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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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!
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).
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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).
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):
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!
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).
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!
I use folded paper as a spatula. It’s clean, cheap and leaves no residue.
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
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
- Power and Sata II drive cables for both drives – it’s a tight fit for the top drive near the PSU!
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.
- 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:
- Connect the CPU fan power and monitor cable
(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)
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.
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.
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.