How to build a Windows Home Server

Choosing the right components and keeping things simple are key to putting together a robust, reliable and economical home server based on Microsoft's latest OS
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer

If you're thinking about building your own home server based on Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows Home Server, then you may want some pointers as to the best hardware to use. Here I'm going to take a look at the components that you'll need to put together a robust, reliable and economical home server.

Windows Home Server
The first thing you need is a copy of Windows Home Server, and that brings us straight up against licensing difficulties. There's no such thing as a retail copy of Windows Home Server, so you're going to have to take the OEM route. This means no tech support from Microsoft and that your copy of Windows Home Server will be bound to the motherboard that you'll use as the basis for the system. You can pick up an OEM copy of Windows Home Server for between $169 (£82) and $189 (£92) — so shop around.

CPU and motherboard
Once you have the software, it's time to get the hardware sorted out. I'm going to start off with the CPU and motherboard. The good thing about the Windows Home Server operating system is that you don't need monster hardware to run it on. Remember: the main purpose of Windows Home Server is to move data about — something that's not all that system intensive.

Throwing too much hardware at Windows Home Server will only waste power and generate excess heat. The Microsoft spec suggests a 1GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive, and throwing more gigahertz or RAM at the OS makes little difference to the data transfer performance. As the basis for a system I'd suggest a modest CPU such as the AMD Sempron 3200+. You could go for something beefier like an Intel Core 2 Duo, but all you'll be doing is chucking away money so that you can chuck away more money by eating up electricity. Take my advice and stick with a low power consumption CPU (the Sempron 3200+ comes in 62W and 35W flavours, so try to get the 35W version if you can).

When it comes to choosing a motherboard for the home server, you're looking for something cheap, something that doesn't have fancy features (such as 7.1 surround sound or FireWire and so forth), and something that has plenty of connectors for hard drives (ATA, SATA, or both, depending on what drives you're going to use) and a network connector (preferably 1Gb).

You're also not going to need loads of PCI or PCI-E slots either, since little or nothing is going to be hooked up to them. Again, don't blow dough on fancy stuff. However, it might be a good idea to look for a board with on-board VGA (I'll explain why later). If you got money burning holes in your pocket, you might as well spend it on fireworks because spending it on a fancy board certainly won't give you a faster or better home server. Gigibyte, MSI and abit all make boards that are ideally suited to home server application.

Heatsink and fan
When it comes to cooling your CPU, you have some choices. You can stick with the stock cooler if you don't care about sound levels. The stock coolers will work just fine under the stresses of running Windows Home Server. However, you might want something quieter (stock coolers are anything but quiet). If you've chosen an AMD Sempron CPU, you might want to check out the Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro, or the Akasa AK-876.

Next, RAM. Again, keep it simple. All you need is 512MB of DDR2. Any more RAM (or fancier RAM) and, again, you will be wasting your money.

Now you might remember that I said that it might be a good idea if you choose a motherboard with on-board VGA. This will make the home server cheaper and it means that you don't need a separate graphics card. The Microsoft Home Server logo programme specifies that commercial systems have no video output, but this makes it a major pain to set up and troubleshoot the system, so on-board support is an ideal compromise. Again, the cheapest solution will be just fine.

Hard drives
Next we come to the most critical part of the home server — the hard drives. I recommend that you fit two drives because this gives you redundancy and allows you to make use of folder duplication in Windows Home Server to replicate user data onto the second drive. When it comes down to what to buy, the main concern is capacity. If you're looking at 160GB drives, I'd be looking at the Hitachi DeskStar 7K160 which consumes as little as 5.9W at idle. If you want 500GB, drives then the Samsung Spinpoint T is a good drive to choose.

If you want to super size the hard-drive capacity, you're not going to find better than the Western Digital "GreenPower" WD10EACS 1TB (terabyte) drive which has incredibly low power consumption both at idle and when working.

Optical drive
You'll need one to install Windows Home Server, but after that it isn't going to see an awful lot of use. Get a cheap one for the job, in case you ever need to reinstall.

Case and PSU
That just leaves the home server in need of a case and a power supply unit (PSU). When it comes to a case, I'll let you choose based on style, price and how many drives you want to fit into it. My advice is to keep things simple. When it comes to a PSU, you're unlikely to need anything above 300W, but you're going to need a PSU that can reliably deliver the power that your system needs and deliver it reliably for months and years to come. When it comes to the PSU, I'd spend money on a decent one and get one that's certified as energy efficient.

Final thoughts
A home server shouldn't have to cost you more than a few hundred pounds, depending on the number and capacity of the hard drives you choose to fit. Another possibility is that you can put an old, forgotten PC to good use by assigning it to server duties.

If you enjoyed this article, you can find more such content on Adrian Kingsley-Hughes's blog.

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