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Windows Server vs. Network Attached Storage Which is better for a home server?

We’re riding your easily manipulated machismo as an excuse to look at the pros and cons of using Windows as a home server. The demise of the real Windows Home Server line in 2011 left a hole in Microsoft’s range, one that Windows Server Essentials could never quite fill with its small business remit, at a time when, annoyingly, a home server is of more use than ever.

We all have so much digital "stuff" that we want to keep, access, stream, share, and keep safe, that it’s hard to know where to put it. Sure, there are cloud solutions, but who knows where your data is going to end up being stored? Plus, access speed is always limited by your upstream/downstream speeds. So, while throwing stuff up to the cloud is useful, there are limitations and concerns with third-party services.

There’s nothing better than having real bare-metal in your locality, running services for high-speed access and backup, from where it can be pushed over slower connections to the cloud if you want. The question is, is it better to run Windows on your home server box, or is an open-source solution preferable? We’re here to find out, and explain how to set up your own box.

You know we already know the answer, but we’re going to do a fair and balanced test. By comparing what an open-source network attached server OS can accomplish against Microsoft’s Windows 10, we can at least play with something interesting and free.

What is a NAS?

Network attached storage is, in some ways, an outdated term, because a "NAS" these days does a whole lot more than just store files. That’s the motivation behind this article: Can a modern NAS, even a free open-source implementation, take on the might and flexibility of a full-fat Windows box? A huge chunk of that answer relies on what you want from that box.

When the term NAS was first coined, people were just happy to easily access remotely stored files (and not get nuked by the Russians), nevermind get any specific additional services. Today, people expect a NAS to provide remote management, file shares with full permissions, print services, a slew of network protocols, virtual machine support, media transcoding, media streaming to multiple devices, supporting tens of storage devices with multiterabytes of storage, with snapshot and versioning features on top of backups, plus a smorgasbord of flexible plug-in options.

But why choose a potentially limiting NAS solution over a Windows install? Let’s start by taking time to compare and contrast what both options have to offer.

Hardware specs

We’re going to look at one of the leading open-source NAS distributions, called OpenMediaVault (OMV for short), which is available from here. This is up to version 4.0.14 (codename Arrakis, for Dune fans) as of the end of 2017, and only supports 64-bit hardware— older 32-bit hardware needs to fall back to version 3.036, from mid-2016, which isn’t ideal. It does support ARM processors, and it has builds for the popular Raspberry Pi 2 and 3, and ODroid SBPCs.

Beyond that, requirements are minimal: 256MB of memory and 2GB of drive space. The system is designed to run "headless," so there is no requirement for video hardware, and it can run from a USB stick. For those interested, it’s based on the Linux distribution Debian, which is one of the best supported and longer running distros out there.

Windows 10 still supports both 32-bit and 64-bit processors, with a minimum speed of 1GHz. 2GB of memory is the minimum for a 64-bit system, while 1GB is required for 32-bit systems. The minimum drive space is 16GB for 32-bit and 20GB for 64-bit systems. Microsoft states a DirectX 9.0 video card is required.

We’d question both of these minimum requirements in a real-world setting, though. Windows is likely going to need at least a 64GB drive, while even OMV is going to work more efficiently with more memory to buffer file transfers, though its storage really remains small.

Software specifications

Windows 10 wins here, right? It supports everything—what can beat that? It’s a touch unfair to compare Windows 10 Pro against OpenMediaVault. One is a consumer-level OS designed for single-user systems, and the other is based on a multi-user, enterprise-grade, open-source OS.

Both do many similar basic things out of the box, such as hardware support, user management, scheduling jobs, multilanguage support, network support with IPv6, wake on LAN, software RAID, disk quotas, monitoring, and print support. The boring stuff. It’s the extra boring stuff where OMV tends to excel.

For management, OMV delivers a web-based interface. Windows does provide Remote Desktop, but in many ways, it’s not streamlined for management, and only supports single-user access. OMV supports network Link aggregation for network redundancy and bandwidth improvements, Windows 10 Pro doesn’t.

Installation and updates

We’re going to just say it: OMV wins hands down here. It installs in 10 minutes or so, is up and running, and fully updated in that time. It’s licensed under the GPL v3 (copyleft open source), and based on one of the biggest Linux distros, Debian. So, as long as the project has developer support, you’ll get all the updates and support you need, for free, forever. We think you know where you stand with Windows 10 on these points.

An associated issue with installation is driver support; in the past, you could have claimed Linux suffered from poorer support, but that’s rarely the case now. Intel generally puts open-source driver development first; AMD is pushing its display driver stack to being entirely open source and part of the kernel. The main areas of contention are odd Wi-Fi dongles, but a touch of Google research typically unearths a Linux driver. But, then, printers and scanners can be a pain on Linux, too.

Services and admin

A key differential is how OMV and Win 10 handle services and admin. With Windows, you can support all manner of services through clients, but it’s all done with separate interfaces and Remote Desktop, which is hardly ideal. With OMV, all admin and services are installed and controlled through the same web interface from any network-connected device. It’s the headless functionality that enables you to tuck your NAS away at the end of an Ethernet cable that makes everyone’s life easier.

While we’d say OMV has a slightly higher entry level of required knowledge over Windows, if you’re capable of installing an OS from scratch, you’re going to get on with either option. You’ll find help in abundance for both, while you’ll balance the unbridled flexibility of Windows versus the slick stability and security of OMV. The truth is, we’re all winners here; no one is forcing you to use OMV, it’s just another tool in the computing armory to wield as you will.

This article was originally published in Maximum PC. For more quality articles about all things PC hardware, you can subscribe to Maximum PC now.