Old Computer Parts | Build A File Server

When you buy a new computer what do you do with your old computer? With my computers I make them into something new and this time around I am going to turn an old computer into a File Server that we can use to back up our new computer our laptops and everything else that needs backing up in the house.

To create the back up server itself I am going to use a program called FreeNAS. The FreeNAS software can be installed to a USB memory stick which is easy to install to from any PC and as long as your old computer’s motherboard supports booting from USB, easy to manage.

Equipment to Build Your Backup File Server

Building your new file server will only require a basic component computer. I am running my file server as a back-up server using an Intel Core2Duo E6300 and 4GB of RAM, which is good for my needs; FreeNAS recommended hardware details can be found on the software’s Wiki. So you will need:

Item # Item Notes
1 Your Old Computer It must be in Working Order and subject to the hardware minimums in the above link. For FreeNAS 8.2 the minimum specification quoted is 2GB Disk space (USB Memory Key is good) and 4GB RAM.
2 A Monitor, Keyboard and Mouse This will only be used in the initial installation; you can even use your new equipment if that is all you have to hand
3 A CD Writer and Blank CD This can be on any computer, it can be your old computer, new computer or even someone elses computer.
4 USB Key  If you want to run FreeNAS from a USB Key it must be 2GB or larger
5 Hard Disk Drives You need enough hard disk space to back up everything you want to back up. I use 2TB Seagate Hard Drives in mine. If it is purely for back-up, high-speed RPM drives is not an issue in reality.Need a new Hard Drive?  See what is best for you here.

Pricing New Hard Disk Drives

If you are using an old computer for your new back-up server then your hard disk drive might not have the capacity to provide a full back up for your new computer and other devices on the network. Computer component prices have been high since late 2010 when bad weather slowed down production in the far east, but price levels have dropped to reasonable levels; a 2TB Hard Disk Drive now under £100.

Hard Drive for a File ServerIf you are using your old computer as a back-up server rather than a general file server, any new Hard Disk Drive does not need to be lightning fast and the speed benefits between 7200RPM and 5900RPM drives are negligible if cost is also a factor. The old computer will likely end up being on 24 hours a day though, so power saving hard disk drives (along with the power savings of a 5900RPM drive) should be considered important to keep energy costs lower. Unless you have a very, very old computer you should have SATA connections available to use; but if this is not the case then the majority of computer retailers will sell internal SATA expansion cards that you will be able to install to give the option.

Preparing Your File Server Software

Download FreeNAS

There are two different builds of FreeNAS file server that are popular at the moment. FreeNAS 9.1 is the latest edition of the popular file server software, but many users found it difficult to pair the server with games consoles for video streaming so opted to downgrade to FreeNAS 7.

FreeNAS claims that later versions support uPnP (for media streaming) through a plug-in. At this time I have not had the opportunity to test this claim with a games console.

The first thing you need to do is download the FreeNAS CD Image. This can be downloaded in either 32 Bit or 64 Bit format and will come in the form of an image file with a .iso extension which can be burnt to a CD but beware; if you use virtual CD/DVD drive software such as MagicDisc you can not use this to prepare a FreeNAS USB, you MUST burn a CD of the CD image.

You can use any of the reliable CD burning packages that support burning from an image file, it is very rare to find a piece of software that does not support this and  I have prepared a dummies guide to burning a CD for those who are not sure of this process.

Install FreeNAS to a USB Thumb Drive

The easy bit about installing FreeNAS is that creating a USB Memory Stick with the operating system is so easy that you can do it from any computer – it does not have to be your old computer. Your old computer does need to support being booted from a USB drive though; you may want to check this in the BIOS of the computer before making any changes.

Installing to a USB Drive

To install FreeNAS to a USB memory stick we first need to find a computer. Any computer or laptop will do and we will not be accessing the Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX operating systems, so you need to do this first. Your computer needs to be able to boot from the CD and not start loading an operating system; so you need to make sure that your computer knows this. On some computers this can be easily done by pressing F8 at the boot screen and accessing the BIOS; the menu that we are looking for will have references to something like Boot Priority, Boot Order; navigating the BIOS is as easy as following the instructions and guide to the F-keys that display at the bottom of the screen.

Letting the CD Load it will present you with a menu where you need the option Install to a Hard Drive or USB and by following the prompts to install to your USB key. Once this is complete you can remove the FreeNAS CD and USB key and restart your computer, it will boot into Windows as normal.

Note: You can use your old computer to set up the FreeNAS memory stick if you prefer. For ease of upgrading in the future you should set your boot priority to CD Drive, then Removable Drive. You do need an optical drive in your old computer to do this though.

You can pick up USB flash drives really cheap. A 4GB USB flash drive can cost around £5 and is big enough to install FreeNAS and is small enough to hide away in your USB port so you can fit is snugly in the corner of your room.

Installing to a Hard Disk Drive

Installing to and running FreeNAS from a hard disk drive is also possible but the problem is that FreeNAS will not allow you to share any space on the Hard Disk Drive that the operating system is on. Unless you have a very small (under 10GB) Hard Drive available, the loss of space far outweighs any benefits. The process from the FreeNAS CD though is identical to creating a USB memory stick, except that you choose to install to a hard drive instead of a USB drive.

Note that you would not be able to actually install FreeNAS to a Hard Disk Drive until after you have prepared your hardware. So this should come later.