If you’ve been on the Internet for any time at all, you’re probably aware that you can repurpose an old PC into an at-home server or NAS, which is shorthand for network attached storage. But when so many ready-made solutions exist, why would you? And how exactly do you turn an old PC into a NAS machine anyway?
To help you get started and understand what you can do with your old PC to transform it to a NAS, we’ll go over all of that and more.
Advantages of Using an Old PC as a NAS Server
Purpose-built NAS solutions are great if you just want something quick and easy to use. But using an old PC as a NAS server offers a few advantages over a pre-built solution.
It’s Cheaper – If you already have an old PC lying around, then of course it’s cheaper to use than a dedicated NAS solution. But even if you don’t, you can pick up an old workstation—like a Dell OptiPlex 9020—for dirt cheap. Then, just add software and drives (discussed below) and you’re done!
Greater Flexibility – Repurposing an old PC to use as a NAS server allows you the modularity of a PC, both in terms of software and hardware. Want to add faster networking, a GPU for media transcoding, or additional SATA ports for more drives? Simply slot in an appropriate PCIe card. Plus, if you outgrow your old PC NAS solution, you can always build your own NAS/media server and bring over your PCIe cards to your new build.
More Powerful – A pre-built NAS computer may be easier to set up, but they’re also less powerful. You don’t need a lot of CPU power to dole out files over your network, but if you also want to use something like Plex, you might find an old computer can handle the job better. For example, a Synology DS218+ might struggle to transcode on a Plex server, while an old OptiPlex 9020 (running a 4th-gen Intel processor) will handle the job with relative ease.
Turning an Old PC Into a NAS Server
If you want to turn an old PC into a NAS server, then you’ll need to figure out which operating system you want to use. And if you’re planning on installing a new operating system on the computer, you’ll also want to grab a flash drive for this part.
Choosing Your NAS Operating System
When it comes to choosing an operating system for a NAS server, you’ve got tons of choices. Since selecting an OS can be a deep rabbit hole, we’ll quickly go over a few of the more popular ones and cover some advantages and disadvantages of each one.
If you’re repurposing an old Windows machine, you may be happy to know that you can also use Windows for NAS purposes. You can set up the drives in the computer to be used as network drives or use third-party software like Resilio Sync to use the computer as a personal cloud.
The main advantage of Windows is that it’s easy to use. If you’re already acclimated to the Windows environment, then you won’t need to learn much to get your system up and running. And if your old PC already has Windows installed, you won’t even need to go through the trouble of setting it up (though a fresh install is certainly a good idea).
However, for all of its ease of use, Windows is not nearly as robust of a system for NAS as other operating systems. It lacks software RAID functionality, and frequent bugs and updates can cause a bit more downtime than you’d like. Also, with all the telemetry and background tasks running, it isn’t as fast or efficient as the other NAS-centric OSes.
One of the most simple and effective NAS operating systems is OpenMediaVault. Being Debian-based, it’s known as being one of the more beginner-friendly NAS operating systems and has an incredible range of hardware support.
It’s also rather robust. Not only is it fairly capable out of the box, but it also has tons of official and third-party plugins available. In fact, the only real knock against it is that it might lack some support and polish that other NAS OSes have.
Another excellent choice for running your new old-PC-turned-NAS computer is UnRAID. Like OpenMediaVault, UnRAID is easy to set up and use, and works excellently as a NAS OS. In fact, there’s a ton of overlap between the two.
One of the notable advantages of UnRAID is that it functions like a Just a Bunch of Disks (JBOD) system, in that it doesn’t stripe or mirror drives. Rather, it spreads files across drives with even parity and offers fault protection to guard against data loss. Unlike a standard RAID array, this makes adding disks to your NAS much easier, since you won’t need to add multiple drives at a time in order to increase your NAS capacity.
Of course, there are some downsides to UnRAID compared to other alternatives. First, when drives are added to a standard RAID array, you usually see a performance increase. But with UnRAID, the additional overhead of adding a drive can actually cause a small performance hit.
Other than performance issues, UnRAID does have a drive limit of 30 drives in a single instance. For most, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it is a limitation nonetheless. And finally, UnRAID is a paid operating system, so if you aren’t prepared to shell out money for an OS, then you might want to look elsewhere.
If you’re looking for a powerful, fully-featured NAS OS, then you might consider TrueNAS. Formerly split between two versions (FreeNAS and TrueNAS), TrueNAS has rebranded itself and split into three editions: TrueNAS Core, TrueNAS Enterprise, and TrueNAS Scale.
You can find a comparison between the three here. But to sum up the differences, TrueNAS Core and TrueNAS Scale are free, community-driven operating systems (with Scale also receiving professional support) that are hardware-agnostic. TrueNAS Enterprise, however, is a paid version limited to iXsystems hardware only.
TrueNAS is a staple among NAS administrators, providing features like bit-rot detection and correction, multi-level encryption, and support for a range of cloud providers. TrueNAS also uses the OpenZFS file system, a powerful open-source file system that combines speed and protection against data corruption.
Of course, TrueNAS isn’t completely without fault. Because it’s a more robust operating system than other NAS OSes, it does require more powerful hardware. And because TrueNAS Core is based on FreeBSD, it doesn’t have the widest range of hardware support (though TrueNAS Scale is based on Debian and may mitigate this issue).
Optional Hardware Add-ons for PC to NAS
Intel X520-DA1,10Gb PCI-E NIC Network Card
As mentioned before, you can always upgrade your hardware to accommodate your needs. We’ll go over a few different types of hardware you can add to your old PC to help increase its functionality as a NAS server.
Intel X520-DA1,10Gb PCI-E NIC Network Card
PCIe Network Card
Depending on your setup, your computer’s network interface could bottleneck the performance of your NAS, leading to slower file transfers and network streaming. By adding a faster PCIe network card, you can easily increase your NAS network throughput.
Read more: NIC Cards: What Do They Do?
PCIe to M.2 Adapter Card
GLOTRENDS M.2 PCIe NVMe 4.0/3.0 Adapter
If you have an older computer but want to take advantage of newer and faster storage technology, you can find PCIe to M.2 drive adapters. These allow you to set up faster cache drives, or just increase the speed of your storage for faster access to files.
PCIe SATA Controller Expansion Card
If you’ve got spots for more drives in your case than you do on your motherboard, you can easily add more SATA pots to your old PC with a PCIe SATA controller expansion card.
5.25-inch to 3.5-inch Drive Adapter
Add hard drives where the DVD/CD ROM drive once was
Unless the old PC you’re using is in a case with a lot of 3.5-inch drive bays, then you might be limited on storage. However, you can always ditch the computer’s old DVD drives in lieu of more storage with a 5.25-inch to 3.5-inch drive adapter. And they come in all sorts of sizes, from single drive-to-drive adapters to three-to-two drive adapters and four-by-3.5 inch adapters.
Adding Software to Your NAS
Turning an old PC into a NAS is a great way to add storage and backup capabilities to your network. But you can also utilize other software to allow your NAS to do more than just host files.
If you’ve ever used Dropbox or OneDrive, then you know just how useful having cloud storage can be. But if you don’t want to trust your data in the hands of corporations, you can host your own personal cloud on your NAS. With software like Nextcloud, ownCloud, and Resilio Sync, you can easily set up your own personal cloud to keep your files on your computers and phones synced to your NAS.
Smart Home Hub
Smart home tech has surged in popularity over the years, and it’s easy to see why. With the ability to control everything from your phone (or with your voice), smart home tech allows you to fine-tune your home to your liking.
But with so many devices split between different controllers, hubs, and apps, there are alternatives – like Home Assistant, Hubitat, and Homebridge – that allow you to connect everything in one neat little package. And you can easily add these to your NAS with little overhead to increase the usefulness of your humble little network storage device.
In today’s streaming-oriented entertainment environment, it’s hard not to mention that you can also use your NAS as a local media streaming device. Gone are the days when you had to manually transfer video files to individual computers, thanks to popular at-home streaming software like Plex, Emby, and Jellyfin.
This can allow you to consolidate your media collection on your NAS, and give you the freedom of streaming not only in your home, but also remotely. And what’s not to love about being able to access your media from anywhere without having to load up your devices with hundreds of gigabytes of media files?