[Guide] $500, 8 Core, 16 Thread, quad-channel, dedicated transcoding monster

Objective:
Build a cheap, kick-ass server for not a whole lot of money. Server must also have 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:

  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%.
  3. Shop around. There are many resellers selling the same exact parts on eBay, find the one with the best price.
  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.

Build

About this build:

  • General: This build will be using an Intel Xeon processor on an Intel Socket 2011 R1 motherboard with Quad-Channel DDR3-ECC RDIMM memory. It does not include specifications for SSD or HDD.
  • CPU: The Intel Xeon E5-2650 was $1,100 MSRP when it was released. Many similar chips like it exist today. Do not let the $40 price tag fool you - by no means does this chip perform like a $40 CPU that you would buy brand new. It’s much faster and much more capable. This is an 8 Core CPU with Hyperthreading, which gives it 16 threads total. 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. A single E5-2650 will score 10425 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 a E5-2690 or E5-2687W in the future for about +4000 extra passmark score. You can also upgrade to any E5-26XX V2 series processor.
  • Motherboard: Supermicro X9SRE-F (Link to Supermicro Product Spec Page) This motherboard has a single 2011 v1 socket with 8 DIMM slots. With this build we’ll be using 4 of those available DIMMS. 10 SATA ports are standard, with some variants that have up to 14. Dual Gigabit NIC is also standard, with 3 PCI-E slots as well.
  • RAM: Kingston 8GB DDR3 ECC-REG 1333MHz sticks are usually a great deal on eBay, and allow for wide compatibility across a variety of systems. 32GB is a good starting point, and 64GB is even better once a second kit is added. Plex itself won’t take up much more than 4GB in most cases, so the amount here isn’t super important. 16GB would be fine too, for those that are on a budget. I personally would stick with Quad-Channel setups, so if you do go for 16GB make sure it’s 4x4GB. Also, without getting into it too much, what we’re looking for here is DDR3 ECC RDIMM, anywhere from 1333-1866Mhz.
  • CPU Cooler: There’s not much to say here. It’s compatible, it’s quiet, and it works. I’ve used this particular model on 150W TDP Xeons, and it’s held it’s own just fine. We won’t be overclocking, so there’s not much to worry about so long as it works.
  • PSU: This PSU is great. I’ve got 3 of them in ‘production’ right now and they’ve been nothing but good to me. I bought all of them used. It’s hard to go wrong. It’s not modular, and it’s kind of ugly, but we’re speccing out a budget server, not a high-end gaming machine.
  • 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 8 3.5" HDDs and 2 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

  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 16-threads are showing in your host OS.
  4. Almost any OS will work. Includes ESXI, unRAID, FreeNAS, Linux, and Windows of course.
  5. Evaluate your RAID options. This motherboard has capabilities for onboard RAID, but that isn’t for everyone.

Upgrades, other parts

  1. ATX Dual socket 2011 v1 mobo - This mobo allows for the use of 1 or 2 identical E5-2XXX V1 or V2 processors. Make sure your PSU (if you don’t use the recommended one) has dual 8-PIN (EPS, not PCI-E) 12V connectors for the CPU sockets. If a single CPU is run in this dual socket mobo, make sure to follow the manual’s instructions on DIMM population and CPU-socket usage. The board linked here is the only ATX dual socket 2011 board on the market. If you decide to go with another form factor, make sure to consider your case selection. Double the CPU’s will scale directly into double the transcoder performance / capacity. Personally, I run dual E5-2687W CPUs, but dual E5-2650 are a great budget option as well for a cool 20,000 passmark for $80.
  2. Cheap storage in the form of $45 refurbished 2TB WD enterprise hard drives. $45 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Various CPU upgrades - The best CPU for the money, in my opinion is the E5-2670 V1 8C/16T. With the motherboard in this post, we can use any E5-1XXX, E5-2XXX, E5-1XXX V2, or E5-2XXX V2 CPU. Keep in mind that if you are using a dual socket 2011 setup, it must be E5-2XXX or E5-2XXX V2 processors and they must be identical models / steppings / revisions.
  5. MORE RAM!

FAQ

  • 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: Why are the CPU’s so cheap if they are so fast?

  • A: Simply because of supply and demand. The market is flooded with a particular model of CPU, the E5-2670 V1 due to an unknown major company phasing out a massive quantity of thse CPUs.

  • Q: Why are the supporting motherboards so expensive? (even if they’re used)

  • A: The other side of the coin of “supply and demand”. The demand for motherboards to put the CPU’s in are high, and there’s only a finite supply of them.

  • 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 3/10 in overall difficulty. If you go dual socket, MAYBE 5/10.

  • 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. This is /r/Plex’s first post like this in a long time, so feedback is much appreciated!

Keep calm, Plex on!