A tribute to my under-appreciated home file servers

I spend an almost embarrassing amount of time in front of my desktop PC. It’s my workhorse, and the system that I endeavor to keep the most up to date. My home-theater PC gets used daily, as well. This system has coveted spot in the living room and even a glamorous role in the entertainment business. My sleek ultraportable notebook? She can often be found sitting on my lap, back arched, letting me push all her buttons.

The family of PCs I keep running at home includes a file server, as well, but it’s mostly out of mind. I seldom think about the system, let alone talk about it, yet I access its contents daily. Not directly, of course, but on a deeply impersonal level through mapped network drives.

Despite getting little attention, my faithful file server works tirelessly. Like a 7-11, it’s open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Within its walls live two terabytes worth of data I share between all the other PCs in my home. This storage box also serves on the front lines of my backup strategy, and it’s the repository for my most, ahem, precious videos.

In return for diligent service, I bury this system in the closet—and not even the closet in my office, but the one next to the water heater in the laundry room. There it sits, sequestered from the rest of the world and surrounded by boxes of old review samples. Indeed, my file server is currently lying under a pile of boxed hardware.

I banished this server to the equivalent of the very back room because there’s really no better place for it in the house. Keeping the system behind closed doors nicely mutes what little noise it makes, and unlike in my increasingly crowded office, there’s actually room in the closet. Besides, the file server only requires an Ethernet cable and power—no keyboard, mouse, monitor, or other peripherals.

Since it’s not going anywhere, I’ll instead use this forum to give my file server the props it deserves. And not just for this box, but the several generations of network-attached storage rigs that have graced my homes over the years.

Forgive my fuzzy memory on the subject, because I’ve never paid all that much attention to these systems. I’m not even sure when the first one was pressed into service, but I do know that it was an old Dell desktop from back before I started building my own PCs. In other words, a very, very long time ago. The Dell had a Pentium II under the hood and a hard drive that would no doubt be considered just as anemic by today’s standards. However many gigabytes it had proved to be sufficient for the files I was looking to store and serve at the time. I added a couple of drives to the system over its life, too.

As the years passed, the Dell grew louder, its fan bushings whining under the strain of constant friction. Eventually, I ran out of free space and available hard drive bays. An upgrade was in order, so I cobbled together a new system with parts I had lying around. This build happened so long ago that I haven’t the faintest idea which components were used. Certainly, they were nothing special. I do remember this second-gen file server running Windows 2000, and it definitely didn’t have a RAID array. At time time, I didn’t have the budget to splurge on matched hard drives.

I decided to take backups more seriously with this new file server, in part because I never seemed to get around to burning my important files to disc. The solution I came up with was a crude one at best: a couple of batch files scheduled to run in the wee hours of the morning and copy all my work and personal files from shared folders on my desktop. Ugly as it might have been, the batch files never failed to run, and the backups they created proved invaluable on more than a few occasions.

For a time, this newly minted backup server also did most of my graph exporting from Excel. The older version of Excel I was using at the time didn’t properly export graphs when running under Windows XP, which just happened to be on both my desktop and my laptop. Windows 2000 had continued as my OS of choice for the file server, and with a little help from VNC, that system must have produced thousands of the graphs you’ve seen in reviews over the years.

At some point probably less than two years ago, the motherboard blew a capacitor, plunging the system into instability. As little attention as my file server got, it was a mission-critical element of my home network and even my livelihood, and an immediate replacement was in order.

Once more, I gathered together some parts I had lying around the lab: a low-end Core 2 Duo, an Asus motherboard based on an Intel P965 chipset with south-bridge RAID 5 support, and a passively-cooled GeForce 6200 graphics card. To these components, I added a copy of Windows XP from an old laptop, an Antec Sonata enclosure from an older desktop build, a beefy OCZ PowerStream PSU that can be fine-tuned to compensate for voltage lines that might sag over time, and a trio of terabyte Caviar Green hard drives that happened to be on sale at just the right time. On everything but the storage front, this system was certainly overkill. Reviewing hardware for a living certainly has me spoiled in the spare hardware department.

Ever the creature of habit, I migrated my old backup solution to the new system. What these batch files lacked in elegance they had already more than balanced with an impeccable service record. They were quickly replaced when Windows 7 arrived, though. Thanks to Shadow Copy, my desktop is now in charge of backups, using the file server as little more than a dumping ground.

There’s really nothing special about this latest file server’s configuration. The hard drives are running in RAID 5, giving me 2TB of fault-tolerant storage capacity. I did tweak the hard drives to enable Time-Limited Error Recovery—a feature that’s generally reserved for more expensive enterprise-class hard drives (Shhhh, don’t tell Western Digital). TLER is supposed to stop drives from prematurely dropping out of an array because they’ve spent too long chasing down an error, but my array seems to lose a drive every four to six months for no apparent reason. It’s never the same one, and marking the supposedly failed drive as normal in the RAID control panel always results in a successful rebuild. Other than that occasional hiccup, this machine has been chugging along drama-free.

Based on its service thus far, I have every expectation that the most recent step in the evolution of my home file server will be around for quite a while. This new rig also has more ports and expansion capacity than its predecessors, so I’ll be able to add several more hard drives without much trouble. I may have already taken this system for granted, but at least I’ve sung its praises here. Perhaps now it won’t be forgotten entirely.

Comments closed
    • Usacomp2k3
    • 9 years ago

    HP ex470 user here as well. Windows Home Server is fantastic, albeit not perfect.

    • Flying Fox
    • 9 years ago

    Could the Green’s aggressive parking nature the cause of the array being lost? How is the regular use with that parking thing getting into the mix?

    • Walkintarget
    • 9 years ago

    HP MSS EX470 here, upgraded with an AMD 1640 and 2GB of RAM. I also updated to the newest V.3 software so that it handles the conversion of video files to a portable format via the WHS …. no need to use your main PC for that anymore.
    Not that I’d watch a movie on my Ipod Touch, but its at least an option to keep the kids entertained, and I love gadgets as well 😉

    • lilrabbit129
    • 9 years ago

    I love my trusty little servers. When I eventually move into a house I’ll find a nice, cool closet they can live in.

    Current:
    1.3Ghz TBird
    768MB PC133 SDRAM
    2.25TB RAID5 (4×750)
    Ubuntu 8.03 LTS
    Antec300 case

    In development
    2.3Ghz Athlon64
    3GB DDR400
    2TB RAID1 (eventually converted to Raid5)
    It’s currently in an old case with poor ventilation. I’m waiting until I can get another antec300 before getting more drives.

    • Crayon Shin Chan
    • 9 years ago

    I wouldn’t trust Windows on a PC that runs 24/7, not even XP. After two weeks, I remember XP wouldn’t detect some hardware I plugged into the USB ports. A simple reboot, of course, fixed the problem.

    My current file dump is a Powermac G5 with dual 1.8GHz CPUs. It’s quiet and with its 1TB SATA drive, with the pictures and music duplicated over my home PC in Malaysia, my laptop and the Powermac via rsync/Samba, I haven’t needed a dedicated PC for RAID yet.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 9 years ago

      Uh, maybe not desktop versions of Windows but server versions are explicitly meant to run 24/7. Aside from automatic updates my WHS box runs 24/7 with no problem and of course there are plenty of enterprise departments running Windows server versions in mission critical settings.

        • Prospero424
        • 9 years ago

        Yup. My (headless; VNC) home server is on Windows Server 2003, and it has run almost flawlessly 24/7 doing HEAVY media serving and most of my heavy download/upload duty (torrents, private networks, etc.) for almost seven years running, now. Seven years…

        I would expect the same level of service and reliability from a properly configured Linux OS, but it’s just not as convenient from an interoperability and software availability standpoint.

        In particular, I have NEVER had a system that performed as consistently and as flawlessly when it came to I/O. The system can be bogged down by processes and transfers that would have brought other (newer, even) computers to their knees, but it would still serve up media files across the network at full speed without hiccup and complete disk transfers at near idle speeds.

        It may be running a P4 Northwood (yuck), but it is an absolute ROCK. And since its function requires performance only on the I/O front, and even then only to a limited degree, I have no real need to replace it with something faster until it absolutely craters.

      • Duck
      • 9 years ago

      It’s not so bad. 30 days is about the limit IMO. There will be some program crash eventually. I restart every day and it helps things run smoothly.

        • dashbarron
        • 9 years ago

        Agree to this. With Vista, I had my computer running 6-7 months straight, and I had to restart only twice during the peirod because of program crashes and erraneous errors that just needed a system reset to clear up. But I thought for the peirod of time my computer was on, that it managed to keep itself running along smoothly.

      • Flying Fox
      • 9 years ago

      I stick with my usual mix of Live Messenger, Firefox and Office and my XP uptime is usually in weeks. And that is because I decided to finally catch up on the monthly updates. It depends on how much crap you have installed on your system and how clean you are keeping it.

        • greeny
        • 9 years ago

        I run my windows 7 machine 24/7 and uptime is normally weeks and then the reboot is usually due to updates. Gotta say it these days windows is nice and stable, when I was on 98 back in the day I would have to reboot 6 times a day!!!! man I dont miss the old days at all.

    • Aphasia
    • 9 years ago

    Another fileserver here…
    Sonata III with a system disk and 4x500GB seagate that sits in a 4x25GB raid 0 array and a 4x475GB Raid 5 array. All driven by a decent PCI-E 4x 4channel Highpoint raid card. Core2Duo. 4GB’s ram and an extra NIC for having the webserver on a fully separate physical DMZ up to my router. Enabling VLAN on the primary marvell chipset slowed everything down to below 300mbits since its only a filter driver.

    The server Running PureSync free for backup up to external USB drivers every 3 weeks or so for the whole array and system drives. Just plug them in manually and run the job, been looking towards a real NAS solution when I upgrade the fileserver for fully automated backups.

    On top of that my file-server is also running VM-Ware with a web/mail-server and a Win 7 x64 test system where i might run a few things i’m not so sure about. And working with security, I do come across such things every now and then.

    My workstation does automated win-7 backup to the fileserver once a week, and the network is geared towards maximum throughput. And with the 300GB velociraptor in my workstation towards the server raid I actually do max out my network, but just barely. The 300GB’s is only just enough for having all installed programs and temp areas covered, so my fileserver does contain all data i work with.

    • P4Power
    • 9 years ago

    Great article. I certainly couldn’t live without my server! Not only does it serve out files to my network but it is also a secure FTP so I can get files from it if I am at school (saved me more than once)! Also runs Subsonic media streamer so I can have access to my entire music collection wherever I have an internet connection.

    My first file server:
    333MHz Pentium II
    256MB of PC100 SDRAM
    500GB of Storage
    NVIDIA Quadro2 MXR

    Then I decided to make a quiet server:
    1.60GHz Atom HT 230
    2GB of DDR2
    500GB Internal + 500GB External Backup
    1TB External for Hard Drive Images
    Intel GMA950

    My server now was built from spare parts except the CPU:
    3.0GHz Xeon 3085 Conroe
    4GB of DDR2
    500GB Internal + 500GB External Backup
    1TB External for Hard Drive Images
    NVIDIA Quadro NVS 295

    • albundy
    • 9 years ago

    dont feel bad. i keep my antec 300 in the closet in another room too which makes my workspace nice and super quiet, even with 4 1tb drives cranking. Its my only machine, so all i really need is a long enough HDMI and usb cable (to a usb hub). its too bad their wireless options are poor performers to even consider.

    • ShadowEyez
    • 9 years ago

    Anyone used linux in a fileserver?

      • FuturePastNow
      • 9 years ago

      Used to, with the server version of Ubuntu and software RAID. It worked great but I never learned enough about Linux to properly administer it. This wasn’t a problem, but it definitely would have been if something had gone wrong.

      • Deanjo
      • 9 years ago

      All my servers are linux based (openSUSE). They not only act as my file/media servers but also as my firewall, torrent client, apache, mailserver, and backup servers. With openSUSE’s yast administration is a breeze and data integrity and security is better then any Windows based system.

      • Anonymous Coward
      • 9 years ago

      Yeah I’ve very happy with file serving from Linux. The flexibility and transparency of the software raid can’t be beat.

    • Kulith
    • 9 years ago

    I love my WHS machine. I’ve been using it for:

    ~ music/video/data storage
    ~ backups of all pc’s
    ~ svn source control
    ~ utorrent
    ~ 24/7 security camera feeds saved to disk

    Always looking for other cool things to do with it. Right now I’m having problems saving the camera feeds directly to the server though, they are very choppy. I wonder if I’m overloading my p4.

      • FuturePastNow
      • 9 years ago

      /[

      • Flying Fox
      • 9 years ago

      I fold on mine too, as I need a “server” anyway so I just get adequate hardware (PDC E6300) without needing another box (ie increase in footprint or so they say).

    • barich
    • 9 years ago

    My WHS is in an original Sonata, though I left the blinding blue LEDs disconnected.

    • webs0r
    • 9 years ago

    I’m running WHS1 with about 7 drives in an Antec Mini P180 case that I’ve tweaked to also be a HTPC. (Mediaportal and MPC-HC w/ MadVR). As I do some funky stuff on the HTPC side the box has a bit of hardware grunt behind it, more so than what you’d need for a pure file server.

    As I’ve run out of room for more drives, once my storage fills up I’m going to go the serious route – grab a Norco 4220 case (24 drive slots), and probably a RAID card and the HP SAS expander.

    That also allows me to split the HTPC and file server duties so I get more OS choice for what will be a pure file server – I haven’t yet decided what I’ll run and whether I’ll use RAID arrays or not.

      • cygnus1
      • 9 years ago

      My file server is in a Norco 20 drive case, not sure what the model is. Fantastic case. I’ve only got 14 drives in it, 8 attached to an Areca raid card. The rest are attached to the motherboard sata. If you like WHS, you’re gonna really like the next MS Small Business Server, Aurora. Think WHS but with AD and running on 2008 R2. Should be pretty slick once it comes out.

        • Usacomp2k3
        • 9 years ago

        Or Vail. Aurora really won’t be as interesting for the home user.

    • LiamC
    • 9 years ago

    Why a file server and not just NAS? OK, I get the bit about Excel graphs and all, but when was the last time you needed that functionality? For most people they need NAS rather than a server.

    I use FreeNAS on a P/[

      • mcnabney
      • 9 years ago

      A NAS does a teeny-tiny fraction of what a server can do. Here are some things you won’t find a NAS doing:

      Hold 18 drives 🙂
      Stream and convert-on-the-fly multimedia content to users on the home network and across the internet to logged-in users.
      Protect itself. Any computer that has its fingers in a NAS can introduce all sorts of badness. A server provides data when requested and can run security software – a NAS isn’t much different from an external hard drive.
      Run home automation and security software.
      Run a whole flotilla of apps
      Wake up desktops on a schedule for backup purposes.
      Intelligently back itself up

      In addition, WHS will only ever keep one version of a file. So backing up multiple desktops/laptops isn’t a storage burden since the OS files will only be copied to the server once.

        • LiamC
        • 9 years ago

        True, but Geoff wasn’t doing any of those thing, and from the people I’ve spoken to, neither do most of them. For them, NAS is more than adequate.

      • Prospero424
      • 9 years ago

      The big reason I’ve never switched from home servers to NAS is that it makes sense from the perspective of my usage habits to combine central storage with a central server. That is, it makes sense to have a system that combines the bulk of my storage capacity with the bulk of my downloading and uploading. Why would I want to download multi-gigabyte files for archival and then have to move them over the network again when I can do it all in the same place?

      Sure, some NAS setups offer download/upload functionality. Some even let you do torrents. But none of them come even CLOSE to the level of flexibility most geeks want, and security on most is a joke if they’re going to be exposed on the WAN (allowing them to pull down files from the internet). My home server is fully firewalled and is physically segmented from the WAN and the LAN; using two different network adapters for the two physical connections with different privileges and access rights.

      And because it was cobbled together from hand-me-down parts and I got the Server 2003 license from a friend who works at a megacorp, it was basically free. It’s the best of all worlds aside from perhaps power consumption, which I’m sure a NAS would be better at.

      • dextrous
      • 9 years ago

      The advantage of Openfiler is iSCSI. iSCSI will always be much much faster than NFS or CIFS or any other abstracted file sharing layer. iSCSI can bring cheap (consumer) networking gear to its knees though.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    I like my WHS box although it’s not too old and I sometimes get the odd upgrade itch for it…can’t explain that since it’s an e7300 and doesn’t need that much CPU power even heh. I was tempted to do an unRAID for the extra storage of its RAID5-ish setup versus the RAID1-ish setup that WHS duplication does but I didn’t want to have much of a learning curve and WHS was pretty easy even though I did tweak it a bit for fun.

    • oldfogey
    • 9 years ago

    I too have my old Antec Sonata as a home server. It’s running my ancient Barton AthlonXP2500+, which i finally upgraded from less than 2 years ago. Eeek.

    I had to add a 4port PCI Sata card to it, to handle all the drives, and I may need another one. It’s currently my WHS and is a trusty workhouse, with an Intel gigabit NIC. Boot drive is my ancient WD800JB. Wow. old too.

    Storage: 3×1.5TB drives and 2x.750TB drives, Backups of the house pc’s and media storage for a hacked networked WDTV(gen1) are it’s primary functions. My only problem is I’ve run out of 3.5″ drivebays!

    • mikehodges2
    • 9 years ago

    Ahh, the original Antec Sonata. I have one of them humming away next to me 🙂

    • Buub
    • 9 years ago

    Yes, my faithful file servers. Good article!

    I have an old dual-processor Athlon MP system, with an old SCSI MegaRAID card running as my Internet firewall/gateway/NAT. It’s running FreeBSD.

    I also have a dual-socket 940 Opteron (upgraded it to 285’s for dual dual-core goodness! Was originally dual 240’s.), with an SATA MegaRAID card running Windows 2003 Server. It has an Exchange Server VM on it, and is my domain controller. All the drives on it are RAID-1. I have a 500GB set for the system stuff, plus a hot spare. And I have a 1TB set for backup/archiving, plus a hot spare.

    • clhensle
    • 9 years ago

    I avoided RAID 5 because every one of my home servers have lasted until the boards burned out, with RAID1 I can at least get my data back by plugging any of the drives into any computer and pulling the data.

    I just went through the server rebuild, from a AthlonXP to a Xeon 65nm based quad core 2.13ghz. I thought I would get the weekly blue screen warning, but apparently it decided it would not post one day last month, and it had a cap leaning over, and the rubber gasket blown out the bottom.

    This time, just to try something new I used Windows 7’s mirroring, so I had to copy all my data to spare external drives, create the new array (in disk management) then move everything back, for a 1.5tb array, 1tb and 256gb. Hopefully this will be the last time I will touch that box for 4 years, besides the 2x a year dusting out and eventually throwing in some 2+tb drives… maybe retire the dual 250gb IDE drives that are the MP3 share =P

      • shank15217
      • 9 years ago

      Use freenas or openfiler and you wont have these issues.

    • Mentawl
    • 9 years ago

    Ah, another battered and underloved Sonata stuck in a corner serving files, with boxes piled upon it. I’m glad mine’s not the only one! 🙂

    §[< http://www.banzaiinstitute.net/ment/homeservercupboard.JPG<]§

      • Thrashdog
      • 9 years ago

      …Ment? I forgot you posted here!

        • Mentawl
        • 9 years ago

        Only occasionally! =)

      • FuturePastNow
      • 9 years ago

      My fileserver is in a Sonata, too.

      CSB: I bought the case off Antec’s B-Stock store. It was listed as a scratch & dent first-gen Sonata (like Geoff’s up there), but what I actually got was a Sonata II in perfect condition. Kind of a shame to hide it away, but…

    • jmke
    • 9 years ago

    “but my array seems to lose a drive every four to six months for no apparent reason. ”

    this is the reason I don’t use RAID (be it 0/1/5) with a home file server; the software RAID solutions just don’t cover it; and the bugs in it actually make it LESS reliable than running without RAID. Just use your batch copy a little more to copy the important data between disks and you’re good to go.

    doing that you actually have a BACKUP of data, and you can go back into time a bit 😉

    also don’t forget to copy that important data again to another location; outside that PC / room; an external disk connected somewhere else. In case the PSU blows in the file server and fries your disks.

    storage has become too cheap to not have plenty of copies of your valuable data distributed amongst different PCs and HDDs/DVDs

      • continuum
      • 9 years ago

      Yep. And RAID with desktop drives, well, lots of people get it working just fine, but there are those of us who don’t do it because our backs get filled with arrows far too often because of it.

      OTOH so long as you actually do get notified when a drive fails in a prompt, immediate, clear manner and you can rebuild it ok.. then you’re good!

      Just 2TB is kinda cute though. 😉

        • NeelyCam
        • 9 years ago

        I used to have a 1.5TB raid array in one of those Antec Sonata cases, and it was a major PITA to keep it running… granted, I had it in RAID0 for performance, but still.

        I still have that box running, but I’ll neverever have RAID ever again in any of the new builds. SSD took care of the performance issues anyways.

      • Flying Fox
      • 9 years ago

      That’s why I like WHS. It does pretty much what you described.

    • jstern
    • 9 years ago

    Interesting article. Don’t know much about file servers, but one day I should do something like this.

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