FYI this build has been updated and now features a faster processor for $30 less, bringing the total to $105. [Updated parts list in comment below]
Build a cheap Plex / file server with 6 drive capacity for around $135, including shipping and taxes. This build can be upgraded to 8 bays for around $40 in parts.
This build is everything you need to get started with an entry level Plex server on windows or linux, or make an all-in-one NAS solution (like synology, readynas, qnap but much cheaper & faster) via FreeNAS or unRAID. This guide won’t detail how to get the NAS solution setup, but there’s plenty of guides online to help you with that. This build is 100% freeNAS and unRAID ready, and even includes ECC RAM. (suggested for FreeNAS and unRAID)
Rules for buying used server-grade parts on eBay:
- Buy from highly-rated, reputable sellers
- When “Or best offer” is available, use it. Sellers will likely discount parts, often up to 30%. (typically around 15-20%)
- Shop around. There are many resellers selling the same exact parts on eBay, find the one with the best price.
- Scrutinize the details of the auction. For example, make sure CPU stepping / revision is correct to what you need. Make sure components are listed as functioning and not “for parts only”.
- Do not, under any circumstances buy QA/QC/QS/ES labled CPUs. Only buy official used / refurbished Intel Xeon CPUs. Chips with this label are not guaranteed to work, and might break functionality with something as simple as a BIOS update.
|Type||Item||Price (eBay)||OBO?||20% OBO price|
|CPU||Intel Xeon X3450 2.66GHz, 3.20GHz Turbo 4-Core, 8-Thread||$21.99||YES||$17.59|
|RAM||2 x 4GB DDR3 ECC 2rx8||$33.99||YES||$27.19|
|CPU Cooler||Intel 1156 Heatsink/Fan||$7.99|
|PSU||300W PSU||incl. w/ case|
|Other||Tax, shipping, fees||$1.99|
|Optional Extras||Sata cable 6 pack||$7.49|
|Optional Extras||Sata power splitter||$6.27|
About this build:
- General: This build will be using a single Intel Xeon processor on Intel Socket 1156 motherboard, with the best value components possible. It does not include specifications for SSD or HDD.
- CPU: The Intel Xeon X3450 is a medium-low power/performance 4 core, 8 thread CPU that came alongside the first generation i7 CPUs. It’s decent, but nothing special. The real value is from its sub-$20 price point. The X3450 will score about ~5k on passmark. It’s a perfect CPU for a file server / dedicated NAS, and will do OK with 2-3 1080p transcodes or 3 - 5 720p transcodes. (direct stream / direct play take up nominal CPU resources, so you can likely do many more direct than via transcoding) This CPU will kick the crap out of 99% of dedicated off the shelf NAS CPU’s, such as the Synology DS1817+ (~2.5k passmark, $850 MSRP)
- Motherboard: Supermicro X8SIL-F (Link to Supermicro Product Spec Page) This motherboard has a single Intel 1156 socket with 4 DDR3 DIMM slots. 6 SATA ports are standard. Dual Gigabit NIC is also standard with an extra port for onboard IPMI. 3 PCI-E X8, X4, or X1 cards can be added, and 1 PCI card can be added.
- RAM: We’re using 1x8GB 2rx8 DDR3 ECC REG. This motherboard allows for up to 32GB DDR3 ECC via 4x8GB, so I thought it best to use the max capacity on a single DIMM so that it can be easily upgraded to full capacity down the road. 8GB for $25 is a really good value, too. FreeNAS, unRAID, Widnows, and Linux distros shouldn’t need more than that. You must use 2rx8 memory for DDR3 ECC REG with this board
- CPU Cooler: This is a stock intel heatsink. It’s $8. It’s quiet enough, and it works.
- PSU: If you don’t feel comfortable with the included PSU, feel free to source one elsewhere. You can get good quality PSUs like the EVGA 430W white for under $40. For the purposeses of this build, this should be plenty for most people. Check for deals on slickdeals and /r/buildapcsales for good PSU deals. Another option is this case which includes a 400W PSU, but the same internals as the 300W case. It’s a little bit more expensive.
- Case: Pick out any ATX case that you like that has the features you want. This case is OK, and cheaply made. It’s hard to beat considering a power supply is included. This one in particular has native support for 6 3.5" HDDs. (5 internal, 1 via “external 3.5” where the floppy would normally go) Details below for upgrade to 8 bay.
- HDD: As stated above, this case supports up to 6 full size 3.5" HDDs. If you’re using windows or linux, I’d recommend using 1 SSD and 5 HDD for storage, but if you’re using FreeNAS or unRAID you can use 6 HDD and boot off of an 8GB USB flash drive.
Cautionary notes, other details
- Server equipment is stripped down to the bare minimum for compatibility and reliability. Because of this, features you are used to having might be missing - for example, some server motherboards don’t have onboard audio. Also, most will use VGA onboard.
- Use a SSD for your host OS. (does not apply to those using FreeNAS or unRAID) This is likely where your Plex metadata will live, so if you’re going to generate thumbnails and you have a sizeable library, make sure to get an appropriate size. I have about 20TB of media with thumbnails turned on, and 500GB is starting to feel tight. 250GB is a good start for most people.
- Familiarize yourself with the BIOS options. Some may be different than consumer models. Make sure Hyper-threading is turned on in the BIOS. When in doubt, clear the CMOS / reset to default.
- Evaluate your RAID options. This motherboard has capabilities for onboard RAID, but that isn’t for everyone. Software RAID is what I would use here, especially with FreeNAS and unRAID.
Upgrades / Add-ons
- Used / refurb HDDs from eBay - typically you can find refurbished WD enterprise or hitachi drives for around $29 for 2TB or 3TB for $49. Keep an eye out for sellers that put on a flash deal or accept best offers. I have 24 of these drives in use right now, and they’re great.
- 10GbE - There’s a lot of options here, but the easiest way to get the most out of your file server is to direct link it via 10GbE to your main server or client. If you’re hosting Plex and other services directly on this machine, there’s not a whole lot of reason to do this, but it’d still be a nice upgrade.
- Turn the 2 x 5.25" bays into an additional 2 x 3.5" hard drive bays. You will have to get a simple 2 or 4 port PCI-E SATA card in order to add more than 6 drives to this motherboard, but they are cheap. Cost to expand to 8 bay capacity should be doable for around $40 or less.
- Double your RAM - 16GB would be a noticeable improvement here - and it’s only $15 more. as /u/C_L42 says below, FreeNAS can’t get enough RAM.
Q: Aren’t used parts unreliable?
A: No. Server-grade used components are designed to be more reliable than consumer-class components. They are often recycled / resold when the upgrade cycle happens at major institutions or businesses. Some are sold as new - old stock, where the components are new but were never used. Myself and many others have found that used server components are more reliable than even new consumer-grade parts. There are even forums dedicated to finding the best deals on used parts.
Q: I’m nervous / anxious about building a computer with server hardware. How much different / harder is it than regular computers? OR - I’ve never build a computer but wanted to, can I start with this?
A: I’d argue that it’s actually easier and more straight forward than building with regular computer hardware. Just like with anything else, doing research is key here. The components that are outlined in this post are compatible with each other and are probably about a 4/10 in overall difficulty.
Q: Why should I do this? I want a i7-6700K or (INSERT_CPU_HERE)
A: Can you even buy a 6700k for $135? Let alone a whole computer?
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask questions below.
Keep calm, Plex on!