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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  • masterbm - Thursday, September 8, 2011 - link

    If was to build to today I would think about uses i3 or low-end i5 sandy-bridge. The cpu was pick because at the time I thought it was the best bang for the bang for what I need it for. The machine has not let my down yet. My back file server ie older media center box houses the old drives from increase the need for more space. The 750 has stayed because it has the size needed to handle is responsibility/. All drive have certain things that hold and when it get filled it is upgraded.
  • MartenKL - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    I would like my WHS2011 do realtime transcode of 1080p streams with 5.1 channel sound to my xboxes and ps3. Would the 2500T suffice?
  • noxplague - Sunday, October 2, 2011 - link

    First, I think most of these comments became focused on SMB/Midmarket type concerns. This guide was clearly aimed on the pro-sumer looking to solve his data proliferation issues. Not everyone needs enterprise style RAID.

    With the help of this guide I build the following WHS 2011:
    Fractal Design Array R2 Black Aluminum Mini-ITX Desktop Computer Case 300W SFX PSU
    Foxconn H67S LGA 1155 Intel H67 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s Mini ITX
    Intel Pentium G620 Sandy Bridge 2.6GHz
    2 X HITACHI Deskstar 7K3000 2TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s 3.5" (RAID1)
    Kingston HyperX 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3

    Here are some of the scenarios I have enabled with this build:
    Adobe Lightroom 3 on a Mac and on 2 PCs - this is really handy because I can store all photos on the server and have the library on each computer link to the 1 version of the truth. The only limitation is I cannot edit photos on the road that are back on the server.
    iTunes - I have an Apple TV and iPad, carefully configuring iTunes on the server and on my clients I am able to download to have files on the server and still sync/stream everything to my different devices.
    Zune & WP7 - ditto the above. I need to solve the album art issues across all of these devices however.
    Mac - They have no problem accessing the files and RDC works just as well as on Windows.

    Current problem: The only scenario that isn't working well is playing any WMV from the server. The "streaming" is painfully slow. This does not make sense to me because Quicktime videos on the server play on the Macs without a problem over wifi. Movie streaming to the Apple TV is seamless as well.

    My server is connected to my Apple Airport extreme (4th generation) via Gigabit ethernet.

    I found the guide helpful in finding good parts, in particular the case. I wish more time had been spent on scenarios and use cases with the server. Also the HDD section was useless. What would be much more practical would be advise on a decent setup. I decided to use the Intel RAID 1 with identical drives, but I have lots of questions about how to best maintain these and also the best way to consider adding new drives when needed. I'm trying to figure out an automated way to monitor the SMART status and have my server e-mail me if any drive has an issue. An brief overview of different backup methodologies would've been useful as well. Another useful discussion would be on UPS systems and how to configure your server to power down in the case of power loss.

    Thanks for the guide and hope to see more on this topic in the future!
  • pacomcfriendly - Saturday, October 15, 2011 - link

    This has been the best OS experience I've found for my own home fileserver. Its built on opensolaris, super easy to work with, free, and zfs / zpool is fantastic.
  • wiz329 - Saturday, December 10, 2011 - link

    This is a very beginner question, but what is the best way to access such a file server over the internet?

    I am looking to either use NAS or build such a home file server to store media. Over LAN, it seems pretty straightforward, just connect to your router. How would you go about accessing/streaming over WAN?
  • marcus77 - Saturday, October 6, 2012 - link

    euroNAS would be also worth looking. They are offering storage software that is more for business use but they also offer technical assistance which is nessesary if something goes wrong. Also they have some advanced features such as storage cluster. http://www.euronas.com
  • Amar7 - Monday, December 3, 2012 - link

    Mr. Throckmorton,

    Great File Server Build Guide... Any update to hardware suggestions? Some of the parts are no longer available. Would love some ideas on a budget home file server.

    Much thanks.
  • buxe2quec - Friday, December 7, 2012 - link

    I would put in the list of possible operating systems also NexentaStor, it'a a very polished OpenSolaris/Illumos based NAS distribution free for personal use.
  • war59312 - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Would love a 2012 update for this guide?
  • StoatWarbler - Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - link

    I'd love to see a 2013 update, especially for tower cases which can take a bunch of hotswap drive racks (My current ZFS array has 20 2Tb drives + 2 SSDs + OS drives. Yes, I'm barking mad and I enjoy it.)

    Why hotswap? Because opening a case to retrieve a failed drive is troublesome (case has to have access cleared to it, risk of pulling wrong drive on a running system, etc.)

    On the subject of controllers: A good HBA (and SAS expander) are far better than using hardware raid controllers. Modern PCs have more than enough horsepower to push checksum calculations and it means that drives are portable between controllers.

    I know about the cube cases out there such as Lian Li's D8000 - but afaik this doesn't allow for hotswap drives.

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