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Reader's Voice: Building Your Own File Server


The interior of the new file server.

So now that your box is assembled, I recommend Knoppix Linux, which is a bootable live system on a CD or DVD, to test it. This will check that Linux recognizes all the hardware. With Windows, almost all drivers are written by the manufacturer and are tested with Windows. However, with Linux, most vendors don’t supply drivers and rely on Linux volunteers to write the software based documentation.

More enlightened manufacturers supply Linux drivers that they support. For example, all Intel 802.11x wireless chips include Intel-supplied drivers. I recommend supporting manufacturers that support Linux on their hardware.

Several-year-old hardware is almost certainly well-supported by the Linux community. If there were any bugs with the drivers, then they stand the best chance of having been fixed.

It is possible that the latest Linux distributions will support your hardware, while the slightly-older Knoppix distribution will not. This should only happen with very new hardware. Just burn a disk, alter the BIOS to boot off the optical drive, and your computer will run Knoppix.

One boot option is to run memtest86+. I like running it for a day or so to be sure the system is stable and there are no memory errors. There is no point in installing software when there are hardware reliability issues.

Operating System

The back of the case, with a 120 mm exhaust fan.

There are several choices for operating systems that support software RAID, such as Microsoft Windows Server operating systems with support for RAID 5. You can even tweak Windows XP to support RAID 5.

However, I don't recommend Windows for several reasons. First, it is expensive. Windows Server 2008 costs start around $999. Another reason is that Windows does not remain as up to date as other operating systems do with respect to RAID support. Finally, Windows is (in this writer's opinion) likely the least secure and reliable operating system, both of which are very important for file servers.

There are many ways of measuring security and reliability, and you can find many biased reports, some of which are even sponsored by the vendors. I have found a good report on security at The Register. Although it is from 2004, the main points remain true today. They found that, for the top 40 security bugs, the average severity was 54.67 for Microsoft and 17.96 for Red Hat Linux. I recommend anyone choosing Windows for their file server to read the report first.

Next are the various versions of BSD: OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and others. They don't cost anything and are reasonably secure and reliable. The biggest limitation is they aren't as modern as Linux with respect to RAID support.

OpenSolaris doesn't cost anything and is also fairly secure and reliable. It does have limited hardware support. On the other hand, it has ZFS, which is currently the most sophisticated, reliable, and robust file system. Plus, it incorporates RAID 5 and RAID 6 functionality. It isn't as popular as Linux, but if you are familiar with it, it is a very good choice for a file server.

Finally, there is Linux, which also doesn't cost anything and is both secure and reliable. It has great hardware support and supports RAID 5, RAID 6, RAID 10, and virtually all other forms of RAID. Linux is evolving quite rapidly, so new hardware will quickly be supported and new software features will be quickly added. When you update a Linux system, you don't have to reboot it, so Linux systems can run continuously for months or even years at a time.

There are many different Linux distributions. Some, like Red Hat, offer better long-term support than other distributions. Others, like Fedora (which Red Hat distributes), are geared for quickly incorporating new software into the distribution. Ubuntu’s main quality is its user-friendliness, while it is the distribution that is the most popular. You can read about the top 10 distributions here.

I picked Mandriva Linux since there are releases twice a year, the support lasts several years, and it has all the features I care about. However, any recent Linux distribution can be made to work. For documentation information, check here. There is a very good introduction to Mandriva guide, which is recommended reading before installing Linux for the first time.

  • wuzy
    Yet again why is this article written so unprofessionally? (by an author I've never heard of) Any given facts or numbers are just so vague! It's vague because the author has no real technical knowledge behind this article and are basing mainly on experience instead. That is not good journalism for tech sites.

    When I meant by experience, I didn't mean by self-learning. I meant developing your own ideas and not doing extensive research on every technical aspects for the specific purpose.
  • wuzy
    And even if this is just a "Reader's Voice" I'd expect a minimum standard to be set by BoM on articles they publish to their website.
    Most IT professionals I have come to recognise in the Storage forum (including myself) can write a far higher caliber article than this.
  • motionridr8
    FreeNAS? Runs FreeBSD. Supports RAID. Includes tons of other features that yes, you can get working in a Linux build, but these all work with just the click of a box in the sleek web interface. Features include iTunes DAAP server, SMB Shares, AFP shares, FTP, SSH, UPnP Server, Rsync, Power Daemon just to name some. Installs on a 64MB usb stick. Mine has been running 24/7 for over a year with not a single problem. Designed to work with legacy or new hardware. I cant reccommend anything else.
  • bravesirrobin
    I've been thinking on and off about building my own NAS for around a year now. While this article is a decent overview of how Jeff builds his NAS's, I also find it dancing with vagueness as I'm trying to narrow my parts search. Are you really suggesting we use PCI-X server motherboards? Why? (Besides the fact that their bandwidth is separate from normal PCI lanes.) PCI Express has that same upside, and is much more available in a common motherboard.

    You explain the basic difference between fakeRAID and "read RAID" adequately, but why should I purchase a controller card at all? Motherboards have about six SATA ports, which is enough for your rig on page five. Since your builds are dual-CPU server machines to handle parity and RAID building, am I to assume you're not using a "real RAID" card that does the XOR calculations sans CPU? (HBA = Host Bus Adapter?)

    Also, why must your RAID cards support JBOD? You seem to prefer a RAID 5/6 setup. You lost me COMPLETELY there, unless you want to JBOD your OS disk and have the rest in a RAID? In that case, can't you just plug your OS disk into a motherboard SATA port and the rest of the drives into the controller?

    And about the CPU: do I really need two of them? You advise "a slow, cheap Phenom II", yet the entire story praises a board hosting two CPUs. Do I need one or two of these Phenoms -- isn't a nice quad core better than two separate dual core chips in terms of price and heat? What if I used a real RAID card to offload the calculations? Then I could use just one dual core chip, right? Or even a nice Conroe-L or Athlon single core?

    Finally, no mention of the FreeNAS operating system? I've heard about installing that on a CF reader so I wouldn't need an extra hard drive to store the OS. Is that better/worse than using "any recent Linux" distro? I'm no Linux genius so I was hoping an OS that's tailored to hosting a NAS would help me out instead of learning how to bend a full blown Linux OS to serve my NAS needs. This article didn't really answer any of my first-build NAS questions. :(

    Thanks for the tip about ECC memory, though. I'll do some price comparisons with those modules.
  • jimbofluffy
    "BSD Linux", whats that? I know of BSD.
  • ionoxx
    I find tat there is really no need for dual core processors in a file server. As long as you have a raid card capable of making it's own XOR calculations for the parity, all you need is the most energy efficient processor available. My file server at home is running a single core Intel Celeron 420 and I have 5 WD7500AAKS drives plugged to a HighPoint RocketRAID 2320. I copy over my gigabit network at speeds of up to 65MB/s. Idle, my power consumption is 105W and I can't imagine load being much higher. Though i have to say, my celeron barely makes the cut. The CPU usage goes up to 70% while there are network transfers, and my switch doesn't support jumbo frames.
  • raptor550
    Ummm... I appreciate the article but it might be more useful if it were written by someone with more practical and technical knowledge, no offense. I agree with wuzy and brave.

    Seriously, what is this talk about PCI-X and ECC? PCI-X is rare and outdated and ECC is useless and expensive. And dual CPU is not an option, remember electricity gets expensive when your talking 24x7. Get a cheap low power CPU with a full featured board and 6 HDDs and your good to go for much cheaper.

    Also your servers are embarrassing.
  • icepick314
    Have anyone tried NAS software such as FreeNAS?

    And I'm worried about RAID 5/6 becoming obsolete because the size of hard drive is becoming so large that error correction is almost impossible to recover when one of the hard drive dies, especially 1 TB sized ones...

    I've heard RAID 10 is a must in times of 1-2 TB hard drives are becoming more frequent...

    also can you write pro vs con on the slower 1.5-2 TB eco-friendly hard drives that are becoming popular due to low power consumption and heat generation?

    Thanks for the great beginner's guide to building your own file server...
  • icepick314
    Also what is the pro vs con in using motherboard's own RAID controller and using dedicated RAID controller card in single or multi-core processors or even multiple CPU?

    Most decent motherboards have RAID support built in but I think most are just RAID 5, 6 or JBOD....
  • Lans
    I like the fact the topic is being brought up and discussed but I seriously think the article needs to be expanded and cover a lot more details/alternative setup.

    For a long time I had a hardware raid-5 with 4 disk (PCI-X) on dual Athlon MP 1.2 ghz with 2 GB of ECC RAM (Tyan board, forgot exactly model). With hardware raid-5, I don't think you need such powerful CPUs. If I recalled, the raid controller cost about as much as 4x pretty cheap drives (smaller drives since I was doing raid and didn't need THAT much space, it at most 50% for the life of the server, also wanted to limit cost a bit).

    Then I decided all I really needed was a Pentium 3 with just 1 large disk (less reliable but good enough for what I needed).

    For past year or so, I have not had a fileserver up but planning to rebuild a very low powered one. I was eyeing the Sheeva Plug kind of thing. Or may be even a wireless router with usb storage support (Asus has a few models like that).

    Just to show how wide this topic is... :-)