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Home Server Hardware options

Choosing Hardware
Warning. You will find lots of '2 bay' NAS box's on sale for £100's (without drives). These are a total rip off = '2 bay' means 'RAID Mirror', and you can build a simple RAID Mirror using almost any old computer - no special Hardware is required !

Where to find suitable Hardware ?

Chances are, you already have it !

Any old desktop or tower PC can be used for a Server / NAS - a 'real' (commercial) 'Server Box' is NOT required.

If you don't have a old desktop** computer, there are plenty of 'previous model' Server type boxes on eBay at reasonable cost

** it's not really a 'good idea' to use (the guts of) an old Laptop

If an old laptop is all that is available, and you are a confident computer technician (and like a challenge), then 'maybe' it can be done

The integrated motherboard and low power consumption CPU makes it ideal as a simple Server / NAS, however it will have to be dismantled so that you can get at the disk drive interface(s) and mounted into a case. You should also note that many laptops will refuse to boot if you remove the display.

If you are lucky, it will support a SATA C: drive and an IDE CD/DVD drive. Since a single IDE connector always supports 2 drives (master + slave), IF you can find a cable, you can connect up a pair of high** capacity 3.5" IDE drives (and configure them as a RAID-Mirror for your data drives) whilst continuing to boot from C:

If you have only 2 SATA interfaces (i.e. SATA C: and SATA CD/DVD) then you can still connect to 2 data drives, but you will have to arrange it so that the Windows Operating System boots from a USB stick (or Linux NAS software boots from Floppy disk) - see below.

**note that laptop IDE drive interface and it's BIOS will be limited in the maximum drive capacity supported. If you are lucky, this will be 2Tb

The final thing to watch for is that laptop power 'blocks' do not contain fans and are not expected to be used 24x7 - so they will run hot (especially driving 2 x 3.5" drives instead of a single 2.5"). To avoid an early failure you may be tempted to remove the plastic case and position it near one of the case fans - however you then have to worry about exposed mains voltages !

I thus suggest the slightly less dangerous approach of drilling the power block case full of holes (to allow cooling) instead of complete removal

What are the basic Hardware requirements ?

See the list (Q1-Q8) below :-

What case ?

Surprisingly, a big case is one of the more important requirements. A decent sized case is a 'must'. The HOTTER modern electronics runs, the SHORTER it's working life (the other killer is heating/cooling cycles, i.e. turning it on and off at frequent intervals).

A big box allows more room for air circulation (and more room for fans). Further, larger cases have more spaces for hard drives - and that's going to be a limitation if you go beyond a simple RAID-1 MIRROR system.

What Motherboard ?

Generally, the more 'integrated' the better. Support for SATA hard drives is also a big advantage.

The Server is all about preserving your data. If your Server SATA motherboard fails, then the hard drives can be moved to a modern desktop PC and your data recovered.

If your old computer has an IDE motherboard and you can't afford a SATA motherboard, I recommend using a PCI SATA RAID card so you can use SATA drives.

If you do go ahead and use IDE drives for your data disks, and the Server IDE motherboard fails, not all is lost - you can purchase IDE to USB 'adapters' (on eBay) which will let you recover your data from an IDE drive via USB.

Is a motherboard with RAID support an advantage ?

Not really. Older motherboards with the Intel 865 or 875 chip-set included built-in Hardware support for RAID. However if this fails, it's doubtful if a modern replacement will support your RAID disks at all. So, on balance, using software RAID-1 MIRROR (or a PCI RAID-5 card) for the data drives is by far the better path to take.

If your Server fails, data disks set up for software RAID MIRROR may not be RAID or even individually BOOT capable in another system, however the files will always be readable (although you may have to perform a hex edit on the disk 'ID' code to convince Windows to 'mount' the disk and not keep insisting you have to format it)

How many memory slots are required ?

At least 2 = you will not be using Vista, so if you have at least 512Mb of RAM, that will be just fine :-)

Older versions of Windows require a lot less memory than 'modern' systems (for example, Windows 2000 Pro 'needs' only 64Mb and even Windows 2000 Server will run in 128Mb), so 512Mb is more than enough.

Windows 32bit can support a maximum of 4Gb RAM of which up to 2Gb can be used for applications (and 2Gb less BIOS mapping etc. by the Operating System). So even if you are using a fancy modern motherboard, don't waste money stuffing it with unusable memory.

Yes, Windows will use RAM to 'buffer' data to & from hard disk - but the last thing you want when the power trips is to loose gigabytes of data sitting in RAM waiting to be written to the hard disk

What should the Motherboard BIOS be set to ?

A1. Processor HT = OFF

HT (Hyper-Threading) does nothing to speed up data transfers and the Windows 'multi-CPU' Operating System kernel is slower than the 'single-CPU' kernel

A2. ACPI = On (APM = OFF !!)

If you see the APM option (only on older motherboards) you MUST set 'APM = Off' (otherwise chances are, when your Server 'goes to sleep', it will never, ever, wake up :-) )

A3. When power is restored = always on (reboot)

Obvious .. after a power-cut you want your Server to turn itself on again automatically (especially if it's kept locked away :-) )

What CPU ?

Any old Pentium 4 or better is just fine. The older MS operating systems work fine with MHz speed CPU's - for example, the Windows 2000 'recommended' CPU is "133 MHz or higher" !

That's right, Windows 2000 will run successfully on a processor that is 10 times slower than the 'minimum' required to run Vista (w2k also runs in 20 times less RAM) !

Your Server's CPU will be spending most of it's time waiting for data to be transferred to & from the hard disks. There is no point in equipping it with a 'top of the range' CPU that will still spend 99% of it's time doing nothing but converting expensive electricity into disk destroying waste heat

To keep the heat down, Intel's 'Mobile' CPU's are your best choice (if you can find one to fit your motherboard socket). They are low power to start with and they have built-in power saving capability (for example, the 'floating point' (maths) circuits on the CPU are likely to be 'off' all the time whist serving files)

The brave might dismantle an old laptop and use this as the basis of a Server. Problems you will need to overcome include fitting the laptop motherboard (and it's perhaps it's specialist power 'block') into your 'big case'. You may also find yourself limited to 2 IDE disk drives (and a single Ethernet interface).

About the only time when a high power CPU is needed is if your Server is going to act as a DLNA 'source' of movies for Home Media system and your movies are stored in a format that has to be 'trans-coded'. Plainly those wishing to play movies on their TV would be well advised to keep them in 'standard' DVD compatible .mpg format (or standard HD format), rather than something 'closed' (and DRM infected) from a proprietary vendor (such as .m4v).

What System (C:) hard drive ?

If your old computer has a working disk drive, use it for the Operating System. If it's IDE, fine - keep your money for your data drives = it's not worth spending on your system disk.

For sure there is no need for a high speed C: drive = it exists only so the System can be booted up. You don't need to 'Mirror' it because you are never going to change anything on C: = so after booting up, it can be allowed to power off. If you run your Server 24x7 and let it go into Stand-By (and never Hibernate), your C: drive may only have to power-up once a year or so ...

Do I actually need a C: hard drive ?

No - if you Motherboard supports it, you can boot from a small USB stick. If not, you can use a cheap DOM. If your Motherboard supports it, you can boot from CD - or if it's really ancient (and supports IDE Drives), you can fit a Compact flash <> IDE converter and run you System from that

Of course you need to ensure you have to disable Virtual Memory (which shouldn't ever be needed) or moved the 'swap file' onto the Data drives 'just in case' (see keeping your Server running) since otherwise Windows will run your USB Stick, DOM / Compact Flash Card** into it's write 'life-time limit' in a couple of days

**Some CF<>IDE adapters have 'Write Protect' links = if yours is one such, make sure to use it :-)

How can I boot from a CD/DVD, USB (or even a Floppy Disk) ?

A1. There are many ways of building a 'Live CD' containing Windows 2000 or XP that would allow you to dispense with the C: drive. The 'Live CD' can be burned to an actual CD or a USB Stick etc

To build a bootable CD / USB stick, see WinPE and 'reboot' (formally 'bootland').

A2. The Open Source FreeNAS or the commercial NASLite Linux based software boots from a specially formatted floppy disk (or Live CD / USB stick etc).

Is it possible to totally remove all boot devices ?

Yes, it is possible to boot your Server from your Network i.e. load the OS into a 'RAM disk' on the Server

This is not an easy task and to give you some idea of what is involved you might like to read about my 'SETI Wall Distributed Computing Farm'.

What about my data hard drives ?

For your data, you should buy brand new drives - and I suggest you purchase a pair of whatever is the current 'lowest cost per Mb' (as of Sept 2011 this is 2Tb).

Most Motherboards have only 4 on-board SATA connections. If one is used for the C: drive and one for a CD/DVD drive, this leaves 'only' 2 for your data disks. Further, whilst Microsoft's' RAID-1 Mirror (2 drive) software is quick, reliable and robust, software RAID-5 (3+ drives) is much less so (RAID protects against Hardware failure, not MS software screw-ups).

Only if you can already see the need more than 2Tb of data space is it worth investing in a RAID-5 PCI card. Most low cost PCI RAID cards are limited to 4 drives, however your desktop/tower case is likely to limit you to less.

Most cases will have room for only 4 drives (the motherboard limit), so if you want a 3 drive RAID-5 configuration, then, adding C: & the CD/DVD you need 5 drive mounting positions. So to install RAID-5 you may** have to 'loose' the C: and/or the CD/DVD drive*** position.

**Many cases have 2 'front facing' 5.25" drive positions and 2 internal 3.5". It is actually physically possible to fit 3 modern 3.5" drives in the 2 x 5.25" space (you should add a cooling fan specifically for the drives if you do this), or 2 x 3.5" drives plus a 'slim line' CD/DVD drive.

***You will need a CD drive so you can install (or re-install) the Operating System. Once your Server is 'up and running' the CD drive can be removed and it's 'slot' used for a data drive. If you still want a DVD+/-R for 'backing up', one connected by USB will be fine.

What about high capacity drives (drives of '2.5Tb'* & above) ?

Hard Drive capacities are quoted as if '1,000 bytes = 1kb' (1kb, in computer use, is actually 1024 bytes). A '2.5Tb' drive thus stores 2,500,000,000,000 bytes, i.e. 2.27 'TB' in 'normal computer usage' terms

Windows XP is incapable of directly formatting any drive that has more than 2^32 sectors @ 512bytes = 2.19Tb. Most '2.5Tb' = 2.27TiB drives can be operate in 2.19Tb mode (with the loss of 82Gb). 2.19TiB is also the maximum PARTITION size that Windows XP can cope with

Modern drives - SATA III and those with capacities above 2Tb - use 4kb sectors (that's 4096 i.e.. 4 x 1024, not 4,000). Most will operate in '512E' (512 byte emulation) mode, however to 'chop' them into partitions less than 2.19TiB each and format them for XP use you must use Vista / Windows 7 or the manufacturer's own software or Hardware - such as a RAID PCIe card - that supports VSS = Variable Sector Sizing (i.e. 512>>4k)

Note that only the most modern motherboards will support SATA III (600gbs). If you install 64bit Windows Vista or Windows 7, you will discover a "GUID Partition table (GPT)" Format option (as opposed to the 'MBR' mode) that will format 2.19TiB+ drives directly (see Micrsosft KB2510009). Drives formatted in GUID mode appear to be totally unusable to earlier versions of Windows = so, if you ever expect to see your data again, avoid GUID like the plague

To boot from a 2.2Tb+ drive, you either need a PCIe Interface card (that supports boot) or a motherboard with a "UEFI" compatible BIOS

Partitions should be aligned to a 4k boundary. To format & align a 2.19TiB+ drive for XP, your can use the Drive manufacturers 'alignment' utility - see Samsung's alignment tool and here for Seagate.

My 3Tb drive shows as 2Tb + 700Gb and I can't change it in Vista / Windows 7 ?

Seagate 3TB's come pre-formatted from the factory with a MBR partition table, which is fine for Windows XP users. However Vista / Windows 7 users may wish to use it as a single 3Tb GPT partition - needless to say, Microsoft's rather useless Disk Management will refuse to do so because it's "Not a 'raw' drive".

Various low-level drive 'wipe' tools exist, however the simplest approach is to use the "GPARTED" Live CD. Boot it, click on your disk, go to Tools-->Convert Partition Table... then hit "advanced" and select GPT and hit the OK button.

Then go back to Vista / Win 7 and in Disk Management Tool the drive should now be seen as a 3TB 'raw' disk. Select the drive, right click 'New Simple Volume', and OK. NOTE - unless your motherboard is UEFI compliant, you can still only use it as a storage disk, not a boot disk.

Are IDE data drives acceptable ?

No, not really. If you are using an older motherboard with IDE connectors, you should consider buying a SATA PCI(e) card - a basic 4 port SATA I (150mbs) can typically be had for £5 or so on eBay - a 2 port SATA III (6gbs) supporting RAID-1 (mirror) will cost about £35, the same as a basic SATA II 4 port RAID-5 card. SATA drives are much faster and somewhat cheaper than IDE, especially at higher capacities, so what it costs for the interface will be saved on the drives

A basic SATA PCI card is also likely to cost less than an IDE>USB converter (which you will need if you ever have to recover data from an IDE drive following a Server motherboard failure).

What about the Power Supply ?

Whatever comes with the case will be just fine, modern hard drives require a lot less power than older ones and since you won't be wasting any power on fancy graphics cards there will be lots of spare watts from even a basic 350w PSU.

Do I need a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) ?

Ideally, yes. If funds allow, the most important thing (after your hard drives) is a UPS. When you suffer a power 'blip' (momentary drop out or sudden surge) and your other computers are fried, the UPS will be all that stands between you and the total data loss of a fried Server.

To protect your server from household circuit 'trips', it's a very good idea to have it on a separate 'spur' off your mains distribution box. The aim is to try to avoid any situation when both your main PC and Server are power-cycled at the same time.

The UPS need only 'last' for half an hour or so - if the mains power is not restored in that time it's likely to be off for some hours - and few of us will be able to afford a UPS that lasts that long.

If you really want a UPS that 'lasts' for hours, get one that can be connected to an external battery. Modern car batteries are totally sealed and, as mass market items, are likely to cost considerably less than the 'specialist' UPS manufacturers offerings.

What about the Ethernet Interface ?

Whatever is built into the motherboard will do, especially if the motherboard supports 'wake up on LAN'.

If you have a mixed wired and WiFi system and are using a Switch for the wired computers, then a second Ethernet card (NIC) in the Server will help configuration (see below).

If your Switch supports Gigabit Ethernet and either you intend to use your Hone Server for streaming video or you have multiple other computers that will simultaneously use the server, it's worth looking for a Motherboard with a built in Gigabit Ethernet (eg Dell GX250 range).

Ethernet cable or WiFi wireless system ?

The most secure installation uses wires not WiFi. However the convenience of WiFi means you will almost certainly use this with your Laptop computers. Since it's important to back-up your Laptop's - Laptop hard drives are much more likely to crash than desktops - you really need to provide a route from your Laptops to the Server / NAS.

The 'ideal' approach is to provide an 'Ethernet cable to the Server' that any Laptop user can plug into to do backups. Unfortunately this is likely to reduce the frequency of backups (as well as preventing File Sync / 'live' backing up). Doing backups via WiFi will be slower but can be automated - but configuring your Laptops for this depends on your Router functionality (see later)

Ethernet Switch or Hub ?

Hubs are obsolete. Even on eBay the price difference is negligible, so stick with Switches, they will be much faster in a busy network (a Hub simply copies all traffic from one computer to all the others reducing Ethernet to 'one computer at a time' - a Switch will 'connect' 2 computers together leaving the others 'free')

In a fully cabled Ethernet system, to isolate Server file traffic from Web browsing traffic, you must use a Switch rather than a Hub.

What Ethernet speed ?

If you get the chance of Gigabit Switch at the same price as a 10/100 Switch, you might as well go for it.

Even if all your other computers are limited to 100mbs, a Server / NAS with a Gigabit Ethernet interface connected to a Gigabit Switch will reduce 'latency' and improve throughput as the Switch can simultaneously connect ('multiplex') 'up to 10' 100mbs computers onto the single 1,000 mbs Server interface

What Ethernet cable length / rating ?

A1. Gigabit speed cable runs should be less than 15m, but avoid cables under 3m for Gigabit (signal reflections will cause errors that may actually degrade the effective throughput below 100mbs !)

A2. You should stick with Cat5e rated cable. Cat6 is a pain (it uses shielded connectors and thus a special crimping tool)

Gigabit Ethernet will run quite happily on Cat5e, so long as you limit the maximum cable length to about 10-15m (30-50 feet).

What if I'm using WiFi ?

The ideal configuration is one that isolates the WiFi and Ethernet traffic. Since your WiFi Router is likely limited to 100mbs Ethernet, you should fit your Server / NAS with 2 Network Interface Cards (NIC's). One is then configured to 'talk' to the WiFi PC's via the Router (at 100mbs) and the other to 'talk' to the wired PC's via the (Gigabit) Switch.

This allows you to configure your WiFi and wired computers on separate Subnets, as recommended in 'How to secure your Server'.

If you are unable to fit 2 cards, if you have a Switch, both the Server and the Router should be wired separately to the Switch

You should only wire the Server direct to your Router if you have no Switch at all

What speeds will I get from WiFi ?

The fastest WiFi (54mbs) is half the speed of standard Ethernet cable (100mbs). Since WiFi speed drops off quickly with distance (and when walls etc. get in the way), in practice you will be lucky to get the same speed from WiFi as a 10mbs Ethernet cable.

To avoid 'drop outs' or your TV 'freezing', if your Server is going to be used for streaming HD video, a wired system (and Switch) is almost a must

Remember - your typical ISP delivers less than 10mbs Internet (even Virgin's 20mbs is way below the WiFi 54mbs standard). So a 54mbs WiFi Router with 100mbs Ethernet ports is more than capable of dealing with whatever level of Server / NAS traffic your Laptops can generate even when the Internet is being fully used by other computers.

What about my Router ?

A1. If you have kids, you will already know that your Router has to be kept locked up (to stop them doing a 'factory reset' so they can login to disable the Firewall and 'open ports' for their games etc). Plainly both your own desktop and the Server / NAS also need to kept behind a locked door (otherwise they will try to use these to surf the Internet after trashing their own computers).

If you have a WiFi Router locked up in the loft, you may be tempted to place the Server / NAS there as well. Unfortunately, most lofts get rather hot during the summer months and nothing is going to guarantee early failure of your hard disk drives like excessive heat.

A2. How you configure your Home Network will depend on how your Router connects computers using WiFi to those that are not. So before deciding how to assign Subnets etc. check out your Router.

What about the Graphics Display ?

The Server is going to be used only for file storage, so any motherboard built-in graphics will be just fine. Any old display that can achieve at least SVGA (600x800) resolution will also be fine (although 1024x1280 would be 'nice').

Once the server is up & running, you could actually unplug & move the display to another machine (and bring it back only in the event of problems) or use a KVM switch (see later).

What's a KVM (and why would I want one) ?

A 'KVM' allows you to 'share' a Keyboard + Video display + Mouse between 2 computers. If both Server and your main desktop are located in the same room (e.g. your home office), and both support (USB) Keyboard/Mouse, then this is a 'good idea' (a 2 port USB KVM complete with cables costs about £7.50 from eBay, which is a lot cheaper than a second Keyboard/Mouse set, let alone a second Video display monitor).

These days, KVM's also work fine with 'wireless' keyboard / mice and will even 'report' the existence of USB KB/Mouse to a booting computer's BIOS even when the actual KB/Mouse is not 'switched' to that computer

Click 'Next >>' in the Navigation Bar (left) for a guide to Checking your Router.

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