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Custom mITX Server Build - Part 1

Martin guides you through the picking of parts for his awesome mITX server build in this 5 part blog.

I have always been a sucker for being able to access my media such as films, music and application installs from anywhere in my house and for that reason I have always had a NAS (Network Attached Storage) on my network which I can access wirelessly to watch inside or outside of the house (weather permitting).

I recently had the idea of having a development (dev.) environment that I can access anywhere in the world somewhere that I do not have to remember a USB stick or risk losing my web development if something breaks or my laptop gets stolen.

The best thing that I could come up with was to replace the NAS with a computer (now known as my server) which would act as not only a development environment, but also a network accessible location for my media needs. I needed hardware that would be powerful enough for the better half to be able to stream movies while I’m working on heavy web development.

I needed this server not only to be powerful but also to be small as I wanted it to take up as little space as possible but be big enough to hold a good few hard drives for all of the media that I have, any future storage needs that I might have and virtual computers.

Software: I bought a couple of licenses for Microsoft’s Windows 8 Professional which is pretty handy as it comes with HyperV ready to install. My dev. environment, if you had not guessed already, is going to be on a virtual computer. HyperV is Microsoft’s Hypervisor (hence HyperV) which means that I can run many virtual computers on my physical server and the Hypervisor manages their access to hardware in a timely and no nonsense manner.

So here is the hardware that I specified:

Processor: Intel Core i5 (3550) 3.4GHz Processor.

You may be wondering why I chose this CPU over something like a Xeon processor that would perform better using HyperV and also since the server is always on would also give better stability over time. The answer is on-board graphics, I needed them and the price difference between the closest Xeon and i5 processor that have on-board graphics I could not justify purchasing the Xeon.

The second question, which is less compelling, is why a 3550 over say a 2500k? Well the answer to that is in the software I’m running - HyperV. While I acknowledge that the 2500k is a fantastic chip and does run Intel Virtualisation Technology (VT-x) it unfortunately does not run Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d).

Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d) enables guest virtual machines to directly use peripheral devices, such as Ethernet, accelerated graphics cards and hard-drive controllers, through DMA and interrupt remapping. Basically it allows my virtual computers to directly access the hard-drive controllers for faster read and write access.

Motherboard: Gigabyte H77N-WIFI Motherboard.

As I mentioned before I wanted this server to be both powerful and small so I opted for an mITX board. I had also considered the fantastic Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe but again I could not justify the expense over the H77N and so decided against that board.

eature wise even though they are different chipsets I came to the conclusion that unless I wanted to overclock the chip (which I didn’t) then a cheaper H77 chipset board was a better option for me.

Memory: Corsair XMS3 Low Profile 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3.

The RAM was a harder choice as I was aware that the motherboard (as with all mITX boards) only had 2 RAM slots and also any cooler that I purchase might have issues with RAM that has large a heat sink that might stop me fitting the cooler. The Corsair XMS3 Low Profile RAM was ideal in this situation, the Corsair XMS3 RAM also comes with a life time warranty and more importantly is low profile.

RAID Card: Dell PERC 5i RAID card.

I opted for a PERC 5i RAID card which I have heard supports vt-d access and was cheaper over the PERC 6 which is a newer card. Be aware that this RAID card is an enterprise level card and is not a requirement for a NAS or standard computer. A couple of limitations I knew the card had when choosing it, they are:

1. No SATA3 support. The PERC 5i only supports SATA2 speeds which is a bit of a limitation but is something that I can live without at the moment.
2. 2Tb hard drive size limitation. Pretty major one for me, the card only supports drives that are 2Tb or smaller in size.

The volume size can be anything up to 16Tb (2Tb x 8 HDDs), I know that this is a rather large number and I’m hoping that I do not reach it.

As you can see the limitations on the RAID card are pretty big indeed but I’m hoping that I will not notice the limitations. Enterprise RAID cards that support SATA3, support over 2Tb HDDs and also support 8 hard drives are very expensive and out of my price range.

Storage Devices: 1 x 64GB Crucial M4, 4 x Seagate 2TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gb, 4 x Western Digital Scorpio Green 2TB and 2 x Dell Enterprise.

As for storage, well, there is a lot of it and for good reason too, as I have a rather large collection of media and computer backups that I need to keep safe at all times. The 64GB Crucial M4 is for the operating system which only needs to be small as it is only the operating system and programs that will be installed on it.

The 2 x Dell Enterprise HDDs will be used for both Programs and HyperV hard drives as they are enterprise drives they will have good fault tolerance compared to normal standard hard drives that you purchase for normal computers.

The 4 x Seagate 2TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gb and 4 x Western Digital Scorpio Green 2Gb are used for storage and maybe the odd HyperV hard drive but mostly for backups and media so that I can access them across my network and will be in some kind of RAID array which I will be discussing in a later post in this series.

Case: BitFenix Prodigy Mini-ITX Cube Case.

This case is larger than the normal ITX case but it is one that I needed for all the hard drives that I am going to be using. The Prodigy has five hard drive bays, two SSD bays and importantly one 5.25” bay which I will go into why I need this in a minute.

The case fits in a full sized ATX PSU which is handy as I need a quite powerful one to power all of my hardware.

Power Supply:  550w Corsair.

This is an older power supply that I just had lying around, if I find that it’s costing too much to run I will replace it with a much more power efficient model to try and stem the cost of running it. Just to comment I recommend only using fully modular power supplies in mITX cases as there is not really enough space to have unused cables trailing everywhere and this will cause low airflow which is not good for heat dissipation.

Bay Converter: Akasa Lokstor M22 4 Bay 2.5" Mobile Rack

A very important part of the build, this converter allows me to use my one 5.25 bay as a four 2.5” HDD rack. This is so I can expand my storage to the max and use the full potential of both the RAID card and the Prodigy case.

In the next blog post I will be going into the planning for the build, what I got right and what I failed to see when speccing and ordering the parts for my server build. Until next time….

You can find the second part to this blog here.