The Hardware

page under editing, sorry for the mess

ServerWe are here talking about server, for many of you, it sounds like those rows of machines you saw in one documentary and those are big and cost thousands of dollars (no matter US, AU, CA, NZ or others, it is still thousands of them), but do not worry, you won’t need to shell out that much to get something for your humble abode, except if you really want to go high grade, but frankly speaking, for 99.99% of us, that would be overkill, not to say wasting money.

So, what to use?

Different routes are opened (As usual, hehe).

The simple route : pre-built NAS

Some brands of the like of Qnap and Synology (to cite only the biggest 2) offer small boxes that are pretty much plug and play. They offer a great entry point but they will have limited functionalities, you might hit a wall or two later on. That is a bit like buying a game console Vs a gaming PC, it’s simpler but if not already limited, it will become. Another drawback I found is that they are rather pricey as comparison with building yourself something of equivalent spec.

It is not all bad though, they are usually well made, robust and really tiny, you will get hard time to find smaller device building it yourself. Their administration interface, although not allowing to plug in a screen, mouse and keyboard is a web-based (accessed from another PC) that is user friendly and quite clearly made.

The not-more-difficult route : pre-built PC / Server

This is basically buying something that you could build by yourself. Advantages are that it requires less time, has most likely a stronger warranty, is for sure working when you power-it on. Disadvantages are clearly that you have less freedom for the configuration. The brands to cite here would be Dell and HP of course, but many system integrator or even the shop around the corner would be able to provide that too.

You can as well recycle an old PC for that, the only drawbacks being that you might have lower performance (yes, if that PC was on the To-be-recycled shelf, there is a reason) and the lifespan of your server might be lower since it is already used quite a bit.

What you would be looking for is basically the same as what you would be looking if building it yourself, so I let you read the next alternative.

The recommended route : Build it yourself

So, best solution (in my opinion) would be to build it yourself, buy the necessary components from one or different shops and then put it together.

I will try to provide regularly in the blog section a build recommendation so head over there hunting for that, below, I’ll stay generic.

So, what is a server, well, it is a PC!! And what a PC is made of?

  • A PC Case or some sort of enclosure
  • A Power Supply
  • A CPU (or more than one in higher-end option)
  • A Motherboard
  • Some RAM
  • A disk for the system
  • Some Storage Disks
  • A proper Cooling solution

You’ll see that I left 2 parts out : The extensions cards and the graphics card. Well, the first one is application specific, you might want an improved NIC, a RAID controller or other specific card, those are specific needs and therefore, I won’t deal with it in here. As for the Graphics card, you most likely will not need it as your server will run headless and you will not hook it up to a display. I therefore will do a build without Graphics card.

So, now, let’s hit each part one by one.

PC Case

The PC case here is just the support in which you will store all the components. It has only few requirements.

First will be that it can of course house all the thing you want to put inside. If you want a full ATX motherboard, do not select that small cute PC case of 20x20x20cm. Same goes with all other components.

Next will be that you have a proper cooling in the case. I managed to cram my server in a very small enclosure but that also meant I had to add quite few fans. the server is running 24/7, you want it to last long, and for that, you need to keep it running cool. So, your case should allow that.

There are as well some nice to have features. You might want one with hot-swap bays so you can easily replace a failing harddrive when it happens, you might as well want a case that looks great because it will be in a place where guest can see it, … you name it.

The recommendation I would have here is : see for the future (PC case should not drastically change in the coming years, they did not for the past 20 years,…), anticipate that you might want more disks, additional features,… and do not cheap out on this, a good case will maybe last you many years while in the same time you might upgrade the internals few times.

Power Supply

Here again, do not cheap out. a good power supply will outlast your build, a bad one might fry it. Do not save few bucks on the PSU, you might end up regretting it. Well, that said, no need to buy the latest 80Plus Platinum 1200W PSU if your build requires 300W. In that case, buy a good 300W, maybe 400W or 500W to allow for future expansion and that’s it. Just take a good reputable brand.

Oh yes, and look for an efficient one. An 80Plus Gold PSU is most likely well built and reliable enough for your usage but additionally, if it is efficient, it will save you some money by not burning electricity for nothing. Lastly, if it does not burns electricity for nothing, it does not create unnecessary heat and will ultimately last longer.

CPU

The CPU is the brain, what will process the data on your server, but be careful, depending on what you do with your server, you might be easily satisfied with a simple Intel i3 or Celeron, maybe even an Atom, those are less powerful than their fellow desktop models i5 or i7, can not handle as much load as their server counterparts Xeon E3 and E5, but for many of you, that will not be the bottleneck. In my case, I run an Intel i3-2120T (not young anymore) and even transcoding two HD videos concurrently while copying files on it is perfectly flawless.

With 3D videos or 4K videos, that might be another story though.

You’ll see as well that I chose a CPU with the T suffix, those are lower spec and lower TDP (Power Consumption). Well, it was a valid choice before but nowadays, Intel CPU have very intelligent idle mode and they simply switch of the unused cores so a low power CPU or a higher power CPU would be about similar power consumption when idling (which will be most of the time for many home servers).

So for the CPU, I would recommend not to go overboard, get yourself some headroom though. No need to see future, but believe me, as soon as your server is up and running, you will want new services, the headroom will make your build live at least few months.

Motherboard

For the motherboard, one thing you have to know is that for the same chipset, all motherboard are (pretty much) equal. It will be more a question of connectivity: How many Ethernet? How many SATA connection? Is there mSATA or M.2 for the SSD? is there enough PCI/PCIe extension slots? …

So, let’s see, for the Ethernet, most of home users will be perfectly fine with one Gigabit port, some of us might like a second one. Very few of us would like to get more (we would most likely be limited by our network).

Now, for the disks connections: verify that you have enough SATA connection to get all your disks connected, for your SSD, you might choose mSATA or M.2 standard, depends of what is available.

For the extension slots, that is all up to you, I do not really know what you will do with your server. In my case, I have only one PCIe x16 and it is not even used.

Last thing you might consider is the combo motherboard+CPU, you have now some pretty decent Intel Celeron or Intel Avoton config. Those are also usually quite good on the power consumption side.

RAM

The RAM is where I will change a bit the way I recommend. First of all, the different speed of RAM, most likely, you are not going to have the need for the top-shelf one (if you need, you actually might teach me something rather than read my tutorial because you are a power user). Concerning the size, the more the merrier. Though let’s be realistic, most of the home user will be satisfied with 8GB to 16GB. Actually, for many, 4GB might even be enough. As nowadays, RAM is a cheap commodity, I would recommend to start with one stick of 8GB, add a second one later if you feel your machine needs more.

If you already know that you have application that will need more, be my guest, load with more.

A note here though, if you plan to use FreeNAS (which will not be covered here), you need 1GB per TB of storage, so might need more than 16GB.

System disk

I like to get one SSD for my system and database so it boots quick (not that big advantage with an always-on server though) and the database application are responsive, also, it is less heat producing but has still a lifespan that is not infinite. For the setup I will explain here, a 32GB would be enough, but I would recommend a 64GB as prices melted quite a bit already and then we have a bit of headroom. Get one that has good writing and reading speed, with the interface you chose with the Motherboard (SATA, mSATA or M.2).

That being said, you can as well choose a HDD or even a partition on the storage disks (I would not recommend that one for ease of maintenance reason).

Storage disk(s)

Now come the disks that will actually store the data. Evaluate your needs, double that to be ready for later and you will be about right. Define which type of RAID you will use and go to select the drives. There are nowadays different lines of drives, for instance WD got a NAS optimized line (the red one), a desktop optimized (Green, Blue and Black) and a surveillance one (Purple). To be frank, except marginal variation in the benchmarks, I did not see a real advantage of one over the others, maybe the Black and Blue will be disqualified due to higher power consumption, but for the rest… I personally just swapped out my 3TB Green for 4TB Purple, and am really happy with them. Again, we are here talking about a standard home server, not a Fortune 500 file server with 2000 concurrent accesses.

Cooling solution

Last but not least, I would heavily recommend that you spend a bit of time on the cooling solution. The stock cooler coming in with the CPU and the couple of fans bundled with the PC case might be more than enough, but they are most likely not. I would invite you to visit cooling manufacturers website such as Arctic to see what is on offer and beef up your cooling. You can also do that in a second step after you see your build running, that will help you to see the real need. It will though mean that you need to take your server offline and take back the screwdriver for some tweaking.

Well, choice is done, you can now put it together.

Another possibility : the rented server

Last solution is to rent a server. There are several companies doing it, I’ll mention here 2 of them that I have been using : 1and1 and Hetzner. 1and1 is European based with specific website for France, UK and Germany and offers quite competitive offers with some domains included so you can get your server accessible from http://mydomain.com. Hetzner offers some higher end servers, I have been using one of their SSD based offers and I have to say that it is very swift and stable. As for the cost of those, it is not nothing though if you compare with buying a hardware and the electricity costs, you are not that far away. A big drawback of rented server is that you rely heavily on your internet connection and storage does not come in cheap. If you plan your server to host your HD movies library, you might prefer the home based solution. On the other hand, your server will be equally available from virtually anywhere in the world. I just finish with a last warning for the rented server solution : your server is off site, you have no physical access to the server, this means that you can not mess up the connection and you’ll need to go most likely in command-line, also, you’ll have a lot more work for the security protection (you need to have doors open so you can use it though you can not let them as wide-open as you would do on your home network protected by your modem + router).

And now???

You can now start to install the OS.

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