My [not completely] silent home server

I tried to make a nearly silent PC a few years ago. I shopped very carefully for all sorts of components that were advertised as quiet – sound insulated case, quiet case fans and CPU heatsink fan, power supply – the whole thing. Today it is buzzing away right next to me – noisier than ever since the fans seem to have worn bearings or something. Someday I will make a powerful, silent PC! However, in the short run I decided to make a silent NAS+ box for file serving, backup, etc. There were a few surprises along the way.

I decided to start with an Atom-based motherboard with a fanless heatsink:

Intel BOXD525MW Intel Atom D525@ 1.8GHz (Dual Core) BGA559 Intel NM10 Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo

If you have looked at Atom-based boards you might be wondering why I picked this one for a NAS (plus a few other things) box. This is over-kill for such a box. The answer is that it was the first one I found with a fanless heatsink included and, never having used an Atom-based box before, I didn’t really have a feel for how much CPU power these provided compared to what I needed now – or going forward – for a NAS+ box. I’m now quite sure that I picked a much too powerful board. This board would be more than fine for a basic home PC. The biggest downside is wasting some money – although not that much – and burning up some extra electricity, which is unfortunate.

Next I needed a fanless power supply. After shopping quite awhile I found that I would need to buy a DC power supply to plug into the motherboard, and then plug the DC power supply into an external brick – like a laptop. That is basically what I was building – a laptop without a screen. Makes sense – now. After building PCs for many years it took awhile for that to sink in. However, I was scratching my head over what enclosure to buy. What enclosure would work with the dual power-supply setup? There seemed to be few choices. Then I found the whole thing put together in a nice package: enclosure, DC power supply, external brick – all for a good price:

Antec ISK 300-65 Black 0.8mm cold rolled steel Mini-ITX Desktop Computer Case

It got good reviews and seemed like the right thing. More on the case below.

Next I needed some memory and here’s where I messed up: I got the right type of memory but it didn’t sink in that I’d need the memory in the laptop form factor. So, I returned my desktop memory for some laptop memory:

Mushkin Enhanced Essentials 4GB (2 x 2GB) 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1066 (PC3 8500) Dual Channel Kit Laptop Memory

Again, over-kill: 4GB of memory! The NAS boxes at work have 192GB of RAM, so I wanted plenty of RAM. Silly for my application, but memory is cheap these days I told myself.

I did think to buy a laptop-sized system disk! I considered SSD, but the price of the SATA drives won me over. I bought this one:

Western Digital Scorpio Black WD5000BEKT 500GB 7200 RPM 2.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Internal Notebook Hard Drive -Bare Drive

It had plenty of room for Debian plus it is a decent start on the space I need for media storage and serving plus backing up our PCs.

The pieces arrived and with it surprise number 1: the Antec case is huge and it weighs a ton! It isn’t really huge, it is shoe box size – size 11. But it was bigger than I expected. There’s a lot of seemingly wasted space in the depth of the case – space where nothing could be put. There is room for a slim CD drive, which I didn’t want to use, and there is room for two 2.5 inch drives. But even if I had all that, there seems to be too much empty space in there. The plus side is that there is plenty of space for air movement – I’m going fanless (there’s a case fan but I don’t plan on plugging it in) so that isn’t a terrible thing.

Next, I attempted install the motherboard. It didn’t fit. Here’s what happened: I struggled with the backplane and finally got it to snap in after much tussling. The board wouldn’t go in, however, because a bit of plastic holding part of the fan assembly stuck out in such a way that it hit against the PCI connector on the board. I sawed it off with a hacksaw. Good-bye warranty. Now the board basically went in, but no matter how much I wiggled it to and fro I couldn’t get more than one of the motherboard’s screw holes to line up with the stand-offs on the case. However, even with only one screw in it was really jammed in there. I didn’t want to break anything – so, one screw will have to do.

The memory snapped in without a hitch. The case came with two SATA cables and a bunch of screws – none of them seemed to fit the drive all that well. Again problems with hole alignment: the holes in the drive cage didn’t quite line up with the holes in the drive – but I got a couple in – seemed secure enough.

Time to power-up! Then it was like “woah, what have we got here?” It sunk in that I was looking at dealing with a VGA connector and old-fashioned PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors. And there’s a serial port there? Wow, it was a blast from the past! I dug out my old IBM keyboard but my old mice are all gone – I plugged in a USB mouse and hoped it would work. My monitor has various connectors including VGA! Whew! I thought I was screwed there for a minute. I had a vague idea that I would do a completely headless Debian install. I was glad that I didn’t need to figure out how to do that (if it is even possible – it must be, though, right?).

Next up: Debian “squeeze”. I had a live/install mini distribution on a thumb drive. In it went. Power on! It booted and installed in just a few minutes (unlike, for example, Windows 7).

After installing sshd and vncserver, I unplugged the keyboard and mouse. I installed samba, backuppc, and a few other things. No problems!

Damn. The noise. It’s the drive. Does it have an idle power-down feature? If so, it doesn’t seem to work. Whiiiirrr all day and all night. Should have gone with the SSD – and I still might. From the other side of the room I can barely hear it, so it isn’t terrible. Not what I wanted though.

There’s still a lot of tweaking to do. The biggest thing is to add a couple of external USB TB drives into an LVM setup. Still, even as it is right now I have a heavy-duty home NAS+ box!


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One Response to My [not completely] silent home server

  1. Mr. J. Batutis says:

    Coulda told you that you needed an ssd. The prices are coming down.

    (great site that tracks prices over time)

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