Building a Green Windows Home Server: Choosing the Hardware

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 – 7:00 am

How hard can it really be?Last week I finally caved and decided it was time to get serious about backing up the two or three PCs we have scattered around the house. Backups and the desire to stream my digital music to the living room made me think it was time to get some sort of Network Aware Storage to sit quietly in a corner share files, serve music to a Squeezebox or Roku, handle backups and act as a print server.

The Windows Home Server (WHS) team recently released Power Pack 1 which fixes the data corruption bug and adds a bunch of enhancements. Now I could have gone out and bought the very nice HP MediaSmart server. The MediaSmart is pretty much got the market covered at the moment but figured I’d be able to build something a little bit better a little cheaper. I also figured building a PC might be fun and teach me a bit about hardware along the way.

After reading Adrian Kingsley-Hughes’ blog post on things to consider when building a WHS and Windows Home Server Hacks excellent series on building a green WHS I added some more requirements of my own. I wanted a green, lower power, quieter and really reliable server with room for adding more disk space later. There are several resources on the web covering building your own WHS (see below). We Got Served’s example build came closest to meeting my requirements in terms of overall form factor but I wanted to hopefully reduce the power consumption of the system and not end up with a case that would only take two disks. Some other builds added SATA backplanes that I also thought I would do with out and save some money.

The key thing here is that really what you’re building is a disk enclosure with a rather heavyweight controller in the form of a small PC. If you look (below) at where the money gets spent in a system like this it’s on the disk drives, power supply, case and cooling. Having a quad core processor and latest greatest graphics card is just a waste of money now and costs you more later in electricity bills later.

A bit more research and a trip to NewEgg resulted in the following purchase:

AeroCool M40-BK Black Computer Case $79.99
BIOSTAR MCP6P-M2 AM2 GF6150 AMD motherboard
(Similar: ASUS M2N68-AM SE2 AMD Motherboard )
$49.99
AMD Athlon X2 BE-2400 2.3GHz AM2 Dual Core CPU
(Similar: AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+ 2.3GHz Socket AM2 Dual-Core Processor )
$34.99
Kingston 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory $36.69
2 x Western Digital Caviar GP 750GB 3.5" SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive $219.98
SeaSonic S12 II SS-330GB 330W Power Supply $58.99
ARCTIC COOLING ACF64LP 60mm CPU Cooler for low profile PC $21.99
ARCTIC COOLING ACF12PWM Case Fan $9.99
2 x StarTech BRACKET Metal 3.5" to 5.25" Drive Adapter Bracket $2.98
Microsoft Windows Home Server 32 Bit 1 Pack (Power pack 1) $149.99
Total $664.58

Updated March 2009: Some original items on this list are no longer available and prices have changed slightly. I’ve added suggestions as to similar items that would fit the bill but obviously I’ve not built and tested these!

Of course I forgot something. It wouldn’t be a NewEgg order for me if I hadn’t forgotten something right? In this case the disk drives I ordered are OEM items. This means no fancy consumer packaging and no cables. So I was short a couple of SATA cables. Luckily I had a couple lying around from a previous HDD purchase.

Note: There’s no DVD drive on this list. I was expecting to boot WHS off a 2Gb USB thumb drive. If you don’t have one of these and a Vista machine to make it bootable then you need to either buy a DVD drive or cannibalize one from another machine for the install.

So why these bits?

NewEgg sells stacks of other components. Why did I pick these ones? In some cases it’s slightly a case of deal of the day, like the processor/motherboard combo but I also tried to pick energy efficient components with reasonable reliability. Good reviews from other NewEgg buyers and other web sites played a big part here. Here’s a breakdown of how they contribute to the goal of a reliable, expandable, green server.

AeroCool M40 Case: The choice of case is pretty much up to personal taste but this one had a good review here. I was tempted to buy a case and power supply bundle but generally that is a good way to get a cheap power supply and probably not a good recipe for reliable 24×7 functionality. Eventually I picked the M40 because it was pretty compact and will take four SATA drives giving me plenty of room to expand. Several of the closest example builds I read about only had room for two internal drives and the power supply didn’t get an 80 Plus rating (see below). You could save a few bucks by getting a cheaper mid tower ATX case.

Seasonic 330W power supply: I wanted an efficient 80 Plus rated power supply with connectors for up to four SATA drives. The Seasonic is also supposed to be reasonably quiet and reliable. It costs a bit more but it’s a critical system component for a server so worth spending a few more dollars. The good news is that 330W should do just fine as this machine doesn’t have any power hungry processors or graphics cards to suck wattage.

BIOSTAR motherboard and AMD Athlon X2 2.3GHz Dual-Core CPU: This CPU is more that I really needed but NewEgg were bundling it with the motherboard at a great price, saving me $15. The key is it still has a low 45W power rating which is only about 10W more than the lowest power single core processor I could find. The motherboard supports four 3Gb/s SATA drives and has an on board NVIDIA video chipset which is going to make life easier when it comes to installing WHS. I could have had a slightly cheaper motherboard but the BIOSTAR has better power management and supports smart fan control so I can use fans that only run when needed.

750Gb Western Digital Caviar Green HDD: These drives use GreenPower technology to reduce the amount of power the each hard disk uses by 4-5W. They’re not the fastest drives out there but that’s OK as I’m not planning on thrashing them. For WHS having a single drive makes no sense as you can’t take advantage of the cross disk duplication feature.

2Gb memory: WHS actually only requires 0.5 Gb of memory to run but it’s a tight fit. If you run any WHS add-ins or applications like Squeezebox’s SqueezeCenter server software then the recommendation is to add more memory or the server will page to disk a lot and degrade performance.

Fans: Cool machines are happy machines. The M40 comes with a stock fan that is reputed to be noisy. I decided to replace the stock 120mm fan that comes with the case with a quieter one. Stock processor cooler fans also tend to be on the noisy side so I added a low profile CPU cooler that should fit the M40 case. The CPU was an OEM package so didn’t come with a stock AMD cooler. Arctic Cooling make a range of fans that integrate with the BIOS to regulate the fan speed according to the system’s temperature and run slower and quieter when not needed.

Originally I purchased an additional 80mm fan for the case rear. This turned out to run fast and consequently was pretty noisy. After some experiments I figured I didn’t need it. I also decided that while the CPU cooler and case fan listed here will work just fine after some careful configuration there are some other alternatives that might work better, these are discussed here.

So this server cost about the same as an HP MediaSmart EX475 ($659.99 on Amazon at time of writing) but has more disk space, 2 x 0.75Tb vs. 2 x 0.5Tb. This hardware configuration also has more memory (2Gb vs. 0.5Gb) and a better processor but these are secondary. One small problem it’s just a pile of bits on the living room table. In the next post in this series I’ll cover the actual server build. In the meantime you can read the posts I found that got me this far. You can pick your own bits from what NewEgg, or your favorite PC hardware site has available this week.

Building a Windows Home Server – the easy way!

PC’s actual power consumption

Building a Windows Home Server – Part 1: Hardware Choices

Building Your Own Windows Home Server

Build a Green $400 Windows Home Server – Part 1: Getting started

How to Build: A Home Server

I’m not an expert but as you’ll see in the next post building your own WHS really isn’t that hard… I hope.

You can also cut to the chase and read the conclusions and about the system’s performance and 37W power consumption and very low noise levels.

Next… Part 2: Putting it Together
Index: all posts in this series

Currently listening to:
Beth Orton – Trailer Park

  1. 14 Responses to “Building a Green Windows Home Server: Choosing the Hardware”

  2. HI
    Maybe I missed it but why did you have to buy the 2 x I-Star 3.5? bracket for 5.25? bay?

    By Michael on Sep 28, 2008

  3. Michael,

    The brackets allow you to mount the 3.5″ SATA drives in the front 5.25″ bays on the case. This leaves means you can mount a total of four drives as you still have the other two 3.5″ bays on the left side of the case free.

    You could skip this and simply use the 3.5″ bays first.

    Ade

    By Ade Miller on Sep 29, 2008

  4. Curious as to what length SATA cable worked for this particular case?

    By Peter Schroeder on Dec 2, 2008

  5. Peter,

    The cable I used was a stock one that came with another drive. It’s no longer than 12″. It depends a bit which drive bays you use as the cable has to have sufficient length when the top of the case hinges up as this lifts the drives away from the connection on the motherboard.

    Ade

    By Ade Miller on Dec 8, 2008

  6. Hi there i was trying to find an copy of whs to buy but none of the online store’s in Canada have them and the us online store’s don’t ship to here in Canada, any thoughts on how to get an copy since im in the getting parts stage but have an hard time finding parts cheap to use for an server and that not over costly.

    any help would be great thank you.

    Melissa

    By Melissa H on Nov 27, 2009

  7. By Ade Miller on Nov 28, 2009

  8. So why go to the trouble of buildinga WHS with $664 worth of parts when you can go to Amazon and buy an HP MediaSmart Server for $480-$632?

    I’d rather have my time saved and a warranty.

    By JPINSL on Jun 26, 2010

  9. Because when I wrote the article over a year ago they were more expensive and because it was fun.

    By Ade Miller on Jun 26, 2010

  1. 6 Trackback(s)

  2. Sep 8, 2008: Building a Green Windows Home Server | #2782 - Agile software development and best practices for building Microsoft .NET applications.
  3. Sep 12, 2008: Building a Energy Efficient Windows Home Server « MS Windows Home Server
  4. Sep 14, 2008: Building a Green Windows Home Server: The 37 Watt Server | #2782 - Agile software development and best practices for building Microsoft .NET applications.
  5. Oct 12, 2008: Hot Link » Blog Archive » Building a Energy Efficient Windows Home Server
  6. Dec 18, 2008: Julien Airaud · Building a green home server
  7. Mar 30, 2009: Updated Links and the Rise of the Complexity Pig | #2782 - Agile software development, patterns and practices for building Microsoft .NET applications.

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