NAS stands for Network Attached Storage. As Windows became easier to use with network attached devices, and hardware prices fell, this term started to be used in the consumer market. Today there’s a wide variety of off-the-shelf options that can provide storage for a home or small business network.
The only problem is the price. A decent NAS can cost as much as a PC, which begs the question – why not build your own? It’s not a difficult task but the approach differs from building a PC.
Step 1: Find a case
Deciding on the case requires thought. You need to decide what kind of NAS you want to build. Will it be small and kept out of the way? Will you need to easily access it and remove or add drives? How much storage do you need and how much space do you want for future upgrades? Finally, how much do you want to spend?
If budget is a priority you can save cash by building a NAS box from, well, just about anything. Any box made from a material that can be drilled is usable. You also need to make sure that it’s possible to install motherboard spacers that raise the motherboard above the surface it is mounted to (it might short out if you don’t).
That may be more trouble than it’s worth, however. You can find computer cases everywhere. Garage sales, thrift stores, Craigslist…they seem to be everywhere. Older PCs are sometimes sold for so little that you might end up buying an entire computer just for the case.
Readers with some money to spend should just head to Newegg and browse new Mini-ITX and Micro-ATX cases. I’m a fan of the Lian-Li PC-Q07 for a compact NAS or the Antec NSK3480 for a larger, multi-driver system. You could also use a full ATX tower, of course – it will just take up more space.
Step 2: Buy the hardware
Powerful hardware is not needed for network storage and increase a system’s heat and power generation. This means you can get away with old hardware. Now is a great time to press an old dual-core back into service. If you must buy new, look at an Intel Celeron or entry-level AMD A4.
The motherboard can be basic. Make sure it fits your case, fits the processor you choose and has enough SATA ports to handle the hard drives you want to connect. Motherboards built today typically support the features that are most useful, like boot-from-USB and wake-on-LAN. Double check the manufacturer’s website before if you’re feeling paranoid.
RAM once again is not critical. Make sure it works with your motherboard. Go for two gigabytes (it’s not required if you use a Linux OS, but heck, RAM is cheap! You may as well.)
Now pick up a hard drive. A basic 5,400 RPM mechanical drive with a ton of storage space is all you need. Everyone has their brand preference – I’ve had good luck with Seagate drives – but any major brand name should do nicely.
And don’t forget a power supply. Some cases ship with one. Most do not. Not much power is needed for a NAS – most will never exceed 100 watts in draw – so go with cheap and reliable. I recommend Antec and Seasonic.
Step 3: Build it
Putting together a NAS is not different from putting together a normal PC. The hardware is the same and so are the steps required. Check out our PC building PDF guide or our more recent visual guide to building your own PC.
Step 4: Install an operating system
The most popular option for user-built NAS systems is FreeNAS. It’s a free, open-source project that is fairly easy to use and provides the features most users need. Though many Linux operating systems can run similar software, FreeNAS has become the top choice because it’s built for NAS specifically and doesn’t include any unneeded features. We’ve already published a FreeNAS installation guide.
Other options include NexentaStor, Openfiler, and Ubuntu with Samba. The last of these is about as easy to use as FreeNAS, though I can’t see much reason to use it on a system that is not intended for use as a normal desktop system.
You can even use Windows. It easily connects to other devices (which, let’s face it, are probably running Windows) on the same network and there are more than one remote connection options for access outside your network. Windows costs money, however, and it’s not great for people who intend to use the NAS for purposes other than media storage.
Once the operating system is installed be sure to enable Wake-On-LAN in BIOS. Without it you won’t be able to wake the computer from sleep when you need to access its files.
Step 5: Enjoy your NAS
Now your NAS should be up and running. Systems like this tend to be low maintenance, particularly if running a purpose-built operating system like FreeNAS. The system can be thrown into the back of a closet or under a desk. It will be fine so long as you don’t throw a blanket over it. Enjoy!