Andre's Blog

Personal blog of Andre Perusse

Windows Home Server 2011: Custom PC Build

I've blogged before about Windows Home Server (WHS) and its advantages as both a NAS and automated backup centre for your entire home network. For several years now I've been using an HP EX470 (modded with a quieter power supply fan, 2GB of RAM, and an AMD LE-1640 CPU) to which I've added two 1.5TB drives. It's been chugging along 24/7 since the day I bought it, and it works well.

But, I feel I'm losing a lot of geek-cred running my server on an old creaky Windows Server 2003 platform. WHS 2011 has been out for a while now and is based on the much more modern Windows Server 2008 R2 platform. I, like most WHS fans, was initially miffed that Microsoft removed Drive Extender from this new WHS version. Drive Extender is the feature that lets you seamlessly and painlessly add more storage to your server just by inserting a new hard drive and pressing a button. So I've not been in a big hurry to move to WHS 2011 since it requires more brain-effort in setting up a scheme for storage. However, time marches on and I feel it's time now to replace the venerable HP box.

Unfortunately, HP is no longer in the WHS business and there are very few other OEM options (in North America at least). One is left with no choice than to assemble a custom-built machine on which to run this new WHS version. Thus, I set out a few weeks ago to start researching available hardware to build a nice server/NAS box. And boy, it wasn't easy. At first, I wanted to use as small a case as possible to replace the diminutive HP EX470. Well, there is NO computer case that can house 4 hard drives that is as small as the EX4xx machines (except for HP's own Microserver, but it doesn't have a WHS OS option - I also wanted a more powerful CPU). What I did find that was close was Fractal's Array R2 Mini ITX case. It has room for not 4, but 6 hard drives and is only slightly larger than the EX470. After extensive research on this unit, however, I became turned off by reports of it being an absolute nightmare to install the actual hard drives (you have to remove the entire drive cage first), questions about its cooling capacity, and being unsure if the CPU cooler I planned to use would even fit. So I moved on to try to find something else.

Slightly larger than the Array R2 is the new Lian-Li PC-Q25. However, hard drive management appears to be much easier in this unit, and the cooling capacity also seems much better. Unlike the Array R2, though, the PC-Q25 doesn't come with a power supply (PSU) and there isn't much room to install one, either. Finding a modular PSU with a maximum depth of 140mm wasn't easy, but I eventually discovered the Silverstone Strider 500 plus. This is the case and PSU I finally picked, though I also flirted with the idea of using an mATX case instead, including the Fractal Define Mini (an absolutely awesome case), a few Lian-Li units (why the hell did they have to use all those blue LED fans?), and even Antec's aging Mini P180. In the end, I decided that I didn't want a case as large as an mATX footprint, so the PC-Q25 won out.

Next up was the choice of CPU and motherboard. WHS doesn't really need a lot of horsepower, but I use it not only for backups and NAS duties, but also as a media streaming server for uncompressed 1080p material. I would also like to install SQL Server on it for some light-duty tasks, such as hosting my personal TFS source-control system. Depending on how loud it eventually turns out to be, I may also move it to the living room to serve double-(triple?) duty as my HTPC. So, I decided on an Intel Core i5 2500K. Overkill, to be sure, but it's only $100 more than an i3 2100 and for the added lifespan of the server, why not? For the motherboard, I really wanted to have an integrated Intel NIC so I chose the Intel DQ67EP mini-ITX board. It doesn't play well with Windows server OSes, but there are well known work-arounds to get the chipset drivers installed.

All that was left was to add some RAM, a hard drive, and a CPU cooler. WHS 2011 is a somewhat crippled version of Windows Server that only support 8GB of RAM. I selected 2 x 4GB sticks of Mushkin Silverline Stilletos for this. For a hard drive I picked a 2TB Western Digital Green drive to act as the system drive and video storage. This drive won't be mirrored or backed up. I was then going to move my two 1.5TB drives as a mirrored volume for documents, pictures, and other important files. To cool the CPU, I picked the Scythe Big Shuriken 2 as it's a low profile unit which should fit well with an mITX system.

Case: Lian-Li PC-Q25 $120.00
PSU: Silverstone Strider Plus 500 $80.00
Motherboard: Intel DQ67EP mITX $140.00
CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K $220.00
CPU Cooler: Scythe Big Shuriken 2 $45.00
RAM: Mushkin Silverline Stilletos (8 GB) $50.00
Storage: Western Digital 2TB Green $140.00

It took me over two weeks of heavy research to pick the components for my new server build. My biggest issues were the case and the motherboard. There aren't many NAS-oriented cases on the market, and motherboards with Intel NICs are rare. But I finally made the decision and was ready to go. Except when I added it all up, I exceeded my budget by a good $300. I wanted to bring it all in for less than $700 if possible, but after taxes and shipping my custom WHS 2011 build came it at close to $1,000. Ouch. So for the time being, I'm going to stick with my trusty HP EX470 and hope it can last at least a few months longer.