I’ve never built my own machine, perhaps more because of a lack of funds than a lack of interest. Not to mention the convenience and reliability of pre-existing builds by our friends, the computer manufacturers. However, having the task before me, I’m surprised I don’t know where I want to start. I’m familiar with the inner workings to some degree. I was once asked to transfer memory from about two dozen obsolete machines to the empty slots in new machines and I’ve replaced drives in even more, but my familiarity with the internal workings really stops there. Let’s see if that’s enough to get me started.
My first decision is what kind of computer I’ll be building. I don’t have need for a desktop, as the one I have works perfectly well, and I have a laptop that, while sometimes finiky, gets the job done. It might be nice to have a decent gaming rig, but frankly, I’d be wasting my time as I usually defer to consoles (though the momentum is slated to change back to PC gaming). What I am in need of is a webserver.
I’d like to start a website, and while there are dozens of great places to host from, a good starting experience would be to host myself. Currently, I don’t know what the website will look like, but I have an idea about the requirements for serving it up. I’m expecting low traffic as the intitial intent is to create a glorified resume, perhaps with blog features as an additional development experience. My priority is budget first. I’m shooting for components under $100 (more expensive parts may average out with cheaper ones), so perhaps a budget of $700-$850 to get the job done. If need be, I can cannabalize the less critcal pieces from my current stock. Let’s begin the search for parts.
What I know I need in a case is that it can eventually be rack mounted. I don’t know what the future of this project could become, but I might want additional servers in the future. Just the same, I can’t imagine a personal project like this would ever require more than 3 or 4, no matter the course of development. So I decided to go with a mountable 4U case.
From the reviews of this case, it works well in and out of a racking unit, having rubber feet for when sitting on a table somewhere. It also has a locking front, which, while not entirely necessary for my purposes, is certainly a comfort. Likewise, it’s good to know that the drive mounts are there if I need them, though I’ll likely never need more than maybe two. Being 4U I’m less restricted in my choice of components, and know I can fit an ATX motherboard in. Most importantly, it’s cost effective. This one is currently on sale at newegg, only $69.99.
My major requirement for the Motherboard was that it would support an AMD processor. I’ve had an Intel processor before, which was nice; however, I’m familiar with AMD and brand loyality being what it is, I’m going that route. I also wanted to make sure that the onboard video was reliable.
SUPERMICRO MBD-H8SCM Micro ATX Server Motherboard
This meets my major requirement of fitting with an AMD processor. It does have decent onboard video (the complaint about the video I attribute to bad luck, as that individual seemed to be having problems with everything). It supports up to 64GB of memory, but it was pointed out by someone that it was only recognizing memory in two of the slots. Not a huge problem as I’m not expecting the server to be taxed for memory. I didn’t think I’d be getting this one under $100, but $229.99 is comparatively a decent price. The higher end ones supported multiple processors, but really, that’s reaching too far.
Like I said, AMD is just a brand loyalty thing. Through almost half a dozen machines they’ve served me well, so I’m not complaining and not diverting either. I’m not looking for it to do amazing things either, so I set the bar kind of low. More than anything I needed one to fit a C32 socket.
AMD Opteron 4130 Lisbon 2.6GHz
This came in a 2.2GHz and a 2.6GHz version. Since there was no price diffence, I went ahead on selected the 2.6GHz version. More than anything, it was reasonably priced. I could just as easily use a second hand one and get it cheaper, but $109.99 was again very competitive with the higher end options and I would be more comfortable with something right out of the box. Without a heatsink of its own, I did have to look for one that would fit it, which is why I was excited to discover…
Above all else, I want to know the CPU won’t turn into a puddle of goo. I’m sure most people would prefer this didn’t happen to their machine. Because of my choice processor, there were few options. Two on newegg.com to be precise.
Noctua NH-U9DO A3
Of those that fit a C32 socket were a “Workstation and Server” specific Noctua and this one which is oddly smaller and quieter (according to the spec sheets). This one was also about $10 cheaper. The major concerns about the unit seem to be the difficult installation and over all size interfering with memory placement. Given I don’t have too many options in the first place, I’ll just stick with this for a ‘cool’ (wink) $76.99.
The Power Supply:
This was a bit tricky. I didn’t know what I needed in a Power Supply. The best I could figure, I would want one that had a fan pointed out the back. The main connector needed to be 24 pin to match my motherboard. What I discovered was that most server specific Power Supplies were designed to fit 1U and 2U cases. I figured 400 to 500w would be sufficient because I don’t expect to need more than two or three drives at any given time, so I narrowed the list down to those. Again, my options were kind of limited.
Of the ones within my Wattage range that are designed for the 4U form factor, only one had a fan out the back. Though there was plenty to recommend it, after a little research, I discovered it had no SATA power cables. Looking over the case again, I saw it had a vent where the fans on the other options would be, so I decided on a 500w version from the same company that makes the Motherboard I’ll be using. I perused the plugs and saw that it would have everything I needed. It’s potentially louder, but it’s just as well because it’s $10 cheaper than the other option, coming in at $79.99.
Having heard that the selected motherboard had some trouble with certain memory, particularly when handling three or more units and given the heatsink might breach the space over the memory slots, I decided to get two relatively large units instead of four of the smaller units. I don’t need much memory as the server won’t be asked to do too much at one time, and this will give me some flexibility. I’ve used Kingston memory with great satisfaction in the past, so all I had to do was find it in DDR3.
Kingston 8GB (2 x 4GB)
This two pack would do the job nicely. It also has ECC, which will be handy since the machine will be constantly running. I suppose that’s why this is the “Server Edition” which is about twice the cost of the “Desktop Edition,” running $79.99 for the pair. 8 GB should be plenty.
The Hard Drive:
The advantage of the server is supposed to be that it can hold a lot of stuff and make it easy to distribute, part of the reason it has so many slots for drives. I might do some file serving, but the primary concern is the website I’ll be hosting. Anything over 500GB is overkill to me, and going small will keep it within budget.
Western Digital AV-GP WD3200AVVS 320GB
320GB seemed appropriate. Enough space for an OS, half a dozen pieces of server software, and room for all the web and personal content I expect to actually use. Among the many choices, I narrowed it down to this one based on brand and the reviews confirming it’s near silence. $54.99 is a fair price for quality. Thanks Western Digital!
The Optical Drive:
In an effort to be as economical as possible, and given I will probably only use it to install software, I chose to look only for a DVD/CD Reader. Won’t be doing any writing, and I don’t think I’ll be buying software on BluRay any time soon, so why not get the cheapest thing I can find. Heck, I could pull one out of my spare parts, but let’s keep it clean.
LITE-ON DVD-ROM Drive Model iHDP118-08
Absolutely nothing special about this piece. Reviews were sound, but it does use an IDE connection and a classic four pin power plug. Fortunately, the motherboard and power supply will support it. Given any hard drive I put in will be SATA, I don’t even have to daisy chain the IDE. Most importantly, it’s stupid cheap. $18.99, and I don’t even have to spend that if I don’t want to. As of writing, it’s currently out of stock anyway.
Putting It All Together:
Even with the Optical Drive, the total is a mere $720.92 (isn’t free shipping great). Construction might be difficult, but I’ve checked over the list of parts and know that the pieces are compatible. The case has a crossbar, so I would remove that and the drive bays while I put the motherboard in. I could attach the CPU to its socket right away, but I would save the heatsink for later. After attaching the Power Supply to the case, I’d tie up the cables I won’t be using.
Putting the drives in is pretty simple. I’d go ahead and knock out a spot for the optical drive and put the hard drive in one of the numerous 3.5″ slots in the drive bay before loading that back into the case. At this point I could put the memory in. Because I don’t know if there is a preferred order to the slots used (I would have to get the documentation to be sure), I don’t know if it would be possible to seat the memory in the two slots farthest away from the CPU. I’m not incredibly dexterous so I don’t want to run into the same trouble with the cooling unit that other people seemed to be having.
Some assembly required for the heatsink. It has brackets for different socket sizes (nice feature overall). It also comes with it’s own thermal compound. Needless to say, I’ll have to do some pretty intense documentation digging on this one. It’s the one product whose operation I know the least about. Depending on what it’s covering, I might take advantage of the fact that I can turn it 90 degrees.
The last bit will involve the cabling. Of course the 24 pin power for the motherboard and the 8 pin plug for the CPU power. The optical drive will get its classic four pin plug, and the hard drive will get a SATA power connector. Then I’ll connect the optical drive’s IDE connector and the hard drive’s SATA connector to the motherboard.
Then put in the crossbar and close the lid. Now it’s time to play with the software!
What I learned:
Maybe most significant is that I learned about new standards and options available to those confident enough to build their own machine. Most of the equipment I’ve worked with is more antiquated than the parts I was looking at, but the principles are still the same.
AMD is a tougher sell though. Maybe C32 is just an unusual socket size, but I sure felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of love for the processor I selected. By that I mean the parts were limited compared to what I was seeing from Intel or even the G34 AMD socket size.
Alas, even at a mere $700 (or close to it), I can’t afford to go through with a project like this. The money involved in carrying a project like this through would extend beyond constructing the machine. I would need an uninterrupted power source and a dedicated IP, neither of which I’m going to get at home. So this is just a fun exercise to let me get to know what kind of device my files will actually be sitting in someday. At that point I don’t care how loud it is.
Whenever I get a new machine, I always try to give it the name of a fictional computer/AI/Robot. For networked computers there are surely more practical conventions, but I liked the idea that this was a cheaply put together machine that would end up being an antique among the new servers put in around it. I imagine that the end of its lifetime will be spent trudging along, complaining whenever it is asked to do something, not because it’s work, but because it’s being under utilized. I’d call this one Marvin, and it would end it’s days thinking, “We apologize for the inconvenience.” Thank you Douglas Adams.