Much of what I write on this blog is based upon my experiences as a consultant/infrastructure architect for a leading IT Services company but as my day job becomes less technical there’s an increasing amount written based on the time I spend working with technology on my home network. markwilson.it doesn’t have a large IT budget and it’s become increasingly apparent that my pile of aging, but rather good, Compaq Evo D5xx SFF PCs no longer provides the hardware features that I need. Consequently, I needed to buy a small server – ideally a dual-socket machine, with quad-core CPUs and up to 16GB of RAM (I had a couple of spare 500GB SATA hard disks to re-use and also some spare NICs). I didn’t have an exact figure in mind, but was hoping to spend no more than £500-600 and knew that specification would probably be too expensive but then I found an offer on the Dell website for a PowerEdge 840 – starting at £179 plus VAT and shipping.
The PowerEdge 840 is more like a workstation than a server but it has the option to upgrade the standard dual-core Intel Pentium processor to a dual- or quad-core Xeon. For a dual-socket machine with the ability to go up to 16GB of memory I’d have needed to move up to a more expensive model but the PowerEdge 840 specification would give me what I need to set up a XenExpress or Windows Hyper-V Server server for evaluating products and running the basic markwilson.it infrastructure (everything except the website, which is hosted for me by ascomi).
I haven’t bought a PC for years (except my Mac Mini) and didn’t feel confident to make the right selections, so I called a trusted colleague, Garry, who may be a CTO now but still gets techie as required! He gave me some great advice for keeping the costs down – and these are equally applicable to any major OEM PC/Server purchase:
- Do you really need that optional extra? Don’t be afraid to buy the basic system from the manufacturer and source additional components elsewhere.
- Use a cashback site (e.g. TopCashBack). Using this, I was able to get cash back on the pre-tax value of the goods purchased.
Following Garry’s advice, I could see that by sticking with the basic memory and disk options (being ready to take them out when it arrives), I could buy larger components elsewhere and still save money. I upped the CPU spec, but left the rest of the system almost at the basic level with 512MB of RAM, one 80GB disk (to take out and use elsewhere – or even just give it away) and one 250GB disk (to downgrade my external hard drive and use the 500GB disk from that instead). I stuck with the basic DVD-ROM drive (I’ll take the writer from one of the PCs that this server will replace) and rejected options for floppy disk drive, modem, additional NICs, tape backup, UPS, etc. as I already have these things at home. I also rejected options for RAID controllers as I can pick up a less capable but inexpensive SATA RAID controller elsewhere. Finally, I said no to operating system and backup software – whilst Small Business Server 2003 R2 may have been nice, Windows Hyper-V Server will only be a few pounds when it releases later this year and XenExpress is free. As I’m not in the market for Windows Server 2003/2008 Enterprise or Datacenter editions I’ll have to deal with the guest VM licensing separately – but that’s no different to my current situation.
After this, I had my server ready to order, at a total price (including shipping and VAT) of just under £392 (and around £14 cashback due). Then I started looking at the last part of the solution – 8GB of DDR2 SDRAM. Interestingly, although the PowerEdge 840 supports up to 8GB of RAM, the "build your system" website only lets me choose up to 4GB – in 1GB DIMMs. I needed 2GB DIMMs in order to get the maximum memory installed. Dell would sell me these at a competitive price of £49.02 each but wanted £22.33 to ship four of them to me (total price £218.40). My normal memory supplier () could sell me two 4GB kits (each 2x2GB) for £244.38 (although the price has since fallen to just £164.48) and I could earn cashback on both of these offers but the non-ECC RAM available at sites like eBuyer was much less expensive. According to Crucial, I can install non-ECC RAM in a server that supports ECC, but googling turned up some advice from newegg.com:
"[The] chances [of] a single-bit soft error occurring are about once per 1GB of memory per month of uninterrupted operation. Since most desktop computers do not run 24 hours a day, the chances are not actually that high. For example, if your computer (with 1GB of memory) runs 4 hours a day, the chances of a single-bit soft error happening (when your system is running) is about once every six months. Even should an error occur, it won’t be a big issue for most users as the error bit may not even be accessed at that time. Should the system access the error bit, this little error won’t result in a disaster either – the system may crash, but a restart of the system will fix that. That’s why ECC memory is not a necessity for most home users.
Things are very different when it comes to workstations and servers. To begin with, these systems often utilize multi-gigabytes of memory, and they usually run 24/7 as well. Both of these factors result in increased probability of a soft error. More importantly, an unnoticed error is not tolerable in a mission-critical workstation or server."
[Source: newegg.com article: Do I need ECC and registered memory?]
I decided to use ECC RAM as, even though my server is not mission critical, it will be on 24×7 and running several virtual machines – all of which could be susceptible to memory errors. Dell Technical Support also advised me that non-ECC RAM would cause POST errors.
I still needed to get the best deal I could on memory and Dell were only quoting me for PC2-4200 (533MHz) RAM when the PowerEdge 840 will take PC2-5300 (667MHz) RAM. As the Dell RAM is actually from Kingston, I decided to see what Kingston recommended for the PowerEdge 840 and found that there is a product (KTD-DM8400BE/2G) which is a 667MHz version of the 2GB 240-pin SDRAM that the server uses. Furthermore, I could get it from SMC Direct for £53.55 a module (£219.58 for all four, shipped). Then, Dell Technical Support advised me that there is little advantage in buying the faster RAM as the front-side bus for my Intel Xeon X3210 is 1066MHz and the 2x multiplier matches whereas the 667MHz RAM would match a 1333MHz bus. On that basis, I stuck with the Dell quote, saving myself a fiver and potentially earning some more cashback (actually, I didn’t get cashback because it was a telephone purchase but that was more than offset by Dell waiving the shipping charge as goodwill for the problems I had experienced when buying the server).
So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, with a quad-core system, over a terabyte of storage (after swapping some disks around) and 8GB RAM for less than £575. Buying my RAM separately (even from the same supplier) got me a better deal (although Crucial’s subsequent price drop would have made an even bigger difference) and Garry’s TopCashBack advice saved me some more money. This is how the costs stack up (all including VAT and shipping, where applicable):
Memory specification terms
Memory terms glossary