4.3. Component Considerations
With our design criteria in mind, we set out to choose the best components for the SOHO server system. The following sections describe the components we chose, and why we chose them.
Antec P180 Advanced Super Mid-Tower Case (http://www.antec.com)
SOHO servers can be built in anything from full-tower cases specifically designed to house servers down to the smallest of small form factor cases. True server cases are usually large, heavy, and expensiveoverkill for a typical SOHO server. Either that, or they are rack-mount (or blade) cases, and few homes or small offices have need of an equipment rack. (Robert tried to convince Barbara that an equipment rack was just what we needed, but she put her foot down.)
To fill the void, many case manufacturers offer so-called "SOHO server cases," which are usually just standard tower or mini/mid-tower cases with lockable front panels. Whether you're building a SO server or a HO server, you probably don't need the small additional security provided by a lockable front panel, so we suggest you also consider more mainstream case styles.
The key considerations for a SOHO server case are the number of drive bays it provides and its cooling efficiency. In a residential or small business environment, noise level and appearance may also be important. For us, all four of those factors were important. We wanted at least half a dozen hard drive bays to accommodate our initial disk configuration while leaving drive bays available for future expansion. Effective cooling is critical for obvious reasons. Noise level is important because this server will live in Barbara's office, which is across the hall from our master bedroom. Appearance is important because Barbara refuses to have an ugly box sitting in her office.
For all of these reasons, we chose the Antec P180 case, shown in Figure 4-1.
Figure 4-1. The Antec P180 case
The Antec P180 provides a total of 11 drive baysfour external 5.25" bays, one external 3.5" bay, and six internal 3.5" bays. Allocating one 5.25" bay to the optical drive leaves room for as many as nine hard drives, which should suffice for the life of the system.
The Antec P180 offers the best cooling of any case we have ever tested. It uses dual interior chambers, isolating the power supply from the rest of the system, which simplifies cooling. (The downside is that you must choose a power supply that is compatible with the P180; not all power supplies have cables long enough to reach the motherboard and drive connectors from the location of the power supply in the bottom chamber.) The P180 comes standard with three 120mm fansone rear, one top, and one in the lower chamber to cool the power supply. There are mounting positions for two optional 120mm fans, one in front and one in the middle to cool the graphics card.
The P180 is also the quietest case we've ever tested, despite its effective cooling. Antec engineered this case to be as quiet as possible, incorporating such features as silicone grommets to isolate the hard drives from the chassis and aluminum-plastic-aluminum composite panels to absorb noise.
Appearance is a matter of taste, but we think the P180 is the most attractive case we've ever used. We wouldn't hesitate to have it in our den, library, or living room, let alone our offices. If you prefer something darker than the aluminum-and-black color scheme of the P180, consider the P180B, which is the same case in all-black.
The only real downside to the Antec P180 is the price. It sells for about $125, not including a power supply. A good power supply suitable for our SOHO server costs $75 to $100, taking the total price to $200 or more. But for that price, you get what we consider to be the best case on the market, with top-notch expandability, cooling, and noise level.
4.3.2. Power Supply
Antec NeoHE 550 (http://www.antec.com)
The P180 case does not include a power supply, which gave us the opportunity to choose the power supply best suited for our SOHO server. The power supply is a critical component for a server that will run 24 hours a day, every day, year after year. Although reliability was paramount, we also wanted a power supply that was quiet and efficient. Quiet, because this server will reside in Barbara's office, which is directly across the hall from our master bedroom. Efficient, because high efficiency reduces power consumption, which makes it easier to cool the system and allows the fans to run slower and quieter.
Figure 4-2. Antec NeoHE power supply
We also decided to oversize the power supply, because a power supply that runs at a fraction of its rated output is more efficient, quieter, and much more reliable than one that runs near its rated output. An oversize power supply also makes upgrades easier. If in the future we decide to add more hard drives, expansion cards, memory, or a faster processor, the existing power supply will suffice to carry the extra load. Accordingly, although a 400W unit might have been adequate, we decided to look for a 500W or 550W unit.
We looked at quiet, high-efficiency power supplies from Antec, Enermax, PC Power & Cooling, Seasonic, and others, keeping in mind the need for long cables for use in the P180 case. Many of those units are excellent power supplies, but we chose the Antec NeoHE 550 power supply for its combination of high quality, very low noise, and reasonable price.
Intel Pentium D 820 (http://www.intel.com)
Processor performance is a minor consideration for a file/print server. In fact, if this server were to be used only for file/print duties, even the slowest current processor would do the job with Linux. But, although this server will provide only file and print services initially, we expect it to last for years with few upgrades, and we may eventually run some applications on it. Accordingly, it made sense to choose a faster processor that would give us some horsepower in reserve.
At the time we built this server, Intel had just introduced their new-generation Core 2 Duo (Conroe) processors. Usually, Intel sets a significant price premium on such new products, but in this case Intel priced their new processors at mainstream levels. That left no "price umbrella" for the older models, which began selling at fire sale prices.
We were able to pick up a retailed-boxed Pentium D 820 dual-core processor for about $100, so for the price of a "value" processor we obtained a very capable dual-core processor. (Although Intel has de-emphasized its older models, it did not discontinue them; we expect this processor or a similar model to be available well into 2007.) The retail-boxed Pentium D processor comes with a three-year warranty and a surprisingly effective and quiet CPU cooler.
It may seem strange to choose an obsolescent processor for our SOHO server, but cutting-edge technology is the last thing we want for a server. We want proven technology, and the Pentium D provides that in spades. The fact that the Pentium D costs less than newer models with similar performance is just a nice bonus.
Intel D945PVSLKR (http://www.intel.com)
Choosing the Intel Pentium D processor means we need a compatible Socket 775 motherboard. We wanted an Intel-branded motherboard, because we have found Intel motherboards to be the most reliable of any brand we have tested. Intel-branded motherboards also offer top-notch compatibility and driver support, whether you run Linux or Windows Server.
Any Intel-branded motherboard based on the 945P or 945G chipset would probably have worked well, but we chose the Intel D945PVSLKR model. Although the D945PVS lacks integrated video and costs more than 945G models like the D945GNT, we chose it for two reasons. First, we happened to have a new D945PVS sitting unused in our inventory room. More important, we plan to run the Server Edition of Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support) on our SOHO Server. Robert ran the Desktop Edition of Ubuntu 6.06 LTS extensively on his main workstation, which usesyou guessed itan Intel D945PVSLKR motherboard and a Pentium D processor. Based on that experience, we knew with absolute certainty that Ubuntu 6.06 was fully compatible with the D945PVSLKR and fully supported its hardware features. We decided that the $30 higher cost of the D945PVSLKR relative to the D945GNT was cheap insurance.
Crucial CT6464AA40E PC3200 DDR2 DIMMs (512 MB x 4) (http://www.crucial.com)
We could analyze the memory requirements of a Linux SOHO server all day long, but what's the point? Memory is inexpensive, so it's a false economy to install too little. In our 20 years of dealing with servers, we've never heard anyone complain that his server had too much memory.
In terms of memory requirements, using a dual-core processor is essentially the same as using dual processors. To avoid memory bottlenecks, it's a good idea to install twice as much memory for a dual-core processor as you would for a single-core processor. Our Linux SOHO server could probably get along initially with 1 GB (512 MB/core), but the incremental cost of installing 2 GB (1 GB/core) was less than $100, so we decided to install 2 GB.
The Intel D945PVS motherboard provides four memory slots, and supports a maximum of 4 GB of memory. We could have installed two 1 GB modules for 2 GB totalwhich would leave two memory slots available for future expansionor four 512 MB modules. At the time we ordered memory for this system, two 1 GB modules cost about $30 more than four 512 MB modules. After thinking about it, we decided that we were unlikely to upgrade the memory in this server beyond 2 GB, so we decided to save the $30 and install four 512 MB modules.
We chose four 512 MB Crucial CT6464AA40E PC3200 DDR2 memory modules, using the online Crucial product selector to ensure compatibility with our D945PVS motherboard. The motherboard supports DDR2-400 (PC3200), DDR2-533 (PC4200), and DDR2-667 (PC5300) memory modules. Although Crucial offers PC4200 and PC5300 modules for this motherboard, those modules are more expensive. PC3200 is fast enough for the processor we chose and for any upgrade processor we're likely to install later.
4.3.6. TV Tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500MCE (http://www.hauppauge.com)
Although it is not a primary function, we wanted our server to function as a backup to our primary media center system. The media center system has two analog tuner cards and one HDTV tuner card, which should suffice for most of our television recording needs. Still, there may be times when we want to record additional programs when the media center system is fully occupied.
So we decided to add a TV tuner card or cards to our server. The only question was which model to install. Because our server will run Linux, we needed a tuner card that was supported by MythTV, the most popular and featureful PVR application available for Linux. Obviously, we required top-notch video quality. To minimize the load on the CPU we wanted a card that provided hardware-based MPEG encoding.
After comparing the specifications and reviews of several tuner cards, we decided to use a Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500MCE, shown in Figure 4-3. Hauppauge is the gold standard in TV tuner cards. Hauppauge tuner cards have the best capture quality of any we have used, and are supported by nearly every PVR application available, under both Windows and Linux.
Figure 4-3. Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-500 tuner
Hauppauge offers several models, including some that bundle a remote control that is compatible with Windows Media Center Edition (MCE). We don't intend to run MCE, and we have no need of a remote control because this system will function only as a "back end" for recording. (Remember, our server runs headless, so we'll control recording setup from another system elsewhere on the network.) We narrowed our choices to the WinTV-PVR-150 single-channel tuner card and the WinTV-PVR-500 dual-channel tuner card.
The PVR-150 is less expensive and by some reports offers very slightly better recording quality. (The PVR-500 splits a single TV-in cable connector; the second F-connector visible in the image is FM-in.) Conversely, the PVR-500 costs less than two PVR-150 cards, and occupies only one expansion slot. We decided the small additional cost of the PVR-500 was worthwhile in exchange for the additional flexibility of having a second tuner available. When we're on vacation, for example, we can shut the rest of the house down, leaving only the server running, and still be able to record two programs simultaneously.
4.3.7. Hard Disk Drives
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 Serial ATA (500 GB x 4) (http://www.seagate.com)
The disk subsystem of our SOHO server must be capacious, fast, and reliable. Capacious, because this server will store all of the data we want to keep online, including large DV video files. Fast, because the server will sometimes be hammered by clients accessing large amounts of data. Reliable, well, for obvious reasons.
4.3.8. External Hard Drives
The first decision is whether to buy purpose-built external hard drives or to build them yourself using bare hard drives and external enclosures. Each has advantages, although on balance we've come to prefer home-built external drives.
Commercial external hard drives are available from Seagate, Maxtor, Western Digital, and many other companies. Their major advantage over a home-built external hard drive is that they typically bundle Dantz Retrospect, CMS Bounceback Express, or similar backup software that allows you to initiate a backup just by pressing a button on the external drive. (Of course, that software works only if you run Windows on your server, and in some cases the software is limited to workstation versions of Windows rather than Windows Server.) The major drawbacks of commercial external hard drives are limited choice of configuration, relatively high cost, and short warrantiesoften a year or less versus five years on a standard hard drive.
Home-built external hard drives have many advantages. By choosing the appropriate enclosure, you can have a USB 2.0, FireWire, or e.SATA external interfaceor any of the two, or all three in one device. (We generally use USB 2.0 for maximum compatibility with any system we might need to restore to in an emergency, but it's nice to have the choice.) Enclosures are available to support old-technology ATA hard drives as well as current S-ATA models, so you can use an enclosure to convert an otherwise useless older ATA drive into a useful backup device. External enclosures offer complete flexibility because they accept essentially any standard hard drive. That means you can build an external hard drive using anything from a small, slow, inexpensive drive to the latest high-capacity barn burner. Giving up the one-touch convenience of commercial models can save you a lot of money, particularly if you need several external drives. The total cost of a new hard drive and enclosure may be only 50% to 75% the cost of a commercial model of similar capacity. Finally, with a home-built external drive, you get the standard five-year warranty on the hard drive instead of a one-year warranty. (Presumably, hard drive manufacturers offer shorter warranties on external drives because their mobility makes them more subject to damage than a similar hard drive installed internally in a nice, safe computer case.)
If you decide to roll your own, choose your external enclosure carefully. The first decision is which internal and external interfaces to use. A few enclosures support both ATA and S-ATA internal interfaces, although most have only one or the other. (Some are designed for SCSI hard drives, but that is beyond the scope of this book.) Any enclosure provides one or more external interfaces, which may be USB 2.0, FireWire, or e.SATA, in any combination. If high data transfer rates are important to you, choose a model that provides FireWire and/or e.SATA external interfaces. Otherwise, USB 2.0 is sufficient and has the advantage of compatibility with any computer built in the last several years.
There is a strong correlation between the price of an external enclosure and its quality. Cheap enclosures are of mostly plastic construction, and are quite flimsy and unreliable. Better enclosures use a metal chassis and generally have better quality connectors and power bricks. Some enclosures, particularly more expensive models, provide very robust internal power and data connectors, which means you can swap drives in and out of them as necessary. Others, including every inexpensive model we've seen, use less robust internal connectors. They're fine if all you plan to do is install the drive and use it until it drops, but they're not really intended to allow drives to be swapped in and out frequently.
Our "default" choice is the KingWin TL-35CS Night Hawk model. At $40 or so, it's twice as expensive as the cheapest models, but it's built like a tank and extremely reliable. It has only a USB 2.0 external interface, which suffices for our needs. We don't use FireWire for external drives, and so have no experience upon which to base a recommendation. For an e.SATA enclosure, we recommend the Vantec NST-360SU, which includes an external USB 2.0 interface.
4.3.9. Optical Drive
NEC ND-3550A DVD writer (http://www.necus.com)
Our SOHO server runs headless, so in theory it doesn't really need a DVD writer. We'll back it up across the network and to removable hard drives. The only reason we'll use the optical drive in this system is for installing software and perhaps for infrequent periodic maintenance. Still, the NEC DVD writer costs only $30, so it was pointless to install a read-only optical drive. Although we can't foresee the circumstances, one day having that writable optical drive installed might be a lifesaver. (As our old friend Mandy frequently says, "It could happen.")
4.3.10. Keyboard, Mouse, and Display
Because this SOHO server runs Linux, we need a keyboard, mouse, and display only for initial installation and configuration. Once the server is running, we can manage it remotely from one of our desktop systems.
Falcon Electric SG Series 1 kVA On-Line UPS (http://www.falconups.com)
Running a server without a UPS is foolish. Even a momentary power glitch can corrupt open databases, trash open documents, and crash server-based apps, wiping out the work of everyone connected to the server. A UPS may literally pay for itself the first time the power fails.
We used and recommended APC UPSs for many years. Then, after we experienced several premature failures of APC units and received numerous messages from readers about their increasingly frequent problems with APC units, we decided to look elsewhere. On the advice of our friend and colleague Jerry Pournelle, we looked at Falcon Electric UPSs, which turned out to be as good as Jerry said they were. (Years ago, an earthquake rattled Chaos Manor, knocking everything over. All of Jerry's equipment failed, except the Falcon Electric UPS, which just kept running, lying on its side amidst the debris of his computer room.) We've now used Falcon Electric units exclusively for a couple of years, without so much as a hiccough.
Falcon Electric units are built to industrial standards. They cost more than consumer-grade systems, although we found the actual price difference surprisingly small. You won't find them at online resellers or big-box stores, but they are readily available from numerous distributors. Check the Falcon Electric web site for details.
Our server connects to the 1 kVA Falcon Electric SG Series On-Line UPS that was already located in Barbara's office, protecting her desktop system. That unit has plenty of reserve capacity to protect the server as well, so there was no need to install a separate UPS for the server. Note that the Falcon Electric SG is a true online UPS. Falcon also sells less expensive line-interactive models that offer similar functionally to mass-market models from APC and others, but are substantially better built. Table 4-3 lists our component choices for a SOHO Server system.