Choosing the components for our media server

Once I'd got the requirements for my server firmly established I set about the long and arduous task of drawing up the list of components I'd be needing to buy. Whilst I could write literally thousands of words on how exactly I came up with the list, suffice to say it was no easy task. It's not enough to simply read the manufacturers specs to see whether a particular component is suitable or not. This won't give you a feel for how well the component works in the real world. For that you'll be needing to read lots of reviews, both the "specialist" reviews available and the user reviews you see on sites such as Amazon and the like. However, you shouldn't believe ALL the user reviews you read, since some are clearly written by people who really shouldn't be fiddling around with the insides of a computer! User Forums are another great source of info, both in terms of how reliable a particular component is and also how well that particular component works with the other components that go into making up your server. Once you think you've got your final component list you should then check that they work under Linux.

What's the difference between a desktop computer and a server?

In a home environment there's not a lot of difference between the two really. If we were to compare the components required for a desktop computer and a "business server" then there'd be a world of difference between the two. For home-use tho regular desktop components will work just fine for our home server. Obviously you can forget about buying a funky graphics cards for your server since it'll be running headless.

So, what components did I choose?

My overriding requirements were for the server to be frugal, cool and relatively quiet and so here’s what I ended up choosing:

For the case I went for the Antec 900 - Ultimate Gamer Case. This case has plenty of cooling fans, plenty of room for drives and is highly rated both for its cooling efficiency and its build quality. Don't be put off by the word "Gamer" in the name, the case is not just for gamers. Gamers tend to need lots of drives, lots of space and great cooling. Very similar to the requirements for a good server case too.

Corsair 450W VX Series PSU. This PSU is nice and quiet. It's very efficient, 80%+, and comes with plenty of SATA cables.

For the motherboard I chose the Asus P5Q-EM. This is a very efficient board and has plenty of SATA ports. I wanted 6 SATA ports which ruled out most of the uATX motherboards out there. I decided to go for a uATX board rather than a full-sized ATX board since the uATX boards tend to have onboard graphics. Given this server will be running headless I didn't see the point in getting a regular ATX board and adding a cheap graphics card. This would be a waste of money AND power.

For the processor I went for the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. This is one of the newer processors (at least it was when I put this site together!) with the 45nm Wolfdale core. It's very efficient and is more than powerful enough.

For the RAM I went for 2 sticks of the Corsair 4GB (2x2GB) TwinX XMS2, DDR2 PC2-6400 RAM. This matches my motherboard nicely and is more than plenty.

For the drive which would hold the operating system I was in two minds whether to go for a 21/2 inch drive (to save power and noise) or go for a regular 31/2 inch drive. Using a 21/2 inch drive would necessitate using an adapter to make it fit into a 31/2 bay. No big deal. I could alternatively have gone for a solid state drive (SSD) but these drives are still silly money so I ended up going for a 1TB Western Digital WD10EADS Caviar Green drive. These drives run very cool, are very quiet plus they use relatively little power compared to the other 31/2 inch drives out there.

The total cost of the components at the time was £523.68. Obviously prices are dropping every day so if you're building it now you will be able to pick up everything for less than this. Compare this cost to the price of a barebones NAS of similar specification. Well, actually NONE of them are nearly as powerful or as flexible but you can easily spend more than that on a 5/6 bay NAS but end up with less.

I already had a tuner in my parts drawer along with the CD drive so these two items are excluded from the list above. Also, so as to compare like-with-like I've also excluded the cost of the drives I'd be needing for storage. I bought a bunch of 1TB drives (Western Digital Greens, obviously) for the storage but have recently been swapping these out for the 2TB Greens as and when funds allow.

Whilst I am the first to admit I could have bought a LOT cheaper components than I did, I wanted something that would never struggle to cope with whatever demands I placed on it. I’m not naïve enough to think that this server will last me a lifetime but it should easily last me for the next 5 years or so. And if I do ever need to upgrade anything then I’m not stuck with a non-upgradeable black-box. I’ve already got a few of those gathering dust dotted around the house thank you.
Furthermore, as I've mentioned previously, I wanted something that I would be able to use as a desktop computer if I ever decided that a central server was not for me.

What about a RAID card?

Well this is certainly a much debated topic! I'm of the opinion that for home-use there really is no point in going for a dedicated RAID card. For one thing it can work out rather expensive for a "proper" RAID card. By expensive I mean several hundred pounds. By "proper" I'm not talking about those pseudo-RAID cards you can pick up for less than £100. Those cards pass the RAID processing duties back to the CPU on the motherboard, thus defeating one of the major benefits of a dedicated RAID card - speed. The more expensive, or "proper" ones, do the necessary processing on the card itself and therefore do not leech cycles from the main CPU. They also, normally, include a back-up battery on the card to prevent (or at least to reduce the risk of) data corruption in the event of a power failure.

Also, RAID cards tend to use a proprietary format. Thus if your card goes bang you have to replace it with an identical one (or at least a compatible card from the same manufacturer) to stand any chance of getting your data back. RAID cards are frequently being superseded by newer models plus many RAID card manufacturers have fallen by the wayside over the years. So you really should be buying two RAID cards and keeping one as a spare if intend going for a hardware RAID solution.

These days CPUs and RAM are relatively cheap so if you're really worried about RAID slowing down your server then it may be cheaper to up the CPU and RAM specs than it would be to go for a proper RAID card.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, media serving (ie. file-reads) is less resource intensive than files-writes so any benefits of going for a proper RAID card are more negligible when a server is used mainly for this sort of activity.

That all said, if you've read "hardware RAID is best" and are convinced by it then by all means buy one! 


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