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How to choose the best home server hardware

How can you choose the best hardware to set up a good home server having all the necessary resources to have good entertainment capabilities while keeping it affordable for a home budget?

First off, let us agree on what a home server is. A home server is surely a server, so it has to be a reliable unit, durable in time and in position to guarantee the necessary persistence of data and availability of services. Being at home, it is also required to be very efficient (consuming the least energy while delivering what it is asked to deliver) and possibly also quiet and visually attracting (if you plan to install it where it is also visible). The cost is also an important limiting factor to take into consideration but this depends on your personal budget.

Now, let us talk about what such server is supposed to do. A first set of obvious functions that everyone implies when thinking about a home server is:

  • Storing all your data;
  • Streaming your content all around the house (and further too, if possible);

Then, you may like to abandon your commercial/business mail account to store and manage your mails in your server, giving it also the role of a mail server, or use it for hosting a video meeting service, or whatever else you could think about to fit your needs.

You should take this kind of subdivision in mind to choose the best hardware. To satisfy the basic requirements of persistence your unit shall be equipped with more than one disk arranged in a RAID layout (two disks may suffice even if small units have a higher cost per TB due to the machine cost, the cheapest solution is normally RAID 5 so you will need at least 3 disks). If the disks are hot swappable it is even better.

Then, even if you can stream audio and video via dlna, having a HDMI port on the unit is always preferable as you can attach the server to the TV even if your TV is not so modern and smart.

Finally, having some computing power is not a bad idea, and in a previous post I have resumed this requirement in having an Intel® processor installed on the motherboard. Alternatively, an equivalent one with the same features (read AMD but choose carefully).

Now, there are mainly three ways to put a box in your living room and fire all the magic just described:

  1. DIY
  2. Buy a commercial NAS
  3. Buy a commercial micro server (the way it is intended to be)
Do it yourself.

Doing things ourselves it is always fun and likely the best way to get the best use out of our money as you can optimize each hardware feature at best to serve your needs. On the flip side, when I took this option into consideration I did not find any good way to put something together in a good looking way to reside pleasantly in my living room. The commercial products you find on the market (I am referring to commercial NAS) are often designed to satisfy also these requirements, or they are not too ugly or noisy to keep them just below your bedroom’s TV.

Doing things yourself is also an easy path to gold plating, ending up with a unit that costs more than a commercial one without any good reason any longer to have chosen that strategy.

Moreover, assembling PCs is not as easy as it may seem. I have always put together my desktops myself, but some crowded cases have proven to suffer temperature problems, excessive deposit of dust due to fans not correctly engineered in position and dimension, and similar issues. This is why I say that putting a small powerful box together starting from scratch is not a simple task.

Buy a commercial NAS is instead a good way to rely on the engineering work of a company that is normally delivering you good software together with the hardware you buy. There are several manufacturers (Synology, QNAP, Netgear, WD, Buffalo, Terra Master just to cite some of the major ones) that sell NAS units equipped with an administration panel closer to a fully-fledged OS rather than a simple web administration tool. I took this direction in the past and I still do not have any reason not to repeat the same choice again today.

Buy a commercial micro-server.

The are some products on the market that are not falling into the category of a typical NAS (designed to be primarily a data storage unit) but they deserve some consideration as they can fit the same purpose while granting you some more flexibility in terms of hardware. Very often, they offer also more durability as these products are normally equipped with server segment hardware.

Therefore, we will keep this option too and see what is best at home.

What do we want?
  • I consider the following features as the minimum, based on my experience:
  • One HDMI output
  • One rj45 port 1000 Mb/s
  • 4×3.5” HDD bays
  • 8 GB RAM as a minimum, but if you have to upgrade because your unit has less, then upgrade to 16 GB.
  • Single thread rating on passmark higher than 500.

The target function to minimize is just the mere price, provided that all the requirements are strictly respected and additional non-compulsory features are adjusted in value or discounted in price. Maybe this is a too nerd definition, but I think you got the point.

A second target function can be the price in 5 years. This figure takes into account also possible failures of an average 25% of disks installed (this is again based on my experience).

What can we find on the market?

Let us have a look around on the web and see who is selling hardware that can meet these specs.

Having said that we drop the option to make the box on our own, we can list all the market options we have at reach.

There the list of manufacturers that you may take into consideration to check if they sell something good for you as of June 2020:

  • Asustor
  • Buffalo
  • HPe
  • Qnap
  • Synology
  • Terra Master
  • Western Digital

There are surely others, less renowned that I did not take into consideration to put this comparison together.If you know, let me know as I need to buy one in short time.

Some notes first, as you will not find all the brands listed here. In fact, Buffalo, WD and Terra Master sell typically storage units; Terra Master has only one unit with rj45 connection today. There is no sense in extending the search for a server to such a segment. Sinology has nice products but none of them has a HDMI or some kind of video output. This means that all home entertainment has to pass through dlna and in my opinion, this is not worth the investment. Anyway, Synology would be competing with the rest of the models I have taken into consideration, therefore if you want to have an idea of the Synology portfolio give a look here.

The search is then restricted to Asustor (four models), HPE (two models) and QNAP (five models, but I filtered the thunderbolt NAS out of the list together with some expensive units as well).

Let us start with Asustor equipment
ModelAS3204T v2AS5304TAS6404TAS7004T
ProcessorIntel Celeron 1.6GHzIntel Celeron J4105Intel Celeron J3455Intel® Core i3
Ram2 (not expandable)482
GraphicsRadeon™ R7UHD Graphics 630HD Graphics 5108th genIntel HD Graphics
Ethernet ports2222
HDMI ports1111
USB ports3345
Hot swappableyesyesyesyes
M.2 SSD0000
Consumption [W]27272439
Noise [dB]20201821
Single thread rating6041.1188111.935
Total rating1.1672.9772.2275.383
GPU rating137135137653
Raid 5 volume [TB]12121212
Asset Costs [$]    
Disks (105 $ each)420,00420,00420,00420,00
Ram (2×8 GB banks)85,0085,0085,00
Cost / TB62,4282,0085,33105,33
Running Costs [$]
Energy [15 c$/kWh]32,4032,4028,8046,80
5 Years Costs [$]
Unit Costs749,00984,001.024,001.264,00
5 years costs162,00162,00144,00234,00
Disk maintenance105,00105,00105,00105,00
Total 5 years cost1.016,001.251,001.273,001.603,00
Monthly cost16,9320,8521,2226,72

Asustor offers a great set of apps ready for installation on the NAS to cover all possible needs. You can find almost all torrent and download apps like transmission, aMule, qbittorrent, pyload and many others. There is a MariaDB server, a MongoDB, several backup solutions, OwnCloud and Joomla!

There is also a Plex server app to be installed and a full featured surveillance system coming with license for four cameras included in the initial purchase.

Jitsi meet server is present as well (while it is still not available on QNAP units, as of August 2020).

You can also have WordPress server. As of today, there are 557 packages available for download.

The name of the administration panel by Asustor is ADM. It is now at release 3.2. You can have a preview of it at this address. There is a nice live demo service to check all setting available services preinstalled and give a look at the rich AppCentral system.

I have tried it out and discovered that the LDAP setting area is much easy to use and also the volume manager is very straightforward.

Asustor offer also a nice feature to eject disks out of the unit when devoted to store only cold data. This saves energy avoiding to have unused disks spinning continuously. The feature’s name is MyArchive and allows you to read the data stored on one disk on any Asustor unit. You can think about this as another means to transfer data to your proximity by physically move them while still inside the disk.

Talking about energy efficiency, most of Asustor NAS ship with a Wake on Wan side service, allowing you to keep the NAS in stand by up to a call from the outside world.

Coming back to our initial requests, Asustor AS3204T does not pass the RAM test as it is too thin to be sufficient for something more than a mere data storage unit and it is also not expandable. The only unit with a purchase cost under 1.000 $ is AS5304T so this is the one entering into the shortlist for Asustor.

Anyway, if you have some budget you can also take into consideration the model 7004T to put a Core i3 in the trunk. In practical terms, you will have triple power with respect to the AS5304T. This depends mainly on the cost of energy at your side. I assumed 0.15$/kWh for my comparisons. If you want to have a Jitsi Server<> on your unit, then you need some rendering capacity that the Celeron processors can provide only partially.

Now let us give a look at reasonable QNAP models.
Bays464×3,5″ + 2×2.5″446
ProcessorAMD R-Series RX-421BDIntel® Core™ i3-8100TIntel® Core™ i3-7100Intel® Celeron® N3150Intel® Celeron® J3455Intel® Celeron® J3455
GraphicsRadeon™ R7UHD Graphics 630HD Graphics 5108th genIntel HD GraphicsHD Graphics 500HD Graphics 500
Ethernet ports43+1 Gbe4422
HDMI ports231122
USB ports454555
Hot swappableyesyesyesyesyesyes
M.2 SSD222via pcivia pcivia pci
Consumption [W]564546323038
Noise [dB]222024201919
Single thread rating138419352320567811811
Total rating3.0485.3834.2621.1832.2272.227
Gpu rating699653274137137137
Raid 5 volume [TB]122012 + 2 (SSD)121220
Asset Costs [$]
Disks (105 $ each)420,00630,00600,00420,00420,00630,00
Ram (2×8 Gb banks)85,0085,0085,0085,0085,00
Cost / TB128,75113,25156,4382,9280,3369,25
Running Costs
Energy [15 c$/kWh]67,2054,0055,2038,4036,0045,60
5 Years Costs
Unit Costs1545,002265,002190,00995,00964,001385,00
5 years costs336,00270,00276,00192,00180,00228,00
Disk maintenance105,00157,50157,50105,00105,00157,50
Total 5 years cost1.986,002.692,502.623,501.292,001.249,001.770,50
Monthly cost33,1044,8843,7321,5320,8229,51

QNAP provides an ecosystem of apps as wide as Asustor. I personally checked the quality of many of them and I never found any unsolvable issue. On my unit, I have a WordPress website delivering the pages you are looking to right now, a Kodi server, a Jitsi Server and a Mail server all working in parallel. Never had an issue with it since its first warm up.

QNAP provides top quality products, since 2015 my NAS is live around 8700 hours per year proving it is a truly reliable piece of equipment.

The table could be much wider, QNAP offer is definitely large but the ones I have selected are more than enough for the scope we are covering and close to a reasonable home sized budget.

Every unit comes with its administration panel via web to install, activate and manage every service installed in the Linux Debian based OS underneath. The name of the Administration environment is QTS and it is now at the release 4.4.2. You can do almost everything with it, manage all the volumes and shares created on the disks, see reporting data, check updates and create any virtual machine you may need. You can set up user and manage all kind of permissions. Activate every possible sharing service, from ftp to WebDAV. There is really everything as it is in Asustor ADM system.

Now let us get into details of the list: one important note first. Qnap offers some models in more than one only flavor. The difference can be in the processor or in the quantity of ram installed. I have chosen the model with the least quantity of memory installed to compile my list. In the majority of cases, it is cheaper to buy the lightest model and then change the ram yourself than buying the upgraded version.

Every unit presented here passes the test of prerequisites. It is just a matter to buy some ram if you need to run virtual machines but this is a simple task and the relevant correction in the asset price has been duly accounted for.

On the flip side, only the two smallest models pass the budget test: TS-453A and TS-453B (the new version, I do not think you can still buy the former one). I started with the TS-453A, an incredible machine that does all what I have described in my posts. It is really more than enough for everything you can think about for your home. The only complain I may raise is that when you have to reindex your data (there is a nice app that serves as a Search tool called Qsirch) you will see your processor 100% busy for long time. Linux is smart in managing multitasking, but I have to admit that you see the responsiveness drop in those moments, especially on the administration panel. I will not include the TS-453A in the shortlist as it makes really no sense to choose an old machine at the same price of the newest more performing model.

For the rest, QNAP for president.

Some additional comparison notes between 453A and 453 B. B version is factually more performing with J series Celeron processors are natively for desktops while N series installed on 453A versions are typically for mobile embedded processors. The difference on the paper is tangible, for the rest the two system are identical. I have not tested the B version but just looking at the chart you can see the improvements.

Why did I add the other so expensive unit? There is a reason. Actually, there is a reason for each model.

I have also tested the TVS-672 to try to offset the gap on video performance of my Jitsi server. My 453A is not capable of handling a video meeting with more than five people and surely not in HD video. The embedded graphics in its Celeron 3150 are far too short to cope with such a load (note that  with Jistsi servers the limintation is also involving the allowed bandwith though internet). With a processor like the Core® i3-8100T it is far better. Actually  8100T is enough with 20 video participants with no sensible lag or drop of video quality. With that budget, you could also reach a Core i5 but the power consumption would surpass my emotional threshold. I care a lot about electronic equipment efficiency. It is a way to measure how careful we are with the environment.

TVS-682 is included as you may already have an SSD to use as caching disk or you have a couple of 2.5” hdds that you may use to add some non-raid additional space (at your risk, this layout is not designed for this use!). In this case, the cost per TB decreases sensibly.

Then, TVS-473 is the top performer in terms of GPU and it is the only model equipped with AMD processors. I know there are people  simply addicted to AMD the same way some people are addicted to Alfa Romeo cars.

Finally, I have included also the TS-653B, the big brother of the TS-453B because it has 6 bays reducing the cost per TB drastically in RAID 5 configuration.

It is now time to give a look at HPE micro servers; this is the data sheet of the models on the market today.

ModelMicroserver Gen10 2M22PD7Microserver Gen10 P07203-421
ProcessorOpteron X3216Opteron X3418
GraphicsGCN 3rd generationGCN 3rd generation
Ethernet ports22
HDMI ports22
USB ports44
Hot swappablenono
M.2 SSD00
Consumption [W]3032
Noise [dB]
Single thread rating12651407
Total rating1.5283.02
Gpu rating
Raid 5 volume [TB]1212
Asset Costs [$]
Disks (105 $ each)420,00420,00
Ram (2×8 Gb banks)
Cost / TB67,4272,50
Running Costs
Energy [15 c$/kWh]36,0038,40
5 Years Costs
Unit Costs809870
5 years costs180,00192,00
Disk maintenance105,00105,00
Total 5 years cost1.094,001.167,00
Monthly cost18,2319,45

Micro-servers truly belong to another world with respect to NAS units. A comparison is anyway useful to understand what are the pros and cons of each of the two alternatives, but more importantly to have clearly in mind what are the differences between the two ways of handling data and services.

First, a micro-server is much closer to a VM running on a NAS than to the NAS itself. The server runs an OS natively (as the NAS does). When you deal with the machine, this is where you spend all your time. On the contrary, the NAS hides all the bolts and nuts with an administration panel, showing you only the things that you should see and change to manage your system. So the protections against mistakes on a NAS are far more efficient than the one you have when you deal directly with the native Linux OS.

Moreover, the NAS manufacturer bundles all the updates of the GNU/Linux environment in some rather predefined update process. The server will instead obey to your update requests as you naturally do with apt or yum, depending on the flavor of your Linux (or whatever else) distribution.

Then, the software at your reach on a normal server is much more than the one presented in the typical App Center of your NAS manufacturer. On a standard server (a pc, a machine, call it as you prefer) everything is delegated to the system administrator, yourself, as it normally is on a VM. The software is severely tested before going downloadable, but the ecosystem you are putting together with that good software may not.

So you need to know what you are doing and most of all you need to know exactly where you want to arrive because there will be no mainstream path to follow to set up the system you want.

I have been tempted more than once to buy one of these micro servers and test my mail server on it. The reasons for this temptation are:

  • I use virtual machines to send my services live and such server is wiping the whole overhead of the virtual machine off, giving me the possibility to use all hardware resources without any intermediate system.
  • The cost is much lower than the equivalent commercial NAS. In this case, you are not paying one single penny for the software, while NAS manufacturers somehow charge that engineering and coding work over their units.
  • You can have your HDMI port to deliver the same video server as you can have on the NAS. On my NAS I use Kodi as video streaming server and this goes out to my HDMI port (and in turn to my TV) by default, so every time I turn the TV on I see Kodi on my HDMI source channel. This is not difficult to be set up on a Linux machine using Kodi as a daemon.
  • I am sure that a wide app store brings some overhead to our NAS on the long run. Testing new things is fun so you end up testing many things that you do not really need. If you have to install each service yourself, find it, prepare the configuration and test, I can bet you will have no useless services on it any longer. A good diet for a nice performance boost.
  • With a correctly dimensioned hardware server, you can plan to have less ram: as you can see on the table before I did not include money to adjust the ram to 16 GB as I am quite sure everything can run smoothly with just 8 GB.
  • These units contain real server class equipment. The processor is in fact Opteron and the memory is ECC type.

To be very open, there are also reasons why I did not purchase it yet, and the most important one is availability time. When a service runs on a virtual machine, the standard way to back it up is by snapshots. A snapshot is easy and fast to take and all most common virtualization environments allow you to schedule this task automatically. If for some reasons your service VM goes down (may you are changing the configuration or you are installing something else on the same operative system breacking something around) you can be back online in a matter of 90 seconds by restoring the previous VM snapshot and rebooting.

If your server goes down, then the possible end will be:

  1. You are capable to debug the problem in short time
  2. You have a good backup ready as you should, otherwise
  3. You will get lost on StackOverflow for hours, if not for days.

Anyway, let us suppose you want to walk this way, which one to choose? I would choose the cheapest, X3216 performance rating is not so far away from the one of X3418 to justify any tangible price difference, so the driver in my case would be the asset cost.

Show down

We can finally list down the shortlist. I included also the QNAP TS-653B because it is very close to the budget target and at the same time provides you many more bays than the other models.

ManufacturerQNAP 453BQNAP 653BAsustore 5304TAsustore 7004THPE Proliant
ModelTS-453BTS-463BAS5304TAS7004TMicroserver Gen10 2M22PD7
ProcessorIntel® Celeron® J3455Intel® Celeron® J3455Intel Celeron J4105Intel® Core i3Opteron X3216
GraphicsHD Graphics 500HD Graphics 500  GCN 3rd generation
Ethernet ports22222
HDMI ports22112
USB ports55354
Hot swappableyesyesyesyesno
M.2 SSDvia pcivia pci000
Consumption [W]3038273930
Noise [dB]19192021 
Single thread rating8118111.1181.9351.265
Total rating222722272.9775.3831.528
Gpu rating137137135653
Raid 5 volume [TB]1220121212
Asset Costs [$]
Disks (105 $ each)420630420,00420,00420,00
Ram (2×8 Gb banks)858585,0085,00
Cost / TB80,3369,2582,00105,3367,42
Running Costs [$]
Yr Energy [15 c$/kWh]3645,632,4046,8036,00
5 Years Costs
Unit Costs964,001.385,00984,001.264,00809,00
5 years costs [$]180228162,00234,00180,00
Disk maintenance105157,5105,00105,00105,00
Total 5 years cost1.249,001.770,501.251,001.603,001.094,00
Monthly cost [$]20,8229,5120,8526,7218,23

In this table there are:

  • two QNAP units, the same one actually but with 4 or 6 disk bays, namely TS.453B and TS-653B;
  • two Asustor units, both 4 bays, namely 5304T and 7004T;
  • one HPE Proliant Generation 10 Server.

To bring the data into a more comparable form I am providing here under the several models mapped in some easy reading score cards.

BenchmarkManufacturerQNAP 453BQNAP 653BAsustore 5304TAsustore 7004THPE
Model detailsTS-453BTS-463BAS5304TAS7004TMicroserver Gen10 2M22PD7
BACBasic asset cost96413859841264809
5YC5 Years total cost1.249,001.770,501.251,001.603,001.094,00
CPRcomputational power rating649,3649,3861,551.702,90783,70
CVCCPR vs 5YC0,520,370,691,060,72
VVCGB data volume / 5YC9,6111,309,597,4910,97

Here some explanation on the ranking parameters appearing in the table:

  • BAC and 5YC are the costs listed in the previous tables, respectively for the sole NAS purchase and the total cost estimated in 5 years of operation, 8000 hours a year with 15 cents for kWh of electrical power and average mtbf (mean time before failures) taken from Western Digital data sheets for WD Red 4 Tb disks and Seagate Iron Wolf 4 Tb;
  • CPR is a non-dimensional number to give you an idea of the computational power that the processor can deliver, it accounts for graphics (45%), single thread performance (45%) and parallel floating arithmetic performance (10%);
  • CVC is the ratio between the over mentioned performance ranking and the cost estimation in 5 years of continuous operation. The higher the number is, the cheaper is your (relative) computational power.
  • VVC is the ratio between the GB available on your disks in RAID 5 configuration divided again by the 5-year total cost to give you an idea of how cheap is your (relative) storage room.

The six bays QNAP model exceeds the budget of around 40% but has the big advantage to reduce your general cost per TB if you plan to deploy such unit primarily as a storage center. In fact, this unit excels in terms of VVC.

Asustor 7004T exceeds the budget too, but just around 25%. However, this model has the best CVC value, meaning that this is supposed to be the most valuable computational capacity around the given price as well as the most eclectic machine on the list.

Note also that the micro server has a rocking VVC but this is mainly because the basic cost of the unit is the most competitive.

The choice shall be at your side. I did the best comparison actually to prepare my future choice and I am sharing it with the hope it will be useful to many others. I also think I will give Asustor a chance. There is great advantage if you already have a QNAP unit and you purchase a second one, as they can exchange information seamlessly, extending virtually your volumes or synchronizing with native solutions. If you purchase some other brand you will have to put all this together manually, but I do not think it will be a difficult task.

Therefore, if no newer models will show up on the shelf, Asustor 7004T will be my bet. The best choices we pick are the ones we plan with maniac care.

Hope you enjoyed the reading and I will be glad to read your comments as well. You can subscribe if you want to dig more into more details writing me a message.

Auf Wiederluege!




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