Building a Super Tiny Home Server

By Loyd Case  |  Posted 2004-08-24 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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While putting together a PC for an upcoming motherboard review, Loyd discovers engineering "gotchas" and a high price-tag. This raises the question: Would you pay more to build a Mini-ITX PC?

I have a dark confession: I haven't embraced the Mini-ITX revolution. There, I've said it. I feel better now.

Up to now we've been lukewarm on VIA's tiny motherboards. The concept is very cool—a standard, ultra-compact board. But the performance of the processors for it has been unimpressive, and that goes even more so for the graphics, as we noted in our review of the EPIA M10000 last year. One big down-side of that system was the freakishly large case we used, complete with an annoyingly loud cooling fan. If you're going to use a compact, quiet motherboard, it should go into a compact, quiet case.

These tiny mainboards have been quite popular in the PC-modding community. In fact, quite a few of the entries in ExtremeTech's recent case mod contest were built using Mini-ITX boards.

After playing around with VIA's latest incarnation of this tiny system platform, the EPIA MII, we're just a little more gung-ho. The new platform is based on the Centaur "Nehemiah" processor, officially known as the 1.2GHz C3. VIA positions the MII as the "complete Digital Home Platform." Unfortunately, it's not well suited to the more demanding media rich environments. You'd never use it, unassisted, to capture HDTV streams, for example.

This new motherboard, equipped with a 1.2GHz processor, is known as the M12000. It offers a 20 percent CPU clock-speed increase over the earlier 1GHz incarnation.

The Nehemiah CPU offers advanced features, including enhanced branch prediction, SSE instruction support, and an FPU that runs at the full speed of the CPU. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the new C3 is its hardware random number generator. The RNG uses electrical noise to generate random numbers, so the odds of someone predicting a pattern are pretty close to nil. The random number generator is the first step in a program VIA has dubbed the "Padlock Security Initiative."

But this story isn't about features: It's about building the system. You'll be able to read more about the details of the motherboard and processor in our upcoming review of the M12000.

I started out building this mini-ITX system for the upcoming review, but it took awhile to gather all the components. As they trickled into the basement Lab, I realized that this project could result in exactly what I've been looking for in a cheap, low-power file server. I keep a lot of essential files—including all my benchmarking stuff, game patches, application updates, and downloaded files—on my production system. That's all well and good, but there have been many times when I want access to files from somewhere else in the house.

If the production system isn't running, I have to run downstairs, turn on my PC, and wait for twenty gazillion system tray items to load. The worst culprit, though, is AOL Instant Messenger. Despite my 3Mbps cable modem broadband connection (with 384kbps upstream), IM seems to take forever to load.

Oh, and I can't just do an unattended boot. You see, I segregate my system into several accounts, to keep work and personal stuff separate. So I have to wait until the logon screen appears, then sign in to one account to gain access.

By the time the system boots, I've forgotten exactly which file I wanted.

None of this is news to a lot of you who have your own home servers. But I've never warmed up to the idea of taking an old PC and turning it into the server. Most of my PCs are frickin' huge, for one thing. And even with aggressive power management, they tend to eat more power than I'd like. After all, I'm paying the bills here.

The light bulb went off in my head when the case arrived. VIA had arranged for a Casetronic Travla C158 to be sent my way. This very compact case is about the size of a large phone book. It uses an external power brick, similar to those used by external hard drives or laptop computers. About the only immediately obvious downside is that it requires you to use a low-profile optical drive, similar to those used in laptops. It does have a couple of small internal fans, but those proved to be fairly quiet in operation.

The M12000 board has evolved since the EPIA II we reviewed last year. In addition to the faster CPU, the board now comes equipped with additional expansion in the form of one Cardbus slot and one compact flash slot.

So I hit the Web and ordered a low-profile optical combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, the Toshiba SD-R2512. It's not particularly speedy, but it won't need to be.

After receiving the drive, I ran into my first gotcha: The connector on the back of the drive wasn't the right one. So after a little hunting, I found a mini-IDE-to-IDE adapter at Directron, which set me back another twelve bucks.

Of course, for a compact server, a large bit bucket is needed. Unfortunately, the EPIA II doesn't support serial ATA drives, or I might have done something really nuts, like drop in one of Hitachi's 7K400 400GB SATA drives. But I had a Western Digital WD2000JB 200GB Ultra ATA 100 drive lying around, which fit the bill.

The EPIA II supports a single DDR266 DIMM of up to 1 gigabyte. I have quite a few older modules lying around, so I thought memory wouldn't be a problem. I was wrong, as it turned out, as we'll see on the next page.

Now that all the components were in hand, the first thing I did was to test-fit all the components into the case. I wanted to make sure the drives would actually go into the case properly before adding the motherboard. Oh, I was being so clever . . .

That seemed to go well, so the motherboard went in next—pretty simple.

The case has a number of small connectors that mate to the motherboard. These support the side panel I/O, such as the stereo output and microphone input jacks, plus additional USB ports.

Next, I mounted the hard drive, which is attached to a small plate. The plate has two tabs that slide into slots on the case. A single screw fastens the plate to the bottom of the case. I also attached the appropriate power cables.

At this point, I installed a 512MB DDR266 DIMM and attached the IDE cables, since the optical drive would block access to the IDE ports.

This is where I ran into my first real glitch—and it was pretty major. A small mounting plate attaches to one side of the optical drive. You then screw this plate down to a rail along the front of the case. Doing this was no problem. But the DDR memory module happens to be just over 1.25 inches tall—just tall enough to prevent the optical drive from lying flush inside the case. Instead, it was canted up at a slight angle.

I was pretty perturbed about this. Luckily for me, I happened to have a 512MB, low profile DDR333 module made by Kingmax. Kingmax makes a line of spiffy modules the company named TinyBGA because they use small, square Ball Grid Array (BGA) packages instead of the usual rectangular packages. The module I had was just an inch tall, which was perfect. It took me a while to dig it out of the mess in my storage area, but after pawing through countless modules (undoubtedly ruining a few with my poor static discipline), I located it.

Other low-profile DDR modules exist, but they're also hard to find. Smart Modular Technologies makes a couple of 1.0-inch high modules, but these are ECC enabled. At least these are unbuffered ECC modules, so they may work in the M12000 board, albeit without ECC support. The other low-profile modules we could find were all registered modules, used in servers, so they wouldn't work on this particular board.

This may have been fortunate for me, but it's less so for most. I had somehow acquired the TinyBGA modules as part of set of review components from someone. I can't remember if it was a processor kit, a motherboard kit or something else entirely. Alas, these are extremely difficult to come by in the US, though you can find them outside the US. Ordering memory from New Zealand or Australia seems somewhat impractical if you're in North America. You can find 256MB modules in a few places, but the half-gigabyte units seem to be quite scarce. If someone would step up and distribute these in the US of A, then people building compact systems would be most grateful.

We did find one other source of low-profile memory. Unigen manufactures DDR memory modules that are just 0.8" tall, including unbuffered, non-ECC modules. You can search for them on the Web, but one source we found was Mini-Systems. Note that we've never purchased anything from them, though, so can't vouch for availability.

Now, if the Casetronics Travla case was just 1/4-inch taller ...

At this point, I was able to button up the system and install Windows XP. I may experiment with Linux on this platform at a later date, but I needed to run Windows-based benchmarks for the review. The system booted up without a hitch and the Windows install was trouble-free.

One last note: While the system supports a fast Ethernet connection, I opted instead to install a D-link DWL-G650 Cardbus 802.11g wireless Ethernet card using that Cardbus slot VIA thoughtfully built into the system. Now this compact server can be placed just about anywhere in my house.

This little system isn't all that cheap, but then again, it has a certain cool factor. Let's run down the cost of the completed rig, sans keyboard and monitor:

Component
Price
Travla C158
$160 (estimated)
VIA EPIA MII 12000 Mainboard
$240
Toshiba SD-R2512 DVD-ROM/CD-RW Drive
$79, check price
Western Digital WD2000JB ATA/100 Hard Drive
$117, check price
512MB DDR266 Low Profile memory
$155
Windows XP Professional OEM
$135
D-Link DWGL-650G Wireless G Adapter
$20 (after $20 rebate)
Total
$915

At $915, you really need to value the compact form factor — and we haven't even added cost of a monitor and input devices. As Jason Cross has shown, you can build a pretty spiffy $500 PC . Of course, that system wouldn't have a 200GB hard drive or even a CD recordable drive.

And we do wish the Travla C158 case were just a quarter-inch taller. It would save a lot of grief. Otherwise, it's an excellent little case, but this little design flaw needs to be rectified.

Stay tuned for a review of the M12000 platform soon. We'll also update you on how the system fares as a small, household file server at a later date, after I've lived with it for awhile. But the tiny form actor, low power draw and quiet operation certainly bodes well.

Product Casetronic Travla C158
Web Site: www.casetronic.com
Pros: Sleek appearance, compact form factor, quiet, low power
Cons: 1/4-inch too small to accommodate a wide array of memory modules
Summary: It's a spiffy looking little case for your Mini-ITX system, however, its excellent design is compromised because it's too for normal memory.
Price: $160 (ESP)
Score:

 
 
 
 
Loyd Case came to computing by way of physical chemistry. He began modestly on a DEC PDP-11 by learning the intricacies of the TROFF text formatter while working on his master's thesis. After a brief, painful stint as an analytical chemist, he took over a laboratory network at Lockheed in the early 80's and never looked back. His first 'real' computer was an HP 1000 RTE-6/VM system.

In 1988, he figured out that building his own PC was vastly more interesting than buying off-the-shelf systems ad he ditched his aging Compaq portable. The Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive from his first homebrew rig is still running today. Since then, he's done some programming, been a systems engineer for Hewlett-Packard, worked in technical marketing in the workstation biz, and even dabbled in 3-D modeling and Web design during the Web's early years.

Loyd was also bitten by the writing bug at a very early age, and even has dim memories of reading his creative efforts to his third grade class. Later, he wrote for various user group magazines, culminating in a near-career ending incident at his employer when a humor-impaired senior manager took exception at one of his more flippant efforts. In 1994, Loyd took on the task of writing the first roundup of PC graphics cards for Computer Gaming World -- the first ever written specifically for computer gamers. A year later, Mike Weksler, then tech editor at Computer Gaming World, twisted his arm and forced him to start writing CGW's tech column. The gaming world -- and Loyd -- has never quite recovered despite repeated efforts to find a normal job. Now he's busy with the whole fatherhood thing, working hard to turn his two daughters into avid gamers. When he doesn't have his head buried inside a PC, he dabbles in downhill skiing, military history and home theater.
 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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