Best Home Server Hardware

Dear Lifehacker,
I like the idea of having a networked backup, streaming, and torrenting home server, but I'm not sure what hardware I should use to build it. Any suggestions?

Dear Simple,
A home file server can be extremely useful for backing up your computer, streaming media, and a lot of other things. If you have an old computer lying around, that'll work fine—but if you don't have one (or you want to build something more low-powered), you have a few choices. We won't lay out any specific builds, but here are some ideas that you can use as a starting point for your build. For more information on picking out parts, check out our Night School lesson on the subject.

Now that you have a better understanding of what goes into a computer, it’s time to actually choose …

Home Server Basics: Bargain Hunting Is Key

Unlike regular desktop computers, home servers don't need a lot of power to run. In fact, if you're using something like FreeNAS, you'll be fine with even the lowest-powered desktop processors on the market today. That means you're better off bargain hunting than worrying about power—the cheaper, the better, since it'll all be enough power to run your home server. Just make sure you're buying from good, reliable brands, and you'll probably be fine.

When it comes to hard drives, I usually like to go with one of the "green" models, since they're low-power and quiet. Good choices include Western Digital's Caviar Green line, Samsung's EcoGreen line, and Seagate's Barracuda Green line. What size you buy and how many of each are up to you—I generally like to keep my drives separated by purpose, meaning I have a 2 TB drive for my media, a 2 TB drive for backup, and a 500GB drive for torrenting.

Option One: Small, But More Costly

If you want to build something as compact as possible, you'll want to go with a motherboard that uses the "Mini-ITX" form factor. At the time of this writing, the cheapest Mini-ITX motherboards are about $50, and the cheapest compatible processors are also about $50. RAM will be about $30, depending on how much you want (2GB is fine for a FreeNAS machine, 4GB is probably ideal for Ubuntu).

So far, that isn't too expensive. Unfortunately, Mini-ITX cases are what makes this build more costly. You can get a lot of server-oriented, Mini-ITX case/power supply combos for as low as $50, but they only come with one drive bay. If that's all you need, then this is a great option—but it doesn't leave you any room for expandability, and if you have multiple drives, you're out of luck.

A multi-drive server case like this one (shown above) is an awesome choice, and while it'll run you about $140, it's small, quiet, and has room for four hot-swap drives. That brings the total cost of your home server up to about $270 without the drives. If you have the money to spend, this is probably the best route.

Option Two: Bigger, But Cheap

If you don't want to spend that much money, you can do what I did and buy literally the cheapest parts you can find. Unfortunately, that means you'll probably have to go with a MicroATX form factor, which is a bit bigger than Mini-ITX. The processors and motherboards are only mildly cheaper—about $40 each for an AMD build—but the cases are much, much cheaper, running as low as $40 for a "Mini Tower" case/power supply combo (shown above). If you have multiple drives, you'll be able to fit as many as you want in a MicroATX case without a problem—you'll just need to make sure you have room in your house to store it, since it'll be closer to the size of a computer tower (albeit a small one). However, it makes for a pretty cheap home server at $150.

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