Building a low-power server for 24×7 infrastructure at home: Part 1 (hardware selection)

A couple of years back, I bought myself a small server with the intention that it would replace many of the various PCs I was using at home.  As a result, I did decommission some older hardware and it allowed me to consolidate the infrastructure I use for my home office network, testing and development onto one Hyper-V host, supplemented by an assortment of client devices (my netbook, my kids’ netbook, my wife’s laptop, the living room Mac, my MacBook, my work notebook) and a couple of Netgear ReadyNAS Duos (one as always-on storage, the other as an iSCSI target).  The trouble is that, even though the clients may be shutdown or in a low-power state when not in use, the server runs 24×7 consuming something in the region of 100W of power – generally just so that one virtual machine is available with my DHCP, DNS, TFTP (for IP phone configuration) and basic web services (e.g. phone directory).

I decided to build a low-cost, low-power, PC to run as a small server and provide these services, along with Active Directory.  After reading Jeff Atwood’s post on ultra-low-power PCs, I was inspired; however I wasn’t sure that I’d get Windows Server running on a non-Intel chip (it might be possible, but I wasn’t going to risk it) and even though Linux could potentially offer the rest of the services I needed, a lot of my work uses Microsoft software, and I wanted to run Active Directory.

I tweeted to see if anyone had any advice for me – and there were some good suggestions – including Garry Martin’s identification of an Asus Aspire Revo nettop for around £144 at eBuyer.  That got me thinking: I wasn’t sure about the Revo’s form factor – but if I could get myself a Mini-ITX wall-mountable case and suitable motherboard, then use a spare disk and memory from my “box of PC bits”, I could probably build something for a similar price.

I should explain that I haven’t “built” a PC for about 10 years (maybe more) because there are so many decent OEM deals around but I started to look at what was available at (as highlighted in Jeff’s post).  I did also consider a Fit PC 2 (low power and Intel-based) but it uses the Z-series Atom processors, which provide Intel VT (great for Windows Virtual PC) but are not 64-bit so are not suitable for Windows Server 2008 R2 (or for Hyper-V – although virtualisation is not something I’m looking to do with this server).  Eventually, I settled on a Travla C158 case coupled with an Intel D945GCLF2 board which has an Intel Atom 330 giving me a dual-core x64 CPU (actually it’s like two Atom N270s on the same socket) with hardware DEP (but not VT).Intel Atom inside  There were other options with lower power consumption, but they would have involved using non-Intel CPUs (and I was unable to confirm that Windows Server will run on a Via Eden (for example); however this Atom 330/Intel D945GCLF2 board combination is still providing plenty of computing power for my purposes (William Henning’s review on neoseeker is worth a read).

I ordered the equipment yesterday evening at 19:00 (the site says “place UK orders before 7.30PM GMT for same-day despatch”) and a courier delivered it to me before 11 today; however I did end up buying some power connectors because it wasn’t clear whether they would be required or not (I left a comment in the order notes to remove them if not required but that was ignored) and there was some confusion because I received order and stock confirmations last night but the dispatch notice wasn’t sent until today (making me think I’d missed the next-day slot).  Even with the communications issues, that sort of turnaround is fantastic – many online stores need orders by mid-afternoon for same-day dispatch.

With the hardware in place, the next step was assembly – I’ll save that for a future blog post (along with some real values for power consumption) whilst I turn my attention to configuring the software…

9 thoughts on “Building a low-power server for 24×7 infrastructure at home: Part 1 (hardware selection)

  1. Mark,

    I’ve recently noticed that now allow orders for next day delivery up until 11pm! It costs £9.99 according to their website, but for last minute time-sensitive purchases (9pm hard drive failure anyone?) it would be well worth the price.

    I haven’t tried the service yet myself, but I’ve got a growing list of hardware I need to acquire, so I’ll let you know the results.

  2. Hi Gordon – I hadn’t realised that eBuyer shipped that late but I have used their next day service before and it was pretty good. charged me £8 for their next day and that seems pretty reasonable to me, given that I wanted my toys NOW!

    Its the picking and dispatch that makes the difference (sometimes that’s as long as the shipping time!) but another supplier that’s pretty good on dispatch is Crucial (for memory) – I use their standard first class mail delivery and it’s usually shipped within a few hours, so there next day or day after.

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