What Is A Home Computer Server?

Some people are confused (or just have the wrong idea) about what a computer server actually is.

The technical definition is that a server is a computer dedicated to providing a specific service or services.

Concerning what you would use in the home, the most common example is a file server, i.e. a computer where its sole purpose in life is to store files you can upload or download at any time on your home network.

What qualifies as a home file server?

It can be any computer. It does not have to be some refrigerator-sized monster box.

Why would you use a file server in the home?

Because if you have gigs and gigs (possibly terabytes) of files it’s better to store that on a computer that’s not your primary system so your OS runs smoother. (The less your hard drive gets “beat up” the better.)

Example use: If you do a lot of DVR, having a file server would definitely serve to your advantage.

Does an external hard drive count as a file server?

No, because it’s not a computer. A server technically has to be a computer with an OS on it.

What’s the best file server setup?

Although this could be put up for debate, the best setup is usually a Linux distro with no GUI whatsoever. The box is completely administered remotely (as in over the network via telnet session from your primary computer) and the box itself only has two cables plugged into it, that being the power cable and a network cable. In this setup the OS uses the least memory possible to deliver maximum performance.

Why Linux?

Aside from the speed, the file system it uses (ext2 or ext3) is better suited than Windows NTFS for server-specific stuff. Never do you have to worry about “defragging” the drive with a Linux partition because you simply don’t have to.

What if you wanted to use Windows instead?

If you don’t feel like using Linux you can use any Windows OS as long as its an NT-based Windows like Windows NT 4.0, 2000, XP or Vista with an NTFS partition. If you use FAT32 the inherent problem is that you won’t be able to store any files over 4GB in size because that type of partition won’t allow it, so never use FAT32 in a home server setup because yes, you inevitably run into the 4GB filesize limit problem.

The Windows you use on a file server should be stripped down as much as possible. Disable every service that’s not necessary, such as Themes, Error Reporting and so on because it’s simply not required. Don’t run a screen saver, don’t use any wallpaper, etc.

What are the most important components of a home file server?

The hard drives and the network card, in that order.

Don’t put cheap hard drives in a home file server. Spend some cash and get decent ones.

PATA or SATA drives? The answer here might surprise you, but the answer is PATA. Why? Because generally speaking PATA drives consume less power. Since this is a box that’s just going to sit there most of the time, you want it to consume the least electricity possible.

Your router is most likely 100-megabit enabled. Use a network card that takes full advantage of this.

Should your home file server be wireless?

If you have the choice, no. It should be “hard wired” to the router. Makes for better file transfers and far less chance of data going corrupt – not to mention the transfer speed is much faster (assuming the other computers connected are also hard wired).

Does the router count?

Absolutely it does. If you find that when transferring large files you have a “hard time” completing the transfer (or it never completes) even when wired, you need to get a better router.

The best routers are usually Cisco – but they cost a bit of money. Linksys and D-Link are also very good choices for the home as well.

Tip: If you have a decent router but are still having problems, replace the network cable. 99% of all wired LAN problems start (and usually end) with cabling.

Does the file server have to be a super-fast computer box?

No. All it needs to do is be able to support the hard drives and 100mbit card you put into it. You could get away with something as slow as a Pentium II 233MHz – but in that case you’d absolutely have to used a no-GUI Linux because a NT-based Windows would slow it down to a crawl in short order.

Did I miss anything? Got a suggestion?

Feel free to chime in with a comment or two.

Comments

  1. Great article, I have a Linux home server running Open Suse on an Pentium 3 800 MHz 512 MB of Ram and two 750 GB IDE Segate hard drives. Everything runs fine and dandy. Having a home server for your files is a great thing to have. It puts less stress on the hard drive, and in tern makes the drive last longer. It is also a great way to recycle that old computer your have laying in your back room.

  2. How about a similar article on a print server? They are handy to have. If you are currently using a printer attached to another machine on your home network, that computer has to be on for you to use the printer.

  3. If you want to setup your own home server take a look at the open source home server (based on Linux) from http://www.amahi.org

    It not only lets you setup the obilgatory shares (and users who can access them), also a print server, a VPN (virtual private netowrk), shared calendar, Wiki, and it’s an expandable platform!

    Take a look!

  4. I know this is a general article, but I just wanted to add that the specification suggested are the bare minimum requirements to run a home server from an old computer. I understand the author is trying to provide information for people curious or interested in doing more with their home computer.

    The performance on an old machine will be very slow for file transfers or home website running of an old computer such as a Pentium 2 with 100 megabit/s network card, but it is doable.

    For more than basic abilities of the server computer, consider gigabit network cards, and as fast of a computer as you are able for the server.

    • I wouldn’t even think about using a gigabit NIC on anything less than a 1.5GHz or greater file server box with some speedy hard drives to handle the traffic.

      My general rule of thumb is that if files transferred are CD-sized (i.e. 700MB) and under, 10/100 is fine even on a slow file server computer box. But for 700+, 1000mbit is more or less required along with better hardware and drives that are better suited to the task.

    • I guess it depends on what you intend to do with your file server. For example, I have a Linksys router and I use an old Pentium 3 as a server and I can flawlessly playback video files remotely with any media player from my Athlon 2000 client. My guess is that it has more to do with how good or how bad your router and cables are, rather than your server. Samba is maybe a bit of a pain to configure at first, but then everything works great.
      Anyway, my server machine runs a stripped-down linux system without X. I’m sure that helps a lot, especially if the box is very old. Not to mention the stability: The only way for my server to fail is in case of a blackout!
      If the server is Windows based however, then I guess you need a more powerful (recent) machine.

  5. By “network cable” do you mean Ethernet cable?

    • To answer your question directly, yes.

      Being there are several types of Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T, etc.) it is better to term it as “network cable” unless referring to a very specific setup.

  6. You missed Windows Home Server — but of course, you knew that already. Vista as a server?

    How about Apple’s Time Capsule?

    How about notations about server applications vs. desktop apps?

    Really, if you’re going to recommend Linux as the primary OS for a file server, you’d better be prepared to talk about the user learning curve with regard to installation, security, navigation, etc.

    • I am not about to tell anyone that in order to get a file server you need to spend that kind of cash just to have it. An HP MediaSmart 500GB Windows Home Serv is $500 and a Time Capsule 500GB is $300.

      If you want server-specific apps, go to the cloud. Serving locally is not inherently portable and requires way too much effort to get the same thing you can get online for free.

      • You price a MediaSmart server @ $500 (which is about $100 more than many spots, now), but the Windows Home Server software itselft, based around Windows Server 2003, is going for something like $100.

        My point is that there are numerous variables that should be considered when recommending a “home server” for users, not the least of which should be the costs incurred in time and learning curves. If you’re recommending Linux simply because it’s “free,” then I think that is the least consideration for most new users.

        I’m not knocking Linux; I used the Red Hat distro for years.

      • Microsoft Windows Home Server (WHS) is available stand-alone, you don’t have to purchase the HP Mediasmart box. It does more than just file serving (client backups, remote access, website hosting, photo gallery hosting, iTunes server, etc.) WHS is an affordable alternative for the not-so-tech-savvy home user. WHS is also a good alternative for the small office/home office with up to ten clients – much cheaper than Microsoft’s Small Business Server (SBS). I have installed HP Mediasmart boxes for several home and small biz cleints, including one for myself – everyone is very happy with the setup.

  7. Larry Zellner says:

    The home server article was a timely article for me. I just bought a Dell Poweredge 4400 server. I’m planning to set it up as a file server to store files that load down my other machines. I am having a bit of trouble figureing out how to initalize the hard drives. It has six of them and when I tried to load Linux I got an error message that it could not find the hard drives. The answers I found at Dell Support haven’t been very helpful.

  8. Informative articles & comments. I was thinking of trying to set up a server tor use in dristributing music and videl output throughout my house (jazz in my study, rock in my kids place, and elevator music in the kitchen) as well as the more usal stful (file and print server) .

    I would also like to use something like an Ipod to access and make selections. Any ideas on how to do this?

  9. I have a question that hopefully someone can answer. I currently have a desktop, the wife has a desktop, and we have an older desktop set aside for company, ie gradkids. Is it possible to build a home server to hold everything the desktops would have and just have 3 seperate stations with monitors and keyboards? Or is this something a “server” is not intended to do.

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