"Its ram usage would just shoot up, for no good reason that I could see until the machine gave up and hung"
Can't imagine what this was. I've used Linux versions for file/print/media serving purposes since the mid-90s and never seen anything like that. In fact my file/print server has only failed once in all that time and that was hardware (MB capacitor). The current physical machine is a dual-core Atom (for low power as it runs all the time) with 2GB memory - apart from a little hardware upgrade and reboots for new kernels/OS versions it's been running non-stop for 3+ years. I've never even heard of nfsd behaving like this - anyone else ?
As for arcane installation requirements I've just upgraded 1 netbook, 2laptops, a desktop and the fileserver to OpenSUSE 13.1 without any issues apart from a systemd related issue with CUPS (now solved). The install to one laptop was to a new quad core i7 from a USBLive pendrive and took 7-8 mins.
Now I'm not an IT prof. and I can understand a business wanting a prof. supplied solution but I can't imagine what sort of cowboys supplied your system.