Servers made for SOHO

While many applications can be virtualised along with the servers they run on there will come an application, service or business requirement that requires a new server be present in your network architecture. Not only does this require purchase of server hardware but also a hardware support contract and probably a data backup contract as well.

The most popular choices for server hardware and support contracts are the big names such as IBM, DELL and HP. These manufacturers use quality (read expensive) certified equipment in their servers that guarantees compatibility with software (see ESX) as well as reliability.

Many organisations choose their hardware and hardware support contract from the same supplier. these support contracts typically consist of a warrantee on the equipment with a set turn-around time for repairs should it fail.

Most IT departments will also need a data backup plan in place that takes backups of the organisations data off-site for safe recovery in the event of a disaster.

Server Hardware ............................. $4000
+ Usual hardware support contract (p/a) ..... $1333
+ Usual remote data backup contract (p/a) ... $5000
Total: ..................................... $10333

Unfortunately the cost of the hardware support contract and data backup contracts are often far in excess of the hardware they run on. If you’re somehow able to forgo this support or are able to provide it yourself then you could save yourself a packet by implementing a white box server solution

The White box solution

This is a custom server put together from individual parts. White box server solutions often incorporate SOHO or home-user parts to impersonate high-speed expensive servers and as a result are usually much more powerful but lack the reliability of their name brand brothers. Because white box servers are sourced as parts they are much, much cheaper than their branded counterparts.

The bottom line is bang for your buck – but only in the right situation!

Operating System

Your server operating system may be pre-chosen by your organisation but how you run it may be up to you.

If you’re not running VMWare ESX Server, but are wanting to run virtual servers (via VMWare server, Microsoft HYPER-V or Linux KVM/XEN virtualisation) then a white box server will give you memory by the bucket load.

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to choosing a server OS…

Windows 2008 Server standard (5 user) ..... $900
Redhat Enterprise ......................... $349
any linux ................................. $FREE

…but a true white box server should use an open source operating system
Motherboard

Choosing the motherboard is the most dangerous part of setting up your server. To get the most out of any motherboard you will need chipset drivers. You will need to make sure you have chipset drivers available for the server operating system you choose.

VMWare ESXi server has only a limited range of supported hardware. If you’re planning on building a white box server to run ESXi server, be very careful about which hardware you purchase. You may find you will end up spending quite a bit sourcing the right supported hardware, so remember there are many other virtualisation options that will work on white box setup such as Microsoft HYPER-V solutions and Linux KVM/XEN virutalisation solutions.

Supported Hardware

If you’re planning on running any SOHO hardware in the server, driver support is important. Security camera software is a good example of a situation where you may have a capture card in your server. The capture card may not be supported by your server OS. While there are options for PCI passthrough from the host to the guest operating systems, it is only supported by specific PCI cards and motherboards.

Believe it or not there are at least 10 different types of PCI slots/sockets used in computer equipment. Whilst most of the PCI card interfaces are compatible you’ll need to check the voltage on older PCI cards. You may have to purchase a brand new capture card because the cheap 5 volt PCI card you’ll have lying around probably* won’t work in a 3 volt PCI slots (* some cards support both voltages).

If you’re wanting to access the capture card from a VM, forget it, No virtualisation software seems to support capture cards. From the looks of things it may be some time until they do. You will need to look at our article on Zoneminder and TCP/IP based cameras for more information.

If you have specialist USB hardware that doesn’t have drivers for your server OS (such as no 64bit support) you’re also on your own. By the way, you can’t try and install the 32bit driver in a 32bit VM either because USB sharing only works when the device is supported by the host OS.

soho_server_HDD_rackDisk Drives

If you’re organisation requires strict recoverability and failover then you will most likely be installing expensive Fibre Channel (FC). However if you’re able to fill your server with cheap SATA2 Hard drives you’ll find you can quadruple your amount of disk storage and still save money on the disk.

If you do need recoverability don’t rule out the fact that you can still build a RAID setup of SATA2 drives for less than the cost of a good FC controller.

Fiber Chanel (FC) HDD ..................... $100/50GB
SATA2 HDD ................................. $100/1000GB

If you’re assembling your own white box server you will definitely want some 5 1/4 SATA2 drive racks for your server. These racks give you all the benefits of modern hot swappable SCSI drives for $20.

Because they don’t use caddies there’s no expensive drive holders. You can swap in any SATA drives for backups or failover at any time.
If there’s one thing we recommend for your server this is it.

Memory

Everyone knows a true server must use ECC memory, but if you don’t mind rebooting your server once in a while then using non-ECC memory will drop the cost of memory down to 1/5th of the price. Motherboards typically only support either type, so you’ll need to make up your mind about memory when you purchase your motherboard.

ECC DDR2 .................................. $100
NON-ECC DDR2 .............................. $20

At 1/5th the price you could even choose to double or triple the memory present in your new white box server and still save money.

soho_server_pci_riserCase

You’ll need a case with good cooling. If you have access to a server rack, then use a rack case for your white box, otherwise you can use a good sturdy tower case. We recommend that you monitor temperatures on you server once it’s up and running to make sure that it’s getting the right ventilation. Just remember that only 3RU or greater cases can give you a full height PCI slot unless you’re using riser boards.

Summary

There are a few situations where you need a server that’s role is not mission critical and does not contain important data. If you choose the white box server solution for your new server you will greatly decrease the cost of your server by sacrificing much of the stability and reliability. It will also give you a fantastic economic opportunity to install some of the newest CPUs alongside truly huge hard drive capacity. You’ll be harnessing the CPU/disk power of 2-3 year old supercomputers for a fraction of the price.

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