[Guide] 3U 16bay & 4U 24 bay rackmount server chassis options explained - jump start your homelab!

The serverbuilds.net community:

In order to not clog up the /r/Plex subreddit and discord, I, along with help from /u/manbearpig2012, have decided to make a community focused on used/refurb server hardware builds. Currently, the discord is almost 1700 members strong!


Objective:

Give an overview of a 3U and 4U rackmount solutions. This guide will focus on Supermicro chassis, but there are many other great options such as Chenbro, iStar USA, and Rosewill, just to name a few. There’s a few reasons that I prefer Supermicro equipment, especially their server chassis. Namely, quality, build materials, and features are top notch for the price, especially on the used/refurb market. It’s impossible to get a 16/24 bay hot-swap server from other companies in this price range.

Two chassis listings will be detailed, as well as core components, optional upgrades, and some sample hardware if you’re not going to be using your own. Hopefully this will help those of you who are looking to move toward a rackmount setup, but aren’t quite ready to part with your existing hardware.


Rules for buying used server-grade parts on eBay:

  1. Buy from highly-rated, reputable sellers
  2. When “Or best offer” is available, use it. Sellers will likely discount parts, often up to 30% (but not always).
  3. Shop around. There are many resellers selling the same exact parts on eBay, find the one with the best price. If a link is no longer for sale, simply search the same part/model number.
  4. 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”.
  5. 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.
  6. Check sources other than Ebay. /r/buildapcsales can be a huge help with this. Amazon or Newegg often have huge sales on some of the new parts. Shop around people!
  7. Be patient. If there isn’t a deal on a component, waiting a day or two often pays off. (sometimes a ton!)
  8. Check around for RAM deals before upgrading to more RAM provided by the eBay seller. Sometimes you can find kits cheaper than what the eBay seller will sell you. 8GB should be plenty to start with anyway, so IMO just wait until you get your system up and running then add more as you need it.

Chassis overview:

Option 1:
Supermicro 846TQ rackmount chassis - $289.34 including shipping

This particular chassis includes very antiquated AMD hardware - we’re purchasing this just for the chassis, so feel free to completely ignore the hardware that’s included.

Rails are not included for this chassis - you can find them here for around $58.00 if you need them.

The Supermicro 846TQ is a 4U, 24 bay, direct attatch SATA / SAS passthrough backplane server enclosure. It can fit even the largest motherboards that Supermicro makes (E-ATX+/SSI-EEB+), E-ATX, ATX, SSI-EEB, SSI-CEB, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX. It has 24 bays that physically accept SAS and SATA drives. If you want to use SAS drives, be sure that you have the appropriate bays plugged into a SAS controller, not a SATA controller. If you will be using SATA drives, you can use SATA or SAS controllers. (more on this later) Even after adding the supporting SAS2 controllers, this option is much cheaper than purchasing a 4U SAS2 backplaned chassis.

The chassis has 5x 80mm high speed fans that move quite a bit of air and are very loud. These can be replaced. It also has dual hot swap power supplies, which can also be replaced with more efficient, higher wattage, and quieter running models. While the chassis itself is older, it fully supports modern hardware - so really, the sky is the limit.

We’ll be stripping out the components included with this chassis. In my opinion the only usable parts are the SATA cards, but even those I’d recommend replacing with SAS2 cards to simplify the cabling. Details on the supporting hardware are directly below.

Some considerations with a 4U chassis - it’s essentially the same height / width as a desktop tower on its side. Therefore, you can use shorter sized tower CPU coolers if you want, provided they aren’t too tall. It also uses full size PCI expansion slots, not half height ones.


Option 2:
Supermicro 836TQ rackmount chassis - $395.87 including shipping

This particular chassis includes an Supermicro X8DTE dual socket 1366 motherboard (same one as listed below, worth about $90) as well as 4x SAS breakaout cables (worth about $19). So while it’s initially more expensive than the 4U, you’re getting a bit more value if you’re going for the dual 1366 route.

Rails are not included for this chassis - you can find them here for around $58.00 if you need them.

The 836TQ is functionally the same as the 846TQ, just 1U shorter at 3U. Overall, it has the same specifications as the 846TQ, the main difference being that there are only 16 bays instead of 24 bays. Keep in mind the 3U is a little bit shorter, so you may have clearance issues with taller heatsinks.


Core components:

LSI 9211-8i SAS2 / card (2x SAS2 ports / 8x SATA 6Gbps ports) - $57.85

You will need one of these SAS2 cards for each 8 drives that you will be using. (3 total) If you are using larger arrays or are not particularly throughput sensitive, I would recommend instead using 1 of these cards in conjunction with a SAS expander below instead.

HP SAS Expander - $18.00

This will allow you to use a single LSI 9210-8i or 9211-8i to expand to 6 SAS2 ports for all 24 bays. You will lose some bandwidth this way, but you will save quite a bit of money and only use 2x PCI-E slots. I have no problem using SAS expanders personally, as the network is usually the limiting factor when accounting for data transfers anyway.

SAS breakout cable 2-pack - $12.99

Each of these cables will expand 1 8087 SAS port into 4 SATA/SAS ports - you will need 1 cable for every 4 drive bays. Since this chassis has 24 drive bays, you will need 6 cables. So if you’re using 3x9211-8i, you’ll have 2 cables plugged into each card. If you’re using the SAS expander, you’ll need two 8087 to 8087 patch cables ($6.99 each) to bridge the 9211-8i and the expander together, then plug the 6 SAS breakout cables into the expander.

2.5" to 3.5" adapter - $10.00

In order to properly use 2.5" SSD/HDD with the 3.5" bays, you will need to use an adapter such as this. This allows you to use the backplane by first mounting the 2.5" drive in the adapter, then the adapter into the 3.5" caddy. This ensures that the SATA port aligns correctly into the chassis. You will need 1 for every 1 2.5" drive you plan on using.

Supermicro drive screw set - $6.47

Because… how else would you attach your drives to the sleds? Seriously, though, get these. Don’t try and use screws you have laying around.


With these core components out of the way, I’ll briefly go over a couple of upgrades in the next section. After that, you can use just about any motherboard/CPU combo that you can imagine. The chassis’s power distribution board has dual 8-pin CPU power connectors for dual-CPU / high power setups, should you need them, meaning that you could even put a high end AMD Threadripper build in for example. However, there are no PCI-E connectors for mid to high-end GPU’s, but you can use GPUs that are powered via the PCI-E bus. You can also use molex -> PCI-E 6/8 pin adapters, but your mileage may vary on that.


Optional upgrades:

Arctic F8 80mm PWM PST fan pack (5x) - $21.00

These fans will directly replace the loud 80x38mm fans that are in the chassis. You may need to do some light modifications to the fan brackets to make them fit, but it’s super simple with either some wire snips or a Dremel. It depends on which brackets the chassis comes with, some of mine needed to be modded, some did not. For me, replacing the fans is an absolute must.

Supermicro PWS-721P-1R 720w quiet series power supply - $18.99

Note - the 836TQ listed above already has two of these power supplies, so no need to purchase these if you’re getting the 836TQ.

These are much quieter and more efficient than the 900W power supplies that are included with the 846TQ. If you’re getting the 80mm fan pack, I’d recommend picking up one of these as well. It will make the whole system very quiet in comparison to its stock configuration. Unless you really want redundant PSU’s, you only need to purchase one of these.

Supermicro Super-Quiet (SQ) series power supplies - Price varies

These are the quietest power supplies you can imagine. The stock power supplies aren’t very efficient and have an extremely high RPM 40mm fan, making them quite loud. The SQ series takes efficiency to an extreme - efficient components means less waste heat, which means the power supply fan basically doesn’t need to do anything. If you’re looking to put the server in a livable room, or are particualrly sensitive to fan noise, look no farther than the SQ series power supplies. While they’re expensive, you really only need to purchase one, unless you absolutely must have redundant power supplies.


/u/JDM_WAAAT’s “hot hardware” picks:

If you’re not planning on using your existing hardware to swap over to the server chassis, check out these recommendations. Just to reiterate, this chassis can fit 99% of motherboards on the market today, provided that they aren’t some sort of proprietary form factor. Just make sure you have a way to plug enough SATA cables / SAS2 cards & expanders in, and you’ll be set! (oh, and if you want the front panel to work on the chasiss, use one of these.


Supermicro X8STE Intel X58 socket 1366 motherboard - $76.13 shipped

This is a great single socket motherboard that will get your server up and running. You can use a cheap E5620 4-core for $3.99 all the way up to X5670 6-core for $44.95. The only real limitation here is that you won’t be able to use RDIMM memory, you’ll have to stick to slightly more expensive UDIMM. Here’s an example of compatible RAM, 12GB for $44.99. This motherboard would be great for a low-transcoding Plex server, or if you plan on using the 24-bay as a dedicated NAS. Another bonus is that a basic CPU heatsink is included.


Supermicro X8DTE Intel dual socket 1366 server motherboard - $89.99 shipped

Previous posts will provide more information on dual 1366, seen here, here, and here.

This motherboard would be my personal low-end choice. It can accept DDR3 ECC RDIMM, and it has a total of 12 DIMM slots, easily allowing for 96GB (or more) of RAM. You can run it in single CPU if you want, but it really gains is stride with dual CPU’s. My recommendation would be dual L5640 for $36.99 or dual X5670 for $94.99 if you want the extra power. Personally, I’d favor the L5640, and save the money for other upgrades. 24GB of DDR3 ECC REG for $35.99 would be a good way to get started, with room to upgrade in the future.


Supermicro X9DRi-LN4F+ Intel dual socket 2011 R1 server motherboard with IPMI - $280.98 shipped

Previous posts will provide more information on dual 2011, seen here and here.

This is the motherboard I use, and it’s my baby. I love it.

The X9DRi-LN4F+ has a metric whack-ton of DIMM slots, 24 to be exact, allowing for 192GB if you’re using 8GB DIMMS. (even more if you’re using 16GB DIMMS!) It supports both Intel E5-2600 V1 and V2 processors, meaning there’s a lot of options and room for expansion. It also has 4 onboard LAN, not including the dedicated IPMI port for remote management. It also comes included with two passive heatsinks, which would work perfectly with both of these chassis. You can use the same RAM linked above, but for maximum performance with two processors I would recommend buying 8 sticks at a time, allowing for maximum bandwith via quad-channel. Here’s 8x4GB DDR3 ECC REG for $70.99, and here’s 2 kits of 4x8GB for $180. As for processors, you could start out with dual E5-2620 at $70.00, upgrade to dual E5-2650 at $120, or go all out at dual E5-2660 V2 at $316.00.


Other information

  1. 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. Check before buying just in case.
  2. The chassis will be heavy. Please do not attempt to lift it into the rack by yourself. At minimum, it’s a two man job. If you must move it by yourself, make sure to use the two front carry handles - they are very sturdy. Again - do not attempt to mount into a rack without a friend.
  3. Refer to the manufacturer documentation if you need more details about these systems. Both Dell and HP offer extensive documentation on all of these workstations.

FAQ

  • Q: Aren’t used parts unreliable?

  • A: No, actually in this case, quite the opposite. 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.

  • 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: These prebuilts have done the hard parts for you. All you will likely be doing is upgrading CPU, RAM, and installing hard drives.

  • Q: I have questions/can’t find alternative parts/ready to buy. What do I do?

  • A: Join the serverbuilds.net discord and ask @trusted to review your build in the #hardware channel. We can’t help you after purchasing, so ask before you buy.


Please feel free to leave a comment or ask questions below.
Keep calm, Plex on!