Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Three Home Server Options

When building any kind of computer, the first task is deciding on what hardware to purchase. There are several different routes you can take when it comes to building/buying a home server. I have listed what I consider to be the three most common options.

The first, and perhaps cheapest, is to buy a pre-built server from HP, Gateway, Dell, or any other number of major manufacturers... In most cases these devices will have a dual-core Intel Atom processor at best. They have a low power draw, are relatively quiet, are usually pretty small, and can be found for under $300 if you look carefully. Many of these run a full copy of Windows Home Server and therefore offer quite a bit of functionality in that regard. The downside is that in many cases they don't even have a display adapter; you have to "remote desktop" in to the unit if you want to do any configuration. This also means doing anything that requires a graphics processor goes out the window. No games, no photoshop... etc. Furthermore, the Intel Atom isn't exactly a powerhouse processor which can heavily limit some other functionality. Finally, their often small form-factor, while convenient, doesn't leave much room for upgrades. A better, albeit more expensive, route to take is to look into building your own Mini-ITX machine if you want something in this size with some more kick.

A second option, if all you care about is having shared network storage, is to simply opt for a NAS (network attached storage) device which will hold multiple hard drives in different configurations of raid (for either data integrity or for more speed). If you go this route,  ALL you are going to get to do in most cases is serve files. This can also quickly become an expensive option as well. NAS boxes tend to be overpriced in my opinion. They are often VERY reliable though which is something that can't always be said of Windows Server.

A third option, and the last one I will mention, is to simply build a regular desktop computer, keeping the functionality of a server in mind, and install a server operating system on it. This is my preferred option because A.) It is WAY more fun B.) You can easily upgrade the device and can re-task it as a desktop machine later on if you don't want a server anymore C.) You have a lot more control over the price D.) The hardware you get will in all likely-hood be WAY more powerful for the money spent. There are downsides though... A.) Probably more maintenance B.) It's going to be physically bigger C.) It will probably be more noisy than the other two options. D.) It is going to draw more power.

We are going to be looking at building the third option. Money and flexibility were much more important to me, personally, than overall stability and size/noise of the device. Furthermore, something you build on your own can be very stable depending on what you do with it and what components you use when you build it.

What are the most important components of a Server? The processor is first and foremost the most vital component followed in short order by the amount and speed of memory/ram that you use. In the case of a processor, having more cores is more important to a server than to a desktop because a server is much more likely to be performing multiple simultaneous tasks. Having extra physical cores can make a big difference. Furthermore, we are going to be playing with virtualization (running "virtual" computers all on the same device) and if you can give each virtual machine its own dedicated core it makes things run much more smoothly. I will discuss this more in depth in a future article. You still want your processor to have some "kick" and with that being said, I wouldn't settle for anything less than an AMD Phenom II or Intel Core I5. The next article I put together will list out my recommended "pick" of hardware that comes in under the $400 mark. The video/sound performance are not very important on a server but, bearing in mind that you might want to do some other things with this computer, I will keep "upgrade-ability" in view.

Stay Tuned!


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