Making a home file server
For several years now, I have wanted an automated backup system for my home computers. Something that can keep track of a desktop and 3 or 4 different laptops, and keep all the files centrally stored for remote access, and media streaming.
Here I am going to take you through how I went about this, and how you can too.
Incidentally, I named my machine “The Boss”. After my wife.
First things first.
- Buying the kit
- Putting together the hardware
- Sorting out the software (to be covered in Part Two)
You need to ask yourself some questions:
What do you want your server to do?
I have five aims:
- Provide a continuous, up to date backup of files on all our computers.
- Act as a media hub for music and films.
- Allow ftp access, so files can be downloaded remotely when out and about.
- To be as energy efficient as possible.
- Ideally, nice and cheap.
What do I need to achieve this?
- To provide a continuous, up to date backup, you are probably going to need some sort of server based processing. It also needs to be networked. In other words, you need a thing with a brain, on a network. So a USB hard drive ain’t gonna do it. You could probably get by with some kind of advanced NAS system: these tend to be expensive, and limited if you want to take control. I need to build a computer.
- A media hub is going to have a lot of large files. Since my server will also be backing up all the computers, I’m going to need a lot of space. You need to decide if you want multiple backups, if so, you may need a little more space. All our computers added together have about 1Tb of hard disk, so a 1.5Tb hard disk should do the trick.
- FTP access is a software issue, but it confirms the need for a very adaptable system.
- Energy efficiency is something that some people don’t consider a lot, but my server is going to be left on all day every day. Let’s just briefly do some maths. My desktop pc uses about 300W. Leave that on for an hour, that’s 0.3kWh. Leave that on for a week, that’s 50.4 kWh. A year? That’s 2620.8 kWh. At 16p a unit, that will cost you £419 a year. If I can get a MiniITX machine, with a low power processor, I could cut that to 40W. That’s £55 a year. An annual saving of £350 a year.
A fair number of articles about servers advise you just use an old PC you have laying around. I would advise you buy something new, with a modern efficient processor, because it will save you its outlay cost in a single year. I’m getting a MiniITX with an Atom processor!
- Cheapness is a hard one. One man’s cheap is another man’s luxury. I begged for a year, and eventually my loving wife allowed me to go ahead. Ultimately, how much are all your videos, photos, documents and other files worth to you? To me, £300 as an outlay may actually save me money, if it means I leave my desktop turned on less often. I am going to spend about £300-£350.
Once you have organised the details of what you want, its time to actually chose what and where to buy your bits. I eventually decided, with some excellent advice from the guys at LinITX, who basically told me for free exactly what to buy, within my budget and to my specifications.
Here is what I ordered:
As a brief explanation for why I got what: Atom processors are very energy efficient, but the dual core should also give me any oomph that I need. 2gb of Ram is probably overkill, but it future proofs nicely. A 1.5TB HD is nice and big, and should last me several years. The NOAH case is small, robust and well priced, and I decided to have Wifi as well as Ethernet to give me more options in the future. Obviously, for large scale transfers I will mostly be using cable.
In the end, I shopped around a little, but still bought the key items from the LinITX store. I can also recommend Mini-ITX.com and ITX warehouse. My final total came to £320.98. Not bad!
Now comes the exciting bit. The payment is made, the days have passed, all the exciting boxes have arrived. It is now time to build your new server.
1. Get your kit together
Open up all the boxes, get all your kit into one place. You are also going to want a very small flat head screw driver, and a variety of sizes of cross heads.
Listening to Punk Radio Cast continuously whilst doing it might be a plan also.
2. Read the manual
Your motherboard comes with a manual. You are now going to read it. This is pretty important, so take 5, and check it out. The most important page is the one at the front (usually), which details what is what on the motherboard.
There is also a guide for the best way to build your machine. I have slightly altered it due to constraints due to our case, but this can give you very helpful advice if you get confused.
3. Get the motherboard out
Whilst you are doing this, you should take a little care to get rid of static. The easiest way to do that is to go touch a tap, since metal taps are connected to the water main, and thus earthed. You do not want to accidentally put a spark into your new pc. I generally pop to the bathroom and destatic myself every 20 mins or so during PC building.
Anyway, pop the motherboard on the table, and compare it with the manual until you know what everything does. You are ready for the next step, which is…
4. Work out how the case works
Look at the case intently, from the front, from behind, from above, from the side.
Play around, unscrew bits, take bits off. It is a lot easier to do this before you put the motherboard in, and there is nothing more annoying than, when putting in the final component realising you need to unscrew something that is only accessible by taking everything else out.
I would remove the cover to the PCI hole on the case now (I forgot when I did mine, and its a pain in the bum – see this picture!), remove the drive tray on top (see point 16), and unclip the front of the case, in order to unscrew the plate covering the port for the optical drive.
5. Chuck in the Motherboard
Carefully, and non-statically, place the motherboard in, making sure not to get any cables caught under it.
Put in screws at the corners delicately: don’t put them in too tight otherwise you might damage the board.
It’s more fiddly than difficult. A magnetic screwdriver is very useful on the 19 occasions you will drop the tiny screw down the cable between board and case.
6. Plug in your first cable!
This is the power for the fan for the CPU. You should see how the manual in step one tells you exactly what should be plugged in here.
I put it in first for two reasons. Firstly, its very small and fiddly, and will be hard when there is other stuff in the way. Secondly, the manual tells you to.
Both good reasons!
7. Pop the RAM in
I’ve got two sexy sticks of ragingly fast 533MHz DDR2 RAM (for “fast”, read “slow, but power efficient”). You need to pop them into the sockets, and push pretty hard.
Very hard in fact. Check carefully they are in right, with the gap lined up with the RAM and the socket, then push just slightly harder than feels comfortable considering the springyness of the motherboard.
When they are in, there will be a click, and the white clips will hold the sticks of memory in place. Now it won’t fall out when you take it with you on that bungee jump you keep meaning to take a server with you on.
8. Put your optical drive together
This system needs an optical drive; since installing operating systems is effort on other media, and, you never know, this may end up as a kitchen media player at some point.
The slimline DVD drive here (read “slimline” as “slow, but tiny, and power efficient”) connects with the old school IDE cables, and thus needs this weird looking convertor attached. So go attach it. I was pretty worried that this wasn’t there at first, I even rang LinITX, but eventually I found this weird little plastic bit, and my worries ceased.
9. Plug in the IDE cable
You need to plug the IDE cable into the back of the optical drive, and into the motherboard. Its pretty obvious, just make sure you get it the right way round.
Now make sure that the drive is out of the way so you can still get at the motherboard. Don’t worry about the power cable yet, that comes later.
Still listening to the punk radio? Exactly!
10. Plug in the SATA cable
The SATA interface is much more modern than the old IDE setup: the cables are smaller, easier to fit, and much faster. I definitely wanted a fast hard disk access, so SATA was the way to go.
Anyway, it’s pretty simple, plug the red cable into the hard disk, and into the motherboard. Any of the motherboard slots will do: I put it in number 1.
Once you have it in, move the hard disk out of the way, as with the optical drive.
11. Sort out your jumpers
Jumpers are basically a little manual switch on a motherboard. They used to be a lot more prominent when using drives, having to set which ones where the “Master” or “Slave”. SATA has made that a thing of the past, and it is now just used for a few bits and pieces.
In this case, these tiny jumpers decide whether or not the USB has slightly extra power, for stuff like USB wake. I have left it in the standard position, because I don’t need USB wake, which uses slightly extra power.
I am also not 100% whether the inbuilt power to the case would be able to support the extra power draw. Fairly certain it would be fine, but still.
12. Start the Lightning baby!
That title heralds the introduction of our chunky ATX power cables. We leave this until towards the end as it starts making stuff messy. Simply take the large cables and plug them in, one side into the PSU (power supply board), the other into the motherboard.
The thing to confuse you is that the motherboard socket is designed for 24pin power, and our lead is only 20pins. This is fine, simply leave the yellow “For 24 Pin Connector” sticker in place, and just use the remainder of the socket.
13. Turning the (PCI) corner!
When I first looked at my PCI wifi card, I was a little worried, because plugging it in straight was not going to fit in the box. Then I discovered that the awesome folks at LinITX provide a convertor that turns your PCI slot 90 degrees, and lined it up neatly with the case slot.
Simply take it and plug it into the PCI slot. You shouldn’t have to push as hard as with the RAM. You should take a moment just to appreciate how annoying it would be to have to remove that case slot cover now, rather than in step 4 when I told you to. If you want, you can see a picture of me having to do just that, with a screwdriver *through* the CPU fan.
14. Insert your Wifi card
Fiddly, but not difficult, you are now going to plug in your PCI card. Its fiddly because you have to get it through the case slot, and into the PCI extension, and screw it in place.
But I’m sure you can manage, and I have great faith in you. I dropped screws at this point about 6 times. Irritating, but I managed to get it in eventually.
We are nearly done…!
15. Head(er)s up!
I am afraid I haven’t got a perfect photo for the audio and case power connectors, since its hard to take without seeing it from 6 angles, but they are your next attachment. It is quite simple, find the labelled leads, and plug them in according the instructions in the manual.
Each case will have differently labelled leads, but it is usually simple to work out. If you get it wrong you will know, because later on, when you press the On button on the motherboard, the PC will turn on. If you’ve got it wrong, those buttons won’t work yet.
The sound headers are the same: if you end up with sound, you probably got it right. You won’t damage your board getting these the wrong way round.
16. Drives in place
Very near the end now. You need to carefully fit the HDD and the optical drive into the drive tray that screws into the case. The optical drive is a tight squeeze, and you have to take it in through the front of the case, after the drive tray is in place, but with the cables already in place. You may need to unplug the optical drive, then plug it in again.
The HDD fits more easily, although it will only fit one way round due to the protruding cables. Once you have that in place, you can screw the drive tray down, although I would recommend leaving it until you know that everything underneath is working fine.
17. Let’s try it out
You can now try it out. Plug in a keyboard, mouse, monitor and power cables, and let it roar. Frankly, if it turns on, you have probably got it right, but I chose to install my operating system straight off, to check if the wifi card and optical drives were working. You can also do this to check the sound.
However, more about OS stuff in the next instalment of this tutorial. If it’s working, you can move onto the final step…
18. Tidy your cables, and put the cover on
Because it is a a very tight fit inside the case, protruding wires will make it difficult to get the top on. You also want to make things neater, and reduce the risk of accidentally unplugging something, so get some cable ties, and bundle together your cables.
Now chuck the cover on top, and Voila! – you’ve built you a server. You can probably stop listening to the punk radio now as well.
That’s enough for now. To find out about what software I used, you will have to wait until the next article. Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two!
9 thoughts on “Building a home backup server – Part One”
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Thanks for the insightful comment Gary.
Man, this is impressive. Really impressive. I get confused if power switch is in a different place on a computer, so it blows my mind how all this works. But bravo. **talented bas….**
Somewhat better laid out on the blog, over at blog.allaboutchris.co.uk
That actually looks pretty sexy. I may consider making one myself though I’d need about 5TB…
Thanks for writing such an in depth tutorial on building a home backup server. This gives me idea to build one myself someday from spare parts and PCs I have around the home.
Great Article Chris! I am also looking to build a Backup Server for my home and office!