How to Build a Budget NAS Machine

By | August 20, 2016

Similar to how building your own computer can be cheaper, building (or repurposing) a network attached storage (NAS) can save you a few hundred dollars as well. A NAS machine, or a computer that specializes in network attached storage duties, is a server, and can be setup by anyone thanks to certain (NAS4Free, Freenas) free and open source operating systems. Building your own NAS can cost a fraction of the price of a full desktop PC setup, and usually costs considerably less than a NAS enclosure. One of the main reasons people build their own NAS machines is to get more performance per dollar spent on hardware (compared to a NAS enclosure you buy from a manufacturer). The extra processing power can handle transcoding and serving media across the network. But at the end of the day, those of us who have partaken in the PC building experience know what the greatest value is: the joy of ordering the parts, getting them in the mail, and assembling them into a functional computer yourself.

I see a lot of users wanting to build a NAS machine themselves – they want a cool, quiet computer that can run 24/7 (or close to that) from their closet or somewhere out of sight. So I decided to create a post that provides a template build, a build that I’ll endorse as “generally good”, and then discuss some alternative choices and what they accomplish. The building process is simplified because NAS machines run headless (without a monitor) and are accessed through your network via a web GUI or SSH. Once you are done putting it together and installing the operating system, it will only need to be plugged into an outlet and have an Ethernet or WiFi connection. That leaves us with these parts to pick out: CPU, motherboard, RAM, power supply, storage (the OS can actually run from a USB) and a case. That’s right, no GPU! The processor is powerful enough to handle the tasks on its own. That dramatically reduces the cost. I’ll include storage because you’ll probably be purchasing a bulky HDD or three to store your media and/or Linux distros. The first thing we should decide on is what CPU to use. For this template, I’ll choose what I would buy if it was my money on the table. I like the idea of having a low impact CPU that isn’t a power hog but is still powerful enough to serve 2-3 decent quality streams. Enter the Intel Pentium G series CPU. For around $60 depending on where you buy, this processor will serve two high quality streams (going with about 2k passmark score per stream) with a minimal thermal impact. The total draw of this build is ~127 watts according to PCPartpicker’s calculator.
pent

PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant

Type Item Price
CPU Intel Pentium G4400 3.3GHz Dual-Core Processor $56.99 @ Amazon
Motherboard Gigabyte LGA1151 Intel H110 Micro ATX DDR4 Motherboard $59.99 @ Amazon
Memory Crucial 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR4-2133 Memory $33.99 @ Amazon
Storage Western Digital Red 3TB 3.5″ 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive $109 @ Amazon
Case Thermaltake VERSA H15 Micro ATX Case $39.99 @ Amazon
Power Supply SeaSonic 300W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply $35.32 @ Amazon
Prices include shipping, rebates, and discounts
Total $335.28
Generated by PCPartPicker 2016-08-13 22:23 EDT-0400

Or $220.37 without storage.

I found some pretty good prices for these parts on Amazon, which is nice because if you have Prime you can save on shipping and perhaps tax. Some stores offer free shipping, other stores have free Prime shipping. I added shipping costs when neither were available. I’m putting a single WD RED 3 TB drive in these builds because I find that it is a good midpoint between the available min and max disk size (1 TB or less to 8 TB, respectively). Each hard disk drive draws about 7-15 watts roughly, so having 3x 3 TB drives is preferable to having 9x 1 TB drives. Also, with 3 or more drives you have access to more RAID configurations, which I will discuss later.

DIY NAS, round 2
amd
Alright, but what about AMD? Let’s go over what an AMD build might look like:

PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant

Type Item Price
CPU AMD Athlon X4 845 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor $66.00 @ Amazon
Motherboard ASRock FM2A68M-HD+ Micro ATX FM2+ Motherboard $54.04 @ Amazon
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory $37.31 @ Amazon
Storage WD Red 3TB NAS Hard Disk Drive $118.13 @ Amazon
Case Thermaltake Versa H15 $34.99 @ Amazon
Power Supply EVGA 450W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply $39.99 @ Amazon
Prices include shipping, taxes, rebates, and discounts
Total $350.46
Generated by PCPartPicker 2016-08-18 00:18 EDT-0400

Or $232.33 without the 3TB Western Digital Red HDD. The estimated wattage coming in just a little above the Intel build at 149W. BUT, the passmark score for this CPU is 5578, significantly higher than the Pentium G4400. Almost enough for an additional high quality stream. These two builds ended up so close in price and performance, I’m not sure which I prefer anymore.

Changing it up

What are the parts you can swap out of these builds? You can go ahead and order ECC ram if you feel compelled. A power supply that is fully modular, gold rated, or one that supports more draw is entirely justified in most cases. I generally recommend SeaSonic, Corsair, and Evga. Remember, it’s the OEM that matters. For the CPU, going with AMD isn’t a bad thing as some people will have you believe, they just tend to sip a little more heavily from your outlet. The FreeNAS links I put in this post appear to be strongly opposed to AMD because “… they don’t support ECC …” to paraphrase one of the guides. Is this true? Here is one answer to the question. TLDR; three things must support ECC – the CPU, the BIOS, and the chipset. You might want to do some extra research if you plan on doing an AMD CPU + ECC RAM build. While we’re on the topic of CPUs, double check to see if your CPU comes with a stock cooler – sometimes they get sold “chip only”, in which case you’ll need to spend another $20-$50 dollars on a 212 Evo or Noctua. A CPU cannot operate safely without a cooler. The G4400 I have linked comes with a cooler, but the Intel stock coolers are a little noisy. If the noise level of your NAS machine is a concern, then you should probably invest in an aftermarket cooler.

Operating System
I recommend NAS4Free or FreeNAS. They are very similar, with FreeNAS requiring more RAM (around 1GB per terabyte of storage, recommended 8 GB or more). You’ll see NAS4Free builds with 2GB of RAM or less that work fine. The reason FreeNAS asks for so much more RAM is because the entire OS is loaded into memory. I use NAS4Free myself, but I won’t take a side here in this post as both are great options. Installing one of these operating systems is a crucial component in the NAS machine building process: you free yourself of having to buy more RAM and a hardware RAID controller, as ZFS allows users to reap the benefits of RAID purely through the power of software. You also have the added benefit of easy access to various plugins and services, as well as the potential to create your own scripts and plugins if you have the know-how.

Supplemental Reading:

If you are still unsure about what parts to get, here is a list of some good resources put together by community members:

    • https://forums.freenas.org/index.php?threads/hardware-recommendations-read-this-first.23069/– The words of the author “I’m not a baker. I don’t sugarcoat things.” embody much of what you’ll find in the FreeNAS camp, a dogmatic presentation of computer hardware choices. However, I have come across many people who believe non-ECC RAM is perfectly fine so I am inclined to believe this is, in fact, a matter of opinion. There is still some good information in this post.
    • http://blog.brianmoses.net/2015/04/diy-nas-software-roundup.html – Here is a huge post that talks about hardware requirements for NAS4Free, FreeNAS and OpenMediaVault. Tons of information with plenty of screenshots. Ultimately he ranks NAS4Free last because it wasn’t functioning properly with the CPU he wanted to use (which is very rarely the case).
    • https://pcpartpicker.com/guide/Lc48TW/freenas-box-2016 – A recently posted build guide. It is a little more cookie cutter and also a little costlier. Fully modular PSU, a case with ample room for more drives… These things cost more but are worth it. The post also contains lots of information and additional links, mostly to more FreeNAS hosted information.

And while we’re at it, why not dream a little. . .

The “Money is no object” build

PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant

Type Item Price
CPU Intel Core i7-6850K 3.6GHz 6-Core Processor $605.99 @ B&H
CPU Cooler Corsair H110 94.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler $117.99 @ Newegg
Motherboard Asus SABERTOOTH X99 ATX LGA2011-3 Motherboard $304.99 @ B&H
Memory Crucial 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR4-2133 Memory $34.99 @ Best Buy
Memory Crucial 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR4-2133 Memory $34.99 @ Best Buy
Storage Western Digital Red 8TB 3.5″ 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive $317.99 @ SuperBiiz
Storage Western Digital Red 8TB 3.5″ 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive $317.99 @ SuperBiiz
Storage Western Digital Red 8TB 3.5″ 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive $317.99 @ SuperBiiz
Storage Western Digital Red 8TB 3.5″ 5400RPM Internal Hard Drive $317.99 @ SuperBiiz
Case NZXT Switch 810 (White) ATX Full Tower Case $164.98 @ Newegg
Power Supply Corsair 760W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply $129.99 @ Newegg
Prices include shipping, taxes, rebates, and discounts
Total (before mail-in rebates) $2695.88
Mail-in rebates -$30.00
Total $2665.88
Generated by PCPartPicker 2016-08-15 15:38 EDT-0400

Or $1,423.92 USD without the 32 TB of storage. OK, so money is still sort of an object, else I would have grabbed all high end enterprise components (which is what I began to do, like this guy). The build still has cost effectiveness in mind somewhat, but it’s still probably overkill. I was not able to add ECC RAM with the PCPartPicker tool. To my surprise, the newer i7’s perform similarly to the server grade Xeons on the passmark test. The i7 has a score of 14,059 while Xeons that cost nearly twice as much perform about the same. How many streams does this get us? I poked around some more and found this reddit post, which estimates closer to 1,600 passmark score per stream, but also notes that there are several other variables that will affect this estimate. So around 8 by that estimate. That’s for 1080p quality, for 720p quality multiply it by 1.5 (a guesstimate). What about those four monster 8 TB drives? Well if you’ve ever entertained the idea of purchasing some bulk storage, here’s what you could get with a NAS4Free/FreeNAS build (4x 8 TB drives used in example):

zfscalc

I found this handy calculator recently – you can enter in your drives, their capacity, the RAID level you want to know about, and it will give you useful information like I have in the screenshot above. Essentially, with this software RAID (ZFS) example setup, one drive could fail without you losing any data – you would just have to get a replacement and rebuild the array and pray another drive doesn’t fail. This is also why people will advise you to buy your storage from several different places: drives that fail tend to do so around the same time as the drives that were shipped with them. So if a store got a “bad batch” and you bought several drives from that batch, you’ll have a much higher likelihood of experiencing multiple failures. Theoretically. I don’t know whether this hypothetical is supported by data or just anecdote. Finally, one of the benefits of a RAID-Z1 configurations is that you get to use more of your overall storage (75%), as opposed to just 50% of total storage with a RAID-1 (mirror) setup. There are many ways to RAID your disks. It varies with how many layers of stripes and mirrors you have, as well as parity disks. You can play around with the calculator to get a better understanding of this. So then, what drives are better as NAS drives?

Hard disks and failure rates

Just like any other computer part, there are people who swear by one brand while condemning the other. Intel vs AMD, NVidia vs AMD, and now, Western Digital vs Seagate. It is fine and good to be a loyal customer to one manufacturer, so long as they treat you well. Just know that the better answer to this question is model vs model, not brand vs brand. Here is a link to a recent discussion that did not go south. In short: look up drive failure rates based on the specific model. Seagate has certain drives with high failure rates, but so does Western Digital. Be aware that any authority publishing data on drive performance could cherry pick data if they wanted to mislead consumers. That being said, some drives are made with 24/7 operation in mind, and are thus more appropriate for a NAS build. WD Red NAS drives are an example of this and spin at 5400 RPM instead of 7200 RPM, minimizing the stress on the part. It is an extremely well reviewed product and I do no recall any instances of people complaining about them. They usually go for 3-4 cents per gigabyte. There are good Seagate drives out there which cost less and also have low failure rates. HGST, owned by Western Digital, is a newer entrant in this market and has an impressive record already as far as reviews, failure rates, and price points go. Whichever brand you decide to go with, it is up to you to research the model (as well as the retailer and their shipping methods) before you commit to a purchase.


Conclusion
If I lived in a country where electricity is more expensive, I would probably go with the Intel build. If I was building a NAS for a home that has potentially 2 or more people streaming at once, I would lean more towards the AMD build I posted. Other honorable mentions: old desktops or prebuilts with an i3, i5 or i7 – even the first and second generations of these CPUs can get the job done, with passmark scores starting at around 3,000 going up to around 8,000 with the latest generation. Server grade processors such as the Xeon score very high on the passmark bench test and are sometimes used to power home servers, though the people that take this path are usually a little more hardcore about computer hardware and probably aren’t reading this guide. If the Xeon processor does sound appealing to you, I hear people have had good luck getting these things used on Ebay for cheap. If you are interested in merely storing files for long term survival and are not interested in streaming media, a prebuilt NAS enclosure is best suited for this, as they have lightweight hardware and thus lower power consumption. However, if the idea of being able to serve media to other devices appeals to you, or if you’d like to access your files at home from anywhere in the world, a more powerful NAS machine running NAS4Free or FreeNAS is clearly the best choice.

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4 thoughts on “How to Build a Budget NAS Machine

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