Last month, the RAID card in my file server died. I tried to replace the card with a newer model, but found that not all PCI Express cards match well with all motherboards. The motherboard was old enough that the new card simply wouldn’t work with it. Being that the server components (other than the drives) were almost 10 years old, I decided it was time to rebuild the internal components.
I already had a solid base from the old file server. The case is a Norco RPC-4020. It’s a 4U enclosure with 20 drive bays. The most I’ve ever used was 12 bays, but with the increasing size of modern drives, I am whittling it down to 8. The drives I have are pretty modern, so this build doesn’t factor in any additional drive cost. Other than the drives though, the rest of the server’s guts needed a good refresh. Here’s what I put in there:
Motherboard: Asus Z87-Pro
I went with this Asus because it had a good balance of performance and economy (and Asus’ reliability). The board has 8 SATA ports, which is great for a file server when you are trying to stuff a bunch of disks in there. I also liked how the board used heatsinks instead of fans for cooling. Less moving parts to wear out. Finally, this board has plenty of PCIe slots in case I want to add RAID/HBA cards for more drives, or a 10GBASE-T Ethernet card down the line.
CPU: Intel Core i5-4570S
This is one of the low power models in the Haswell (4th generation) line. TDP is a moderate 65 watts. I was debating between this chip and the 35 watt Core i3-4330T. If this server just served files, then I would have bought the Core i3, but I also use the box to host a moderately-sized database and do some server-side development. The Core i5 chip is a quad core instead of a dual core, and I decided it would be worth it to step up. You’ll notice that a GPU isn’t included in the list here, and that’s because I’m just using the embedded GPU. One less component to worry about.
Memory: 2x4GB Crucial Ballistix Sport DDR3-1600
I’ve never been into over-clocking, so I just went with whatever memory ran at the CPU’s native 1600Mhz. Crucial is always a safe bet when it comes to memory. This particular memory has a relatively low CL9 latency.
Power Supply: Antec EA-550 Platinum 550 watt
The power supply is a make-or-break part of a server, especially when you have a lot of disks. I wanted something that was very efficient, while also supplying plenty of power. This power supply is 93% efficient, meaning a lot more energy is making it to the computer components themselves instead of being wasted in the form of heat. The one drawback of this power supply is that it’s a 4 rail unit and all the Molex/SATA power connectors are on a single rail. So it’s not quite ideal for servers with a lot of disks (you need enough to cover the power spike as the disks spin up), but it handles 8 drives just fine with some room to grow.
Boot Drive: USB 3 internal motherboard header and flash drive
I really wanted the OS to stay off the data drives this time around. The best way I found to do that is to use the USB 3 header built in to most modern motherboards. Typically this header is for cases that have USB 3 ports on the front, but my case only has a single USB 2 port on the front so this header was going unused. I found a small Lian Li adapter to convert the 20 pin port on the motherboard to 2 internal USB 3 ports. Then I picked up a 128GB PNY Turbo USB 3 flash drive on sale. The motherboard has no problem booting off the USB drive, and while latency is higher, raw throughput of this particular flash drive is pretty good.
The Lian Li adapter is great because I don’t have to worry about the flash drive coming unplugged from the back of the case. It’s inside the server, where it won’t be messed with.
Once I had all the components installed, I had to cable everything up. You use about a million tie-wraps when cleaning up the cabling, but it looks nice in the end. The cables are nowhere near as elegant as the cabling inside a Mac, but for a PC I think it turned out pretty good. Here’s a shot of the inside of the server:
The power savings over the old server components were pretty dramatic. The old system had a standard 550 watt power supply and was using an Athlon X2 CPU. Typically, the load would hover between 180-240 watts. This new server idles at 80 watts and will occasionally break 100 watts when it’s being stressed a little bit. It’s great to get all this extra performance while using less than half the power.
Overall, it turned out being a great build. Component cost was less than $600 (not including the case or drives), while still using quality parts. Looking forward to this one lasting another 10 years.