Introduction, WHS, NAS

An introduction to the concept of a home server, Windows Home Server, NAS and other options for home networked storage.

Many DIY home servers are old PCs rescued from the reuse/recycle heap. The main task of the home server is to simply run, usually 24/7 day in, day out, and allow network access to a storage depot where files can be saved or accessed. If high speed is not a prime consideration, an old Pentium III or Athlon system can work fine in this role. For PC users, a fresh installtion of any Windows OS will do, starting with XP.

But most people who use such home servers realize, sooner or later, that these rescued PCs represent some inherent compromises. The older the components, the more prone to breakdown they are; replacement of components can be a pain with legacy hardware no longer supported by vendors (tracking down software drivers can be like seeking pins in haystacks); and data — which everyone realizes now as the most important thing in a computer — is more at risk in older hard drives.

It is estimated that the typical PC home already has a terabyte of data. Some of it is priceless and unique for the owners: Videos of the kid taking his first steps, photos from your great once-in-a-life month-long trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing through Mongolia last summer, the collection of digital files ripped painstakingly from your collection of rare LPs, or a decade’s worth of archived home business emails from Outlook express. Trusting such valuables to old gear built for finite service isn’t exactly brilliant.

There are many benefits to building a brand new PC for a home server. Here’s a short list of the benefits we think are most notable:

  • Longer life, higher reliability.
  • New hard drives have far higher storage capacity, so fewer are needed. They can also be much quieter than older ones.
  • New components are much speedier, and new motherboard routinely integrate gigabit ethernet cards (rather than 10/100mbit cards).
  • Energy-conserving technologies built into high performance CPUs and motherboards for lower overall power.
  • eSATA and USB 3.0 for fast backups, transfers to external drives, etc.

For DIY builders of home servers, there are many operating system options. The most obvious choice for PC users is the <$100 Windows Home Server, a home-friendly OS based on Microsoft Server, which has had several years of refinement and is widely accepted by PC home server users. WHS is also well supported by many web sites dedicated to the OS.

This is not meant to be a detailed exploration of WHS, but here’s a quick summary of core features that make it compelling for Windows users who want good functionality without having to become a networking or server expert.

  • Centralized Backup – Automated (or manual) backup of up to 10 PCs using Single Instance Store technology to avoid multiple copies of the same file on the network.
  • Health Monitoring – For all PCs on the network, including antivirus and firewall status.
  • File Sharing – Store files remotely, acting as a NAS. Separate categories for common file types like Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos, files indexed for fast searching.
  • Headless Operation – No monitor or keyboard is required. WHS Console client software provides remote administration via any PC on the network. Also supports Remote Desktop connections to the server on the same LAN.
  • Remote Access Gateway – To any connected PC on the network, including the server, over the Internet.
  • Stream Media – To an Xbox 360 or other devices supporting Windows Media Connect.
  • WHS Drive Extender file-based replication system provides three key capabilities:
    • Multi-disk redundancy so that if any given disk fails, data is not lost
    • Arbitrary storage expansion supports any type of HDD (Serial ATA, USB, FireWire etc.) in any combination and capacity — similar in concept to JBOD
    • A single folder namespace (no drive letters)
  • Extensibility through Add-Ins – Add-Ins allow third-party developers to extend the features and functionality.
  • Server Backup – Backs up files in shared folders on the server to an external hard drive.

Another simple option is Windows 7, which has very good functionality for sharing and streaming media between Windows 7 computers in a network, and whose networking functions are simple and very speedy. It also allows the machine to be more than just a server, but also a general use computer with multiple functions, even gaming.

Among the free license options, Ubuntu Server is probably the best known of the Linux distributions, and it has enough functionality to be a full-fledged business or enterprise server. Customizations allow for a wide range of applications. There is also FreeNAS, a highly specialized OS which tries to be only what its name suggests, and is often enthusiastically endorsed by DIYers, but is hampered by incomplete documentation, although further work on it is progressing.

For this iteration of the Silent Home Server Build Guide, we are limiting ourselves to WHS and Window 7 builds. Time or the lack thereof is a primary hurdle.

NAS and WHS Alternatives

There are viable alternatives to a DIY home server PC. Most fall in the category of Network Attached Storage and WHS boxes. At the simplest and least costly level, a NAS with a single drive can now hold up to 2TB of data and allow access by every computer in the network. Small Net Builder, which we think is the best websites for network product reviews and information, maintains an excellent section on NAS, including this comprehensive NAS Chart. The main issue with most of the speedier NAS is price and value… and noise. Even a single HDD NAS box like the QNAP Turbo NAS TS-119 runs close to $300. The HP MediaSmart home servers are well marketed, the current 4-bay EX490 and EX495 selling for $400~650 (usually with a single 1TB drive) but the cheapest WHS box on the market today is probably the Asus TS Mini 500, a 2-bay model that comes with a single 500GB drive for $270.

One of the biggest advantages of the best ready-made NAS boxes is their hot-swap drive feature, which is very handy for dealing with faulty drives or quickly adding more drives. But in a home setting this is not neccessarily such an important benefit. Also, keep in mind that proven high performance boxes like the highly rated 4-bay QNAP Turbo NAS TS-459 Pro will set you back close to $900 — and that is before you add any hard drives.

For SPCR readers, the noise of these commercial NAS devices is just as important as price and value. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know just what their acoustics are, because no one really assesses NAS products for noise comprehensively, the way SPCR would. (And we are not ready to add yet another product type to our review roster.) Many NAS boxes employ a small (40~60mm diameter) fan to cool the CPU within, and one or more larger fans for the hard drives. We have encountered a handful of such NAS boxes, and they are not quiet by SPCR standards. As anyone who has read more than a few SPCR articles will know, small fans cannot provide much cooling without spinning fast and making a fair amount of annoyingly high pitched noise. This is probably the biggest mark against a commercially built NAS box.

Our focus here is on higher capacity home server PCs. If you are building one and paying for common components — a licence fee for the OS, case, power supply, RAM — the value or price-to-capacity ratio improves dramatically when you go for more drives.

Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.