Build a cheap, kick-ass server for not a whole lot of money. Server must also has a clear upgrade path for future expansion, and be able to perform in a variety of workloads.
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%.
- 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.
|CPU||2x Intel Xeon L5640 2.26GHz, 2.8GHz Turbo 6-Core, 12-Thread||$27 each / $54 total|
|Motherboard||Supermicro X8DTL-3F DUAL LGA1366||$96|
|RAM||6x4GB DDR3 ECC REG||$36|
|CPU Cooler||Intel 1366 Heatsink/Fan for Xeon||$27 each / $54 total|
|PSU||EVGA 500W 1 Non-Modular||$37|
|PSU Power Cable||EPS power Splitter||$8|
|Case||Cooler Master N400||$65|
About this build:
- General: This build will be using two Intel Xeon processors on Intel Socket 1366 motherboard with Triple-Channel DDR3-ECC RDIMM memory. It does not include specifications for SSD or HDD.
- CPU: The Intel Xeon L5640 is a low-power 6 core, 12 thread CPU that came out shortly before the E5 series CPUs. It has a counterpart, the X5600 series are also 6 cores, faster, and take more power. These are available upgrades in the future. MSRP when it was released was around $1000.00 USD. Plex Transcoder has true multi-threaded support and will take advantage of all 16 threads. So while this CPU might not be clocked as fast as what most of you are used to, the sheer amount of cores/threads will more than make up for it. Turbo-boost funtionality does help quite a bit, allowing it to bump each core up to 2.8GHz. Dual L5640 will score 10142 on passmark. Another thing to consider is that since the CPU is so cheap, you won’t have to worry about it when it comes time to upgrade in the future. You can replace it with dual X5690 3.47GHz base / 3.75ghz turbo in the future for about +4000 extra passmark score.
- Motherboard: Supermicro X8DTL-3F (Link to Supermicro Product Spec Page) This motherboard has dual 1366 sockets with 6 DIMM slots. With this build we’ll be using all 6 of those available DIMMS. 14 SATA ports are standard. Dual Gigabit NIC is also standard with an extra port for IPMI.
- RAM: Here, we’re using 6x4GB DDR3 ECC REG for triple channel support, and a total of 24GB of available memory. 24GB is a good value here, but 48GB is easily avievable with 8GB sticks if you want to go that route.
- CPU Cooler: There’s not much to say here. It’s compatible, it’s quiet, and it works. We won’t be overclocking, so there’s not much to worry about so long as it works.
- PSU: Someone from the last thread told me about this PSU, and I think it’s a great deal. It’s modular, 650W, and supports dual EPS for dual CPU setups.
- Case: Pick out any ATX case that you like that has the features you want. I like this case, but there’s many others that will work just as well. This one in particular has native support for 7 3.5" HDDs and 3 2.5" SSDs. This is an area that is highly subjective and a spot where a lot of money can be saved depending on the features that you want and need.
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. 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. About 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. You should verify that all 24-threads are showing in your host OS.
- Almost any OS will work. Includes ESXI, unRAID, FreeNAS, Linux, and Windows of course.
- Evaluate your RAID options. This motherboard has capabilities for onboard RAID, but that isn’t for everyone.
Upgrades, other parts
- Cheap storage in the form of $50 refurbished 2TB WD enterprise hard drives. $50 for 2TB is nothing to scoff at. They are certified refurbished from NewEgg through eBay. Personally, I’m running 24 of these in various configurations and have had only one failure over the course of the past 14 months. (The drive was replaced no questions asked) These are great for use with RAID arrays.
- Supermicro Rackmount case - Accepts a wide variety of form factors, including E-ATX / SSI-EEB, and has redundant PSUs. This one includes a rail kit, and can fit up to 16 3.5" drives natively. This rackmounted case is loud, however some have modified it to be quieter. I have two of these exact models running in ‘production’ and they live in my garage, where nobody is bothered by them.
- MORE 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: Because price/dollar ratio is important, and the goals are different. This isn’t a gaming machine, it’s for serving up content and virutalization. Don’t forget all of the other vast capabilities besides Plex!
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask questions below.
Keep calm, Plex on!