Seperis (seperis) wrote,

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building a home server for people who are kind of terrified, 1/3: you and your components

Okay, so I said I'd do this weeks ago and now to stave off pre-surgery panic, I'm doing it now.

This is part one of a breakdown on how I went about building my server. Please for the love of God do not consider this doctrine. I pulled from like, dozens of places before I started. Also, we're working with less than a month of me doing this, so yeah, there will be inaccuracies since I'm still on my learning curve.

There is no such thing as doctrine, btw. Not in computer building.

First Things First

1: Anything computer be a server.

There are systems that are designed as servers for businesses and homes, but that is not the only way. The only things you actually need for a home server are a working computer and ethernet access (and server software). And that computer shouldn't be your only computer for obvious reasons. I've read designs done by people who basically nailed a motherboard to the wall--God that was cool</i>--and fed the cables down into a small box of drives and seriously, that was the coolest thing ever. Same function. The word "server" is what the machine does in the end, not necessarily what it is, though it can be that too.

So disconnect there--server can be the computer being designed to be a server, or your extra computer that, what the fuck, you have some free time, let's play. Or you can do what I did and go to Fry's and go crazy. We'll come back to that.

2: Server software is not terrifying.

That is half a lie. If you don't want one, yes, it looks overwhelming. If you want one, trust me when I say, it becomes suddenly much easier just on sheer want. For those who want to work in familiar territory, there's Windows Server, which isn't terribly expensive and makes life easy. On the other end of the spectrum, there's Slackware that will make you twitch. There's Ubuntu Server, which I have and love, even when I hate it. You can actually buy mid-range small home servers with Windows Server installed for like, 500 to 700 when not on discount.

3: Servers and Network Attached Storage (NAS) are different things, but overlap functions. I'll be honest--the only reason I went server and not FreeNas was I wanted to learn Linux and I learn by doing. And I want to force myself to learn network protocol, and this was the best way to go about it. If all you want is to share your files among your home computers and friends in like, Tulsa and Toronto, NAS is perfectly sufficient.

Compare and contrast:

Home Server on Wikipedia

NAS on Wikipedia

Right. Now from there, let's go.

Let's start with the assumption you have never, in your life, cracked your box open and it's all a mystery. I'm sending you to google. Now.

Now, everyone who has opened their computers at least once and at very minimum gazed inside with a glazed look. I'm going to only hit what you need here; this is not a complete list and directory of All Things Component. This is Building Your Own Server Stuff (which can double also for Build Your Own Desktop Stuff; yes, that easy).

1.) You need the following without exception.

a. a processor
b. a motherboard w/integrated video
c. RAM (memory)
d. a power source and fan
e. a hard drive (storage)
f. a case
g. (optional) a video card (really, don't bother right now)
h. cdrom/dvdrom/bluray

Most problems show up when you realize the world is your oyster and there are five billion choices for all of these. Everyone has a different methodology of working out how to choose. Here was mine:

Is this on sale?

There you go.

Okay, I had some standards as well, but they were pretty easy.

1.) How fast do I want it to run?
It's a home server. Keep in range of a chip made in the last three to five years and is also on sale.

2.) How much storage (tetrabytes of hard drive space) do I want?
God, as much as humanly possible.

3.) But how do I figure out how chip and motherboard go together and what the fuck, socket?
Yeah, we'll get to that. And by that, I mean, fuck socket, I'm skipping that. That's just irritating.

Okay, So Where Do I Start?

There are two ways to go about this; you can start with picking your CPU and browsing through all the motherboards that go with it. Or you can start with the motherboard and browse through all the CPUs that go with it. Or you can cheat and get a CPU/motherboard that's already one unit and at newegg, runs the Atom processor. Very green-minded of you. The only thing you worry about if you choose the third route is the power of the processor, since they're one unit. Not super fast, but perfectly acceptable for a server and to save electricity. And awesome, btw. My netbook is powered by Atom. No complaints.

This assumes you didn't do that.

You and Your CPU/Chipset

People who do this more seriously than I do and professionals are going to hate this section. This is not as important as you think. You are running a home server, not a gaming machine or a gene-sequencing computer or helping NASA guide rockets. Overkill is easy and pointless and rather expensive.

CPUs are one of the primary indicators of how fast your system runs and how well it multitasks1. There are two major manufacturers of CPUs - Intel and AMD. People really get evangelical on this. Just nod at them. We're going to just say, either/or.

-- But How Do I Choose? Easy Version --

Here is an easy test.

Is this technology less than three years old?

You still have a huge range. Narrow it.

Which of these is cheapest?

You're done.


Which of these gets the best reviews?

You're done.

-- But How Do I Choose? Slightly More Advanced Version --

The following will need to be taken on faith.

1.) Get something at minimum that's dual core. Multiprocessing power is your friend. A server can run a lot of different programs and processes at the same time. The higher your CPU, the more it can handle. I cannot emphasize enough, however, that if you pick up the brand new i7 980 hex processor that's six--SIX--cores, I will laugh so hard because no. You don't need that to run like, Second Life with perfect HD resolution.

Example: I have an i7-840 quadcore processor in my laptop. I can run Firefox, Skype, rip a DVD and encode a ripped DVD to mkv while listening to iTunes and chatting on Trillian while writing a fic in MSWord without a lag. With my screen being HD 1080i playing something in VLC (I just checked this). The only thing that slows it down is if I had Premiere running too. And only then when I'm rendering for the very first time and even then, not really noticeable. Your server, with very few exceptions, won't be doing anything like that.

2.) Check on the upgradibility of the motherboards and choose one that can support the most powerful processor on the market as well as a range of much much much cheaper and less powerful processors. Then buy the cheapest, slowest processor it can support (that has decent reviews). This requires a multipronged approach to choosing your CPU and motherboard, but an easy way to go about this is to go to your website of choice--newegg, say--and find every motherboard that will handle the i7 980 hexcore processor (or the most powerful AMD processor), then see how many other CPUs it also supports, and pick the cheapest CPU. That way, if it turns out you need a higher processor, you can get one without having to buy a new board for it.

My CPU: Intel Core i3-550 Clarkdale 3.2GHz LGA 1156 73W Dual-Core Desktop Processor

I have yet to get above 1% of my CPU usage yet. And it was like, $79 dollars. I overkilled because it was on sale. Yes.

Now that we have that sorted.

You and Your Motherboard

The motherboard is where the magic happens. It is terrifying and mysterious. Then it's pretty boring when you realize it only comes in so many forms. To put it bluntly, if a motherboard is ice cream, what's on it is the toppings. It's individual taste, but also, let's face it, some people have weird taste. Here is what you probably want on it. And motherboard specs will say all this clearly.

a. SATA connectors. You want as many as possible. But usually in a sane price range, four to six is good. SATA is one of the ways that a hard drive--also known as storage, not memory, memory refers to RAM--interfaces with your motherboard. There are are different types of SATA. There is also IDE. (Ignore that.) If you are a hardware purist, you will cry when I say it doesn't even matter right now about your SATA type. Just look for the word SATA and count the connectors. SATA is also the interface for your CD/DVD/Bluray. SATA is everything. SATA is all things. SATA is like, IDK, chocolate sprinkles. Or your favorite topping of choice.

For purists; yes, SATA I, SATA II, SATA III, there are differences, it's usually better to get the most advanced you can afford, but this is your home server, not's server. It really, really isn't going to matter right now, or possibly for the next five years.

b. PCI. Get at least one PCI-E 16x (PCI Express x16. You can ignore this otherwise. For a basic home server, this is possibly the least important. Just check for that and be done with it. If you want more, google up your PCIs and check what they do and why they exist. This specifically is so you can add more SATA connections later. That's the only reason I'm putting it on here.

You also may need to use a PCI (not that one I named) if your ethernet on your board goes out or you want a faster ethernet connector. This is information, not recommendation. First server, basic construction, this so does not matter.

c. Memory - see why I differentiated there? Memory means RAM. You want at least 4G of RAM. This has it's own section, so more will be there.

My RAM: 4 G 1333/1066 SD3 RAM, upgradeable to 8G.

d. Video - getting something with VGA/DVI/HDMI/RGB outputs is great. Any of those four can be on there, one of them can be on there, doesn't matter. You aren't going to really care about how pretty the visuals are. If you want that, then get a video card.

e. LAN controller - ethernet. This is how the server connects to your router. Usually it says this 10/100/1000 on it. Yes.

f. Audio - onboard audio. Doesn't matter what type. You might at some point want the soothing sounds of it making pings and whatnot. Done.

g. Ports - at least four USB, but get as many as you can. If your keyboard and mouse are USB, have a minimum of six. To give you an idea, my motherboard supports twelve, with six actually functional and six I can add cables to and use.

h. CPU/Chipset - already covered.

All of this is clearly stated on any website selling motherboards, on the box, and on the motherboard website. It is easy to find this stuff out.

My Motherboard - ASUS P7H55-M LE.

a. SATA 3Gb/s - 6
b. PCI Express 2.0 x16 - 1
c. Memory (RAM)

Number of Memory Slots - 2×240pin
Memory Standard - DDR3 1333/1066
Maximum Memory Supported - 8GB
Channel Supported - Dual Channel

d. Onboard Video

Onboard Video Chipset - None
Video Ports - D-Sub + DVI

e. Onboard LAN

ChipsetRealtek 8112L
Max LAN Speed - 10/100/1000Mbps (Gigabite)

f. Onboard Audio

Audio Chipset - VIA VT1708S
Audio Channels - 8 Channels

g. USB - 12
h. Core i7 / i5 / i3 / Pentium (LGA1156)

Check reviews if you need to narrow it down more. Reviews are good indicators of reliability.

You and Your Ram/Memory

(Suggested to make this separate in comments.)

There are many times of RAM (Random Access Memory). RAM is where your programs and processes that you are running right now are hanging out. It's temporary storage. Every time you open a program, it is running on your RAM because it's much, much faster than standard hard drives.

There is RAM that goes in desktops, RAM that goes in laptops, and RAM that goes in servers. You want RAM for desktops.

You want to get good, fast memory, because a server runs many, many processes. This does not mean you need the fastest and newest memory on the market--again, not NASA. You need good memory.

When you look at your motherboard, it will specify the memory type like this:

DDR3 1333 (PC3 1066)

Whatever it says, go find that RAM. You want a board that asks for at mimimum DDR2 but get DDR3 if you can. It's faster. Motherboard manufacturers will often have links from their sites to lists of all the RAM that is compatible with that particular board, including manufacturer and specific type.

Each DIMM (module) of RAM comes in sizes from 1G to 8G (they can be smaller and bigger, but these are the common ones, and a 8G slot is pretty rare). Your board will tell you how many slots it has (2-4 are most common) and the maximum size (in GB) of RAM that can go in that slot.

Example: Reading the manual that came with my motherboard, it tells me the following:

I have two slots to place my RAM DIMMs in.

It says I have to use the RAM type DDR3 1333/1066MHz, non-ECC unbuffered memory.

It says the board will support 8GB of RAM. That means each slot will support 4GB of RAM. That means that each DIMM I buy can be 4GB. So here are my options.

2 DIMMS each of 1GB = total 2GB of RAM <--absolute minimum
2 DIMMS each of 2GB = total 4GB of RAM
2 DIMMS each of 4GB = total 8GB of RAM <--my max!

For best performance: do not mix a 1GB DIMM with a 2GB DIMM. Match your sizes. Do not get one DIMM from one company and another DIMM from another one. If possible, buy a package with two DIMMS of the same size together to make life even easier (this is ridiculously possible and less expensive). Both slots should be filled. Do not have less than 2GB of RAM in your system (that's 2 DIMMS each of 1GB).

You and Your Power Source/Supply and Your Fan

This is your power for your motherboard and CPU and does the conversion from AC to low-voltage DC and regulates your electricity input. Go with 300 W or above. This can also come with your case, so you don't even need to buy it separately! Though it's better to buy it separately for quality assurance purposes. Check reviews and compare with price. There's nothing wrong with getting something with too much power, but again, overkill.

Sometimes fans come with cases too, but sometimes they don't. If they don't, grab one. There are billions. Just pick one with good reviews.

You and Your Hard Drive/Storage

Minimum of one 7200 RPM, at least 1 TB to start. It's a server. It's where you store things! Get lots of storage. When you get more experienced, check cache and read/write speed and magic and whatever, but just choose something of that size that gets decent reviews.

You and Your Case

Whoa doggies. This is actually a little complicated. Form marries function marries wow, this is complicated in a very weird way.

1.) Check your motherboard size. They have lots of this kind of thing: uATX, miniATX, microATX ad nauseum. Just memorize whatever letter combination you have and narrow your cases choices to those of that form or larger. This isn't hard, I promise. Most cases will tell you all the sizes they support. If it supports ATX, that's the largest possible, so it can support anything. They also give inches and centimeters along with the letters above.

The larger the case, the more space it takes up, but the more space there is inside for all your components to get air and not overheat. Overcrowding is very bad. You want your components to breathe. If you get enough hard drives in there, you may need an extra fan.

2.) You want the following:

External 5.25" Drive Bays - 1 or more
Internal 3.5" Drive Bays - 5 or more

The external 5.25 is for your CD/DVD/Bluray. The internal 3.5 is for your hard drives. If your board has four sata connectors, that is one (1) CD/DVD/Bluray and three (3) hard drives. The more connectors you have, the more drive bays you need. Get as many as possible.

There are also external 3.5 Drive Bays that can hold more hard drives or smaller CD/DVD/Blurays. More is good.

3.) If it doesn't come with a power supply, either make sure it fits the one you already bought or, better idea, buy your power source and fan after you choose your case.

This is one thing you might not want to buy online sight unseen but go to your closest or most convenient store that has cases and feel them up yourself. Write down your components - the board size (in inches or with the letter combinations, whatever), your CPU type, and your power supply - and grab a nice salesperson to show you which cases work with what you have. Then seriously, treat this like the first time you had sex and touch it, open it up, feel around inside, get comfortable with what it is and what it does, God that's pornographic but hey, it's true. This is what you will install your components in, this you will be opening up to add things and fix things and change things and do things with.

A few things to look for:

1.) Does it come with an instruction manual? If no and you aren't very experienced, really, really get comfortable with opening it and how to take it apart. If the salesperson can show you, make sure he does and take notes. Photograph, even.

2.) Screws - how many to take off the cover? How many to take off the front? What size? Are they hard to get out? Less screws is better.

3.) Is there a motherboard tray? Ask the salesperson. This is a convenience thing.

4.) In the area the motherboard goes--trust me, you can tell this visually, it goes against the back and there are screwholes there--are there already spacers? Spacers are what go on the board between your motherboard and the case so there is airflow between them. Ask the salesperson. He may look at you like crazy, but he's stupid and who cares? Just ask if you can't tell visually. I couldn't and I had them. They're usually there. Otherwise, you will need to buy spacers. Ask the nice salesperson.

5.) Can you remove the bays where the 3.5 bays are stored easily? Let's call it a cage. This is a convenience thing.

Ideally, you should be able to take apart your case down to components in under five minutes once you're used to it. I'd say two minutes, but the number of screws and stuff like the cage for the bays and whatnot make that difficult. You want as few screws as possible, you want them easy to remove, and you want everything inside to fit well enough to install at least one fan, which will also be obvious to place, and maybe more fans later.

Ask the salesperson. Cases are personal. And this is one thing that's so personal that it needs to be done physically, in person, with someone who understands what you want.

You and Other Stuff

1.) One toolkit. Every major retailer has a basic computer toolkit for under $20, sometimes under $10.

I have this one. But not at this price. You can get it for much less or one like it.

2.) grounding strap - if you touch your CPU while putting it in the board and you are staticy, goodbye processor. Under 10, usually under five, sometimes comes with your toolkit.

3.) Bandaids. You will cut yourself. You just will.

4.) Screws. Okay, most things come with screws. But then sometimes they don't. Check for that, or be prepared for a Wal-Mart run when one of your components has none. If it doesn't have screws, go get some that fit and get like, a hundred extra. A good idea is to have extras for all the screws that come with your equipment, but that can come later.

5.) Extra SATA cables. Get at least four, or one for each SATA port. Your board may come with cables, and your CD/DVD/Bluray may come with cables, but buy extra cables anyway. You cannot really go wrong with extra cables.

6.) Ethernet cable, cat5 minimum. It says on the box/plastic the cat number. Get at least one to connect the server to the router, and as many as you need for any other computers that will have wired connections to the router. Then get two extra. You cannot go wrong with extra cables.

7.) Gigabyte Router if you don't have one already. Just find something with good reviews.

Okay, so those are your components. If anyone wants to correct/expand/add their recommendations, feel free to do in comments. If anyone wants to ask questions, feel free! I have no idea if I can answer them, but I will try or direct to someone/someplace that can. Next up will be building a home server for people who are kind of terrified, 2/3: you and putting it all together.

[I will be adding/expanding as I remember or think of more specifics as well. And pictures!]

Additions, Notes, and Comments From Commenters

I'll integrate this into the body later.

[personal profile] durandal:
The higher your CPU, the more it can handle." CPU + Memory = your multitasking.

IDE/PATA can be useful if recycling old drives.

"Get at least one PCI-E 16x." Plan for 1 _spare_. If you're getting a vid card that uses PCI-E, go for 2 slots. You never know what kind of nifty thing they will come up with next.

You CAN run on less than 1g of RAM, but this is not advised. Also, onboard video generally eats part of your RAM, so be prepared to take that into account.

LAN: If you want to use your box as a firewall, and/or make things publicly available easily, get a board with dual Ethernet. Also, not essential, but try to get a board that can auto-sense the connection (connect 2 systems together without a router, cuz is useful dontchakno). Ask the salesdrone if they look at you like you're stupid, find a new salesdrone. Wireless can also be good, especially for a firewall config. Be prepared to use up a card slot for that if you want it.

USB = LOVE. Firewire could also be good if you already have devices which use it. (FW drives seem to get more CONSISTANT speeds for external drives IME.) If not, FW cards are pretty dammed cheap, but again, need a card slot for that.

Power Supply: too small = bad: wont work. Too big = also bad, your system wont KNOW to start up. Make a list of what's going in your system and grill the salesdrone.

Drives: boot vol does not need to be be-all-end-all. Smaller boot/app vol + HUGE SPACE FOR OTHERSHIT = good...

Case: front-mounted port planes are good. especially for USB/FW/Audio (Especially if audio is not perm connected.....)

you can never have too many screws. You CAN have too many places where you need/use screws. Thumb Screws are LOVE for anything but the actual board.

It is, in fact, called a drive-cage. Look also for tool-less cages, even if that name is kind of a lie, because it will make things LOTS easier.
Liquid Bandaids are love, and do double-duty as disinfectant.

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Tags: crosspost, my relationship with electronics
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