How to Turn an Old PC into a Fully Loaded DIY NAS Server: An In-Depth Guide for Power Users

Have an unused Windows PC sitting in your closet collecting dust? With a bit of effort, that old clunker could provide centralized and secure storage for all your precious files.

In this comprehensive 4000-word guide, you‘ll get the inside scoop on converting legacy PCs into fully functioning DIY NAS (Network Attached Storage) servers using free software.

Here‘s what I‘ll cover:

  • Quick NAS overview and tangible benefits
  • Detailed parts lists for ideal DIY NAS configurations
  • Step-by-step walkthroughs for installing NAS operating systems
  • Data protection methods like RAID and 3-2-1 backup strategies
  • Answers to 19 commonly asked DIY NAS questions

Let‘s get started, shall we?

What Exactly is a NAS Server and Why Should You Want One?

Simply put, a NAS server is storage that connects to your router so any device on your local network can access files. No more emailing yourself or using clunky flash drives to move stuff around!

More specifically, some killer features a DIY NAS adds are:

Consolidated Storage: Stash all your family photos, video projects, vital documents, music libraries, and media streams in one place instead of scattered across laptops, tablets, and external drives. Way easier for managing backups too!

Easy Sharing & Streaming: With media server software like Plex, you can store loads of movies and songs centrally then beam them to phones, tablets, smart TVs or gaming consoles around the home.

Remote Access Convenience: Traveling and can‘t bear to miss your TV shows download queue? No prob! Just log into your home NAS over the internet to grab that file or troubleshoot issues.

Safer Backups: Instead of hoping laptop backups work, automate everything to your NAS so all files get copied centrally as a version history just like Google Docs. Never lose data again!

Expandable & Customizable: Start small with an old PC and some spare drives. As your storage appetite grows, keep adding more drives as needed. Want to tinker with managing services or adding automation? NAS operating systems offer way more flexibility over factory storage devices.

Clearly DIY NAS servers provide awesome convenience plus bulletproofing for your irreplaceable digital data. But enough benefits talk…how the heck do you build one?!

Choosing the Right Hardware for Flawless DIY NAS Performance

Sure you could jam some old laptop with a creaky Celeron CPU and scrape together random aging drives for a NAS project…buuuut performance will suck and failure chances skyrocket.

For the best experience, here are my recommended parts for DIY NAS builds:

Used Business PCs – Optiplex or EliteDesk models with Intel i5 CPUs, 8GB+ RAM and small SSDs for under $150. More affordable than building new!

6TB NAS Hard Drives – WD Red Plus or Seagate IronWolf NAS drives ($120 range) emphasize reliability over raw speed which is perfect.

10Gbps Network Card – Cat6 wiring with multi-gig network card saturates typical home bandwidth so speeds never bottleneck. ($50)

Uninterruptible Power Supply – Protect against power blips frying gear or interrupting backups with a compact 350VA UPS unit. ($60)

Then assemble components into a clean mini tower case with adequate cooling and quietly tuck away wherever convenient.

For under $500 spent smartly, this thoughtful DIY parts combo achieves excellent NAS capability many home users dream about from expensive off-the-shelf solutions.

Now let‘s dig into the fun stuff…how to install not just any old operating system but specialized ones engineered specifically for NAS workloads!

Method #1: Transform into NAS with Windows 10 and Plex

If simplicity tops your DIY NAS priority list, then installing good ol‘ Windows 10 Pro coupled with the awesome free media server Plex is a quick way to get rolling.

Here‘s how to get your NAS up in under an hour with this approach:

Step 1: Start Fresh with Windows 10

Always best to begin with fresh Windows 10 installed to avoid weird legacy app conflicts down the road. Pop in a bootable Windows 10 USB installer, boot up and step through the prompts selecting your target drive. Windows handles the rest reformatting and installing itself in under 10 minutes.

Once booted into the new OS, run all Windows Updates, motherboard driver updates, etc. to patch everything fresh.

Step 2: Pool Drives with Storage Spaces

Now to combine your NAS hard drives into one big happy drive letter. In Windows 10, use the built-in Storage Spaces feature to create a large storage pool exposed as single volume. This gives breathing room before hitting storage limits.

To access, hit the Windows key and type "Storage Spaces" then launch. Select the drives for pooling, choose a layout then name your shiny new massive volume. Done!

Step 3: Share Network Drives

Your NAS isn‘t much use if devices on your home network can‘t actually access the files. Let‘s fix that.

Open up File Explorer, right click on your new Storage Spaces NAS volume and choose "Share with devices on network". Allow full read/write access to all users. Repeat for any other volumes or drives you want available on the LAN.

Step 4: Make Plex Your Streaming BFF

What good is centralizing all your movies, TV shows and music files if you can‘t easily beam them anywhere in the house? The incredible free media server app Plex massively simplifies this streaming and discovery process.

Visit the Plex website and grab the installer for our Windows NAS box. Once launched, show Plex where you stashed media collections on the NAS then watch in awe as it automatically catalogs and downloads metadata like descriptions and artwork. So polished!

Now poke around the Plex apps for Android, iOS, smart TV platforms, etc and note how all your NAS media is readily streamable to any device beautifully thanks to Plex handling the heavy lifting invisibly. Sweet!

Step 5: Tweak Power Saving So NAS Never Sleeps

Unlike a normal desktop, we need our DIY NAS to faithfully run 24/7 without napping. In Windows power options, simply disable hard drive sleep timers and system hibernation. I also change the PC to never sleep when plugged in.

There we go! With fresh Windows 10 installation tuned for storage pools and sharing coupled with the Plex media server beaming our stuff anywhere on demand, we‘ve successfully converted an old PC into a capable living room NAS!

But what if we crave more advanced NAS capabilities beyond Windows? Let‘s explore rolling our own NAS OS for total control…

Method #2: Install TrueNAS for Advanced Custom NAS

Purpose-built Linux-based NAS operating systems like the wildly popular free TrueNAS package unlock additional flexibility at the cost of added complexity. But if you yearn for features like:

  • Support for enterprise-grade features like SSD caching, cloud sync and VM hypervisors
  • Lower resource overhead leaves extra power for more simultaneous users
  • Easier OS updates with full change rollback options
  • Choices among slick open source management front-ends
  • Scale up pools, volumes and permission controls on the fly
  • Tweak low-level protocols like multipath SAS or advanced NFS
  • Deduplicate file copies across storage for more efficiency
  • Simple plugin model to run Docker, Plex and more

…then open source NAS OS offerings bridge the gap between consumer boxes and pricey enterprise solutions nicely.

Let‘s highlight TrueNAS CE (Community Edition) and how to get it running:

Step 1: Make a TrueNAS USB Install Stick

Grab the TrueNAS ISO installer image from their website and balenaEtcher tool. Insert any spare USB stick 8GB or larger capacity into your desktop/laptop then launch balenaEtcher.

Point Etcher at your downloaded TrueNAS ISO file then select the USB stick as destination. Click Flash and autorun magic takes care of safely imaging TrueNAS onto the stick to create bootable installer media. Easy!

Step 2: Boot TrueNAS Installer

Plug your shiny new TrueNAS USB installer into your target NAS desktop and fire up the box. Smash whatever BIOS boot key to bring up boot device selection and choose your installer stick.

A few moments later, the TrueNAS system should boot to a basic menu with a few install options. Choose default and let the nice graphical system install wizard assist in deploying TrueNAS to your SSD/hard drive.

TrueNAS will automatically partition drives, format volumes, extract system files then reboot ready to serve up shared storage!

Step 3: Configure Storage Pools & Sharing

Once TrueNAS reboots and logs you into the fantastic browser-based WebUI, it‘s time to configure:

  • Storage Pools – Combining disks securely as redundant storage
  • Datasets & Shares – Carve out volume chunks visible as SMB/NFS network shares
  • Access Permissions – Control which users access what over the network
  • Services – Enable plugins like Plex, Docker, VMs, UPS monitoring etc.

Weave through TrueNAS‘ polished and intuitive menus to tailor your perfect NAS filesystem layouts, security policies and services until you achieve data nirvana!

Protecting Your Critical NAS Data from Peril

"Whoa awesome job getting our own DIY NAS rocking…but what guarantees all my personal files and precious memories aren‘t still at risk if drives start failing?!"

Not to worry, young grasshopper! Your sensei has plenty of data protection wisdom to share:

OPTION A: Simple Drive Mirroring with Windows Storage Spaces

The easiest safeguard for Windows NAS boxes is enabling mirror resiliency in Storage Spaces which keeps two copies of files on both physical drives at once. If one completely dies, your stuff stays safe on the surviving mirror!

Downsides? No protection against nasty ransomware that might concurrently encrypt/wipe both mirrored halves before you can stop it. Also requires buying 2+ identical sized/speed drives which isn‘t cost effective for large NAS capacities.

OPTION B: Flexible Software RAID Choices with TrueNAS

Unlike consumer NAS units with rigid single RAID mode limitations, TrueNAS offers immense flexibility in storage data protection schemes:

  • 2 Drive Mirror – Like Storage Spaces for realtime perfect replication
  • 5+ Drive RAIDZ1 – Protects against 1 drive lost with single parity drive
  • 6+ Drive RAIDZ2 – Handles 2 total drive failures via dual parity mechanism
  • Crazy RAIDZ3 – Triple drive parity for the ultra paranoid!

This lets you match the ideal balance of storage efficiency, fault tolerance and cost for your use case goals. Love having choices!

OPTION C: Quadruple Safety Using 3-2-1 Backup Rule

The tried and tested 3-2-1 backup mantra ensures critical data survives no matter what by maintaining:

  • 3 Copies – Live + Local Backup + Offsite/Cloud
  • 2 Formats – Like both physical backup drives + online backups
  • 1 Offsite – External drives rotated somewhere else or cloud

For example, have daily incremental NAS backups to an external USB hard drive stored offsite at your workplace. Plus leverage Backblaze cloud backup performing versioned file snapshots accessible anywhere internet roams in a disaster!

That was a firehose of data protection knowledge to ponder. Now let‘s wrap up with handy FAQs for your DIY NAS endeavors!

Top 19 DIY NAS Server Questions Answered

Q: What is better for NAS: Ubuntu vs TrueNAS?

A: TrueNAS offers better NAS-optimized features/support long-term. But Ubuntu Server works well for budget NAS builds.

Q: Can I access NAS files outside home network?

A: Yes! Via VPN, port forwarding rules or Dynamic DNS services for secure remote access anywhere.

Q: How do I backup Plex library on DIY NAS?

A: Plugin Plex-Meta-Manager to handle scheduled backups of just Plex database/metadata separate from media.

Q: What CPU benchmark is needed for 4K video transcoding?

A: Passmark CPU score of at least 8000+ for smooth 4K HEVC to 1080p tonemapping simultanously across a few streams.

Q: Can I run VMs and Docker on DIY NAS?

A: Yep! Run all kinds of containers & hypervisor VMs thanks to NAS OS efficiencies freeing resources.

Q: How long do SMR hard drives last in always-on NAS?

A: Avoid SMR completely for NAS. Stick with CMR drives rated for 24/7 operation (WD Red Plus or Seagate IronWolf lines).

Q: What is the best firmware for custom NAS?

A: TrueNAS for advanced features. OpenMediaVault for simpler needs. Unraid if you need Docker & mix drive sizes.

Q: Can I use DIY NAS as Time Machine backup for Mac?

A: Absolutely! Enable SMB sharing then configure Mac backup to NAS over network.

Q: What RAID level is best for NAS?

A: RAID 1 mirroring for 2 drive NAS. 5+ drives go RAIDZ1/Z2 balancing storage use and dual parity protection.

Q: How long do hard drives last in NAS enclosures?

A: 3-5 years typically for consumer HDDs. 5-8 years for NAS rated drives like WD Red Plus or Seagate IronWolf models.

Q: Can I backup my Mac laptop wirelessly to a NAS?

A: Yup! Use built-in Time Machine to define a network share on the NAS as the backup destination drive.

Q: Can I store downloaded files directly on a NAS drive?

A: As long as SMB network sharing is enabled, you can specify any NAS drive letter as a download destination from within browsers or tools supporting UNC paths.

Q: Can my internet router connect directly to a NAS appliance?

A: Absolutely! NAS boxes have dedicated RJ45 ethernet ports to plug directly into any nearby router LAN port just like adding a computer or switch to your home network.

Q: What CPU speed per TB is recommended for NAS hardware?

A: Target at least 2GHz CPU core speed per TB of storage for adequate NAS performance based on industry advice. Faster cores preferred.

Q: How do I access NAS remotely over internet securely?

A: Utilize a VPN tunnel, forward a NAS services port through your router firewall carefully ONLY if needed, or explore dynamic DNS access techniques. Many options to safety expose NAS resources over WAN!

Q: Can HDMI output from PC act as a NAS monitor?

A: Desktop PC HDMI works for initial NAS operating system installation, but not good long term since you need the box headless 24/7 without a keyboard or monitor wasting power.

Q: What are symptoms of underpowered DIY NAS hardware?

A: Slow samba network share speeds, choppy video playback, laggy response accessing files over network, OS/app crashes etc despite wired 1GbE connection. Upgrade CPU or add RAM until issues disappear.

I hope these additionally addressed questions help you successfully plan, construct and manage your perfect DIY NAS system!

Go Forth and Hoard Data, My Friend!

Whew, that was a metric ton of DIY NAS advice crammed into this guide! Feeling empowered to rescue an aging Windows PC from obscurity and transform it into the ultimate networked storage and streaming workhorse your modern digital lifestyle requires?

From parts recommendations to dorking around with open source NAS operating systems, we covered quite the spectrum of relevant topics. Thanks for sticking it out to the very end! Please don‘t hesitate to ping me with any unanswered issues cropping up on your NAS quest. Here‘s raising a pint to many years of reliable service from your new DIY NAS box! 🍺

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