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Photos: building a NAS server

If commercial NAS servers fail to measure up to your requirements, why not build your own? That's what we did, and here's how it turned out.
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By Manek Dubash on
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1 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

This is the starting point for the build of a new server that's designed to run FreeNAS, an open-source network attached storage OS, built on top of FreeBSD.

We specified a rack-mounted case (since we planned to install it into a rack in due course), a quad-core 3.2GHz Intel Xeon E3-1230 (Sandy Bridge) processor plus a suitable server motherboard, 8GB of RAM in a pair of 4GB DIMMs from Crucial Technology UK, and four 3TB Seagate Barracuda XT SATA disks. The case is Antec's 4U22EPS650 4U server box, which includes the power supply.

Photos: Manek Dubash

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2 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

Intel's Xeon E3-1230 looks pretty much like every other mainstream chip it makes these days: it slots into the same LGA 1155 socket as Intel's other Sandy Bridge processors, while cooling systems work across both LGA 1155 and 1156 sockets, as they use the same 75mm distance between screw holes.

The 32nm E3-1230 offers four cores, eight threads, a maximum clock speed of 3.6GHz in Turbo Boost mode, consumes up to 80W and can address up to 32GB RAM. Other Xeons in this family offer on-chip graphics, although this variant doesn't.

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3 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

Intel suggested the ATX-format S1200BTL motherboard to support its Xeon E3-1230, so that's what we specified. With integrated VGA graphics, this board also supports up to 32GB DDR3 ECC RAM, nine USB ports and six SATA ports — two of them 6Gbps SATA 3 ports — plus an embedded RAID controller. It also provides a host of management features such as IPMI and remote management. Note the platform controller chip under the heatsink.

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4 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

Here's close-up of the Xeon processor after we'd coated it with a thin layer of thermal grease, just before mounting the heatsink. The pair of curved brackets hugging the socket assembly are mounts for the Noctua NH-C14 dual-fan heatsink — supplied by QuietPC — that we're about to park on top of the chip. You can see the four DIMM slots to the right, and the end of the motherboard's only PCI-e X8 slot to the left.

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5 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

This is a close-up of the bottom left-hand side of the board as you look towards the back of the system. On the left you can see the six SATA slots — the white ones support 6Gbps, the black ones 3Gbps. A useful addition in the bottom corner is an internal USB socket, which we used for booting test OSes (and FreeNAS itself) using just a USB memory stick, making a DVD drive unnecessary.

The fourth and last system fan header and three management module interfaces sit close by, along with the heatsink covering the Intel C204 platform controller hub chipset.

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6 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

Moving towards the slots just above the previous shot, we can see the single PCI slot and four PCI-e slots, three of them X4. To the left from the top is a USB header, the front panel indicator header and, half in-shot, a second USB header. Towards the top is an Emulex-branded chip, which we at first thought might be a storage controller — it turns out to be an Emulex Pilot 3, which the company sells as a baseboard management controller. Other headers for management and storage options are visible too, as is the motherboard battery.

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7 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

Looking at the back of the board from outside the case, we see a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports, one of them a 82574L device and the other a PHY 82579, both connected to the platform controller hub via the PCI-e x1 interface. Four USB ports are visible — there are two more on the front panel — plus a VGA port. The adjacent serial port can be configured (with extra outlay for the relevant additional hardware) as a remote, lights-out management port or for KVM.

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8 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

The server is now installed and working inside the Antec 4U case. Left to right, a pair of 80mm fans pull exhaust air through the case next to the 650W Antec PSU. The big round object is the top of the dual-fan Noctua heatsink — 130mm high, it just clears the inside of the lid.

The blue SATA cables connect the four 7,200rpm 3TB Seagate drives on the bottom right to the motherboard, and in front of the case is hidden a 120mm fan to keep the drives cool. In the middle on the right is a small bay for fitting a vertically-oriented 3.5in. hard disk. A further four bays were left empty top right. Note a pair of lugs along each of the edges of the case: these accept a bracing bar which didn't fit after installing the heatsink. We'll live with that.

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9 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

A frontal view of our NAS beast in action — note the chunky handles. Everything is screwed together rather than held in place with plastic lugs, which makes the box feel very strong and secure. Note the four indicators, showing (left to right) system, fan fail, HDD and power. We have yet to figure out how to make best use of the first two LEDs, and there were no instructions with the case. The front bezel, which contains dust-blocking foam, is lockable and swings down...

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10 of 10 Manek Dubash/ZDNet

....to reveal a toggle power switch, the two USB ports already mentioned and a recessed reset switch. The removable front panels are punctuated by holes for airflow.

We'd recommend this setup if you have a need for a proper server and the commercial offerings — which often seem short of disk space at this end if the market — don't suit, and you want the added security of bolting it to a theft-resistant rack.

The bill of materials (inc. VAT, via Google) is as follows:

 Intel Xeon E3-1230 processor (3.2GHz)
 £171.38
 Intel S1200BTL motherboard
 £169.96
 Crucial 8GB DDR3 PC3-8500 Kit
 £81.59
 4 x Seagate Barraccuda XT 7200.12 3TB ST33000651AS
 £527.76
 Antec 4U22EPS650 case
 £184.00
 Total £1,134.69

We haven't included the cost of the heatsink as we already had it lying around, and because Intel supplies a perfectly adequate — albeit a lot noisier — cooler with the Xeon E3-1230 processor.

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