last longer and perform a lot better for similar or lower cost new hardware.

    Consumer hardware has always seemed to struggle with heavy disk and network load in my experience, regardless of it's stated specification. Mainboard disk controllers with 6 or 8 sata ports mostly behave like junk if you actually populate all their sata ports.
  • crótach - Monday, September 5, 2011 - link

    i thought it was the most widely used NAS raid platform for home users?

    also the choice of motherboards is quite narrow. what about some supermicro itx boards with 6 sata headers, to me that would be a perfect match for the fractal array r2 case with 6 hard drive slots :)

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