DIY Server

Introduction

Setting up an effective server for a small business or home isn't always an expensive process. Here I have gathered a brief guideline on the parts you would require and a link to some setup information. Basic knowledge of building computers would be beneficial although it is a really easy skill to learn. Personally, I feel one of the bigger issues regarding servers is their running costs. This cost is usually much larger than running standard desktop computers as they operate continuously for months on end. The aim of this server is to cost less than £70 a year to run (roughly 45W-70W), whilst still being reliable and functional.

The operating system I recommend using on this particular server will be Ubuntu Server. It's free to use and due to its vast user base, there is a lot of online documentation aimed at all skill levels. Ubuntu Server is a command line based system, although a graphical user interface can easily be installed. It would be best to avoid using a graphical user interface as it will use up valuable processing power. After setting up the server, it is not likely that a screen would be attached. Any changes made to the server after it has been set up should be done remotely using a secure shell, How-To Geek have an excellent guide for setting it up.

This server will consist of three hard drives. The primary hard drive will be an SSD (Solid State Drive). SSDs have no moving parts, all data is stored on 'memory modules' like on a USB pen, as opposed to the traditional spinning disks. The lack of moving parts provides SSDs with much faster read and write speeds, they also use much less electricity and have a longer lifespan. Due to these improvements, SSDs cost significantly more than traditional hard drives and their average capacity is considerably lower. The other two hard drives in this server will be identical disk based drives. As disk based drives use more electricity, they will be used only for shared user data. Being used only for data will allow the disk based drives to become idle during inactivity, extending their lifespan and lowering their power consumption. The primary drive will house the operating system and will therefore spend more time in an active state, this is why the lower power consumption is an advantage. For further information on SSD vs traditional hard drives, StorageReview.com have a very in-depth article.

The reason that two identical secondary drives will be used is for backup reasons. Hard drives can be set up using many different storage technologies. An example of these technologies is RAID0 and RAID1, Redundant Array of Independent Disks. Raid0 consists of multiple hard drives combining as one to create a larger storage space. An example of this would be two 250MB hard drives combining to create a 500GB storage space. The danger of such a setup is that if any of the two drives becomes damaged or corrupted, all data will be lost. An example of RAID1 would be two 250MB hard drives being used to create a single 250HM storage space with built in redundancy. Both hard drives appear as one and mirror each other, if one hard drive were to fail, data on the other would still theoretically be safe. Usually when a hard drive in a RAID1 configuration fails, it informs the user of the failure in order to prompt repair/replacement. This server would be best to use RAID1 in order to keep the shared data safe. This is only a brief introduction into RAID storage configurations; for further information regarding using and setting up RAID configurations with Ubuntu Server, refer to the official Ubuntu wiki.

Shopping List

Operating System

As previously mentioned, the Operating System for this server will be Ubuntu Server. Ubuntu is a free open source project although donations are recommended. Many guides can be found on the Ubuntu website which would be beneficial for users of all skill levels. If the idea of a command line based Operating System is daunting, using Ubuntu Desktop may be a safer option. The 64-bit version should be downloaded as it will allow higher amounts of memory.

Mother Board and Processor

Usually a mother board, processor and cooling fan are purchased separately. Recently, processor companies such as Intel and AMD have started to produce low-power processors designed for computers that run continuously for hours on end. The majority of these new low-power processors come pre-installed on motherboards, they are commonly found in small laptops. The board we will be using is the Biostar A68I-350 Deluxe R2.0. At a cost of £47.99, this Biostar motherboard comes pre-installed with a dual core AMD Fusion 350D and cooler. The AMD Fusion 350D has a power consumption ranging between 12W (idle) and 31W (load), even during periods of heavy use the AMD Fusion 350D has considerably low power consumption figures. The server will most likely spend 90% of its time in an idle state. This particular mother board comes with a 3 year warranty.

Memory

RAM (Random Access Memory) is produced by a large number of manufacturers. On a server such as this, high speed RAM will not make much of a difference, therefore a cheaper 1333Mhz memory unit will suffice. Corsair offer lifetime warranties with all of their RAM, therefore 4GB of Corsair XMS3 DDR3 RAM would be excellent for a small server. At a cost of £31.68 it's very well reviewed in regards to its reliability.

Hard Drives

As the hard drives will be in a computer running for long hours, it is important that they are rated for such activity. The Western Digital RED 1TB drives are designed for use in NAS (Network Attached Storage) systems, therefore they will be perfect for use as data drives within a server. Disk based hard drives use roughly 6 to 7 Watts of electricity in order to run. These particular drives cost £54.84, or £109.68 if a RAID1 configuration will be set up. These drives will contain folders that can be accessed on the network via a password. Linux based operating systems such as Ubuntu can use a piece of software known as Samba to create network shared folders. ghacks.net have a very easy to follow article if you'd like more information on setting up Samba with Ubuntu.

Solid State Drive

Using considerably less power than a traditional hard drive, an SSD uses roughly 2 to 3 Watts of electricity. Due to the cost of SSDs, we will only get a small capacity drive. The SanDisk 32GB SSD costs £35 and would be more than large enough for an installation of Ubuntu Server as long as all user documents are stored on the secondary drives.

Power Supply Unit

PSUs (Power Supply Units) are very often misunderstood. Many people believe that a 500W PSU will continuously run at 500W, although this is not the case. The wattage of a PSU is its maximum rated capacity. As the server will have a low power consumption, the Seasonic S3-360GP PSU should be more than powerful enough and would leave plenty of room for future expansion. While its costs of £47.23 may seem quite high, this is due to its '80+ Gold' efficiency rating. This rating states that the PSU will have an efficiency of over 80%. A higher efficiency will further lower the electricity costs while also improving the lifespan of any attached hardware.

Case

The case for the server is most likely the least important part. As long as it has enough space to contain all of the components, the rest of the decision is based entirely on aesthetics. For the purposes of this server, I have chosen a Cooler Master RC-120A-KKN1 case. The case costs £34.94 yet has space left over for an extra hard drive, graphics cards and an optical drive. It is well reviewed in regards to accessibility and ventilation which is always a good feature to have in a server case.

Conclusion

While the server in this article may seem under-powered in comparison to much more expensive servers, it fills a gap for small businesses and home users who are looking for a functional server that won't cost a fortune to run. The overall cost of the parts used in this article amount to £252.68 although they could easily be found cheaper with some online sleuthing. Setting it up without any prior Linux experience will be tricky, but with the plethora of tutorials available on the internet it should be more than possible. For example, it could easily be used as a mail server by following the (very!) detailed instructions at Ubuntu Guide. If being used in a home setting, installing an affordable graphics card and the free XBMC software would double the server as an excellent media centre that could be plugged into a television via HDMI cable. It should be noted that a graphics card would increase the running costs of the server.

And if you do not feel comfortable using a Linux based system, you could always pay an extra £36.99 and install Microsoft Windows Home Server!

Adam Williams 16th February 2014