DIY: Low power, low cost, mini-home-server – Part 1

Right… someone made a comment on how my last post indicated the fall of a quality blog… Hard to believe since this blog really didn’t have many quality posts. So maybe I should write one. For a few years now, I’ve had my server sort of sitting in the corner of my living room, serving only as a test machine. The main reason why I don’t really run it 24/7 is that with dual xeons and it’s other various bits, it takes a significant amount of power, even just idling.

Recently I went to the local Office Max and saw the HP media server and it inspired me. If I could build a physically small, low-power consuming, and quiet server, I could potentially run it 24/7 with little impact to my wallet and my roommates (while I am fine with listening to the incessant whine of my server fans, my roommates are not). With the relatively recent release of the Intel Atom processor, I figured that I should be able to build a HP media server-esque server of my own. I have to admit using dual xeons on my last server was overkill since I never came close to exceeding the processing power available. I felt that the Intel Atom should be plenty enough for powering my mini-server.

With a little bit of research I came across this website, which got me started on my own project. This particular article gave me a good place to start: Build a Green $400 Windows Home Server. While it was a very good write up, it was done in April 2008. It really wasn’t long ago, but in the computing world, a year (or 4 quarters) have already passed and the technology used in that build was considered “old.” My friend had recently bought an ASUS Netbook which has an amazing battery life. It uses the Intel Atom processor (which I mentioned previously) and with a little more research, I learned that depending on the core, the thermal design power (TDP) of the processor was between 2-8W. Don’t know what this means? Well in terms of processors, the TDP rating is the maximum power it will draw. So if I used an Intel Atom with a TDP of 8W, at max load it will consume 8W.For reference, my old server uses prestonia core xeons @ 2.4ghz each, which each have a TDP of 65W. Obviously it isn’t always drawing the full 65W per processor, but the max power consumed by the Intel Atom is significantly less than what a single Xeon consumes at idle.
Like the home server hacks article, I chose to use the smallest form factor that was still cost-reasonable, and this ended up being the common Mini-ITX motherboard form factor, used in Shuttle PCs.
The home server hacks article actually uses a Shuttle PC case, but I’ve seen them in real life and I wanted something smaller. So I opted to save money and build my own case (not a good idea, actually. I have some idea of what I’m doing and I have still yet to build a case… if you’re not mechanically inclined then buy a case… if you’re mechanically inclined like me, buy a case anyways because it’s nice actually having all the components sit inside a case, rather than on your desk).
The article also recommends using the eco-western digital harddrive, which consumes a few less watts during idle and operation. I like Seagate hard drives and I’ve always had good luck with them, and a lot of friends who also run their own servers (which have much more traffic than mine) have had great success with Seagate hard drives as well. So… Seagate it was. But if you want an all out minimal-power-consuming server, look into Western Digital.
RAM is well… RAM, I don’t think there’s low power versions since they all pretty much run with the minimum amount of power to function. On top of that, RAM really doesn’t take up much power.

I think that’s all the bases covered right? I happened to have an extra DVD drive laying around, and a friend of mine gave me his copy of Windows Server 2003. Normally I would run a linux distribution (I currently do with my old server), but I felt like trying something new, and I wanted to run some windows-only server applications. This later proved to be challenging as there were a lot of hiccups in the configuration process of my server. The article I mentioned above uses Windows Home Server which has a USB install option which will save you money if you have to buy an additional CD/DVD drive. Various Linux-distros can be installed via USB as well… I won’t be covering any OS specifics so I’ll let you fend for yourselves on that one.

Here’s the parts list, as of April 2009. If you’re reading this and it’s not within 3 months of April 2009, prices have probably changed and parts may have been discontinued, although in your favor stuff probably became better/faster/cheaper.

  • Intel BOXD945GCLF2 Atom 330 Intel 945GC Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo – Retail – $81.99 ($79.99 when I bought it, but I mean it’s just $2, you probably can find enough change under your couch or car’s ash tray to make up the difference) – As mentioned before, I wanted an Intel Atom processor, but unfortunately they don’t sell the processor alone, yet. The processor is rated at 1.6ghz, has hyperthreading, and has dual cores. At the time of purchase, the difference between the Atom 330 and the Atom 230 was a bit of speed, dual cores, and a few dollars. A few dollars wasn’t hard to dig up, so I went and bought the faster 330. You may feel that in this modern day of dual and quad core 2-3+GHz processors, that a 1.6GHz processor may not be enough… trust me, this isn’t a gaming computer, most applications you’ll be running on this server won’t take up that much processing power. if it does then you’re not much of a entry-level server operator/hobbyist and this article probably doesn’t serve much purpose to you. This motherboard also has integrated graphics (pretty weak but again, not a gaming comp) which saves a few dollars and a lot of space.
  • Kingston 2GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 667 (PC2 5300) Desktop Memory – Retail – $19.99 – The motherboard only has one slot for RAM and if there’s one thing servers can do (if you don’t restart them often) is consume quite a bit of RAM. Between memory leaks from various programs and the applications I run, 2GB seems to be plenty. 2GB happened to be the max size for the RAM used by this motherboard so that was an easy answer. It’s not crucial what brand you get, or speed for that matter (as long as the RAM rated clock speed is the same or faster than the motherboard, it will work. This may be useful if the “slower” RAM you’re looking for is more expensive than the more common, “faster” RAM). As always it’s important that you at least match the RAM type (SD, DDR, DDR2, RDRAM – though if you’re planning to run this, don’t… it’s absurdly expensive and I don’t even think it’s being produced anymore). I’m not sure if ECC (error correcting code) RAM is common anymore, but I feel it won’t be necessary either. In general servers run ECC RAM because although ECC ram may be slower, the error correcting bit really helps.
  • SeaSonic ECO 300 300W SFX12V (v.3.1) 80 PLUS Certified Active PFC Power Supply – Retail – $46.99 – There are cheaper power supplies out there. I looked for one with S-ATX form factor (small but still within cost-reason) with the lowest amount of power. Also looked for the 80-PLUS certification which means that the PSU operates at least at 80% efficiency (which translates to less power wasted in the form of heat). Honestly it doesn’t matter much but, I felt like buying it at the time. If you bought a 200W PSU that wasn’t 80-PLUS certified it would work the same and you’d probably save a bit of money.
  • http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16822148395 – $64.99 ($59.99 when I bought it on sale) – As mentioned above, I picked Seagate. I choose 500GB because I didn’t want to spend the extra money for more space, and 500GB will be plenty enough for what I want. Western Digital sells 1TB hard drives for under $100, so if you want space, that’s a possibility. You theoretically could save some power consumption buy getting a lower speed harddrive, but I didn’t care much. Going from two processors that had a TDP of 65W each to a processor that has a TDP of 8W was enough of a power savings for me.

Right, the total cost was:
Subtotal – $206.96
Tax – $15.00 (I live in California, so tax applies to me, if you’re not in CA then that’s even more money saved)
UPS Ground – $11.88
Order Total – $233.84

A home server for about $240? Not too bad. Well it doesn’t include the cost of the case but that isn’t much more expensive. My friend keeps telling me to zip tie all the components to a milk crate. I’m not sure where you can purchase those, or legally obtain one for free, but if you happen to have something like it laying around your house, that’s a free computer case. Alternatively you could just re-purpose the cardboard box the motherboard came in. I’ll leave that one for you to decide. In the end it should be under $300 which is right around the cost of the netbook my friend purchased. Goes to show how much companies can get a discount from OEM manufacturers by buying in massive bulk.

Some pictures and more details to come in part 2, when I write it… eventually.

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5 Responses to DIY: Low power, low cost, mini-home-server – Part 1

  1. Ray says:

    I have had an Atom 230 based home-made media server (not a media client) running for almost 1 year. It replaced an overheating old AMD Athlon1800+ in a DVD player style PC case. The Atom has been a stunning sucess, serving music (to squeeze boxes) and videos (all formats and remote mounting of DVD image files). To make it 24×7 low power I have it normally in standby (7 watts) with WakeOnLan from my media clients (then uses about 45 watts). I would suggest that you use an 80watt brick type power supply, as I understand normal PSUs are not efficient at 25% or less of quoted power levels. I have one hard drive in the case, but the others are in external USB2 enclosures that are normally powered off. I use a commercial relay card to control power to the enclosures and a trivial Windows script to share the drive after power-on (e.g. “net share movies1=h:\movies1”). I made my own black case for the relay board to match the PC and enclosure cases (see my “how to” at http://kalikosystems.co.uk). If I was to start again I would use the Atom 330, as it has gigabit Ethernet. The Atom’s poor graphics chip does not matter for a server. As the server is hidden away, I always access it via remote login (VNC) and also remotely turn on the hard drive(s) I want.

  2. Ray says:

    Apologies, the end round bracket stops the site link in my previous post working. Try http://kalikosystems.co.uk instead.

  3. Wonderful information:) i will come back.

  4. bandsxbands says:

    Electronic memory,to me, is something that I seemingly will never have enough of. It feels like megabytes and gigabytes have become a permanent part of my every day existence. Ever since I bought a Micro SD Card for my NDS flash card, I’ve been on permanent watch for high memory at cheap prices. It’s driving me absolutely nuts.(Submitted by NetBrowze for R4i Nintendo DS.)

  5. Simon says:

    Actually, you can buy milk crates at Walmart or Office Depot. See http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080114181950AA7g52v

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