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Many of the machines we show you how to build here at ExtremeTech are of the “burn, baby burn” variety. But often those systems are Ferraris when all you need is a Ford. A good example of this is a home server whose main duties are to serve up files and a print queue 24/7 with minimal fuss. As your needs get more sophisticated, it should be able to grow with them.

Linux continues to gain ground in the enterprise server space, with IBM, Sun and HP as its champions. Linux has proven its mettle driving big iron, but it’s equally well-suited and versatile enough to power your home server.

For just under $550, you can build a very capable server with gobs of storage and enough processing horsepower to pull multiple duties serving up a printer queue, web pages, SAMBA, and more. And, if you’ve got some old parts to scavenge, and are working within a tight budget, you can still put together a solid server for under $400. Or, if you’ve got an old box you’re looking to put out to pasture, it can be turned into a serviceable home server with a few spot upgrades.

While any one of these paths will get you a working server, let’s start with our recipe for a new server, and then compare it with the other alternatives, so you can make the right choice for your needs.

For a system that will primarily serve up files and a print queue, you don’t need barn-burning components. So the idea here is “fast enough,” rather than top of the line.

Component Maker/Model The Skinny Price
Case Antec Solution SLK1600 ATX Mini Tower Case Easy access, no busted knuckles $50.00 (check prices)
Power Supply 300 watts Included with case $0.00
CPU Pentium 4 2.4GHz 1MB L2 cache, 800MHz front-side bus $120.00
Motherboard Intel 865GBF Onboard LAN, graphics, audio, USB 2.0, and FireWire $85.00 (check prices)
System Memory Kingston KVR400X64C3A/256 (PC3200) 256MB Solid basic memory $45.00
Graphics Card Integrated Basic graphics work for this machine $0.00
CD Burner Lite-On LTR-52327S CD-R/W $27.00 (check prices)
Hard Drive Western Digital WD1200JB 120GB drive for data volume with 8MB onboard cache $75.00 (check prices)
Display ViewSonic Q51B-8 15 in. CRT 15″ monitor $110.00 (check prices)
Keyboard/Mouse Logitech Access Duo Good basic keyboard/mouse combo $27.00 (check prices)
Operating system Linux. Distro: Xandros Open Circulation Great first Linux distro, very Windows-like $0.00
TOTAL $539.00

For well under $600, you get a very solid load-out, which includes enough CPU horsepower, and a big 120GB bit bucket that all your Windows PCs (and Macs too) can access on your home network. If you have an old monitor, keyboard, and mouse you can cannibalize for this system, the price tag drops below $450.

Note that for the 865GBF motherboard, you’ll want to download the latest BIOS from Intel’s support site, as it enables the board to run with the Prescott-based CPU we’ve spec’ed out.

For the Linux distribution, we went with Xandros’ Open Circulation version, which is available for free download via BitTorrent. Xandros is a terrific Linux distribution for Windows users, because of its Windows-like functionality. For instance, to set up a shared folder, all you have to do is right-click on it and enable sharing. Of course, if you’re more comfortable with another distribution like Fedora Core (the free version of RedHat), SuSE, Mandrake or Debian, then go with what you know. But if you’re new to Linux and don’t want to spend a lot of time twiddling with config files, then Xandros is a great place to start.

Usually, a file server is a machine you want to tuck away in the corner of your office, or somewhere out of the way. The Antec case we used is compact, but you may want a server that’s more compact still.

Small form-factor PCs have become the darlings of the LAN party set, and with good reason. With them, you can stuff a whole lot of horsepower into a small box that you can easily cart under one arm. What’s not to like, right? Well there are a few downsides to having a box like this act as a server.

The first one is cost. Using a small form-factor “barebones” system from Shuttle that has Intel’s 865G chipset (with integrated graphics) will add about $130 to the overall cost of the server. Another consideration is noise. Shuttle and other small PC makers have implemented variable-speed fans to keep things cool inside the cramped cases, but if the server’s CPU is being taxed, you may start getting more fan noise than you want your server to be making.

The upside of an SFF box is that you get a very compact server that’s very easy to tuck into a remote corner of your house.This convenience adds 25% to the total cost. If you’re on a tight budget, we suggest skipping the small form-factor option, and putting those $130 dollars to good use elsewhere.

Alternatively, you could get a microATX 865G motherboard and a compact, microATX case and power supply. You’ll likely skin your knuckles building it, but it’s almost as cheap as the larger one we assembled here.

You could get really small, and build a tiny server based on the Casetronic Travla C158, which uses Via’s ITX form factor. We recently built one of these, and liked it well enough, but its price tag came to over $900 (sans monitor).

Another really good strategy is to survey the systems you’ve currently got running at home and dedicate the oldest one as your server. The obvious upside here is the cost saving: You’ll only spend about $75 on a new, bigger hard-drive for this system. Be aware, though, that some older systems may not be able to handle hard drives above 120GB, though a BIOS update will sometimes fix this. You’ll want to increase the system memory to at least 256MB as well, but even with these two upgrades, the total upgrade cost is still well under $150. If you’ve budgeted more for this server but have an older system you can re-purpose, now you’ve got some found funds to put toward a new midrange system for gaming and whatever else suits your computing tastes.

In the Xandros flavor of Linux, setting up a shared folder is about as easy as it gets. In fact, if you can do it in Windows, you can do it in Xandros. Double-click on the Home icon, and go to the root directory folder (not the root user’s folder) by typing / (forward slash) in the address bar. Next double-click on the Home folder and, once there, right-click and select New Folder. Give it a name that will remind you what its contents are (e.g., music), and right-click on the newly created folder. Select the Windows Sharing tab-dialog and enable file-sharing by clicking the check-box that says, “Share this item and its contents.”

Setting up a Shared Printer

After the installation has copied the needed files to your hard drive, you’ll be prompted to add a printer during the initial bootup. For the initial bootup, we suggest logging in as root to finish system configuration chores.

We used an HP DeskJet 855C printer for this test, and Xandros detected an HP 850C DeskJet printer. The 855C was on its list of supported printers, so we changed the entry, and all turned out well. Be sure your printer is connected when you’re installing Xandros OC, and verify that the OS has detected the correct make and model of printer during the initial bootup screen.

Next, you’ll want to go into Xandros OC’s Control Center application–analogous to Windows’ Control Panel–and click on the Printers icon. There, you should see your printer listed. Double-click on it, and go to the Windows Sharing tab of its Properties sheet. Next, click the check box that says “Share this item and its contents.” Give the printer a simple share name, like “hp855c” in our example.

We did hit into one minor snag, where we had to manually enter an address for our printer from a Windows machine to see the printer queue. This took the form of “\xandroshp855c” as the address for our printer queue. But once that was entered in, and Windows loaded a driver for the printer, we were then printing from all Windows machines on our test network.

File-sharing is as easy in Xandros as it is in Windows. We suggest creating a folder in the home sub-folder, and then enabling sharing on that folder and only that folder. We created a sub-folder called Cher, where we copied some test files, and then enabled sharing. Simply right-click on the sub-folder and select Sharing, then click on Windows Sharing. From there, click the check-box that says “Share this item and its contents.” Give the folder a simple share name, like “Cher” in our example.

Of course, you can set up dedicated folders for different users in the house, where you and each user–and only you two–can see the folder’s contents. To do this, however, you’ll need to create user accounts on the Xandros OC machine so that the users can log in and access their designated folder.

For your Windows machines to connect to this resource, bring up the My Computer window, and in the address bar type \xandros (or whatever you’ve named the server). There, you’ll see its shared folders and printers. Right-click on the shared folder and select “Map Network Drive.” Be sure that you click the “Restore connection at logon” check box so that when the Windows machine is rebooted, it can still see this shared folder.

Lastly, we strongly suggest that once you’ve gotten your shares set up, log out as root from Xandros, and log back in as a non-super-user. That way, if someone is using the system for web surfing or office applications, they can’t accidentally hose any of your system settings.

The first step toward building your home’s file/print server is to decide which build option works best for you. Do you want to start from scratch? Can you harvest some old parts that are just gathering dust? Do you have an old system you can repurpose to function as your server? The answers to these questions will help you decide which of the three options is your best way to go. You can use whatever Linux distro you like best, but for simplicity we like Xandros’ OC Edition. It’s especially good for Linux newbies, because so much of its interface is Windows-like.

Even though your new server’s primary mission in life is to serve up files and host a printer, that doesn’t mean you can’t also use it as a desktop system running office applications (Xandros OC comes with OpenOffice) and web surfing. Compute-intensive tasks like CD ripping and media encoding are probably better left to your beefier systems, but this machine is also up to the task; it just won’t plow through them as fast as your hot-rod rig. Given inexpensive, solid hardware and an easy (and free) Linux distribution like Xandrox OC, your home’s file/print server is just a half-day’s work away.