Building a mini-ITX NAS server

Building a mini-ITX NAS server

So far my desktop computer has been stuffed with hard drives and has, among its other tasks, provided storage services to all my other devices at home. This is not quite ideal as the computer is often rebooted between operating systems, making some services unavailable at times. Since these days almost everything from game consoles to telephones connect with a network, it’s starting to make sense to have a dedicated disk server providing fault tolerant data storage and NAS services on the home LAN.

I set out to build a computer that would not only allow me to store my files on shared network drives, but also to easily take daily backups over the network instead of using USB hard drives. While there are several complete solutions to accomplish these, nothing beats the cost and flexibility of the good old generic PC. Yes, it will take a bit more time to build and configure but what I’ll get is a system tailored for my requirements. As I also happen to quite enjoy tinkering with things, building the server should be an interesting little project to work on.

A huge tower case – as most PCs are – in the corner of my living room doesn’t sound like a particularly attractive idea, so I decided to go for the mini-ITX form factor to keep the box small and tidy. There are a few dedicated NAS enclosures available, but I eventually settled for the quite recently released Eolize SVD-NC11-4 chassis. It features four hot-swap disk bays with SATA backplanes and a 200W flex-ATX power supply – all for a very reasonable price. A large 140mm fan at the rear provides decent airflow across the mainboard and hard drives while making only a barely audible hum. The tiny 40mm fan on the power supply, on the other hand, emits a constant whirring noise that gets annoying very quickly. Fortunately it looks like a fairly easy job to replace it with a quieter one.

The Eolize chassis feels very solidly built, with the exception of the front door which feels a bit flimsy when open. Although both side panels come off by removing two thumb screws, there isn’t much room to work in. It’s a good idea to try to connect most of the cables to the mainboard before moving it into the chassis. The front bezel has two HDD LEDs, so one of the cables remains disconnected as mainboards typically only have a single common LED header. Disconnecting the reset switch once the system is set up and running is probably a good idea as well.


Mini-ITX mainboards used to be solely based on low-power CPUs such as the Intel Atom series, but nowadays there’s a very good selection of boards built around full-size CPU sockets. The most recent ones use Intel’s H67 chipset, allowing the use of socket-1155 CPUs based on the very latest Sandy Bridge architecture. This opens up the possibility to have actual desktop CPU power in a tiny mini-ITX package. Some boards also have PCIe 16x slots suitable for fast graphics cards, should your PSU suffice to run one.

My mainboard choice for the NAS server was the Asus P8H67-I as it looked like a very well thought-out board and above all, featured six SATA ports. My board uses the revision 3 Intel H67 chipset, so it no longer suffers from the bug affecting the SATA interface. The chipset, along with the CPU, also contain a GPU which enables video output to HDMI and DVI ports at the back. A single gigabit ethernet port is provided by a very common Realtek chip. The board does have a PCIe 16x slot but I have no use for it at the moment and the chassis only has space for short expansion cards anyway.

Despite its “classic” name, the Pentium G620 is based on Intel’s 32nm Sandy Bridge architecture and runs two 2.6GHz cores with a max TDP of 65W. It was the cheapest CPU I could find for the 1155-pin socket but should be more than enough for my needs. As ZFS likes to have RAM to play with, I equipped the board with eight gigabytes of DDR3. Memory is so cheap these days that it would be foolish to skimp on it.

However, the same doesn’t apply for hard drives. My timing for building a NAS could not have been worse, as the massive flooding in Thailand had caused hard drive prices to skyrocket in just two weeks. Luckily, I found out that a local electronics superstore was still selling external 2x2TB USB drives for a pre-flood price. I bought two units and promptly took them apart to extract two 2TB Samsung HD204UI drives from each box. A tiny 1GB DeLOCK SSD accompanies the spindles, providing a small /boot partition separate from the actual disk array.

Because the drive cage on the chassis extends quite far back and partially over the CPU socket, it severely restricts the size of the CPU cooler. My plan was to use the boxed Intel cooler as I approximated that it would fit, albeit with minimal clearance. However, the mainboard needs to be slid into the chassis at a slight angle and unfortunately this is impossible to do with the CPU cooler installed on the board. I had to resort to cutting the fan off the heatsink and rigging a standard low-profile 60mm fan on top of if using zip ties. Not very pretty, but it’ll have to do until I find a better solution.


Apart from the ugly hack required to provide cooling for the CPU, assembling the server was a pretty painless job and only took me a few evenings to finish. All the hardware appear to play nicely together and the system greets me with the shiny new Asus UEFI setup menu when powered up. Most of the BIOS settings didn’t need tweaking but switching the hard drives into AHCI mode is a good idea to enable hot-swapping. Of course, should there be a disk failure, a few minutes of downtime to replace a drive certainly wouldn’t be a problem on a home server. Still, it’s always neat to be able to hot-swap hardware.

The next job would be to decide which operating system to install on the server. My original idea was to run FreeNAS on it because I’m lacking RAID hardware and would prefer to use ZFS instead of software RAID5. However, realizing that the server would sit only a few metres from my television made me rethink about the OS as having some HTPC features on the box would certainly be nice. I eventually decided to go the adventurous route of installing Linux with native ZFS instead of the more traditional LVM on md – more on this in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Building a mini-ITX NAS server

  1. Thank you for this very informative post. It was just what I needed. Just a few questions though:

    1. Now that you have had it for a while, what changes would you recommend if someone were a similar setup? (Other than what you have mentioned above.)

    2. How audible is this machine? I have a very small apartment/ home. So, even though I plan to use it exclusively as a 24/7 NAS , it is still going to sit beside the HTPC (which is almost inaudible). Any suggestion(s) to improve its performance in this regard?

    For reference, I plan on using:

    i. 4 * 3 TB Sata3 5400RPM
    ii. IvyBridge (if it is available in the next 3 months)/ SandyBridge “T” Processor
    iii. (Any relevant) Motherboard
    iv. 8 GB 1333 DDR3 RAM
    v. FreeNAS (?)
    vi. All devices will be connected through Gbit network (HTPC – Notebook – Tablet – NAS – etc.)

    Which brings me to my next set of questions.

    3. The Intel “T” processor comes with a low profile cooler. However, review suggests that they do make quite a noise and for HTPC purposes, it would serve better if it got replaced with aftermarket coolers. This means more additional cost, which I would like to avoid, if possible. (Excluding the HDDs, anything under $350 is acceptable, $300 optimum; Drobo costs around $289.99-$359.99.)

    That leaves me with AMD E-450 Motherboards, which (almost) all are passively cooled. However, they do get outperformed by by Intel processors but consumes much less energy. So, for my purposes, which one would you recommend?

    4. I want this to serve 2-6 devices. So, is RAM an issue? How much do you recommend? Is 8 GB sufficient?

    Ease of maintenance, future proofing, longevity and value for money are very important factors for me, hence the DIY approach. I would rather wait a few months to accumulate resources for purchasing the necessary items than do something that only serves me in the short term.

    Thanks for your time.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      The NAS has been performing very nicely and I’ve had no actual problems with it. As a remedy to the noise, I replaced the fan inside the PSU with a low-speed 40mm unit and got a Scythe Kozuti as a replacement for the hacked CPU cooler. Although the Kozuti is lower than the Intel boxed cooler, it still had to be installed with the base plate and mainboard already fitted into the chassis. It barely fit in and one of the heat pipes sits extremely close to the other DIMM. These changes helped considerably in bringing the fan noise down and CPU core temperatures now typically idle at around 40 degrees Celcius.

      While the system itself is now reasonably quiet, I would recommend against using Samsung HD204UI drives if low operating noise is an important criterion. Their spindle motors are fairly quiet, but the head seek noise seems significantly louder compared to other high-capacity “green” 5400rpm drives. The loud seek noise may partially be caused by the drives being rigidly mounted to the tray/chassis rather than through rubber/silicone dampers. All four drives seeking in unison easily beat the noise from any other devices in my living room – including an old “fat” Xbox 360. However, performance is excellent so they do seem to be a good compromise between silence and speed.

      If your system is a dedicated NAS (ie. GPU performance is irrelevant) and will not use advanced ZFS features such as deduplication or encryption, it should run fine with the AMD CPU. I opted for Sandy Bridge only because I wanted to incorporate HTPC features to the same box, and would’ve chosen an Atom D525 CPU/board otherwise. Do make sure that the board can accommodate enough RAM as it almost directly scales into performance when using ZFS. I believe the recommendation from Sun was a gigabyte of RAM for each terabyte of storage plus 1GB extra for the OS. 8GB seems to work quite well for me as the workload on the system is light.

      Also – it seems to be common for mini-ITX mainboards to only have two SATA ports so unless you use a PCIe disk controller card, make sure that you get a board with enough SATA ports both for your disk array and boot drive.

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