Processors optimize

A computer geek's guide to building a 64-bit server on a budget

Building a new 64-bit server from scratch doesn't have to break the bank. In fact, Erik Eckel built a 64-bit server for less than $775. Here's how he did it.

A TechRepublic Photo Gallery of Erik's build process is also available.

Technology professionals enjoy building things. We experiment. We're curious. We're driven to learn how things work. When it comes down to it, we love designing cool projects.

We'll happily sacrifice popularity in the process. Author and programmer Paul Graham notes in his essay "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" that there's something else young thinkers want more:

"...to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things."

That's why the hacker magazine 2600 has been publishing for 25 years. It's also why O'Reilly's Make magazine, Instructables.com, CNET's Weekend Projects, and events such as Maker Faire prove so popular.

So imagine my brief epiphany early in the spring when I realized I had a genuine new project on my hands. I needed to install and test Windows Small Business Server 2008, and I needed to do so fast. Two clients had pressing needs to deploy the new OS, but I hadn't had a chance to first familiarize myself with the new platform. My trusty basement test lab didn't boast a system capable of running the new 64-bit server platform. My faithful 64-bit black box, whose birth is recorded on this very site, had run its course.

I reviewed my options. I could leverage my business' Dell purchasing account and have a PowerEdge on site in three days. Or, I could do what any self-respecting geek would do and just build it myself -- from scratch -- on a weekend when others typically devote quality time to being cool or hip.

It was an easy decision.

The process consumed a single Saturday afternoon and was documented in an accompanying TechRepublic Photo Gallery. Total cost was just $766.

I learned a few things in the process. This isn't just a "how to build a budget 64-bit server." Stick with me -- it's also a warning as to "how not to build a budget 64-bit server."

The components

The heart of a 64-bit server isn't the CPU, as you might expect. It's actually the motherboard. Without a server-class motherboard, a server is nothing but a glorified desktop PC.

Server motherboards are tuned for performance. They often boast multiple CPU support, not to mention multiple gigabit NICs. Plus, driver support can prove flaky between desktop motherboards and server operating systems, so technology professionals are best served avoiding shortcuts here, even when deploying test servers.

So, when it came to building this 64-bit machine, I began by selecting an Intel Server Board, model number S3200SHV. If you're into the numbers, it supports 800/1066/1333Mhz bus speeds, up to a multi-core Intel Xeon 3000 sequence CPU, four DIMM slots for DDR2 667/800MHz RAM, gigabit Ethernet, six 3.0 Gbps ports, embedded RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10, integrated graphics, and more. Cost was $239.

Since I needed the test machine to support some half-dozen users at most, I chose a potent Intel Dual-Core Pentium CPU. While the 2.5GHz model doesn't boast blazing performance like a Xeon counterpart, it's plenty fast and priced right at less than $90.

Next I turned my attention to the hard drives. I chose to mirror two 80GB 3.0 Gbps SATA drives. I added an extra 500 GB SATA drive for data storage (with plans to back it up off site). Total cost was less than $200.

Add in an inexpensive DVD-ROM ($29), a simple 80mm case fan ($5), 8GB of RAM ($116), and a cheap case ($29), and I was done -- for under $750.

Or so I thought.

The assembly

I painstakingly unpacked, installed, and connected the motherboard, hard disks, front panel header connections, cooling fans, and cables. I reviewed my progress.

Standoffs installed? Check. I/O shield in place? Check. Motherboard secured to chassis? Check. Front panel connections complete? Check. Power supply connections ready? Check. CPU seated properly? Check. CPU cooling fan in place? Check. And on and on.

All was ready. The big moment was at hand -- the first boot.

Failure

But nothing. Zilch. Nada.

I checked electrical connections. I traced front-panel wiring. I double-checked motherboard plugs. All was correct. But I was getting nothing, save one lit green LED on the motherboard. The power button just clicked, doing nothing. The crappy power supply included with the $29 scratch-and-dent case wouldn't even turn the five-dollar case fan.

Why invest money in a case, anyway? I'd just argued with my brother over an element in the new Star Trek movie. Apparently, this is a big issue. He said many Trekkies were upset that the engine room in director J.J. Abram's Starship Enterprise wasn't fancier in the film. Some longtime fans feel the engine room deserves a more advanced and futuristic design.

I argued the opposite. Why, if you are funding interstellar space travel, would you invest funds in prettying up the engine room? Just as with nuclear-powered aircraft carriers today, engine rooms are utilitarian. You're better served putting your money in electronics, weapons, and navigation systems instead.

So, with that mind-set, I figured I'd slide by using a low-cost case and power supply. Put the money into the motherboard and CPU instead of looks and fancy blinking lights.

Unfortunately, that proved to be a mistake. After studying the motherboard schematic Intel includes with the server board, double- and triple-checking all connections, and confirming all was as it should be, I bailed. I returned to the local computer supply outlet and upgraded to a better case boasting more internal space as well as a healthier power supply.

Purists, meanwhile, will argue a smart technology professional would purchase a server-class power supply separate from the case. And, they'd be correct.

Redemption

Power supply quality makes a big difference. Following a few hours' delay while I sorted the mess out, I managed to get all the components migrated to the new case and complete all required connections.

Voila. Liftoff. Fans buzzed to life. Hard disk motors spun up. I was in business.

A few hours later, I was surprised at just how fast Windows Small Business Server 2008 runs on a Pentium Dual-Core CPU. Usually I deploy Xeon processors in production environments, but the Pentium dual-core alternative proved more than capable. Even with Exchange running a half-dozen mailboxes, network antivirus active, and updates downloading in the background, the server easily moves freely between screens, consoles, and tasks.

Lessons learned

I learned several lessons in the process of building this budget 64-bit server:

  1. A 64-bit server need not break the bank. My total costs were less than $775.
  2. Constructing a server around a first-class motherboard makes a difference; this server is very fast, highly reliable, and boasts significant expansion capacity.
  3. Trying to save money by purchasing a sub-par case/power supply combination proved foolish. Ultimately, I invested another $75 in those components, which made a world of difference.
  4. In a pinch, you can beat the big boys. Dell would have required several days in a best-case scenario to get an equivalent box in my hands. I did it in a single afternoon.

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

66 comments
jdprior
jdprior

You only beat Dell if the box never has a hardware problem. As soon as a component fails and you have to buy a replacement the same day to get it back up and running, you're out money. With a Dell/HP/etc. you'd be calling on the warranty and having a part overnighted/same day delivered, possibly even with a tech to install onsite so you don't have to. Of course, this is a test system so it's not an issue but worth considering if you were planning on whiteboxing for customers - include component failure costs. For a test box it's a good build, but an AMD system would have had better performance for the same money.

DEPillow
DEPillow

I think that this build is a great method to test the new versions of Operating Systems. Has anyone else built a good reliable system on a tight budjet?

DEPillow
DEPillow

SWtatus Update of Budjet Server Build Erik, Can you give us an update as to the performance of your server build? I would like to know how the server board is performing and if there are any other issues to pass along. Thanks, Dennis P.

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

Enticing article but not so geeky IMHO. I believe a real geek works with numbers. Figure out exactly what you need, storage, network, power, etc. After that buy the components. In this way you wouldn't have had the first failure to start with. I built many system from the scratch with not one sigle failure, because I work with numbers. And obviously the power supply needs to be able to provide enough wattage for all the future upgrades. It doesn't make sense to get a big case just because you have more space to add more devices if the power supply can not provide enough power for them. You may find yourself forced to make another trip to the store when those upgrades will become a reality to buy a more powerful power supply. just my 2 cents. pace

iouzero
iouzero

Now, cases are an interesting subject. Other than the bling effect, I've seen zero difference between a $30 EBay box and an expensive name brand. If anything, given the same materials, steel or aluminum, the cheaper ones are superior, and chopping a few fan holes in them is less intimidating. The extra room allowed in a full tower is largely illusional. Yeah, the space is there, but it invariably is found in the power supply compartment and is practically useless, unless the builder is fitting in an extra rack for hard drives or something of that nature. The tight fits encountered in wiring up the motherboard to case, (floppy, optical drives, hard drives,etc.), is wholely a function of the motherboard, and has nothing to do with case size. Did I mention searching for longer cables to mount the drives? The one advantage in a full tower is the larger amount of air circulation afforded by the open space. But, even this comes at a cost; Unless you filter the incoming air, any additional fans serve as much to accumulate dirt as to cool. Personally, I choose the full towers for little other reason than to overawe the computer challenged folks who see my computers and think me (a shadetree guru at best), as the greatest geek they'll ever encounter. You have to have your fun where you can.

slong1
slong1

I have often wanted to build a dual cpu system using a server motherboard but it's hard to find a good board that will take a regular pci-e graphics card.

sixtyfourbits
sixtyfourbits

Was there a reason (other than cost) for using unbuffered, non-ECC RAM? I'm suprised the motherboard would run with it.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I own a Dell Precision 470 workstation as my home desktop. They can be bought off eBay for $400 or so, depending on the configuration. Mine has dual Xeons, can handle 16GB of RAM, and is from the get go 64bit compatible, including drivers from Dell. It is capable of RAID if you so choose. If I was starting again, I'd look for the 490 - faster bus/RAM/SATA channel etc. They sell for about 500 now, and some still have some of the three year warranty left. James

Jaqui
Jaqui

The cost would be higher though, in Canada the hardware costs are generally 30% more than in the U.S. last system I built from components I tweaked a package from a local white box retailer, cost me 650 CDN. This gave me the "package" they were selling for 1200 CDN. AMd Athlon X2 dual core 64 bit @ 1.8 GHz, 500 GB sata drive, dual layer DVDRW, 2 GB DDR2, NVidia 8600 TC chipset Asus graphics card, o/b 10/100 nic and sound. with one trip back to the retailer, they had given me a bad ram chip.

j-mart
j-mart

For building any machine starting with a solid, strong case is always a plus. As many of the new cases, especially the cheaper ones are just rubbish I don't waste my time with them. I always keep a lookout for good cases from about 5 or so years ago as the are of beter quality than many of the new ones and re-use these.

Jeff7181
Jeff7181

Did that $775 include the cost of the OS?

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

The server ran as the daily production server for my consultancy for four months. No trouble at all. The configuration powered SBS 2008 with no issues. Email, file access, remote connectivity, etc. all worked well. My consulting business is combining with another group, so we're in the process of deploying a new Oasis CRM system that connects to QuickBooks Enterprise. We are going to redeploy the actual 64-bit box I wrote about as our dedicated QuickBooks server.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Building a 64-bit server from scratch? That's geeky...

kkopp
kkopp

Don't believe anyone who says that appearances count for nothing. You and I may know that the mid tower or smaller might even do the trick, but if you are going to show a client, then either a full tower or a box in a rack is always more impressive. My only concern, when building for myself is that I have enough cooling for the job and enough space for the hard drives. Oh, and to Erik: Why raid the OS drive and not the Data. I make a compressed back-up onto my 1.5TB and raid that as well as off site back-up. Small drives are getting so expensive that its not even worth having separate physical drives anymore. You can almost get a 800GB drive the same price as an 80GB drive right now. My local Computer superstore was just selling OEM Segate 1TB drives for $79. They were selling their 80GB drives for over $80.

HapGail_HomeInMd
HapGail_HomeInMd

SUPERMICRO MBD-C2SBX+-O LGA 775 Intel X48 ATX Intel Motherboard

alansbb
alansbb

Does this server support VMWare ESX or Hypher V?

j-mart
j-mart

Was the bad RAM A-Data brand. A-Data RAM locally has been quite cheap but often doesn't last long before it fails, usually less than 12 months from purchase.

Jaqui
Jaqui

:D I keep old cases myself. I have a couple of the old AT towers, at 24" tall. [ the old physical power switch on the case, not just a soft power switch ] and a few old ATX cases sitting around for when I need one.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

No, the $775 is the cost of the hardware. The OS is not included, of course.

TBone2k
TBone2k

The object was to build a box instead of buying one. You would have to put the same OS on either of them, so the cost would be the same.

Jaqui
Jaqui

obviously not, since the os is a 2000 price tag item.

DEPillow
DEPillow

Thanks Erik, That is just what I was looking for. I believe I will give the build a shot and see how it works out. Dennis Pillow

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

True. I just said not geeky "enough". It is just my personal opinion that a truly geeky approach would have paid more attention to details. You were in a hurry, I understand that, but it takes less than a minute to check one of the free online power supply wattage calculator to figure out what wattage you need for example. Don't take me wrong, it is a great article and an excellent topic. We all made similar mistakes and we are all willing to share our hard earned experience here. It is also possible that I have a very skewed understanding of the "geek" term. cheers, Val

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I installed a RAID mirror to protect against OS configuration/hard disk failure. For office data, I use an off site backup service. Once the OS is up and running, I install the automated off site back up software. Then I specify the data drive to back up. Every evening any newly created data is safely and securely backed up off site. That way proprietary data (information that cannot be recovered from a manufacturer's CD or DVD) is also protected from theft/fire/etc.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

I can't address why not RAID the data drive (which seems pretty important to me, too). However, there are performance reasons to have the OS and the data on separate phyical spindles. Unless cost is THE overriding consideration, I'd much rather have a RAID1 for the OS and RAID5 (or better) for the data. I'd even settle for the OS RAID being a software mirror as long as I can have the data on a harware RAID.

JamesRL
JamesRL

You can check the Dell website, or the dell support forums, there might be some information there. Since you are in Toronto, I can connect you with my supplier if you like. James

Jaqui
Jaqui

it was a bad from factory Kingston chip

Dirt Burner
Dirt Burner

That's why there's three things I will not pinch on: motherboard ram power supply My experience is that cheap version of any of those 3 will cost you more in the long run. Not to mention the hours of frustration figuring out what is wrong, getting the new part, and installing it.

j-mart
j-mart

To post during my lunch break at work. Could have been the cause of all that extra space

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

As a so called geek, I would never mess with windows when it comes to servers, especially when I want to save some money as well.

bigmat
bigmat

Isn't it a crime, build allthe hardware for $775, and then pay $2000 to arrange a bunch of bits and bytes into some logical order, Now who has got who by the short and curly's. I feel an open source OS with a Database, Mail server, and a few other services running and you could still do it for the $775 as long as you can geek your way through the "non standard platform"

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

Paying attention to every small detail or splitting too many hairs like you say, is simply very geeky ;)

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

I might have misunderstood. I thought the PS failed due to lack of wattage, which can happen very easily if you buy the components like he did in a hurry. If you plug the PS and measure it do you get anything out of it? If no then yes, it was defective to start with, if yes then it is your mistake. Again, I might have misunderstood though. And I agree with you second point. The only thing I don't think is right is the title of this article. It is not geeky at all. Other than that it is excellent and I have really enjoyed it.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I think we're splitting too many hairs. For the average citizen, building a 64-bit server from scratch is uber geeky. While this specific 64-bit build powers an SBS 08 OS, would you feel better if I told you it sits alongside a second box I built running Ubuntu and Knoppix (using a removable hard disk bay)? In fact, that second box's build (originally designed for Vista) is chronicled here, too: http://content.techrepublic.com.com/2346-10878_11-3487.html As for the PSU, you're technically correct. The original low-cost PSU was defective. In my mind (and it sounds like yours, too), though, the defectiveness is very much related to its low cost. That's why i advocate investing more in a better quality power supply.

john3347
john3347

I failed to catch your implication here that the author purchased an inadequate power supply. It was my understanding from his words that he received a case/power supply package with a DEFECTIVE power supply. This is a common problem with "promotional grade" power supplies. I have bought new, cheap, power supplies that failed to work out of the box or only lasted a few minutes before failure. I have also heard of this occurrence from many of my friends. On another note, to assemble a server is not particularly "geeky". It is simple screws and plugs (and following an instruction booklet). "Insert the 40 pin plug into the 40 pin header" - while observing the direction of the indexing tab, etc. To make it work after assembly is Geeky, To make it work with a Linux OS is "Uber-Geeky".

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I think the process of building a server begins with the motherboard. You want to ensure you have a server-specific board. Next comes the CPU and RAM, making sure you spec components that match the demands you'll place on the system. Then come the hard disks and case. Don't skimp on the power supply, either. That came back to haunt me when I initially chose a cheap case with a low-cost PSU.

john3347
john3347

"arrange a bunch of bits and bytes into some logical order So....how much are you willing to pay exactly? Answer both in $ and time, seperatly." I am officially retired, just tinkering at a part-time home business. Have no money and LOTS of time. Can you give me a roadmap to a successful server? I am currently using a repurposed desktop with additional harddrives for my Windows Home Server. Building the box is not a problem, I already build my desktop boxes, arranging the bits and bytes is the problem.

bigmat
bigmat

I am not saying the Mercedes Benz or the Rolls Royce are not worth the money you pay for them, because of all the brands they are good cars. But I hate the BMW and Volvo that think they are as good as the first two and have the same price. I have a Ford Performance Vehicle F6 that has the same warranty, better performance, better economy, and just as comfortable as any of those euro cars and can run rings around them on the drag strip or track, Cost 3 times less, so where is the parity. My car is an import too so go figure. (Do a google search on the FPV F6 if you have to) Same Goes for Microsoft vs some other Server OS. Might is not always right. I suppose my point is a little slanted based on localised income vs cost. If I buy a 64 bit Server 2008 OS w/o Hyper V that you buy in the US for $750 USD I can bet I will have to pay $1800 NZD (1150 USD) for it. Who decided the value in that... must be the postage.... or someone with a finger too many in the pie..

valduboisvert
valduboisvert

It all depends on the application domain. We had 100% free linux servers that served us good with 0% downtime and 0 reboots for more than a year. We had to upgrade them due to some hardware upgrades, that is upgrade the linux kernel, drivers, etc. My Windows friends had many problems during this time. Not our linux servers or our SUN OS servers. OS software needs some work during deployment, agree here, but after that is ok as well. So from our application domain point of view windows is a NO, or how our friend put it in a very enthusiastic way "windows sucks". On the other hand, some applications really need a windows server, and when windows is the only way it is obviously the best solution. I think we all agree with this. Even though in our computer center we have just a few windows boxes lost in an ocean of *nix servers, truth is we have both windows and *nix servers.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

Then you are free to purchase another product. However, there is no crime here, just your annoyance. Any vendor of any product is entitled to charge what they wish for their product, just as you are free NOT to purchase it. If a lot of people share your perception that there is not sufficient value to the product to command the money, the vendor will either reudce the price or perhaps go out of business entirely. Just out of curiousity, do you also feel that Mecedes Benz and Rolls Royce are committing some sort of felony because of the prices they ask for their automobiles?

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

Whether any given OS sucks or not is a personal evaluation/opinion, not a dictate from some higher authority, which, in any case, you are not. We each make our INDIVIDUAL decisons and recommendations and the fact that yours is presumnably different from mine matters no more than you liking Fords and my liking Chevys. As for kool-aid, you have your own variety.

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

I have a prroblem paying 2k for an OS that sucks. I have no problem paying 0$ for an OS that MAY suck. See the difference. Maybe if you quite drinking the kool-aid...

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

considering Linux has a bout 60% of the server market worldwide, wouldn't quite call that "non-standard"

bigmat
bigmat

I have no problems paying for software, I do have a problem when the small outfits that make hardware can't be as profitable as those that write the software. I also have problems when journalist write an article and state Oh I built a server for ~$770, when in fact to get it to run and actually do something cost over double that.. Some could say that is just business savy on the part of the software vendors.. I think it is just greed, not all software vendors charge that much, the issue is some companies end up with most of the profit. because to run a server without an OS is like a car without fuel. (and we know who dictates the fuel prices don't we)

AGERanger10
AGERanger10

For $1000, I bought an ASUS P6T7 WS MB, Intel i7 2.66GH Quad CPU, 12 gigs GSkill RAM. I already had a copy of Win XP-64 to run it. I had a 500W power supply, thinking that should be enough. NOT. Needed 600W minimum, so headed out to buy a 750W Antec for additional $120. Had I read the book first, I could've avoided the rush out of the house to buy a power supply. Works wicked-fast and shows 8 cores in task manager. I'm waiting to go 64-bit Win 7 when my copies get delivered. Most of my 32-bit software continues to work. I'm very pleased with this upgrade.

jk2001
jk2001

When it comes to deployment on open source, you have to pay, too. The dominant OS is RHEL and dominant virtualization is VMWare. There's your $1000. You don't have to sell RHEL, but, if you do, you'll have RH to fall back on if your workload increases. If you can grow your company, and hire someone who happens to be less proficient at RHEL, that subscription will come in handy.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

Why is it that a lot of people, like you, have no problem paying for "hard" things, like motherboards, cases, processors and the like but are outraged at the idea of paying for "soft" things like an operating system? Both are the result of a lot of work by a lot of people, all of whom have to have a place to live, food to eat, etc. and have a perfectly reasonable expectation of being paid for their work. You don't work for free, do you? (If so, how do you meet your bills?) I don't mean to suggest anyone must buy "soft" things rather choosing to use a free "soft" thing - that's the buyer's decision and he/she is free to make it however they choose. However, those who create the things are equally entitled to decide whether, and how much, to charge for their creations. If one doesn't like the price, one is free to choose some alternate. There is no crime in Microsoft or any other company or person asking to be paid for its "soft" products any more than there is a crime in Intel or AMD asking to be paid for its processors or ASUS, Gigabyte or PNY expecting to be paid for its motherboards. The only crime is when one elects to use a "soft" thing for which a price is asked but not paid. There is no material or ethical difference between that and walking out of store with "hard" thing without paying for it. That is the only crime.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

So....how much are you willing to pay exactly? Answer both in $ and time, seperatly.

chris
chris

That's what MSDN is for, non production environments.