How to: Build a file server…. and why you should….(Part 1)

How to: Build a file server…. and why you should….(Part 1)


Welcome to the first part in my three part series about the joys of building and operating a standalone file server for the home. 

In this first part I will cover the ground rules for having a file server and hardware selection.

Back in June 2005, I switched from having a basic run of the mill Television in the living room to the brave new world of media centers. Gone was the aerial connection from the back of the TV and in to the back of my new sleek looking Silverstone cased media PC.

Once everyone in the household had become accustomed to the new addition, world of opportunity was opened. Here was a device that gave us access to our complete music collection, family photographs and ripped video all from the comfort of the sofa using a remote control.

However this opened up other issues, where was all this stuff going to be stored. I am seriously in to my photography and my desire to store my images in the camera’s raw format was having serious implication for my storage needs.

My solution at the time was to turn my main PC in to this monster of storage and processing hub. The PC was rehoused in to the biggest tower case I could find, the best RAID card I could afford and 4 320gb Sata hard drives. The PC was perfect – it had plenty of storage for my media needs as well the processing power to handle my image and video editing wants. With the setup of various Folder Shares it even served files to our content hungry Media Center in the living room.

This solution has been working well for the last couple of years until that is the downsides started to annoy me. Here is a brief list of issues problems which plague this method :-

  • Noise – to maintain your sanity while editing images and videos you need a powerful PC, which in turn means serious heat, which in turn means good thermal management i.e. Loud Fans and an attack on your sanity
  • Noise – having 7 hard drives in one case which also happens to house a very fast processor means lots of heat, which means lots of thermal management i.e. Even More Fans
  • Electricity Bill – Not cheap when you have a powerful thirsty rig running 24/7 ready to serve the odd mp3 or photograph
  • Rebooting / Downtime – This means your media is not available and Murphy’s law dictates that when you need to reboot the machine it is also the same time your Wife is busy watching her favourite video in the living room

The above list is only a few of the reasons why I decided to build myself a file server.


First thing to do with a project like this is to sit down and set some ground rules. Define what you want from your file server and outline how it is going to be used. You then need to introduce the constraints your project has to fall within, these can things like budget or future proofing. Boundaries are important or you’ll be back trying to deal with the problems mentioned above.

My needs are simple – plenty of storage delivered by a cool and quiet machine. A machine which can left running 24 hours a day for 365 days of the year without being a power hog or creating enough heat to cause the melting of the polar ice caps. I do have some budgetary constraints but as I will hopefully be recycling several items which I already own I expect to keep costs reasonable.

I have not mentioned speed, the duties I have in mind even an old 486 would cope easily.

My media center PC is getting long in the tooth and it is time to upgrade the internals to cope with the upcoming HD standards. Current engine is a Intel P4 (Northwood) running at 3.0Ghz on an Abit IC7-G Motherboard with 2GB of DDR2 memory driving an ATI (AMD) x700 AGP graphics cards. Once taken out of media duty these would make the perfect hardware base for the file server, if anything I would say it is over qualified for the workload expected.

Other recycled equipment will include 4 Western Digital 320GB sata drives with the Promise SX150 4-port Raid controller, Icy Dock MB453SPF 3 bay drive enclosure and 2 Western Digital 160GB drives.

Lastly is my old Enermax 370 Watt very quiet power supply. I have had the supply for a few years and it has been an excellent work horse. It comes from an era when 370 watts meant 370 watts not like the current craze of having power supplies which have 800 Watts plus lit up in blue LED’s but barely manage 500 Watts when used in anger.

I know a few gear heads who read this blog are thinking this guy has got it wrong and he really should invest in one of the new 1000 Watt monsters but let me dispel a few myths – you really don’t need 1000 Watts.

This file server will have 8 hard drives installed and going by the various datasheets maximum power draw is stated to be about 10 watts during spin-up while reading/writing / idling is normally around 7 watts. Let us use a figure 50% higher say 15 watts used during spin-up, so basic maths tells us 8 x 15 watts equals 120 watts. So worst case scenario is if all drives were to spin up at the same time they would draw 120 watts.

The motherboard, graphics card and CPU have been estimated to draw about 160 watts remember this is assuming the CPU utilisation will be 100%. So our total draw will be about 280 watts, clearly within the specs of the PSU.

Lets introduce some more figures, in this application I doubt average CPU utilisation will exceed 25% while carrying out file serving duties and as the graphics card will not be doing any work I expect motherboard, graphics card and CPU draw to come in around 120 watts maybe less. The hard drives will spend most of their time powered down but let’s assume they are all idling and drawing 7 watts that gives us a drive total of 56 watts. Grand total for the file server to do its job will be around 176 watts leaving us with headroom of nearly 200 watts. So my elderly 370 watter will be fine in its retirement home.

I should point out while the above simple assumptions tell us the PSU will be ok in this application be warned none of the above takes in to account how the PSU spreads it power capability over the different voltage lines. You could be in a situation where you need 160 watts on the 5v line and your monster 500 watt supply may only be rated to supply 100 watts on the 5v line. Something to bear in mind when you have especially spec’d a supply which will be operating within 20% of its rated capacity.

I will not abandon this area, in the final part of this series I will make some power measurements – just to show you how bad my guesstimates were!!!


7 thoughts on “How to: Build a file server…. and why you should….(Part 1)

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  4. Diego

    I think that the Abit IC7-G does only take DDR and not DDR2. So probably you have 2GB of DDR

  5. Tarkan Post author

    Thanks for your comments.

    You are right modern PSU units have better efficency at lower load levels. I would expect to reduce my power consumption by 50% by upgrading the motherboard and CPU plus changing to a more efficent supply.

    I would say since building this file server I have noted it generates lots of heat and this is a bad thing when you consider it sits idle most of the time – which re-enforces what you have stated about effency above.

  6. Sanfam

    I feel it is worth noting, in some way, that you need not upgrade to an absurdly over-rated PSU to see some improvement. Your Enermax 370W Power Supply may indeed be quite the workhorse, but this doesn’t tend to help resolve one of your issues, the utility bill.

    There’s a number of fairly cheap (<$45 on Newegg) sub-400W *good quality* power supplies, the vast majority made by Seasonic and rebranded, with efficiency ratings well over 80%. Older PSUs, while a little more robust, tend to waste a great deal of power simply idling around even with a minimal load. Examples include the entire Seasonic line, Antec Earthwatts and Truepower models, and the Corsair HX### series. I’m sure there are others as well.

    On another note, I’m not entirely certain as to your motherboard’s capacity or compatibility, but additional power savings could be had by switching the processor to a newer Allendale or Conroe-based CPU (even single-core chips are quite satisfactory). Either option would, in both Dual and Single core variants consume lower power than your current Pentium.

  7. Pingback: How to: Build a file server… Assembly…(Part 2) > Tarkan Akdam’s BORED

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