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Over the new year I hope to have a Pentium IV box becoming spare and I think it would be useful to use it as a home server.
Now, I'm a complete Linux n00b, I have ubuntu on a flash drive but barely use it. Ideally I'd like this server to be able to automatically syncronise a users files when they log on/off one of the Windows computers, as well as being a central backup store. Other than that, I might want to use it as a web server and/or media streamer - but that's quite a way off into the future.
Anyway, my questions are: Firstly, is what I want possible? If so,
What's the best distro to go for?
What packages will I need to install?
Are there any pitfalls I should be aware of?
As far as the best distro: one that you are comfortable using, and is stable. If you are familiar enough with Ubuntu you can install one of the stable releases and disable the automatic updates to avoid anything breaking. To accomplish the automatic backing up of data rsync will probably be the easiest for you.
This way you also disable the security updates, and that's not a good idea
That is true, though he can enable only updating security patches if that's a concern. I originally was going to recommend he use Debian stable as well, but I don't know what the learning curve on Debian is. I was already pretty familiar with Linux when I was trying out Debian so it seemed simple enough to me but I don't know if that's the case for someone who has almost no experience.
as a server you will not want a gui anyways so pure debian or CentOS would be my suggestion for the distro. I personally use CentOS as my file server. im running an NFS server to host all of my media files to my house. i have 2 iMACs as workstations and the CentOS 5.x as my NFS file server. it is currently hosting roughly 1.5TB of data to the workstations.
It just works flawlessly.
Pure debian, WITHOUT the GUI, would work well too, but their NFS/SAMBA (you will be using samba not nfs as you are hosting to MS Windows workstations not *nix workstations) are not as mature as the RHE line are. thus my suggestion for CentOS over Debian or any other distro for that matter. maturity and stability are what you want in a server and it is hard to beet RedHats in the server world.
FYI to OP, CentOS is a pure fork of RedHat Enterprise servers. all the CentOS project has done is to remove all of the RH copy right logos, names, etc... and build from the source rmps from RH directly CentOS. their might be a few hours delay in updates, but never long enough to matter for a home server.
I've got a Pentium 4 machine doing exactly what you are aiming for. I goosed up the memory to 1GB and slapped a couple of cheap 250GB drives in the thing and it chugs merrily along on Slackware. The no-gui suggestion is a good one, and for that reason I think the suggestions about Debian or CentOS are good ones. I'd toss Slackware onto that pile as well if you don't mind a bit of a learning curve.
As far as pitfalls, if you're just using it as backup storage, any of the above distros should do out of the box. If you move to using it as a webserver, you're going to want to give so serious thought to some additional security measures.
as a server you will not want a gui anyways so pure debian or CentOS would be my suggestion for the distro.
I dare slightly disagree on this one. First, every distribution is easily configurable to not start X automatically, so any distribution goes. Therefore, if one is familiar with something, I recommend using that. Second, if one is more or less a "beginner", diving into a command line only environment might be a bit too much work for a start..so "you will not want a gui anyways" is not true. Having X and a graphical desktop available is not a bad thing on a server (unless it has to be as stripped as possible, which seems not to be a requirement here). One may simply set the server not to start it automatically, but rather on command. That way it won't stress the server when it's not needed, but if needed, it can be started to get access to graphical configuration tools that are available on the major distributions. One other option is web based access of course, but even if that is used, I see no harm in having X and one of the graphical desktops available on a modern computer where (for a home use) disk space, processing speed and memory are well available. It's good to learn and know how to work with command line, but it's bad if it's the only option just because "that's the way it should be".
CentOS is probably a good choice, as is Ubuntu. Slackware might be a little more work, but fun to learn with. Good luck with it in any case!