Build a Mini-ITX NAS RAID Server with Enterprise SAS Hard Drives

Today I’ll show you how to build a rock-solid home/office NAS server using a Mini-ITX motherboard, a dedicated hardware RAID card, and enterprise class SAS hard drives, all in a Mini-ITX NAS case with an 8 drive hot-swap bay. Total budget is between USD$850 to USD$2,000 depending on the hardware you choose (I’ll give links to all the gear you’ll need).

Introduction & Notes

Having your own home or office NAS server is a great way to back up files, stream movies/audio, and share files on your local network. You can buy expensive off the shelf systems with or without included hard drives, but they’re not a patch on the system I will show you today, plus it’s way more fun building your own NAS server!

Advisory: This is an intermediate level tutorial. You need at least some experience building PCs and be able to understand technical terms to complete this guide. That being said, I am always here to help and if you have any questions about the gear I link to, please email or comment before purchasing.

Hardware RAID vs Software RAID

I am using a dedicated hardware RAID card in this tutorial rather than using a motherboard BIOS to configure software RAID. For a home/office server, hardware RAID is so far ahead of software RAID it’s almost incomparable, add to that a nice big cache and battery backup and it’s a no-brainer. In my early days I used software/BIOS RAID for my workstation and had endless troubles with disks falling off the array with disastrous results, so I don’t recommend software RAID. See this comparison of Hardware vs Software RAID.

SAS vs SATA Hard Drives

I will be using enterprise class SAS hard drives rather than desktop class SATA drives because SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) is faster, smarter, more reliable, and built for RAID arrays (see HP’s take on SAS vs SATA). Don’t worry about costs either, I’ll show you how to get brand-new SAS drives on the cheap.

You need to decide if you’re using SAS-6G (6Gb/s transfer speed) or SAS-12G (12Gb/s transfer speed) as they vary considerably in price. It will also influence what RAID card and case you choose later on in this guide. I use 6G SAS and it never gets close to stressing the server no matter what I throw at it, so unless you have a seriously busy home/office, stick with 6Gb/s SAS gear throughout this guide and save some $$ 😉

RAID Levels

Choosing the right RAID level will also determine how many hard drives you need to purchase, so it’s best to choose your RAID level well before purchasing any hardware. I will give you a quick overview of some standard RAID levels and their pros and cons.

NUMBER OF HARD DRIVES RAID LEVEL AVAILABLE
2x Hard Drives
  • RAID-0 Stripe (Fastest, but no redundancy, 100% of disk space)
  • RAID-1 Mirror (Excellent redundancy, good speed, 50% of disk space)
3x Hard Drives
  • RAID-0 Stripe (Fastest, but no redundancy, 100% disk space)
  • RAID-4 Dedicated parity disk (Good speed & redundancy, 66% disk space)
  • RAID-5 Block-level striping with distributed parity (Excellent speed & redundancy, 66% disk space)
4x Hard Drives
  • RAID-0 Stripe (Fastest, but no redundancy, 100% disk space)
  • RAID-6 Block-level striping with two parity blocks distributed across all member disks (Excellent speed & redundancy, 2 drive failures, 50% disk space)
  • RAID 10 (nested RAID 1+0) (Excellent speed and redundancy, 50% disk space)

I recommend RAID-5 or RAID-6 as they both provide the best redundancy and speed (I personally use RAID-5 as you still retain 66% disk space compared to 50% for RAID-6). See Wikipedia RAID Levels for a good overview and technical data, and this RAID calculator will help you see how much disk space is available for each RAID level.


Hardware

Now let’s start with the hardware and keep in mind, it’s very flexible, you don’t even have to use a Mini-ITX motherboard if you don’t want to (obviously you’d need to choose a larger case). You also don’t need to buy everything new (some RAID cards I recommend are used) and used server hardware is fine except for hard drives (more on that later).

Motherboard

I will give you two suggestions for Mini-ITX motherboards: desktop and server class. The most important thing when choosing a motherboard is that it must have a PCIe slot that runs at a minimum x8 electrical, and either x8 or x16 physical, to accommodate the RAID card.

If you’re choosing your own motherboard, some additional features to look for would be:

  • Dual Gigabit LAN which gives your network redundancy if one LAN chip fails, or you can bond for faster throughput
  • M.2 socket for a PCIe SATA/NVMe hard drive for the NAS operating system (blazingly fast!)
  • High quality Japanese capacitors (i.e. Gigabyte Ultra Durable series, ASUS Prime)
  • Mini-ITX or Micro-ATX form factor, you don’t really need anything bigger for a small NAS server

Desktop Class Motherboard – ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM

The ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM motherboard is perfect for a home NAS server. It accepts Intel 8th Generation Core i7, i5, i3, Pentium and Celeron CPUs in a 14nm process so plenty of choices. It has a PCIe x16 slot for the RAID card, supports up to 32GB Non-ECC RAM running at 2666Mhz, an M.2 Gen 3 socket, Gigabit LAN, and 4x SATA-III 6Gbp/s ports along with other standard ports.

ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM Motherboard

Server Class Motherboard – ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard

If you want to ramp the performance and reliability factor, the ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard is the way to go. It has an Intel C242 server chipset, supports Xeon E-2100/E-2200 family, and 8th and 9th Gen Core i3, Pentium and Celeron CPUs, support for ECC or Non-ECC DDR4 2400/2666 RAM up to 64GB, a Gen 3.0 PCIe x16 slot for the RAID card, an M.2 type 2242 socket, Dual Gigabit LAN for redundancy or bonding, management LAN port, Mini-SAS ports and other goodies.

ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard

Processor/CPU

  • For an always-on NAS server you don’t really want a power hungry, high performance processor, you’re better off with a power efficient model with between 2 and 6 cores and pulling less than 50 watts. Data throughput is much more important than CPU speed for NAS servers, which is why we spend the money on our RAID card and SAS drives.
  • Intel Core i3 or Xeon CPUs are the best choice for Intel based motherboards. If your budget is tight, go for a standard Pentium or Celeron CPU.
  • For AMD, the best choices are Ryzen 3/5/7/Athlon designated with “E” for low wattage and power efficiency (example: AMD Ryzen 3 3200GE or Athlon Gold 3150GE)

For the ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM I recommend any of the following CPUs, but specifically the Core i3 (those designated with a trailing “T” indicate low wattage and high power efficiency):

By enabling C-States in the motherboard BIOS you can configure Intel “T” class CPUs to run at 25 watts when idle. Here is a full list of compatible processors.

8th Generation Intel Core CPUs

For the ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard I recommend the following CPUs. Note that the Core i3 CPUs are all “T” class running at just 35 watts and configurable to as low as 25 watts via BIOS C-States settings. The Xeon CPUs are a step up in terms of performance and power efficiency. They’re rated at between 71 and 80 watts but with C-States configured in the motherboard BIOS they can run at a much lower wattage.

Intel Xeon CPUs from the E-2100 or E-2200 family will work in this motherboard as well as 8th and 9th Generation Core i3, Pentium or Celeron. See a full list of compatible CPUs.

Intel Xeon E-2100 and E-2200 CPUs

RAM/Memory

Some guidelines for choosing RAM:

  • Don’t overclock a NAS server CPU or RAM, you’re better off choosing the default non-overclocked BIOS settings and choosing a RAM speed that the motherboard natively supports, without overclocking. You can check this is on the manufacturers website under specifications, you’ll see something like “Supports DDR4 at 3000(O.C.)/2800(O.C.)/2666/2400/2133 MHz” so ignore anything with “O.C.” until you see the highest value without it, in this case it’s DDR4 2666Mhz which is the fastest native RAM speed it supports, and purchase RAM at that speed.
  • Steer clear of low-end stuff off eBay. Choose a reputable, well-known brand like Crucial, Micron, Samsung, Corsair, or Kingston.
  • CAS timings are not particularly important for this NAS server
  • If your motherboard supports it (and you can afford it) buy ECC RAM which provides error checking and data integrity
  • In terms of RAM size, a minimum of 8GB is fine, 16GB is recommended, 32GB is overkill (unless you like to live dangerously ;))

For the ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM motherboard I recommend the following RAM modules:

Crucial RAM
Corsair VENGEANCE RAM

For the ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard I recommend the following RAM modules:

Samsung Server RAM Memory

Mini-ITX Case

I’ll give you two choices for a Mini-ITX case and both accept eight 3.5” hot-swap hard drives. All motherboards I recommend will fit perfectly in either case along with the RAID card.

Norco ITX-S8 Mini-ITX 8-Bay Hot Swap SAS/SATA Case (SAS 6G Only)

The Norco ITX-S8 is an awesome case for the NAS enthusiast. It has an 8-bay hot-swap 3.5”/2.5” lockable cage with a SAS/SATA 6G backplane, plus a spot for a 2.5” SATA drive for the operating system. You’ll need one or two SFF-8087 to SFF-8087 (Mini SAS to Mini SAS cable) to hook your 6G RAID card to the SAS backplane (each cable supports 4 drives).

SFF-8087 to SFF-8087 Mini SAS to Mini SAS cable

Silverstone DS380 Mini-ITX 8-bay hot-swap SAS/SATA Case

The Silverstone DS380 case is a little beauty with an 8-bay 3.5”/2.5” hot-swap cage that’s also lockable, a 12G/6G SAS/SATA backplane, four fixed 2.5” drive slots, all in a sleek, brushed aluminum case. You’ll need one or two Silverstone CPS05 SFF-8643 to SATA + Sideband cables(s) to hook up your 12G SAS RAID card to the backplane, with each cable supporting up to 4 drives.

If you’re using SAS 6G you’ll need one or two Silverstone CPS03 SFF-8087 to SATA + Sideband cable(s) instead.

Silverstone CPS03
Silverstone CPS05

PSU/Power Supply

We don’t need too much power for our NAS server, 300 watts is fine and remember that ATX power supplies are switch-mode, meaning they don’t run at 300 watts all the time. Instead, they regulate the wattage according to load, so you’ll find it will be pulling more like 70 watts during normal operation.

The Norco ITX-S8 requires a special type of PSU called a “1U ATX” which means a “1 Rack Unit ATX power Supply”. These kinds of PSUs are normally for servers and in a modular format, but we need one with cables instead of the typical slide-in with terminals type (keep this in mind if you are looking for a PSU other than what I link to here).

For the Norco ITX-S8 case I recommend the following 1U ATX PSUs:

Zippy P1H-5500V 500 watt 1U power supply

The Silverstone DS380 case requires an SFX PSU which is a smaller version of the standard ATX power supply. I recommend the following SFX PSUs for the Silverstone DS380 case :

FSP 350W SFX 12V 80 Plus Bronze Certified Power Supply (FSP350-50SAC)

RAID Card

I will give you several choices for RAID cards both 6G and 12G including new and used. As I said previously, unless you’re expecting a large amount of traffic to your NAS server, stick with 6G as its significantly cheaper overall.

6Gb/s SAS/SATA RAID Cards

Dell/IBM LSI Logic MegaRAID 9260-8i 8-Port SAS RAID Controller
BAT1S1P battery for the 9260-8i
40mm Noctua fan for the 9260-8i
LSI MegaRAID LSI00330 (9271-8i) PCI-Express 3.0 x8 SATA/SAS RAID Controller
LSI MegaRAID 9265-8i – 8-Port Internal, 6GB/S SATA+SAS, PCIe 2.0, 1GB DDR2

12Gb/s SAS/SATA RAID Cards

Some notes on choosing your own 12Gb/s RAID card instead of the cards I link to below:

  • Most 12Gb/s RAID cards are low-profile, and some don’t include a normal profile bracket. The cards listed below are full height or low-profile, but if you’re looking for another card make sure it’s not low-profile unless it includes a standard profile bracket.
  • Don’t confuse a “Host BUS Adapter” with a RAID card as they’re entirely different things.
  • If you’re only using 4 hard drives, go for a 4-port RAID card and save some money (a single SFF-8643 port)
  • Some 12Gb/s RAID cards only support RAID levels: 0, 1, 10 and 50 (check the specs) all my cards below support RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50
  • If you’ve found a RAID card and not sure it’s suitable, email me the link and I’ll help you out

 

Intel RS3DC040 RAID Controller – 12Gb/s SAS – PCI-Express 3.0 x8
Intel RS3DC080 RAID Controller – 12Gb/s SAS – PCI Express 3.0 x8
HighPoint RocketRAID 3720A 8-Channel 12Gb/s PCIe 3.0 x8 SAS RAID Controller

SAS Hard Drives

SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) hard drives are an enterprise-class product made for RAID arrays with advanced features to maintain data integrity. They are built to last much longer than desktop class SATA drives, but cost is the drawback for home/office users, at least for the latest capacity SAS drives.

So how do we get SAS drives on the cheap? Let me explain: When a big company asks their IT department to set up a large storage array of say 1,000 SAS drives, their IT department will start to crunch the numbers. For example: In 2015, a $600 Seagate Constellation 6Gb/s SAS drive of 4TB capacity might have a lifecycle/warranty period of 5 years, and a failure rate of 2%. The IT team would then double the failure rate to 4% and order 1,000 + 40 = 1040 SAS drives because they expect roughly 4% to fail.

At the end of that 5-year life cycle, there are often spare drives that were never used and still in original packaging, but are essentially useless to the company as they’re now upgrading to HGST 12Gb/s 10TB SAS drives. So, the I.T department sells those drives dirt cheap to computer parts shops, who then sell them cheaply via Amazon or eBay. There isn’t much demand for these drives because home users don’t have a clue what a SAS drive is, or if it will fit into their PC (which it won’t).

And that folks is how we get $600 SAS drives for $80 bucks each!

Now I realize they’re not huge capacities, but even four 4TB SAS drives in a RAID-5 array will give you 12TB of useable storage. If you need more, double that and you get 24TB of storage, your still way ahead of others buying SATA drives.

Some tips for choosing a good set of SAS hard drives:

  • Always buy the same brand, model, and capacity SAS hard drives for any one type of RAID array and port/cable
  • Never buy used SAS drives as they would have been run flat out for the entire warranty period (often 5 years)
  • Always buy an extra SAS drive for a hot spare, drive failure can happen!
  • Always make sure the SAS specification matches your RAID card, for 6Gb/s SAS, buy a 6Gb/s RAID card, for 12Gb/s SAS, buy a 12Gb/s RAID card
  • You can buy 3.5” or 2.5” drives, or even 2.5” SSD if your budget allows, but don’t mix them in the same RAID array or port/cable
  • Stick with 7200RPM unless you specifically need 15,000RPM drives
  • If you’ve found some drives via the links below and are unsure they’re suitable, send me an email with the link and I’ll help you out

SAS 6Gb/s Hard Drives

SAS 12Gb/s Hard Drives


Operating System Hard Drive

You have two choices for the operating system hard drive: either a SATA SSD connected to a normal SATA port, or an M.2 SATA/PCIe drive in the motherboard M.2 socket which runs much faster. NAS operating systems don’t take too much space either, so a 250GB drive is fine.

For the ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS R2.0/CSM I recommend the following OS hard drives:

WD Black M.2 Type 2280 Hard Drive
WD Blue M.2 Type 2280 Hard Drive
Samsung 860 Pro SSD Hard Drive
Samsung 860 EVO SSD Hard Drive

For the ASUS P11C-I Mini ITX Server Motherboard I recommend the following OS hard drives:

Dogfish M.2 Type 2242 Hard Drive
Crucial MX500 SSD Hard Drive
Samsung 860 Pro SSD Hard Drive

Creating a RAID Array

You can create your RAID array before or after you install the operating system, but I recommend before. You’ll need to enter the RAID BIOS during boot-up and create the array. During boot-up your RAID card will show the key combination to enter the BIOS (usually Ctrl+R, Ctrl+H etc).

Because each RAID card is different in the way it creates arrays, I can’t show you how to do that here. Instead, you’ll need to search Google for the RAID card brand and model to find the manual, then follow the instructions in it. Download manuals from LSI/Broadcom, Highpoint RocketRAID, Intel.

Also see Wikipedia RAID Level technical info, and the RAID Calculator.


NAS Operating System

There are a number of good choices for a NAS operating system, some offer paid support, paid add-ons, and community support. I’m a big fan of OpenMediaVault as it’s based on Debian and is rock solid, but that’s just a personal preference. I will give you some info on each below, but please visit their respective websites to see for yourself.

  • OpenMediaVault — Based on Debian, supports SSH, (S)FTP, SMB/CIFS, DAAP media server, RSync, BitTorrent client and many more. See screenshots.
  • FreeNAS — Supports Windows SMB, Apple AFP, Time Machine, and Unix NFS, as well as FTP and WebDAV with many advanced features & add-ons. See screenshots.
  • EasyNAS — Supports CIFS (Samba), NFS, FTP, TFTP, SSH, RSYNC, AFP and a more basic GUI. Uses the BTRFS file system. See screenshots.
  • XigmaNAS — Supports CIFS/SMB (Samba), Active Directory (Samba), FTP, NFS, TFTP, AFP, RSYNC, Unison, iSCSI, HAST, CARP, Bridge, UPnP, and BitTorent. See screenshots.
  • Openfiler — Supports CIFS, NFS, HTTP, iSCSI, FC, paid support, and management available. See screenshots.
  • Rockstor — Supports popular protocols and offers paid support.
OpenMediaVault
FreeNAS
EasyNAS
Openfiler
XigmaNAS

Some acronym definitions in case you’re wondering:

  • SSH — (Secure Shell) A shell terminal that uses command line to access the NAS operating system directly over a network using a client like PuTTY
  • FTP/SFTP — (Secure/File Transfer Protocol) Common way of transferring files over a network using a utility like FileZilla
  • HTTP — (Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol) The network protocol you’re using to access this page. You can access files on the NAS server using your web browser.
  • SMB/CIFS/Samba — Enables Windows integration so you can access NAS server files in File Explorer on your Windows PC
  • AFP — (Apple File Protocol) Enables Apple systems to access files on the NAS server using Finder
  • NFS — (Network File System) Allows clients on a network to access the NAS server files and folders
  • RSYNC — Allows synchronization of files and folders from clients to the NAS server for backups
  • TFTP — (Trivial FTP) A simple FTP protocol used for network booting and file transfer
  • WebDAV — (Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning) allows clients to perform remote Web content authoring operations.
  • BitTorrent — A peer-to-peer file sharing protocol

Once you’ve chosen a NAS operating system, follow the instructions to install it using a USB drive as you don’t want to muck around with CD/DVDs etc. Burn the ISO or IMG file using Rufus or Universal USB Installer. Also make sure you install onto the correct hard drive because your RAID array will show up as an installation location option.

After installation, login to the web admin of your NAS server and start configuring your system (you may need to log in to your router to find the NAS IP address). One thing to remember, do not use the NAS system to create any RAID arrays, that option is for software raid only, you already have a hardware-based RAID array and it’s completely managed by the RAID card BIOS. All you need to do is create a file system on the array/volume, create a shared folder, and then configure services and users to access that share (Samba, CIFS, FTP etc).


Summary

Hopefully your NAS server build has gone without too many hitches and you’re enjoying the awesomeness of NAS on your network. Remember to email me or comment below if you need any help with the build, or want me to check a certain product for compatibility etc. If you need help configuring your NAS operating system, visit the respective community help forum or official documentation (YouTube has help guides too). Also check out my guide on building a Raspberry Pi NAS server for a bit of fun.

Cheers!
Rich


Links & Resources

Product Manufacturer Links

NAS Operating Systems Links

RAID Card Manufacturer Product/Support Links

RAID Technical Info

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Richie

I was a musician till the age of 30 with a keen interest in technology. I did a short web design course which sparked my interest in programming and in 2009 I launched Ricmedia Guitar, then Ricmedia PC Help. I now publish tech articles and tutorials on the main ricmedia.com domain.

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