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How to build a cheap and low power server for Windows Home Server (WHS) or Server 2008 (also works for a home media center)

We’ve built a variety of desktop computers and servers in the past to run Windows XP and Windows Vista. With the performance of computer components increasing and the price falling it is now possible for small business to obtain very secure and stable machines for less than the price of a second hand laptop. Since HD-TV compatible technologies are now the mainstream, and with cheaper and more reliable storage devices, we are now seeing more people adopting servers for the home; a place to store all your media content and serve it around your home or small office network.

In this article, I am going to walk you through building your own small office / home network server. A 500GB RAID-protected 2.1Ghz dual core server with HD media capability. All for less than £300.00 inc VAT.

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Now Is A Good Time To Invest

Last month, Microsoft released Windows Home Server (WHS) for home users and next month, Windows Server 2008 is due for release for business users. Windows Home Server (WHS) is built on Windows Server 2003 and is designed for users who have multiple Windows Vista computers and laptops at home. It serves as a single place for all your media content and also as an automatic backup server, taking images of all your machines and files and storing them in such a way that you can restore your machines or lost files over your network automatically. Windows Home Server would be great for businesses, except that it doesn’t support the most useful business server software: Microsoft Exchange for Email.

For business users, Windows Server 2008 is due to be the most reliable, secure and easy to use Windows Server platform ever. By the summer of 2008, a special “Small Business” edition of Windows Server 2008 will be released, which should have Exchange, Fax Server, IIS (for hosting websites) all pre-loaded.

On the hardware side, Intel has the Core 2 Duo line of chips leading in the mainstream and performance segment, and AMD (unable to compete on performance) has dropped the prices of all it’s CPU’s across the range, and started developing “green” energy efficient processors with a 45 watt thermal design point (even less at idle). (By contrast, Intel Xeon’s in this segment draw over 100 watts).

Green energy efficient design is important, not just for the planet, or your pocket book, but there are good technical reasons for buying green. Lower power means less wasteful heat is generated and therefore less noisy fans are required. This means that silent or near-silent designs are possible – especially important for Home Servers which are likely to live in the living room.

Choosing Your Server Hardware

To all the geek’s reading this, I’m sure you’re already running your own home server, made from bits of old junk that you have lying around. I’ve certainly done this previously. However getting parts that have high reliability, low power consumption (and high definition compatible media output) are not likely to be found in your old computer parts bucket, so we first need to go shopping to find new components with warranty!

Doing your research and choosing the correct components that are all compatible and work together is the hardest step and one that I’m not going to go into in detail here. Suffice to say that I have chosen the very best bang for your buck branded parts that were available in the UK at the time. The components I chose were:

The Case – Antec NSK3480 MATX Micro Tower (£46.46)

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Antec are well known for creating professional, high quality cases. This case is tiny and very heavy. It has room inside for two 3.5″ hard disk drives (which means you can use RAID 0 and 1, but not 5) and one optical drive and one floppy drive. The drives are mounted on supplied silicone spacers to minimise vibration (which causes damage and noise) and to improve airflow around the drives (reduces heat and improves disk life expectancy).

The Antec NSDK 3480 comes with a 380 Watt EarthWatts PSU which has a fan that spins down if it is not required – saving energy and reducing noise.

There are other cases that would do just as well. If you are building a server for the home, you might want to get one of the newer DVD-player style cases which are designed to sit in your living room next to your existing DVD player or Hi-Fi system. These cases are more expensive, however.

The Motherboard – ASUS M2A-VM HDMI 690G Socket AM2 (£34.35)

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The choice of motherboard is the most critical choice of researching your build. Also because of the way in which the markets for motherboards are so cleanly split, there is usually only one or two choices for the motherboard that you should choose, all the others will not be appropriate.

Since we are building an AMD based system (low power and low cost), we need an AM2 motherboard. We also need a small motherboard as we have a small case. We also need a motherboard that supports RAID 1 – drive mirroring – so that if one of our drives fails, the server can continue to run whilst we replace the broken disk. We need an Integrated Graphics Chipset (save power and money as opposed to a dedicated card). If you want to play media directly from the server to a TV, HDTV or projector then you need a fairly decent graphics processor. Since AMD now own ATI, all modern AMD/ATI chipsets contain fairly advanced integrated graphics processing solutions. They might not be suitable for gaming, but this is a server. This motherboard comes with a Radeon x1250 integrated graphics chipset, which gives us up to 1900×1200 output resolution and can output high definition content via VGA, DVI, s-video, and HDMI connectors.

The Processor (CPU) – AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ Energy Efficient (£34.00)

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AMD processors over Intel was an obvious choice for this segment. Almost all processors nowadays are 64bit with 32bit compatibility. Windows Home Server is only available in a 32bit version, and Windows Server 2008 is available in both 32bit and 64 bit versions. What is more important for a server is that the processor has two cores. Servers with only one core can often bottleneck at the CPU, tasks can be waiting for permission to execute. Dual Core resolves this problem. Quad Core is a waste on a home or small office server, as these small servers are most often used to serve files or host applications, not to perform heavy computation.

We continue to maintain that Intel Core 2 Duo chips are the technology of choice and are also capable of very low energy consumption. However, Intel Core 2 Duo chips cost more than twice the price of the AMD rival. Intel Chipsets (for motherboards) also don’t have the advantage of high performance integrated graphics, so we would need to purchase an additional graphics card if we were going Intel. In the low energy / low cost segment, AMD is the market leader.

CPU Fan – Arctic Cooling AC-FRZ-64 (£15.00)

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The Arctic Cooling AC-FRZ Freezer range are fantastic fans. Very quiet and relatively small (although larger than a stock fan). You’ll notice from my photographs that I’m not using an Arctic Cooling Fan. This is because my supplier ran out of stock. Instead I went to Maplin for a basic Akasa fan. Works just as well, but not quite as quiet as the Arctic Cooling Freezer.

Storage – 2 x Western Digital WD5000AAKS 500GB (£105.98 for 2)

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There are currently two choices for the title of “1/2 Terrabyte storage king” – the Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200.11 and the Western Digital WD5000AAKS. Both companies have excellent reputations for reliability, and both drives have almost exactly the same specifications – 7200 RPM spin speed, 16MB of Cache, SATA II, low seek times, and are the same price.

The Western Digital drives are slightly quieter and don’t “click” as much as the Seagate drives, so for this build I went Western Digital.

Since the case we are using is a small case, it only has space for 2 drives. This means that both drives will be running in RAID 1 mirrored configuration. So we will have a total of 500GB of available space. This is more than enough for a small office server. If you wanted more space, 1TB drives are available – at a cost. If you wanted to spend more on a larger case, get three 500GB drives and use RAID 5. It is just as reliable as RAID 1, but 3 x 500 GB in RAID 5 would give you 1TB of storage (1000GB).

Memory – 1 OCZ 2GB DDR2 800Mhz/PC2-6400 (£30.00)

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It doesn’t really matter what type of RAM you get for a home server. Even a small office server won’t notice much difference between EEC (server type error-correcting) or non-EEC RAM. The key thing to note is that you should purchase RAM that has the same clock speed frequency as your Front Side Bus (FSB). The FSB of our motherboard is 800Mhz, and it takes DDR2 RAM. So that limits our choice. The OCZ brand of RAM is well respected, and it’s on special offer – so I went with it. It is rare to find performance RAM available for less than value RAM. However, performance RAM tends to need to be worked harder than value RAM – this particular model needs 1.9V to be applied across it rather than the default 1.8V. I don’t think using 1.8V would cause many problems, and I would still rather have used value RAM, but we’re making a cheap PC remember? So in the real world, this was the best deal.

DVD Drive – NEC Optiarc AD-7170S-0B SATA (£13.86)

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I chose a cheap DVD writer. It turned out to be out of stock, so my order was shipped without it. The Sony DVD writer you can see in the images I had to borrow from another office machine.

If you’re looking for a Blu-Ray, HD-DVD or combination high density drive, these are available. However, they cost more than £13, and we’re building a cheap server. If you wanted a more expensive server, you could go ahead and use a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD drive and it would work well with this setup.

Uninterruptible Power Supply with AVS – Plexus MV 500VA (£20.41)

Plexus make a line of cheap and cheerful UPS’es. This one in particular comes with enough juice to keep the server running under power outage conditions for several minutes and has a built in automatic voltage regulator. The voltage regulator is very important for server applications as it prevents spikes and under-voltage (brown-outs) from reaching the server. It gives the server nice clean power and ensures that your server is going to live a nice happy life!

Operating System

You’ve got a choice:

Linux – Free

Windows Vista Home Premium – about £60

Windows Home Server – about £150

Windows Server 2008 – Price TBC (will be more than £150).

Miscellaneous Bits

Don’t forget to order your SATA II cables, Thermal Conductivity Paste and some CAT-6 cables (for Gigabit Ethernet).

Click More.. to move to building the server!

Getting Dirty

It’s time to start the build. I’m not going to lecture you on how to build your own equipment, but merely recount my experiences and go over some basics and hope it’s useful for some of you.

Step 1 – Opening The Case

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Getting all this stuff in there is going to be a tight fit! At least, the power supply unit is a modest size and there are plenty of holes in the case for cables to be pushed through. It’s worth noting that a design feature of these Antec cases is that the power supply is separated from the main case by means of a metal plate which prevents the unwanted hot air produced by the power supply unit from mixing with the air inside the case, thus heating up the components. This metal plate also gets in the way, as we shall see later.

Step 2 – Fitting The Motherboard

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Some people like to fit the CPU and memory to the motherboard first. Since our case is so small it is easier to manoeuvre a motherboard free of components and plug in all the bits and bobs after the motherboard is correctly seated.

Static electricity that has built up in your body, clothes and the environment of the motherboard can be many thousands of volts in strength. If such static electricity was allowed to contact the motherboard, parts of it might be fried by the subsequent charge. The bag the motherboard comes in is anti-static and doesn’t allow these static charges to damage the motherboard. So with the motherboard still in the bag, place the motherboard in position inside the case to get a feel for where it should be resting. Especially pay attention to the position of the holes in the case and the motherboard. You will need to mount brass spacers (you get these with the case) on the case itself for the motherboard to sit on top of them. You don’t want to put a spacer onto the case where the motherboard doesn’t have a space to accept a screw – since any static in the case would then discharge directly onto the motherboard circuitry, damaging the components on the motherboard.

Screw in the little brass spacers onto the correct positions on the case that correspond to the holes in the motherboard.

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Remove the motherboard from the anti-static bag and place the bag inside the case and the motherboard on the bag. Position the motherboard over the brass spacers, and slowly pull the anti static bag away from under the motherboard, exposing one brass separator at a time. Screw a motherboard screw into each brass separator as it becomes visible. After you’ve done three or four of these, the motherboard should be seated in the correct position for you to completely and safely remove the anti static bag.

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Now that your motherboard is correctly mounted in the case, you can move onto the next step; installing the components.

Step 3 – Installing the CPU

CPU installation varies depending on the socket. AMD chips use Socket 939 or AM2. Intel chips use Socket 7. Both types of sockets allow easy mounting of the CPU’s, but Socket 939/AM2 is slightly easier to mount the fan.

Slot the AMD chip into the Socket by aligning up the gold arrow on the base (see below) with the plastic arrow on the socket:

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Be careful not to bend any of the pins, and then close the “Zero Insertion Force” (ZIF) lever and lock it into place.

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We will return to the CPU fan shortly after mounting the RAM, as it is easier to mount the RAM before mounting the bulky fan.

Step 4 – Installing the RAM

This bit is easy, as long as you make sure that the RAM is mounted firmly and securely. Incorrectly seated memory modules will result in system instability and the problem may not be immediately noticeable.

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The more RAM you have, the better. RAM memory is volatile (it only stores information while the power is on) and is much faster than data storage on hard disks. Therefore the more RAM memory you have, the less will need to be stored on hard disk drives and the faster your system will be.

When installing RAM modules, install the same type of RAM (the same size and speed) in the same coloured slots for extra performance. If you have two 1GB DDR2 modules, you want to put them both in the yellow slots – this means that the motherboard will be able to double the rate of data transfer for free. Isn’t that cool?

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Step 5 – Installing the Drives

Most standard cases will have a metal drive rack which you simply slot the drives into and screw them into the case. This isn’t ideal since the vibration of the drives vibrates the case (and creates noise) and the tightness of the fit doesn’t do the drive any favours for heat dissipation either.

This Antec case resolves the problem by supplying little silicon widgets which act as washers between the drive and the case.

One drive fits on the base of the case, and the other in the top section of the case, in front of the PSU, the below picture shows one of the hard drives (the other top one is just out of view).

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You should also fit the DVD optical drive at this point too (although don’t screw it in to the case; leave that until you’ve connected up all the power and data cables to give yourself as much working space as possible):

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Step 6 – Installing the Fan

The CPU I bought was of the OEM variety, which means that you get the CPU, surrounded by foam, in a cardboard box. It’s better to buy the CPU this way and get yourself an aftermarket branded fan. Almost all aftermarket fans perform better (move more heat from the CPU) and usually with less noise than the stock fan that comes with retail packaged chips.

The object of this section of the build is to ensure that as much heat as possible is removed from the CPU. Fans which use copper heatsinks (rather than steel, tin or alloy) conduct heat better, although they are more expensive. And all fan heatsinks need to be firmly contacted to the CPU die (the metal top) itself.

Simply placing a new fan on top of the CPU die isn’t going to be good enough, since there will be microscopic pockets of air trapped between the CPU die and the fan. These pockets of air act as insulators (think of insulation in double-glazing windows) and need to be removed. Most fans come with a little thermal paste already pre-applied to the base of the heatsink. This thermal paste is almost guaranteed to be of poor quality – better than air, but not as good as a ceramic or silver based thermal compound.

So scrub off the pre-applied thermal “glue” and get your premium thermal paste ready!

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Here, I’m using Arctic Silver 3. A professional grade thermal compound with a Thermal conductivity rating of >9.0 W/mK. (this is good).

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Apply a liberal dose of the paste to the CPU die. Be very careful not to allow any excess paste to contact the pins or the motherboard. Thermal paste conducts electricity and it would be a shame to burn out all your hard work so far!

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I use folded paper as a spatula. It’s clean, cheap and leaves no residue.

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Keep spreading the thermal paste for a few minutes to work out any bubbles or pockets of air. Try to aim for a smooth and clean surface. Don’t worry too much about artistic perfection, we’re going to place the fan on top of this and the vibrations from the fan will work to firm up the paste and make a good contact.

We had Socket 7 fans delivered instead of Socket AM2 fans, so I had to head out to Maplin for a quick replacement to make this build. Of course, this means the fan pictured isn’t the one I chose at the start of the build. You would still be best off with the Arctic Freezer 64, but the mounting on all AM2 fans is identical so the procedure is the same.

Attaching the fan is very simple, place the fan over the CPU and use the supplied metal clip to place one end over one of the plastic catches, and then use slight pressure to clip the other end of the plastic clip holder. It’s actually very easy to do. Socket 7 Intel CPU users have a much more fiddly process of plugging pins through holes and tightening them up, but even then it should only take you a few minutes to attach.

Be aware that your fan will take several hours or days to “bed down” to maximum efficiency. When you are ready to boot your PC, do so, enter the BIOS and find the screen which reads temperatures from the CPU die and the motherboard. The temperatures of a newly installed fan should be within 20-35 degrees celcius on this screen. Leave it up for a few hours and keep an eye on it. Once you make it through to Windows, be sure to run “Core Temp.exe”, cpuz.exe and give the cooling a thorough test with Orthos.exe – just to make sure your system is reliable. Don’t overclock until your system is reliable at stock speeds.

Step 7 – Cabling up!

There are quite a few cables that need to be connected from the chassis and PSU to the motherboard.

Here we’ll go through them all:

  • 12V Power Supply Rail
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    the big wide power supply cable needs to be clipped onto the motherboard. With this case I had to modify (i.e. break) the metal separator plate to make a hole big enough to stuff it through to the motherboard.
  • 4 pin ATX – the yellow and black cable needs to be connected
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  • Power and Sata II drive cables for both drives – it’s a tight fit for the top drive near the PSU!
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    More space around the lower drive makes it easier to connect up its cables. A little more space in the top of this case would be good!
  • Front Panel Connectors (USB, Firewire, Audio, HDD Activity Lights, Power and Reset Switches – follow your motherboard manual for these, and double check your work. Connecting Firewire and USB to the wrong sockets will blow your motherboard.
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  • High Definition Audio Outputs – If you’re building a media server, attach the supplied High Definition output card, and connect to the motherboard as shown:
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  • Connect the CPU fan power and monitor cable
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    (it’s the yellow, black and red cable that runs to the top right of the motherboard)
  • Your case should look something like the below (you may or may not have the black Asus IDE cable – I’m using an IDE DVD drive – your mileage may vary)
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Step 8 – Installing an Operating System

This is a topic for another blog post in itself. If you’re installing Windows XP, Server 2003 or Vista, you will need to slipstream SATA drivers onto a customised installation CD. If you’re interested, I can go into explaining how this is done. Let me know with your comments.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I’m very busy with work at the moment so haven’t got the time that I would like to go into every detail. Let me know what you liked or disliked about the article so that I can focus on the details in the future.

Conclusion

The current market leader for small office servers and a Microsoft Partner for their new Windows Home Server operating system is Hewlett Packard (HP). HP sell their “Media Server” for £399 inclusive of VAT and it is very poor in terms of specification. For that money you get:

  • No RAID disk drive redundancy (drive failure = all your data lost)
  • No LAN (according to PC World, Dixons and Currys!)
  • No Performance RAM
  • No Performance Motherboard
  • No HD output
  • No 3D graphics accellerator
  • No Energy Efficient PSU
  • No near-Silent CPU fan
  • and the list goes on…

This server provides you with all the basics covered, in a case that looks just as good as HP’s Media Server Desktop, with better quality components which will perform faster and last longer, and for £99 less!

Also, depending on your budget, you can scale up this server easily to 1TB of storage (+£60 or so), Blu-Ray or HD-TV out (the hardware supports it, you just need the Blu-Ray/HD DVD player drive + £150) or TV server/recorder (+£30). And you can do all this for a decent price, without being ripped off. Such is the wonder of the exponential rate of progress in the Information Technology industry.

Final Words

As you’ve seen, you can build your own home media server or office file/email server not only cheaply, but with high quality premium components that provide long term performance and peace of mind.

Comments Please!

Published inOld Evolved ISV PostsTechnologyUseful Tips

55 Comments

  1. Simon Moir Simon Moir

    You’ve convinced me! I’ve ordered the parts on ebuyer, with a larger case and 3 drives. Will I need a SATA cable for each drive?

    This will be the first computer I’ve built, looking forward to it. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for the article, Kind regards, Simon

  2. mikelwilson mikelwilson

    Hello Simon,

    I’m glad I’ve convinced someone, and pleased you like the article.

    You wll need a SATA data cable, and a SATA power cable for each drive. Your power supply unit should provide you with at least two SATA power cables, and you can purchase IDE 4-pin ATX power to SATA power converter adapters for a few pennies if you need them.

    Let me know how you get on!

  3. sarah sarah

    Thanks Mike!!!! really interesting, i’m going to give it a go 🙂

  4. John John

    Hi
    Liked the article.

    Much interested, do you know of any way to not use the mains powersupply, I would like to biuld to use from a 12v supply, this may vary between 11.5 and 13.8v. Everything else I think i will go fo. Actually want as few moving parts as I can get away with, cheaply. To use on a boat, so power is a problem.

    regards

  5. mikelwilson mikelwilson

    John,

    A boat? Wow. I’m picturing water and lots of motion? Two bad things for building a server. It’s possible to buy a 12V -> 110/240V converter which would likely meet your needs but then you have a problem with voltage regulation. Depending on your requirements, a UPS with AVC (the Plexus one in this article’s build) might well work.

    In any case you do still need to use a battery, generator or mains to power your server/PC. The solar powered green computer is still a way off.

    The hard drives are not well suited for boats, perhaps a solid state disk (32GB) would be more appropriate (and would draw less power). Alternatively, invest in a laptop?

    I hope this helps.

    Warm Regards,

    Mike

  6. Mike,

    Nice article. Have you measured the total power used by this server config at both idle / busy times? I’m interested in building something like this for a home network, and may even look to power it via solar cells.

    regards,

    James Frost

  7. mikelwilson mikelwilson

    Thanks James.

    I haven’t measured the power consumed, although I plan to do this after installing the operating system (Windows Server 2008). I haven’t got around to doing this yet 😉

    In my opinion, using solar cells is a very bad idea. For a start, you’d need very powerful cells and a substantial battery storage / voltage regulator. Servers need to run 24/7 and cold, wet weather like we’ve been having in the UK for the past two weeks would cause problems with supply.

    The build I’ve specified here could still be made more energy efficient – removing all the fans in favour of passive cooling, removing the optical drive and replacing the hard disk drives with solid state disks. This would be considerably expensive, but no more so than the solar cell array you’d need to power the server.

    Lastly, there is still an option for those into solar power; a household solar power array. These are available from £5,000 and I understand that in the UK grants are available to slightly subsidise this outlay. It will take 30-40 years to pay off and planning permission is required. However it is greener and if you are very frugal with your energy consumption it is possible to sell the leftover energy back to the electricity company 🙂

    I hope this helps,

    Mike

  8. I can not find CPU Fan – Arctic Cooling AC-FRZ-64 and Uninterruptible Power Supply with AVS – Plexus MV 500VA in my country. I also struggle to find a good alternative. I can not seem to find a fan that fits and is quite, and there is no option to search for UPS with AVS.

    So, can you recommend some alternative FANS that are quiet and fits in this configuration? And perhaps show an alternative with passive cooling? And a good UPS with AVS that also fits.

    Thanks for a great article! Can`t wait to buy the parts and start building 🙂

  9. mikelwilson mikelwilson

    Hi STH,

    Glad you liked the article. It’s a shame you can’t find a good fan or UPS. With regards the fan, any Socket AM2 / Socket 939 fan will do. These fans are the ones with the metal clip that goes through the center of the heatsink. Almost any will do, and in this build I didn’t use the Arctic Cooling AC-FRZ-64 as it wasn’t available locally (and I wa in a hurry to make the build). So I went for an Akasa fan instead. I suggest you do something similar.

    Regarding the UPS, well only you know the country you’re in and I can’t shop for you here in the UK. I suggest checking Google for the answer to this question and finding yourself a good supplier 🙂 Have a look at the Belkin Superior UPS range too.

    Good luck with your build. Let me know how it goes.

    Best Regards,

    Mike

  10. Richard Richard

    Mike
    Great article am now inspired to have a go, just one question though.
    I wanted to put a blu-ray optical drive in but I was reading on the ASUS web site that the V2A-VM HDMI may not display 1080p smoothly when playing Blu-ray and HD DVD. As this is kind of fundamental is there any other options?

    Cheers

  11. mike mike

    Hi Richard,

    Do you have a link to where Asus say this? I’d be suprised if the fault wasn’t fixed by a simple motherboard BIOS flash. Then again, this motherboard is low end but I haven’t seen any alternative motherboards with integrated graphics chipsets capable of HDMI that have caught my eye.

    I’ll post again if something comes up.

    Thanks,

    Mike

  12. mike mike

    Hi Rich,

    Thanks for the URL. I’ve just noticed that you refer to the “V2A-VM”, whereas I am recommending the M2A-VM which is intended for HD(MI) multimedia playback.

    You definately want the M2A-VM for a multimedia machine build. However, you should also take a look at the newer M3A78-EMH motherboard. This motherboard is very similar in specification to the M2A-VM but has the newer ATI 780G chipset. In a nutshell this has an approximately 2x faster performance than the old M2A-VM which while not so important for video playback, the inbuilt Radeon HD3200 chip will perform much better than the 2/3 generation old x1250 found in the M2A-VM. The newer board supports directx 10.1 also.

    Take another look at the *M* series from Asus. I hope this helps.

    Mike

  13. Jules Jules

    very interesting Mike ,i will have ago

  14. pat pat

    HI Mike,

    just to let you know that i had bookmarked this page a while back, and i eventually got round to building my first ever homer server! – it is fantastic! and now takes pride of place under my TV as compliement to my sky tv here in the UK! – many thanks for such an informative and honest guide, and i still smile with glee when i realise the amount i saved by building my own ! – so come on everyone, dont be lazy! build your server using mike’s brilliant guide!

    pat.

  15. mike mike

    Thanks Pat.

    I’d be intrigued to know if you used the same components and how much you were able to obtain them for. Prices for all the above should be even cheaper now.

    Building your own PC/server like this one is just like preparing and cooking your own food; you know what goes in and save money too.

    Best,

    Mike

  16. Greg Greg

    I followed you specs and all is well except the ASUS drivers and RAID setup program provided will not operate on Server 2008. The ASUS website provides no joy either. Any ideas?

  17. mike mike

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for your message.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “RAID setup program” (I didn’t use any setup programs other than the Windows installer) or “will not operate”.

    The provided Asus drivers do work with Server 2008 although you should always download the latest drivers from the Asus website. If you must use the ones on the CD ROM (I never do this since the provided CD ROM drivers are invariably out of date by the time you get the disk), use the Vista 32 drivers for Server 2008 x86, and the Vista 64 drivers for Server 2008 x64.

    Configure RAID in your motherboard BIOS and in the installer for Windows 2008 use the load driver option and provide your VIA SATA drivers. (assuming you used SATA drives as per the guide above).

    I hope this helps,

    Mike

  18. Henrik Henrik

    So how much power does this machine consume in standby and with processor activity??

    It says cheap and low power – it’s cheap, but what about power?

  19. mike mike

    I haven’t measured it accurately, but the power draw is substantially lower by comparison to most average desktops. You would be hard pressed to build a machine with a significantly lower power consumption (although you could start by removing the optical drive and one of the hard drives and replacing the CPU fan with a fanless equivilent).

    The real world power consumption will vary depending on usage.

  20. Helio Helio

    Thanks Mike for all you work,
    I intend to build my server (WMS) , I will like to use RAID-1(mirror),
    but I do understand how to do that .
    Is in the bios ? or in the Windows Media Server?
    Thanks in advance
    Helio

  21. mike mike

    Hello Helio,

    I think you mean you’re not sure about how to set up RAID 1. If you’re using the above build specification for your server then configure it in the BIOS for the motherboard. It’s not that hard to do.

    Windows too will allow you to set up a “software” RAID 1 solution, but of course the actual RAID isn’t functioning below the level of Windows. So if any of the Windows boot files get corrupted this can lead to a loss of synchronisation between the drives and you’ll lose data, time or both. It’s still a fairly good solution for a quick redundancy on your files at the level of the disk, but for full protection you should always use a motherboard RAID, or a dedicated RAID controller card. (motherboard RAID for this server works fine). Hardware RAID is also much faster than software RAID…

    Something to think about!

    Best,

    Mike

  22. dazza dazza

    hi, great post

    is there a particular shop you went to to buy all the components?

    Thks
    d

  23. mike mike

    Hi Dazza,

    Most of the components came from eBuyer but as I mention in the article, I accidentally ordered the AC7 cooler for the Intel 775 chipset (and not the AMD AM2) so I had to visit Maplin to pick up an Akasa CPU fan.

    I’m considering updating this site with a fresh article using more up to date components since technology has moved on up and the economic crisis has moved prices down and I’m confident a better build can be made for the same money – or less.

    Is this an article that anyone reading this would be interested in? A new shopping list for solid computer builds?

  24. Hi Mike,
    I’m very interested in building such a server and with a view to keeping its power consumption low the integrated GPU is most attractive.

    I am interested in connecting this machine to a widescreen TV that has only Scart, S-Video and RCA inputs. You mention in your article that connection via S-Video is possible. What is the best way of connecting one of the the available video ports on this ASUS motherboard (HDMI, DVI and VGA) to S-Video etc.?

    I would also be very interested in a revised version of this article with the newer DX10 Asus motherboard that you mention above.

    Yours faithfully,

    Crash

  25. pat pat

    Hi Mike,

    Please do consider a new article regarding building a new build, as i successfully built a media center using your instructions above, and i now wish to build a second pc, that is both cost effective and as energy efficient as possible, and which will be switched on for long periods.

    thanks as always for your great articles

    pat.

  26. Simon Simon

    Hi Mike,

    I built my machine and it now sits under the stairs humming away quietly. I bought a larger case and 3 drives, I may be wrong but I don’t think the Asus board supports Raid 5. I decided JBOD was sufficient in my case though after reading various articles about WHS Drive Extender v Raid. I built a workstation as well shortly after the server, so thanks for the confidence your great guide gave me! Regards, Simon

  27. mike mike

    Crash, Pat, Simon: Thanks for your feedback and interest. I’ll put together a few system specifications and throw it up. I may or may not actually make the build as I have enough computers at home and the office. If I get a customer wanting a build between now and Christmas I’ll document it for you.

    The M2A-VM doesn’t support RAID 5 without an external extender controller, but then again this particular case doesn’t have the space for it (unless you wanted to install off a USB key and use the optical bay for another disk). RAID 5 is a little specialist and isn’t going to be found on a budget board like this (although it can be added as mentioned earlier). You can run RAID 1 (mirrored) and 0 (striped) and 10 (striping + mirroring).

    Crash: The M2A-VM HDMI model comes with an addon card which slots into the PCI Express slot and provides S-Video, Component Video, Composite Out and RGB output. The motherboard itself comes with both DVI and VGA output (at the same time). So take your pick on outputs as you’ve got them all.

  28. Adam Findlay Adam Findlay

    Hey mike.

    I just happened to come across this article while trying to find images of that case (i’m building a PC for them and they wanted to see some good photos of it) and i gave your article a read.

    I think updating this may be a good idea. Personally I run my own server (doing pretty much everything where you can use “server” as a suffix except a web server), its an old 775 P4 system that i am likely to replace with a round of hand-me-downs from my current PC when i upgrade in the january sales.

    The article is good although i personally feel suggesting Windows Server to your average home user is going to leave alot of people wasting money. Normally, XP pro plus some decent anti-virus is the way to go or linux (of the GUI variety) if the person is feeling a little adventurous, for note to anyone reading this ubuntu (the desktop one, NOT the server one) is a good way to go.

    The only thing i would say about another article is that the only thing you would likely change is make it an intel build and swap RAID 1 for RAID 5. Other than that not much has changed.

    Regards, Adam

  29. mike mike

    Hi Adam,

    Thanks for your feedback. The case is a good one, although you’ll be challenged to make a RAID 5 machine with it as there simply aren’t enough places to put (more than two) hard disk drives.

    In the case of this article the goal was to create a file, web and email server although > 99% of visitors find this article by searching for “media server” or “low power media server”, so you’re right about Windows Server 2008 being a poor choice of operating system for those people. Windows Server 2008 is not a good choice for a media server as it’s quite expensive and doesn’t support Windows Media Sharing (at all – and to my knowledge no-one has it running).

    I recommend Windows Home Server as the operating system if you need regular and reliable backup and a place to consolidate all your files.

    XP or Vista Home Premium would be my choice if running the machine as a media center.

  30. Dear Mike,

    I am using the Aus M2A-VM HDMI MB as well however I am trying to find RAID Drivers for a Server 2003 SR2 installation (you know Press F6 and provide the floppy with the Driver deal)…Forget about ASUSTEK website no luck. Can you Provide ? Much Thanks. Julian

  31. mike mike

    Hi Julain,

    You won’t find the RAID driver listed for Server 2003 on the Asustek website. I’m not sure why. Use the driver for XP and you’ll be fine.

    Best,

    Mike

  32. Paul Paul

    Hi Mike

    Very interesting article if you had to build this system again do you think you would now use the Intel Atom CPU?

    Thanks
    Paul

  33. mike mike

    Hi Paul,

    Well, the article started off as building a home file/web/email server but rapidly changed bias into a full on media center by the time the comments started. So, going with a media center the requirements are still largely the same:

    1. Energy efficient. Needs a low TDP (Thermal Design Point)

    2. Cheap

    3. Strong chipset-based graphics performance (we don’t want to add a hot and expensive third party graphics card).

    Let’s do a basic analysis:

    1. Clearly the Intel Atom is a big win over any other product in this market. The 45nm chip uses just 4W of power.

    2. The chip sells pre-installed into a motherboard in the £50-70 range. That makes it incredibly good value in my opinion… I haven’t had a chance to test any of these motherboards but I know a few things from the specification, which leads me to:

    3. Chipsets. The GMA950 does not support H.264 video acceleration! So that means that the Atom CPU itself has to do all the decoding. Unfortunately, as many review sites have shown, it is simply too weak for this so smooth HD output simply isn’t possible.

    So, if I was building an always-on cheap file, FTP, server for backup purposes or for file/media storage or for running some always-on background processes then I’m tempted to explore the atom. But for home media PC usage? I’m not convinced.

    Does that help?

  34. Trevor6415 Trevor6415

    Interesting I found the information here very usefull for my own media server project.

    My specifications are Intel Pentium 4 2.2 GHZ socket 478, 4 x hard disk drives toal size would be 640GB, 3ware escalade 7810 raid controller card, onboard graphics, Gigabit netork card, cheap and cheerfull !!! I use this to stream my Video and Music collection to an Emprex ME1 High Definition enclosure with 320 GB internal hard drive which is connected to my 37 ” Panasonic Viera television.

    Oh lastly I use windows server 2003, I am thinking of changing that for something else.

  35. mike mike

    Thanks Trevor! I wish everyone who found this article useful would post something in the comments 🙂

    Yes, using a media extender is another (very good) option. I prefer a dedicated PC though, as this gives me access to other services, like BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Veoh, etc.

  36. John Kreelman John Kreelman

    Great article, informative. One comment though to follow the progreesion of this article. I’ve had a P4, 2.4Ghz pc knocking around for ages and I’ve tried ubuntu server, WHS, FreeNas etc and I can never get them to run without problems of some sort or another. I admit that the faults are probably wholly of my own making but at the same time I’m fairly ‘geeky’ so it gets really frustrating. May I suggest an article on your choice of software to run, preferably a linux distro as they are free? I know it would help me and no doubt many others.

    Mant thanks for your time & effort.

  37. Vincent Bevan Vincent Bevan

    Hi Mike,
    many thanks for the very informative article you wrote (found it via Google), it inspired me to build an HTPC here in Germany running XP with MediaPortal as my Media Center (awesome – and free!!!) and Twonky MediaServer UPNP (waiting for MediaPortal version that will have this inbuilt).

    In this way I am able to watch and record live TV from my Satellite Card (Hauppauge Nova-S+) as well as transcode this to other computers around the house (and music, pictures, internet streaming etc.) Further the UPNP server serves also to enable streaming of content to the various devices I also have.

    I opted for an MSI K9N2G Neo-FD board very similar to the one you mention http://www.msicomputer.com/product/p_spec.asp?model=K9N2G_Neo-FD&class=mb (supports RAID 5 also), everything else came out of your shopping list apart from the case, as it is an HTPC I opted for a sleek-looking case from Inter-Tech which has great value for money and can house up to 8 drives! http://www.inter-tech.de/Englisch/Gehaeuseiten/2008V_silber-e.htm which I am very happy with (apart from some niggles with the iMON software driving the VFD display and inbuilt IR remote control).

    I am currently battling with the best way to provide remote wake-up (not all devices I have can send magic packets, and the link change option in the ACPI on-board PCI NIC tends to turn the machine on too frequently).

    Overall a happy man, many thanks Sir!

    Cheers, Vincent

  38. Nam Nam

    Hi Mike,

    Great article! glad i came across it. I’m wanting to build my own media server at home. im tired of just moving my 500g hard drive from pc to pc! i was just wondering, because its been around a year since you originally wrote the article, if you could post an updated article with updated components as you said in November? I am sure things have progressed and become cheaper too. so would really appreciate your advice and help!

    Many thanks and keep up the fantastic work!

    Nam

  39. Mario Mario

    I’m in a process of building something similar and i came across this article. Great stuff btw! In my case I’d like my machine to be a NAS (4x1TB raid1+0), a torrent client, music player and so on….but most important 1080p capable reproducting machine connected with my TV via HDMI. I have some things covered (like the case and psu and that ‘less important’ things) but i can’t seem to find a decent MB and a graphic card for my needs (or a MB with integrated graphics). Specs I’d prefer would be: s775 motherboard with PCIe 2.0, sata 2, raid10 support, 5.1 hd audio, gigabit ethernet, 1080p (bluray) support with hdmi port, …but I can’t seem to find something like that. I’d appreciate some ideas cause my eyes hurt from reading those specs.
    My goal is a low-budget solution like yours.
    Cheers!

  40. Bartek Bartek

    Hi Mike,

    “You won’t find the RAID driver listed for Server 2003 on the Asustek website. I’m not sure why. Use the driver for XP and you’ll be fine.”

    Well, it is not working for me. I want to install Windows 2003 Server Standard Edition on RAID 0 array and I have tried all available XP drivers for Asus M2A-VM.

    Windows 2003 installation setup see no mass storage, no matter what I do. On the other hand Windows 2008 Server works fine on my RAID 0. How to install 2003 Server on M2A-VM with RAID array? Any ideas?

    Cheers.

  41. mike mike

    Bartek: Which controller did you plug your HDD into? There are two on-board controllers. Make sure you use the right driver for the right controller.

    Mario, Nam, Vincent, John: Thanks for your comments. I’ll certainly be making a fresh build. I could just post up some component configurations but you never know that everything works until you test it. Case in point, I bought a fan for the wrong socket 😛

    Cheers,

    Mike

  42. Bartek Bartek

    Hi Mike,

    I really appreciate your help:) I am not quite sure I understand. By saying “two on-board controllers” do you mean that one is for UltraDMA (up to 2 HDDs) and another for SerialATA (up to 4 HDDs)? Or is it something else you meant?

    I have two SATA HDDs, exactly the same model, Maxtor 250GB each. They are plugged into SATA1 and SATA2 ports on the mainboard. I have RAID0 working for all operating systems I tried, except Windows 2003 Server Standard Edition. XP, Windows 2008 Server and even Windows 7 Beta are working just fine on that configuration with drivers I have got. Only 2003 refuses to see my HDDs no matter what driver I use.

    By “right driver for the right controller” you meant using RAID driver, instead of IDE, right? Or is it? I am using only RAID drivers for M2A-VM. I have slipstreamed it obviously as I do not have a floppy.

    That is why I thought that maybe this is because of wrong drivers. However I cannot find RAID drivers for Windows 2003 for my mainboard. What can I do wrong? Looking forward to your response.

    Regards.

  43. Steven Steven

    Great post! I have been looking for a cheap but reliable back-up solution, but I would want more than 2 HDDs. I look forward to reading your update, and I’ll probably start getting out the screwdriver then 😉

    Would be my first-ever hardware build, so be gentle 😛

  44. Steven said that he wanted more than 2 HDDs. This can be done flexibly and cost effectively using standard USB2 external drive enclosures. This allows infrequently used and backup drives to be turned off most of the time. I use this technique with a standard commercial relay board to turn on individual hard drives when needed (a trivial Windows batch file then re-enables sharing of the drive). With a little work you can even have remote control of the server drives from your PC media clients. The one problem I had was getting a suitable case for the relay board, so I made one to look right with a media server (see kalikosystems.co.uk for how to make a suitable relay board case).

  45. i am convinced. Going to order my parts today. I had a few questions tho:

    1.how do you set up raid or is that a software issue
    2. which operating system would be best for web hosting?
    3, any updated comments on the webhosting site?

    overall it has been very helpful and informative.

    Thanks

  46. Fredrik Fredrik

    I’m just about to build a similar server so this article is really interesting. Keep up the good work!

  47. Late to the party, but alas:

    Nice review, good photo’s, informative overall!

    One comment though, you mention:
    Apply a liberal dose of the paste to the CPU die.

    Why a liberal dose? It’s to fill the imperfections of both surfaces (cpu / heatsink), to make good contact. IMHO you should use as little as possible to cover the surface of the cpu.

    Some cooling-pasta actually first gets more ‘liquid’ first (lower viscosity) and then hardens. If you apply too much, it’s flow out under the pressure of the heatsink being clamped to the cpu and spill on the precious electronics around it. As you mentioned as well, that is something you do not want.

  48. Andrew Andrew

    Even later to the party!

    Great article, and very informative.

    I’m looking to build a small media server but I’m a software guy and was wondering how you’d update the hardware list for the time? Would you still go for the older AMDX2 to keep it a dual core and keep the power down (45W) or look at the Phenoms, newer but with higher power (according to the stats on their site – 80W for X2, 65W for X3 ). Also, any thoughts about the MB? Are there any particular Chipsets to avoid? As an alternative to the MB you mention the Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-US2H seems to get pretty good reviews for almost the same features, or should I be thinking newer? Still trying to do this on a tight budget, same as you did.

    Anyway, thanks in advance if you even still look at this!

    • Hi Andrew,

      I’m a few months late in answering your comment, but even that’s not close to how far on your comment is from the original article 😉

      For a home server I’d look at keeping the power down as low as possible, perhaps even using the newer Intel Atoms as suggested by Antoine, above.

      @Antoine – how many watts – that would depend on the parts you used. Check the specifications and add up the values for max load and idle – the real world usage will be in-between them 🙂

  49. Antoine Antoine

    HI.
    If I use intel atom enbedded in the motherboard, and use 2 giga ram. only
    without harddrive, cd,dvd, but only motherboard,processor atom and 2 ram. how many watts would consume ?
    I want this for a asterisk server. so no video graphic is needed since i would administer with ssh

    thanks for your help in advance

  50. alec alec

    How do you connect a base unit to the server.

  51. Was just surfing through some articles and I wanted to thank you for the great write up. Thanks for all the pricing, pics, etc., I know that takes a lot of time. Keep up the great work.

  52. It would be easiest if you can delay actavition until the new hardware is in.If you purchased the OEM version, it gets tied to your current hardware setup and it can be difficult or impossible to get actavition transferred to another computer. You’d probably have to call Microsoft to explain.If you purchased the retail version, it might think you’ve installed to another computer, but at the worst you should be able to do phone actavition and just indicate you’ve upgraded hardware / motherboard. You shouldn’t have to buy another Windows 7 since you’re not really installing to an additional computer.

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