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OT: Building a small home server

by dws (Chancellor)
on Feb 12, 2003 at 22:28 UTC ( #234847=perlmeditation: print w/ replies, xml ) Need Help??

I've been having a bit of fun putting together a new home server, and have some info for others who might be pondering building their next PC, but who are on a budget. This is kind of off-topic, except that we all need hardware to run Perl on, and many of us are on tight budgets right now.

I do most of my work on a laptop, using a server for mod_perl/Samba/CVS/etc. My old P133-based server was getting unstable (I suspect that the disk controller was dying), and I was looking around for what to replace it with. None of the refurb boxes I found inspired great confidence, new equipment seemed rather expensive, and I wanted something small. The Shuttle boxes looked tempting, but were still expensive. My needs didn't require 1.8Ghz+ speed.

Researching further, I found that an emerging alternative to Intel- or AMD-based motherboards are the all-in-one Via Mini-ITX boards, many of which run the low-power, i586-compatible Via C3 chip. The Mini-ITX boards have Audio, Video, and LAN on-board. Some have TV-Out. You basically plug in RAM, hook up a disk and CD/DVD, install an OS, and away you go. Oh, and you need a case. That's where some people have been having a lot of fun, building Mini-ITX boards into lunch boxes, toaster ovens, old game consoles, cigar humidors, etc. The low-end processor can be run fanless, for truly quiet computing.

I was skeptical of the stability of these boards until I did some research, and found that they could run RH8 and recent builds of FreeBSD (and gentoo linux, with a bit of futzing), and that people who had them were pretty happy with them.. A positive report from a serious FreeBSD developer I respect was enough to push me over the edge.

I opted for this board in this case (which is quiet, but not silent), adding a 256Mb RAM stick and a Sony CDRW (on sale), and reused a 60GB IBM drive from the old server. (The board actually booted off of the old drive, which had RH7.2, but I installed RH8 to get newer drivers.) In total, I shelled out about $350 USD, including taxes.

I'm happy with the result, with a few caveats:

  1. The C3 processor is i586 compatible, but lacks a few instructions in the i686 set. This means compiling some stuff from source. I haven't had any trouble with anything from a fresh RH8 install, which claims to be built for i686, but I'm probably just lucky (so far).
  2. The on-board AGP graphics is pretty much limited to 1024x768x24 graphics. It's fine for text or X, but don't expect to play graphics-intensive games. I run the box mostly headless, so I don't care.
  3. TV-Out may require drivers that aren't yet stable on Linux. Again, no issue if you're just running headless or don't plan on plugging the box into a TV.
The linITX forum has more reports from people who're running Linux on Mini-ITX boards.

Disclaimers: None. I'm just a happy customer.

Comment on OT: Building a small home server
Re: OT: Building a small home server
by mugwumpjism (Hermit) on Feb 12, 2003 at 22:50 UTC

    You can get Mini-ITX systems with regular processors. Heat dissipation is more of an issue of course. And if you run a decent distro you won't have the dumass RedHat `everyone has a PIII' assumption built in.

    I think the true value of these things is as a sort of modern version of X-Terminals; put a CompactFlash IDE converter in them, and boot them off a 32MB CF card, and you've got a workstation with no moving parts, and no configuration! Which means 10 year+ longevity and nice silent operation. Because the CF card is removable, IT can easily get systems working again by simply replacing the CF card, then taking the failed one back and re-imaging it.

    Just out of curiosity, will the graphics card (that's the Trident Blade, isn't it?) go to higher resolutions at a lower colour depth?

      Will the graphics card (that's the Trident Blade, isn't it?) go to higher resolutions at a lower colour depth?

      Yes, it's a Trident, and it looks like 1024x768 is the upper limit, though I've seen reports of people sticking in second video cards.

Re: OT: Building a small home server
by Kanji (Parson) on Feb 13, 2003 at 00:37 UTC
    [...] new equipment seemed rather expensive, and I wanted something small.

    New and small may be rather expensive, but if you're willing to live with something a little bigger, Wal-Mart sell Microtel systems with a Via C3 chip for ~$200.

    (And, no, this is not an endorsement of Microtel ... just an observation.)

        --k.


      Around christmas time, I was building a new box as my old one had become out of date, and ran like a one legged man, and I was able to configure a new box (from the case up) relatively inexpensively, using pricewatch.com.

      I got all my pieces within two weeks, and the entire PC (minus CD-ROM, Hard Drive, and floppy) cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised at the price, and the new box has been great so far.

      And no, I am not getting paid to say this.
Re: OT: Building a small home server
by newrisedesigns (Curate) on Feb 13, 2003 at 05:05 UTC

    If you don't have $300+, I encourage everyone to slap an extra computer together from spare parts like I did.

      "Firebird" (used as a file server/sometimes workstation by a poor college student)
    • 400 MHz AMD K6-2
    • 450MB RAM
    • Hard Drives
      • 1 1.2 GB (Windows 2000 system)
      • 2 20 GB (Data)
      • 1 40 GB (MP3s and Movies)
    • Has Perl. Haven't installed Apache yet, but I plan on it.

    Surprisingly, it works well. It's slow, but it's reliable. (although most of you would rather use Linux or FreeBSD, I'm sure)

    John J Reiser
    newrisedesigns.com

Re: OT: Building a small home server
by steves (Curate) on Feb 13, 2003 at 07:32 UTC

    Note that some AMD motherboards have problems with newer Linux distibutions -- and not just RH. I bought a K7VMM a while ago that runs fine with RH 7.3 but will not boot off RH 8.0 CDs, or off CDs of other distros made with similar kernels.

    I got this one (1.33 GHz, 40 gig hd, 256M RAM) at a computer show for about $300 USD. No monitor (I have a KVM switch) but it came with a NIC, CD/DVD reader, keyboard, mouse and cheap speakers. The K7VMM also uses the VIA chip set.

      "I bought a K7VMM a while ago that runs fine with RH 7.3 but will not boot off RH 8.0 CDs"

      I had that same problem on my box, but I got the boot images (to copy to disks) and that solved the problem.

      Currently I am running dual boot WIN2K/RH 8.0 off an AMDXP 2100+ (not sure what kind of board it is, but I can check when I get home if need be)
      I've had troubles with VIA chipset boards. We have some Duron computers at work and the motherboards use VIA chipsets. I've found there are bugs that can affect CDROM drives (randomly fails to read) and sound cards (can play but cannot record).

      The CDROM bug was solved by using drives that are not made by creative (LG's work well). I've not found a solution to the sound problem.

      These problems exists regardless of what OS you run.

      Neil Watson
      watson-wilson.ca

Re: OT: Building a small home server
by Anonymous Monk on Feb 13, 2003 at 21:00 UTC

    I've always found it's better just to pay the extra 50% and get a better system. There seems to always be a sweet spot for computer hardware between price and performance. Pay more, you're just getting ripped off for minimum performance increases, pay less and your just saving a couple bucks now for limited use and often stability problems in the future. This is especially the case with motherboards and power supplies (often the most overlooked components).

    What good is the 20$ you saved on the board when it dies on you? Even if the manufacturer has a decent warranty on it, your computer is out of service while it's replaced? As for the performance/price level, look at ram right now, you can buy 128mb pc133 sd-ram for 45$CDN or 256mb pc2100 ddr 266Mhz for 65$CDN (Canadian dollar is currently at about 0.65USD). Not only will the latter result in a major performance increase, but it will also be supported by newer motherboards for a longer period of time, all for 20$ extra. Processors are the same way, a 1.3Ghz Duron only costs 70$CDN (XP 1800+ around 120$CDN) it's definately worth it at these prices IMHO.

    As for integrated systems video card/board/cpu, I personally see many problems with them. One being that I've traditionally found them to be very low quality, and the other being it's harder to upgrade them and when one part goes down it takes the entire system with it. Support by various operating systems can also be a problem.

    I also wouldn't buy parts from a place called IDOT computers. I keep thinking it's missing an 'i' every time I see it 8^) </cheapshot>. Interesting discussion though, even if this is a Perl site.

      "What good is the 20$ you saved on the board when it dies on you?"

      True enough. However in my case the problem that exists is most often that I don't HAVE the extra $20 needed to get that next name brand, or the next upgrade (whatever) so I go for that which is somewhat off the brand label, and/or a little slower than the top of the line.

      I have had some problems with pre-made "cookie cutter" pcs(you buy what they put together without having much quality control in between) in the past, but in most instances I pick one of those up because they are cheap, and I need a box to test on, what have you.

      As far as RAM prices are concerned, I've found a dealer that I like, always ships quickly, and RAM is always the cheapest possible in the market at that current time (let me tell you the RAM market fluctuates greatly, but I have been able to get my mits on a 256 stick of pc 2100, I think, DDR for around $30 USD in the past) and I can always trust the quality, so I have no problems with that whole mess.

      Usually I take a week or so to watch the market, and pick and chose what I think is the best deal, then visit my local PC supplier and see if I can't match prices there (usually I find better pricing online, but occasional mouse/keyboard sales at the superstore come in handy) so as to make the most of my money. In most cases, I have a "consultant" friend of mine who helps me assemble my next box from components and prices, and between the two of us, we can usually come up with a pretty slick deal.

      In any case, I usually plan my PC purchases for when I will
      • have money
      • not have an immediate need for an upgrade
      so as to protect myself from any unwanted personal price gouging, enacted because of fear/time constraints/frugality.

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