Hardware

How to design a new server room... inexpensively

Often, you can find really cheap solutions to potentially expensive problems. Today, Brien Posey explains how he discovered a good method of racking up servers and conserving electricity—all without racking up an intimidating price.

Lately, I’ve been facing an unnerving problem: My computer rooms are filling up. With two new servers on the way, I had no choice but to redesign my basement server room and try to conserve space. But this project proved a bigger challenge than I had expected. Today, I’ll share the techniques that I used to solve my problem. Of course, my solution was only possible because of the layout of my house; however, most of these techniques can be applied to similar circumstances.

Considerations and possible solutions
The most important issues to consider when you’re designing a server room are temperature, ventilation, and easy access to electricity and network cabling. Although the temperature, ventilation, and cabling weren’t a problem in my computer rooms, I had used every existing electrical outlet. (Most of the outlets had about eight plugs.) I was also out of physical space. Even if I managed to unplug something and free up some juice for the new servers, there was nowhere to put them.

I considered many options to resolve the problem. For instance, one of my computer rooms is next to a storage room. I had considered installing a raised floor—similar to what you’ll find in large companies—in the storage room and putting some servers in there. Raised floors provide excellent ventilation and temperature control because of the way in which cool air is pumped through the floor. Unfortunately, however, a raised floor just wasn’t practical. It would have been very expensive to install, and my ceilings were too low. I would have had to duck every time I entered my server room.

I also considered changing to a rack mount system, but most rack systems can’t accommodate the traditional mid-tower systems that are rapidly taking over my home. The few racks that did support traditional systems also tended to cost a lot.

The solution
The solution hit me when I least expected it. My wife had asked me to go to the store with her. At the store, I stumbled across a section that sold various racks for organizing closets. One type of rack was the perfect size for supporting mid-tower servers. Since it could support about five hundred pounds, the weight of the servers wasn’t a problem. What made the racks even more appealing was the fact that they used a wire-frame design, and wire frame is perfect for providing ventilation. The bottom rack was about six inches off of the ground. Thus, even the machines on the bottom would receive good ventilation, and all of my machines would be safe if my basement ever flooded.

After I purchased several racks and returned home, I placed the racks in the storage room. Then, at the bottom of the wall, I cut a small hole through which I could bring my keyboard, mouse, and video cables. I bought some extension cables for about three dollars apiece. Inside the old computer room, I connected each of these cables to a multiplexer.

I left two large monitors, two keyboards, and two mice in the existing computer room. I connected one keyboard, mouse, and monitor to a workstation that I use for writing articles and checking my e-mail. I connected the other monitor, keyboard, and mouse to a multiplexer. The multiplexer allows me to switch between servers with the press of a button.

This setup eased the electrical burden in my computer rooms tremendously. Now, I have one room that’s completely empty, and I have another room that contains one system, two monitors, and a couple of printers. In case you’re wondering, the printers are still connected to the servers via parallel cables, which are fed through the wall. I also eased the electrical burden by cutting down on the total number of monitors in my computer rooms.

Now, the rack in the storage room contains all of the servers, the hub, and my DSL router. All of these devices are protected by a couple of large UPS units. The process didn’t require me to run any new cabling because I thought ahead. When I originally ran the cable, I left plenty of slack in it. That way, I could just move the existing cable to the new location. The only new cable that I had to run was for my DSL router. Due to the way in which the phone company had installed the router, I couldn’t possibly move it. Fortunately, DSL routers connect to an NIC card. So, I simply ran a new network cable from my proxy server (which acts as my firewall) to the router at the other end of the house.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.
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