$700 / $1000 Super Quiet Custom Home Server

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A home server is different to a common custom gaming system or workstation. You make use of the server in a very different approach. You may be working on your gaming computer or workstation on the daily basis, but you usually do not on a server. The system is more like a director behind the stage. It takes care of all the background processes and less likely to have much interaction from the users.

Productivity or Entertainment PCs tend to be heavy resources consuming intermittently while a server constantly requires raw power from the central processing unit most of its up-time. Due to its continuous processes with databases, number crunching works and intense multitasking duty, the server must have sufficient computing power to fulfill those demands.

A full pledge server is very expensive indeed but because most of the casual power users do not utilize this level of performance, we will instead be making a custom petite and budget-friendly home/office server. But hey, don’t let the look perceives you.

At home, this machine will be mainly used to centralize data such as movies, audio files, documents,etc..It can also be a personal web host, a media streaming server that you can access anywhere. Similar to the $350 / $600 Custom Home Theater PC (HTPC), you will be able to use AirVideo, Qcloud or other similar apps to stream movie and music directly to your Android, Ipod, Ipad or Iphone or anyone’s smart devices if they have permission to access. You could also turn it into a VMware machine to run ESXi.
For office and business uses, you can tune this custom computer to be a dedicated system for database processing, email and print server or even as an e-commercial website that welcomes thousands of visitors every day.

Table of Content

  1. Choose the right Processor
  2. You want a reliable motherboard, don’t you?
  3. Graphics Card, it doesn’t have to the be the best.
  4. Memory, let’s start it out right.
  5. The awesome fully-modular Power Supply.
  6. Storage Option : SSD and Mechanical Hard Drive, or RAID.
  7. A Case to house them all.
  8. What else might be good for this custom server?

Bulldozer FX-8120 processor is AMD’s latest offer to the enthusiast users. FX-8120 was released in Oct of last year (2011) and is the little brother of AMD’s flagship FX-8150.

FX-8120 and FX-8150 as introduced in Choosing an AMD or Intel Processor for Your Custom Computer, are both 8-core processors. In fact, there are 4 modules in the processor where each one of them contains 2 shared-resources cores. That makes it a total of eight physical cores, which is like hyper threading technology of Intel, but better.

FX Processors come under the code name Bulldozer, pairing with socket AM3+ motherboard. They are also compatible with AM3 socket after the BIOS update, thus users who are currently running Phenom II have the possibility to upgrade their CPU.

As of 2012, the mainstream Bulldozer family consists of the quad-core FX-4100, six-core FX-6100, eight-core FX-8120 and FX-8150. The FX-8120 has a slightly lower clock speed than FX-8150, 3.1GHz versus 3.6GHz accordingly. However, similar to Intel Speed Boost technology, these two AMD processors can automatically increase the stock speed over 4GHz to accommodate the demanding situation.

I recommend you to head for FX-8120 because it is a bit more energy-efficient, generates lower heat, costs less and does not show too much difference from its faster brother in term of performance. FX-8120 is considered the best bang for the buck, since it is the only eight-core processor that does not break the bank.

It is a well-known fact that most regular programs nowadays cannot utilize multi-core processor efficiently or not at all, but we are to build this custom pc as a server not a gaming system or workstation. There will be means to make use of the processing power of this eight-core CPU.

Unlike an entertainment computer or workstation, overclocking is usually out of the question for server type. You want to have the system run as its best and output the most reliable performance. It does not need fancy features, extreme power phase or additional heat-sink on VRM (voltage regulator modules) but this foundation has to be solid, trustworthy and fully capable.

If you are custom computer builders or peek at the picture on the right, you probably know which motherboard I am referring to: the Asus Sabertooth AM3+ 990FX ATX Motherboard.
The Asus Sabertooth family is loved for its military-graded capacitors and special thermal armor that covers and sensors temperature across the whole layout of the motherboard. This sweet design prolongs the lifespan of the motherboard under extreme use condition. Because the server we build will probably run everyday, seven days a week so having something that can passively prevent underlying issues with heat and improve reliability is an important essential.

The motherboard also delivers a happy count of 4 SATA III plus 2 SATA II Ports, Gigabit Ethernet, 2 USB 3.0 and total of 10 USB 2.0 on the back panel. On the common note, the 990FX chipset offers Dual-Channel memory with four DIMM Slots to reach the maximum of 32GB of RAM capacity. You will be loving this motherboard for a long time.

3.Graphics Card
It is a little disappointing that there was no integrated graphics chipset on the motherboard. As the result, we are required to use a discrete video card.It is not a totally bad trade though. We get a top-notch reliable motherboard and whatnot. It is also a relief to be able to off load some burden onto a dedicated graphics and free up shared memory. Now, since there is no intense graphics demands on a server, any low-end PCI Express Video Card could do the work just fine.

RAM capacity is an important factor to keep the server up to par. The insufficient amount of memory will stutter the performance, delay processes or worse, crash the system. Thus, you will have to pay close attention to memory and make sure you get the most reliable units. Even though we do not have a choice to stick with ECC memory, but it is not a significant factor for the home server machine.
Since the motherboard supports dual channel memory and has four DIMM slots with the maximum capacity of 32GB, it is a no-brainer that you will start with pair of 8GB modules. It’s alright to sacrifice a little bit of cash to hit the jump for a pair of 8GB sticks. That guarantees a decent count of gigabytes on memory. On the long run, you still have two more available slots to increase from 16GB to 32GB without having to replace any existing module. The maximum memory bandwidth the motherboard supports natively is 1866MHz and I will make sure you get the best options with acceptable latency.

5.NZXT H2 Chassis
As a server, its existence sometimes could be subtle and it is important that we look onto the simple yet effective concept when we shop for case. You probably do not want super bright LEDs to light up the whole room and annoys the very eye of you. You also do not want a case that restricts or unable to deliver sufficient ventilation throughout all core components in this system.
NZXT H2 is the star in Top 6 Most Silent Computer Cases for Quiet Computing. The case is super quiet yet it still manages to provide plenty of internal airflow. NZXT equips the front and two side panels of the H2 with noise-canceling foam to promote the quiet computing design, whereas that becomes the key difference to other common cases.

By default, H2 comes with a total of three fans with two on the front panel hidden behind the swing door, and one on the rear. The two front fans blows air directly to the 8 internal hard drive bays. All pre-installed fans, plus the two extra 3-pin headers for two more fans can be controlled via the speed switch at the top of the case. You can increase the RPM or reduce the noise by three different level settings, which is a nice touch for a server type computer. Another welcomed bonus is the hot-swappable 2.5″/3.5″ SATA hard drive bay also located at the top of the chassis.
On the inside, things are also looking very user-friendly. You get tool-less hard drive bays and brackets, excellent cable management with rubber grommet on each of the cut-out holes, plus bottom-mount power supply location. What you get is a minimalist chassis with great efficiency, pack of useful modern features and does not take the whole of your Benjamin.

6.Seasonic Power Supply
It wouldn’t be a happy wedding if we marry a quiet case with a loud power supply (or is it ? haha..). Seasonic makes a very awesome power supply that I had a chance to come across the other day.
It was a 400-watts fully-modular PSU ( all internal cables are detachable and their terminals are gold plated, which means there is less resistance on the current transmission). Now the part that I like best : the capacitors are japan-sourced Conductive Polymer Aluminum Solid Electrolytic. These Grade A components are capable of running under temperature as high as 105C degree. Therefore, this power supply is pretty reliable compared to any generic PSUs. It is truly important for a server computer.
The power supply also has a rating of 80% PLUS efficiency with up to 90% at half-load. This means the unit is very very energy-efficient. The efficiency of a power supply means how well it can convert power from the wall outlet into power that are used by internal hardware. In this case, at normal l0ad you only lose a mere 10% of energy (it usually doubled or tripled this digit on gaming power supply units).

The 12V+ rail delivers 54A which is great for any additional discrete graphics card that you happen to install in the future (but..why o.O ?)
Now besides those specs, what makes this power supply a good candidate for our server build you may ask ? This PSU is running with passive cooling technology, it has no fan. The power supply makes no helicopter noise at the start, runs completely silent during up-time and still not a single decibel will be given when the computer shuts down. There is a reason Corsair choose Seasonic to make some of their high-end power supply units.

When it comes to server storage, you are looking at multiple terabytes drives. A server is usually a central file system where it holds all the entertainment data of the house, or backups files of all pc clients in your office. This requires a tremendous amount of storage capacity. Our motherboard has total of 8 SATA ports, but perhaps you may want to begin with one hard drive first.
Western Digital offers the RE4 series Hard Drives which are industrial, server-grade mechanical disk drives. They are very reliable and if your data is extremely valuable you should consider having one of those in this custom server build.

Anyway, at this point you have several options:

  1. One Drive To Rule Them All : This hard drive will store your OS and all other files. It should be at least 1TB or 2TB. Thinking of putting all your eggs in the same basket.
  2. Two Drives, Divide and Conquer : You will have a small Solid State Drive to house the Operating System and the secondary mechanical drive for data storage. You could also add more mechanical drives as needed but the key is to off-load core programs onto the Solid State Drive to reduce data transfer rate bottleneck and increase system responsiveness.
  3. RAID ’em Hard: It is not unusual for server to run under RAID configuration. You will need more hard drives than regular setup so you have to adjust the budget accordingly. Just a quick reminder on two popular RAID settings : RAID 0 is striped set configuration which splits data between two or more drives to increase transfer speed, RAID 1 is to mirror the exact data of one drive onto another. You could of course, learn more about RAID levels on wikipedia since it isn’t wise to taking away too much of your valuable time on off-topic subject here.
  4. JBOD : Just a Bunch Of Drives as you know it. Up to 8 storage drives total, or seven plus one optical drive.

8.The Rest
This section is for anything else that you may need for the custom build. You may want to have an optical DVD Burner for OS installation, Hard Drive Racks for additional hot-swappable drive bays, Wireless Adapters, etc.. but keep an eye on your budget.

If the expense is still within reach, I suggest you to install the Corsair Pre-filled Liquid Cooling Kit H40to replace the role of the stock CPU heat-sink. This will immediately reduce the temperature of the eight-core processor during load. As we know it, lower thermal threshold will increases the system effectiveness. The assembly is very straight-forward and only as difficult as how you install regular air-cooling heat-sink. If you want to look at the higher bracket of self-contained liquid cooler, be sure to take a look at 8 Best Prefilled Liquid Cooling Kits for Your Processor.

Good luck and have fun with your server :), keep us here posted on your progress or any side thought!

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