Build a low-power x86 appliance for under $200!

Build a low-power x86 appliance for under $200!

Summary: Not so long ago, pre-built appliances were relatively expensive and very low performance. Small footprint Cases and Motherboards actually cost more than full size tower PCs. Commodity full size desktop PC parts were fast and cheap, but they used too much power and generated too much heat. That's all recently changed with the inexpensive Via C3 motherboards with integrated 800 MHz CPU, Video, LAN, and Sound costing well below $70. To help you build your own sub-200 dollar appliance, here are three appliance packages I've put together for you

SHARE:
TOPICS: Hardware
52

The generic x86 PC has become so ubiquitous and inexpensive that it has now become the platform of choice for special purpose appliances.  The list of possible applications are endless but a few of the most common ones include:

  • File server (AKA Network Attached Storage)
  • Firewall/Router/VPN/Wireless appliance
  • Media recorder and player
  • HTTP/FTP/DNS/Proxy server appliance
  • Cash register
  • PBX telephony and VoIP gateway

In order for a PC appliance to be desirable, it must meet the following criteria:

  • Inexpensive (lower the better)
  • Low power (low electric bill)
  • Low heat (low cooling bill)
  • Low noise (not headache inducing)
  • Small as possible (still looking for smaller case)
  • Enough performance (depends on application)

Not so long ago, pre-built appliances were relatively expensive and very low performance.  Small footprint Cases and Motherboards actually cost more than full size tower PCs.  Commodity full size desktop PC parts were fast and cheap, but they used too much power and generated too much heat.  That's all recently changed with the inexpensive Via C3 motherboards with integrated 800 MHz CPU, Video, LAN, and Sound costing well below $70.  To help you build your own sub-200 dollar appliance, here are three appliance packages I've put together for you.

General purpose basic appliance - Hard drive based
CostDescription
62Via C3 800 MHz Motherboard, CPU, Video, LAN, Sound
51Micro/Flex ATX case   (relatively small)
16256 MB DDR 266 MHz RAM
3040 GB OEM Hard drive   (6 month warranty)
159Total   (includes shipping but not tax)

This is your general purpose appliance that is suitable for just about any type of application.  The case isn't quite as small as I'd like it to be, but it's relatively inexpensive and has plenty of room to grow.  There are some slightly smaller Micro/Flex ATX desktop style cases you can use as well.  There are even much smaller systems based on mini-ITX but they're much more expensive.  Next page -> 

General purpose basic appliance - Flash based
CostDescription
62Via C3 800 MHz Motherboard, CPU, Video, LAN, Sound
51Micro/Flex ATX case   (relatively small)
16256 MB DDR 266 MHz RAM
203.5" bay IDE to CF adapter   (not sure about shipping)
251 GB Compact Flash card   (often cheaper sales on this item)
174Total  (includes shipping but not tax)

This is identical to the previous system only it doesn't have a spinning hard drive that may eventually fail and can't handle stressful impacts.  In its place it uses an IDE to CF (compact flash) adapter to mount a standard 1 GB CF card in the 3.5" floppy drive bay.  Having the flash storage removable makes it much easier to service the system because you can put the flash card in your desktop computer and update the data on it (note that this is not hot pluggable).  Once you complete the update process, put it back in the appliance and boot it up.

These types of flash adapters don't need any drivers and allow the flash device to be seen as a standard hard drive visible to the bios and completely bootable by the system.  Even two gigabyte flash cards can be as cheap as $40 at times and four gigabyte flash cards can be as cheap as $70.  Since there are no moving parts, you can expect your flash card to last a long time so long as you're not constantly erasing and writing new data to them.

Some people have asked me how long the cards can last since there is only so many times you can rewrite to them, but the answer is actually surprisingly long.  Flash cards have a mechanism called "wear-leveling" where the write operations will be randomized and spread out over the drive so that the damage won't be focused on one area.  It turns out for most applications, flash memory will typically last a decade or more.  Next page -> 

Gigabit Network Storage Server
CostDescription
*84AMD 1.4 GHz CPU, Motherboard, Video, LAN, Sound
51Micro/Flex ATX case   (relatively small)
**20256 MB DDR 333 MHz RAM
3016x DVD Lite-on Burner
99300 GB Maxtor 16 MB Cache PATA Hard Drive
30Intel Pro/1000 GT Gigabit Desktop Adapter
319Total   (includes shipping but not tax)
* Thanks to recommendation from Edward
** Motherboard requires DDR 333 MHz.  No 256 or 400 MHz

This last appliance opens up the doors to some very interesting storage applications.  I'm personally tired of having all my data spread across multiple computers in the house and would love to consolidate them to just one place and be able to quickly backup to DVD if I need to.  The problem with all commercially sold network storage appliances is that they are very expensive and very slow in performance according to our friend Tim Higgins.  Building our own appliance not only lets us build a faster storage appliance, but at less than 1/3 the price!  Not only that, we have enough CPU resources to serve other applications at the same time.

With an 800 MHz Via C3 processor, we should be able to get better performance than any of the commercial appliances.  For about $60 more, you can put in a Celeron 2.4 GHz CPU and MicroATX board and ensure maximum Gigabit Ethernet performance and squeeze every bit out of the hard drives.  For those of you who want to know a little more about building high-speed Gigabit networks, I talk about that here[Updated: Note that the processor was changed to an AMD Geode 1.4 GHz processor] The issue with a Celeron 2.4 GHz (still under 100 watts for the total system) is that it will raise the power usage considerably.  If you were going to use that much power, then it would be better to go to a full ATX case with better video components to make the appliance pull extra duty as an HDTV media recorder and player (hint for next week's project).  The AMD Geode should have great performance and perform way better than those commercial storage appliances costing three times more.

We can actually mount a total of three hard drives in to this Micro/Flex ATX case.  I chose a 300 GB hard drive to begin with because that is the sweet spot for hard drives at this time in terms of storage per dollar.  But I did see a sale for a 400 GB hard drive for under $120 but that sale was temporary and you had to go to a physical store to get it.  I wanted to make sure that all my readers who don't live near any super store can order all these components through mail.  My recommendation is to buy the 300 GB drive now and wait for the 400 and 500 and maybe even 750 GB drives to get cheaper in the future because you have room to add two more drives.  Now don't you just love technology!  Home ->

Topic: Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

52 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Cool!

    Great entry! The x86 is obviously a very flexible architecture.

    http://opendomain.blogspot.com/
    opensourcepro
  • Very nice! But you forgot a fundamental component.

    It's a doorstop without an OS.

    If you want to keep the total price of that gigabit network storage server under $200, where are you gonna go?

    (Oh, c'mon... you can say it!)
    dave.leigh@...
    • Windows 95?

      Just kidding... You all know he was going to say FreeBSD;)
      nucrash
    • FreeBSD of course!

      ;)

      My router at home is a FreeBSD box. Unfortunetely it's an old PIII 500 gateway desktop of mine from years back. I want to build a smaller one, but don't want to spend the money ATM. If I do build one, it will not be one like George suggests. It will by a mini-itx box. While going mini-itx pushes the price up to around $280, they are much smaller, much quieter (absolutely no fans) and take much less power.
      toadlife
      • I don't disagree with you on that

        "It will by a mini-itx box. While going mini-itx pushes the price up to around $280, they are much smaller, much quieter (absolutely no fans) and take much less power."

        I do agree with you on this comment. I would just like to see the miniITX systems come down. Note that I may have found a way to do it for close to the $200 mark. I may post another blog on a fanless miniITX system if I can get the price low enough. Then you'll really be able to have a powerful router device. Note however that I'd probably be using Linux and IPCop because of its caching features and the ability to run antivirus on it in transparent HTTP/FTP proxy mode.

        But for the gigabit NAS, you really do need the 1.4 GHz AMD Geode to push gigabit throughputs properly. The Via C3 800 MHz processor might be able to do it but I haven't had a chance to verify yet. I'd like to see a sustained 500 mbps throughput out of a gigabit NAS. A NAS would require a full size microATX case.
        georgeou
    • This looks like a job for Penguin or the little Devil

      Just look up:

      IPCop
      M0n0wall
      Asterisk embedded
      Linux NAS

      Yes, Linux and BSD are very good for this. But you can use Windows XP home or even Windows Server if you were so inclined.
      georgeou
      • But that would increase cost

        Unless the person ignores Microsoft's licensing, and doesn't mind the WGA popups. But Linux or BSD would be the better options. BSD if the user is able to work it, Linux if they aren't as savy.

        (And, no, I do not condone violating licensing)
        hawkeyeaz1
    • Windows CE and Windows XP embedded could be options

      Windows XP embedded isn't that expensive, and could give you a rich experience. John Carroll did a great article on it s few weeks ago.
      stevey_d
  • The first one looks suspiciously like a machine a speced about a year ago

    Good article. A few points though.

    The 800 Mhz Mini-ITX boards will go for about 89-109. The key differences are

    1. The EPIA board uses an EZRA instead of a C3 SAM 2 and has lower power consumption than the C3 Sam 2.

    2. It is about 1.5-3 inches smaller.

    3. It is becoming progresively harder to find the non-EPIA Flex boards.

    I have done quite a bit of work with the C3's. I haven't got my hands on the new C5 Epia yet. The C3 series has a half speed FPU until the Nehemiah series. This results in poor 3D performance. Also with the EPIAs the graphics card in the 800 Mhz versions can't quite handle video at full screen and the sound card has a tinny sound.

    Other than that the device will handle Word Processing, puzzle games, file/print server, Firewall/router, personal web server, and general Internet surfing just fine. Perfect for a writing center, Internet cafe, or kiosk.

    BeatrIX Linux (Actually designed to on a 533 Mhz Eden EPIA- the fanless EPIA) and EPIA OS both were design specifically to run on #1. And the perform well on it. Fedora Core and Ubuntu will also run well.
    Edward Meyers
    • Where?

      The miniITX systems I've seen are much more. Especially the cases and the components around. Do share info if you have it though, I'd love to know where to look!
      georgeou
      • Mobos

        http://idotpc.com/TheStore/Peripheral/motherboard/default_itx.asp?Cate.id=5

        $105 for the 800 Mhz ITX. I've ordered several ITX boards from them. They are pretty quick and the order came in a reasonable time and was correct, in one piece, and in working order.

        http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.asp?Brand=1517&N=2010200446+50001517&Submit=ENE&Manufactory=1517&SubCategory=446

        New Egg sells the 800 Mhz Epias for $99.00. New Egg tends to be fairly reliable to get parts from.



        http://www.mini-itx.com/store/default.asp?c=2&currency=2

        The Mini-Itx store sells the 800 Mhz Epia for $90. My first EPIA came from them they are a bit slow to ship.

        For the 800 Mhz EPIA there are 3 stores prices ranging from $90-$105. The problem with the 800 Epia's is that the price has not come down that much ($19 in 3-4 years).

        The new Geode line of Flex ATX boards looks interesting as it is cheaper (Less than 1/2 the cost) than the VIA Mini-Itx Ezra-T and Nehemiah cards. The AMD Geode is not a great powerhouse http://www.sudhian.com/index.php?/articles/show/657 . This is a review of the Geode Vs the VIA C3.

        The Mini-ITX cases are [b]Way[/b] overpriced. The Flex and Micro-ATX are a good deal cheaper. The Mini-ITX mobos will fit ATX, Micro-ATx, and Flex-ATX cases though.

        However the whole point of Nano-Itx and Mini-Itx (And the reason why you would buy either) is that both are small and run cool enough to use household objects as cases. Like this http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/minifalcon/ or this http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/ern005pc/ or this http://www.mini-itx.com/projects/gumballpc/ .
        Edward Meyers
        • That's a cool falcon, thanks

          By the way, there is nothing "suspicious" of this blog. I've given you due credit and thanked you for your links in the blog itself. I don't doubt one bit you figured this out sooner than I did. I just noticed the prices on these boards yesterday when I was looking around and I thought I would share my findings with my readers. Again I thank you for your contributions.
          georgeou
          • Asked for links?

            Hi,
            George VIA EPIA Mobo's have been around for some time now ...

            Some more links to the good folks of the IT world ...
            http://www.logicsupply.com/
            http://www.mini-box.com
            and directly to the source :
            http://www.via.com.tw/en/products/mainboards/index.jsp
            There is a link there for mini-itx/nano-itx

            All those systems make for great Linux boxes booting from USB or other media type.

            Enjoy ...

            Regards,
            Pedro
            keybd_user
          • Some of those are pretty nice, but expensive

            You sure pay a 2x or 4x premium on good looks, small size, and fanless design.
            georgeou
          • Either you are cool or you are not cool.

            You simply have to choose George :) :)



            Regards
            Pedro
            keybd_user
  • Asterisk P2P SIP

    As you say, the possibilities are endless.

    Another notable scenario would be to set up Asterisk on the appliance as per [url=http://blyon.com/sip_uri/]this article[/url] for P2P SIP, in essence making calls for free and if one sets up either a router with phone adaptor ports included or a separate linksys PAP2-NA phone adaptor, you can attach your cordless phone and dial to it over the internet P2P with a SIP url.

    Or so the theory goes.

    Master the possibilities!

    Another one out of the 'ball park' George. :)
    D T Schmitz
    • Sweet link

      Thanks a lot Dietrich. This is very cool and everyone should be using this on their sub-200 dollar appliance! You can host your own dynamic-dns domain and your own asterisk server on the same box. This should be as common as the MX record!
      georgeou
      • OK

        And there you have it! :)

        Thanks George.
        D T Schmitz
  • C3 Nehemiah, AMD Geod, and Via C7 Esther

    A lot of the the performance issues were hammered out of the C3 line after the Nehemiah. The C3 Nehemiah EPIAs are going for $165-$195. The C7 ITX boards are going for $255 though.

    Fry's will sell you a GQ PC with Linspire installed for $149. It uses the AMD Geode NX 1750 which operates at 1.4 Ghz and draws 14 Watts. http://shop1.outpost.com/product/4714029#detailed

    Likewise PCChips also sells a 1.4 GHZ Geode Flex-ATX MOBO for $20 more than the C3 one http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E16813185076
    Edward Meyers
    • great, thanks a lot!

      Thanks for the info!
      georgeou