Data Centers

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...

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