Many of you wrote in (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions about the home server hardware I chose after my last Windows Home Server post. Terry Walsh also discussed moving his home server around and the Windows Home Server Blog recently talked about the new OEMs working on WHS solutions so I figured I might as well share what went into mine. Now keep in mind that this is what I went with, the options are there for your consideration and guidance but your choice should ultimately fit your lifestyle and your desired use of this server.
First of all, let me say that you buy computer hardware when its a good deal, not when you need it. Mega warehouses like NewEgg, Tiger Direct and others have blockbuster deals when they are expiring models or just have a few items in stock and you can get gear ridiculously cheap. But that doesn’t help you much, what if you wanted Windows Home Server under the Christmas tree and wanted something affordable and scalable? Get ready to bleed, tight cases ahead:
Don’t be fooled, Windows Home Server is all about the case. Moreso, it is about the right case for you! Is this server going to sit in your living room? In your home office? Above the washer & dryer? Garage? This is a lifestyle choice, one that can go horribly wrong if you choose to get a PowerEdge 2950 rackmount server cooled by an airplane jet engine and stick it under your TV. Likewise, there will be a temptation to get an HTPC case, so it can blend in with your entertainment gear, good choice until you realize most those cases come with two hard drive slots at best and will make a complete eyesore of your living room once you start daisy chaining external storage devices.
My Windows Home Server will be living under my TV next to my Xbox. So for my intents and purposes I chose a small form factor mini-tower barebones from ASUS. There are several really important reasons for this:
BIOS Fan Control – ASUS BIOS comes with intelligent and configurable fan control, meaning I can set the server to run as quietly as humanly possible to fit into my living room. Likewise, if I were ever to do any maintenance I could speed the fan up and work at 100% without fear that my system would melt.
Front expansion slots – This server has enough room to hold two 3.5″ hard drives and two 5.25 slots. So if you need four drives in your system you can get 3.5″ mounting brackets for $2.
PCI expansion slots – Most small format cases are very deceptive about the expansion slots that are built in. For example, some will mention multiple slots like 2x PCI and 1x PCI-e but what they don’t mention is that they tend to overlap. I needed at least two slots, one for the wireless network controller and one for the storage controller.
My choice: ASUS V3-P5V900 Intel Socket T(LGA775) Intel Core 2 Duo / Pentium D / Pentium 4 VIA P4M900 2 x 240Pin VIA Chrome9 Barebone currently retailing for $124. This system includes the case and the motherboard with integrated video, audio, gigabit ethernet and a somewhat lousy storage controller. Whenever possible you should avoid built in / integrated SATA controllers, especially when they are SATA-1 (150). Basically, for $124 you’re just left looking for processor, ram and hard drive, all of which are very subjective. This case is just over 14 inches high 7 inches wide so make sure you measure your entertainment center if thats where it is going. I chose a mini-tower / small form factor PC because I figured the storage demands would grow and the easiest way to expand the storage capacity is to attach those external RAID enclosures with their own power supply. They are roughly the same size as this case. Also, the CPU fan exhaust is on the left so make sure there is ample room there for hot air to be blown out. (feng shui tip: if you nail this against wall/wood/metal/glass on the left it will pack the heat back over the CPU and subject your system to overheating and fire, or in feng shui: super very extra bad!) Cost: $124.
The Processor, The Memory, The Hard Drive
You can be as cheap or as fancy as you want here. This system comes with two DDR2 slots and socket 755 which can hold anything from a low end Celeron that can be obtained for less than $50 in a retail package with fan & heatsink all the way up to multicore Core 2 Duo processors. Memory runs at 667 MHz and can hold two slots for total of 4GB.
I went with a rather conservative setup. For the processor I picked Intel Pentium E2160 Allendale 1.8GHz 1MB L2 Cache LGA 775 65W Dual-Core Processor because it was the cheapest dual core processor. Cost: $82. For the memory I went with just 1GB DDR2 module WINTEC AMPO 1GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 667 (PC2 5300) Desktop Memory Model 3AMD2667-1G2-R, again cheapest possible match on the clock and comes with the heat spreader. Cost: $19. Finally, the hard drive: Western Digital Caviar SE WD5000AAJS 500GB 7200 RPM 8MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive. Cost: $99.
The storage issue is the biggest swinging point. Do you go with 1 TB or two 500GB? Do you assume this will be the sole storage point of all your precious digital media (in which case you’re buying double for redundancy) or is this simply a backup point (in which case the bigger the better)? How many people and at what frequency will the data be accessed (buffer size, storage architecture, etc). The choice is yours.
The Storage Controller
This is probably more important than all of the above: storage controller. This is the piece that assures your data integrity, storage scalability and the storage selection to begin with. The case I chose came with 1 IDE and 2x SATA1 (150) ports. Aside from CD/DVD drive, I would not rely on those ports for storage. Onboard controllers have a staggeringly high failure rate and once that fails you may as well throw the entire system away.
I chose the SYBA SD-SATA2-2E2I PCI-X SATA II Controller Card controller for a few reasons: price, convenience, expansion. For under $40, this is hardly a gamble when it comes to storage. Second, it comes with two SATA-2 (3 GB/Sec) ports so my data will fly. Second, and most important, this gives you two eSATA ports. I can use this in the future if I need to provide additional storage or if I want more highly redundant storage – RAID 10 anyone? I am not a fan of USB hard drives, so for me this was a must. Cost: $40.
Accessories & Extras
I would not consider these to be essential but I wanted to give you an idea of what else went into it. I was not sure if this server would live in the living room, home office, or somewhere without Ethernet connectivity. So I got a wireless controller GIGABYTE GN-WP01GS IEEE 802.11b/g PCI Wireless. Cost: $16. Even though my retail processor came in with thermal compound of its own, I always replace it with something more appropriate for Florida weather: Arctic Silver. Cost $6. Finally, a copy of Windows Home Server software.
For a little less than the HP MediaSmart server (on sale for $599) I got a heck of a lot more for the grand total of $559, with more RAM, faster processor, expandable storage and components that I can swap as I please. Extra storage of 500GB would have cost $99, 1TB for $270. Extra memory would be $19 for 1GB, $36 for 2GB extra sticks. Total cost: $559. Not bad!