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Building a Server - Is it a good idea?

Posted on 2004-10-19
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Folks,

I am using all my remaining points as I need your support and I hope you can help.  We are in the process of starting up a Market Research company and we need a server to host a database.  Being a startup company – money is very tight.  The database is large (approx 10-12GB) and one table has Full Text Indexing (table contains 14 million records)

Performance is key, however as this server sole function is hosting this database we do not need all the fancy trappings of a commerical server.  Our requirements are Dual CPU, Fast Memory, Fast I/O [apologies for the use of non descriptive words].  Therefore our ideal server would have the following spec:

Motherboard:      Dual Xeon                   
Processors + Fans:      2Ghz or more each            
Memory:            4 GB DDR or RMBS            
Form Factor Case:      ATX                         
Hard Disk            1xSCSI & 1xIDE                    
CD-ROM            Basic

These are indeed simple requirements, however we are finding it a challenge to find an ideal server (including second hand).  We are now considering building one ourselves.  This ofcourse has additional risks etc, however it may be the most ideal solution from both a cost saving point of view as well as having a solution that best meets our needs.

The building will be done by myself – although an IT graduate and comfortable doing routine tasks (e.g. Hard disk changes, memory – everything short of playing with the CPU or motherboard) – I have never build a pc.

So – what is my question? I guess I am writing this to get some perspective if ‘building a server’ is a good idea or am I just asking for trouble? Also, are there any key components that I am missing?  

Regards
Angus

P.S Our main source for second hand servers has been ebay.co.uk – however nothing  ideal has appeared.  Does anyone else know of any other sources?





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Question by:amacfarl
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Callandor earned 30 total points
ID: 12346498
Building a server should not be a scary experience.  All you have to do is think redundancy, reliability, and performance, and you have most of your problems solved.  There are different levels of redundancy that you need to ask yourself: are you are willing to accept the risk of failure here, or do you want to spend the extra money to prevent it.  Another key question is how much downtime is acceptable to your clients?  That downtime determines how redundant you need to make your system.  For a home user, a periodic Ghost backup will work and no redundancy is needed.  On the other end of the spectrum, a trading system needs to be up every second, so you would need dual NICs, dual power supplies, UPS, hot spare hard drives, and spare servers.

For starters, the hard drives are the hardware core of any database, and if you want speed, Seagate 15000 rpm Cheetah SCSI drives are the pinnacle, and set up in a RAID-5 array will give you performance and reliability.  The SCSI controller you pick will depend on features you want, like number of drives.  Dual power supply systems tend to only come in server racks, so you need to keep that in mind.  You have to also think about a backup plan whenever you build a server, so allocate funds for that.  This should get you started, and I'm sure others will make good contributions.
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by:AurimasP
AurimasP earned 20 total points
ID: 12346615
Buy 1 Xeon prcesor and buy more drives it will better, becouse for you need more disk reading speed. Using 5-6 SATA or SCSI drives RAID-1 and make with raid setup logical disk size as you need ~16 Gb. You will get best perfomance. Making bacup in other computer or tape device.
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by:Panjandrum
Panjandrum earned 22 total points
ID: 12346658
First of all, Good luck...  

- In my opinion: keep looking for promotions. Especially HP is selling below their prices. (Proliants)
  Also, make sure it's still expandable enough if you need additional power.

- Make sure this system can be serviced online. (Disks/Powersupplies/fans). Also decrease the number
  of single point of failures in your system (Disks/Powersupplies/fans). There's nothing more frustrating if a  
  system goes down when 1 component fails.

- Maybe consider to take a Hardware contract. Replacement parts can be very expensive.

- Keep your data protected through RAID and check for a DDS/DLT drive to make daily backups!






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by:amacfarl
ID: 12347476
Wow,
I did not expect so much feedback.  Thanks!  Some very good comments.  

On the subject of redundancy - the database is static and only updated on a weekly basis.  In case of any issues with the server we can host the database on another computer. However the 1 out of the 8 searches will not be available - the full text search (the performance heavy one) as the pc is underpowered.

Panjandrum - very good point about servicing online - I had not considered this.  The question is how to enable this without spending too much.

Callandor - thanks for your feedback and especially the SCSI HD recommendation - which I will followup.  Also thanks AurimasP - it may indeed be worth while buying one processor and investing on HD - it is always possible to upgrade later.

I would like to steer the discussion to the following direction - Do you think the hassle/effort involved in building a server is worth the cost savings?  I.e. based on your vast experience did u find that at the end of the day, through building your own server you benefited or did you find that you would have saved yourself a lot of time by buying something off the shelf (even though it is not meet your needs perfectly)?

thanks again guys - much appreciated for your feedback
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by:Callandor
ID: 12347627
If you don't need 24/7 uptime, the cost savings is worth it.  The servers sold by vendors are designed to keep running continuously without interruption, and that is partly why they are priced the way they are.  For some of us, thinking about and maintaining the hardware is as easy as breathing, but if it causes you undue stress, it may not be for you.  It depends on how much you want to learn and if it's "fun" for you.
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by:Panjandrum
ID: 12347823
I don't how big your budget is but for a +-2000 Euro/Dollars you can buy a very decent system and you don't
have to spend nights and nights figuring out if you're decision was the right thing to do.

Keep in mind that for the moment HW is completely no business at all. Big manufacturers are losing money on HW and try to gain it with the service/support they are trying to sell on top.

Off course, as Callandor said, if you feel confidend enough and you want the real fun of building one yourself, go for it.
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by:salvagbf
salvagbf earned 20 total points
ID: 12348568
There's not much "hassle/effort" involved in building a server.  The only difficulty you'd have would be finding a case that will allow you to easily hot-swap hard drives IF you decide that's something you want to be able to do.  Just find an online tutorial for building a computer so as to gain some tips for the building process and you'll be golden.

However, I do agree with Callandor.  If you're hosting a database on this server, you need fast hard drive access times; RAID 5 is a must.  I'd personally buy 4 SCSI drives, 3 for the array with a live backup in case one goes down.  Your customers and fellow employees will be very appreciative with the lack of downtime if a drive fails.  

"Budget" servers tend to just be glorified PC's.  They have bigger fans and power supplies, that's about it.  You can do that yourself.  Keep a few spare parts around and you don't have to worry about the support part.  Swap out a component and you're back up and running. Check out this price break-down:

Antec SX1040BII Case, Includes Antec SL400 PS - $95
Intel SE7501BR2 MB, includes NIC and Video - $450
2  2.4G Xeon's - $550
Seagate 18.4G SCSI drive - $180 x 4 for RAID 5 + a live backup = $740
Adaptec 2010S SCSI RAID card - $200
4 1G sticks of Registered DDR memory - $1240
CD-ROM, Floppy - $40
(Prices from www.newegg.com)

Total: $3315

Try to get the equivilent from a vendor and you'd have to add about $1000 (check for yourself, customize a HP Proliant ML330 and see what you come out with.)  Also, the Seagate HD's have a 5 year warranty, you won't get that from any vendor.

-Bernie
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by:gjohnson99
gjohnson99 earned 20 total points
ID: 12349525
Thing you don't want be cheep on

fans - cooling
power - supplies  - get 50% more wattage than need  Antec are good
server - Mother borard -  buy server borard I never had a server board die from intel  or tyan.

You may want to look at AMD - opteron cpu I  switch over last year -  1.6 $230 a little faster 2.8 Xeon but cost less and lot fast running 64 bit mode.  

You may want to look at Sata  they are slower then scsi, but the cost way less, 80 gig 10000 rpm $150. They are hot swap able.  

Gig lan give more seed than you will get form the scsi, you need a gig switch 5 port under $100.
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by:Caseybea
Caseybea earned 20 total points
ID: 12349919
My recommendation- for a production server, go witha vendor solution.   Can you build a server cheaper than the "big guys"?   Sure!   BUT....  any monetary "savings" in the initial build, will be offset bythe extra costs of

- your time to build
- replacement components
- zero technical support if hardware problems arise

There are GREAT server values that can be found from DELL, HP, and others.   In addition, there are often great software values bundled with servers, including:

- the operating system itself (!)
- backup software
- office productivity software
- antivirus software

Good luck.  
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by:salvagbf
ID: 12350058
Actually, "zero technical support" isn't exactly true.  Every component that you buy when building a computer yourself is covered by the manufacturer warranty which ranges from 1-5 years depending on the part.  You just don't have a sort of single point of service when something goes wrong, you have to figure out what's causing the hardware problem and then call the right company.  Though, if you can build your own computer, I'm sure you can figure out what piece of hardware is giving you problems when something goes wrong, if not, then Caseybea is right, you should go with a vendor.

offset by the "time to build"? We're talking a minimum of $1000 difference between a build it yourself and a vendor computer.  If he's making $1000 or more for the half day it'd take to put the machine together, then cost wouldn't be an issue for them... correct me if I'm wrong...

Also, I've never found that any software comes "bundled" on a server that you don't have to pay for.  If anything does come bundled, it's a trial version.  Just my experience though.

-Bernie
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by:gjohnson99
ID: 12350202
If you not  cheep on

fans - cooling
power - supplies  - get 50% more wattage than need  Antec are good
Server Mother borard -  buy server borard I never had a server board die from intel  or tyan.

You will little troubles on setup and later in not have hard failures.
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by:paranoidcookie
paranoidcookie earned 20 total points
ID: 12350396
Building a server from scratch is not bad per se its just sometimes components just dont work well together. Before you buy check out the newsgroups if people have compalints about getting pieces of equipment to work together avoid them like the plauge.

The good thing about the servers from companies like HP IBM even Apple and Dell is that they test the componets and often can helpdiagnose faults, however there is a price to pay for this exspecially if you add in redundancy.

I have serveral generic servers hosting databases mail file and print and havent had oo much bother.

The question to ask is do you want to run / maintain them yourself or do you want some guy on teh end of a phone.

My tips are dont skimp on your motherboard its the bit that holds everything together buy cheap at your peril.
RAID is your friend disks are the most likely component to fail so even if your backing up its always handy to have them mirrored.

The network card is the pipe to the world get something decent cheap network card use more cpu cycles and transfer less data.
 
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by:DoTheDEW335
DoTheDEW335 earned 40 total points
ID: 12350701
This might help you with what configuration you want to use:
http://www.globalspec.com/help/spechelp.html?name=RAID_Disk_Arrays&comp=4101&sectionid=1

everyone here has posted what I wanted to say so not much else to add other than make sure you keep it clean. Setup a time once every 2 months to dust it out. I also wanted to put my opinion in about somthing ( I think it's been said already )
Your specs listed:
Motherboard:     Dual Xeon                
Processors + Fans:     2Ghz or more each          
Memory:          4 GB DDR or RMBS          
Form Factor Case:     ATX                    
Hard Disk          1xSCSI & 1xIDE                    
CD-ROM          Basic

I would change the Hard Disk to a 4xSCSI and 2xSATA instead of what you posted. Your data is going to be worth well over what your machine will cost and the possibility of data-loss is something everyone fears. Your less likely to lose data with a raid configuration as listed above. (Using a mirrored raid config)

Really you could get away with 4xSCSI and ditch the SATA but if you think your going to need the extra room then go with it.
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by:amacfarl
ID: 12357096
Again - WOW, I did not expect such a response.  Completely overwhelmed.

Thanks to all (DoTheDEW335, paranoidcookie, gjohnson99, salvagbf, Caseybea , AurimasP, Panjandrum) for your advice - you have given me a lot of food for thought.

Based on all the feedback - I have come to the decision that I am going to build the server.  I am confident that I wont screw it up ;-).

I have one last and final question - I am not familar (i.e. zero experience) on RAID.  I have read the material & understand types & benefits.  However I lack the expertise on how to implement/build a machine with RAID and what is required.  Can anyone direct me to a source of information on where there is an idiots guide to building/implement RAID? I.e. What components are needed? Sofware? etc..

Again Many thanks for your help - it has been tremendous.

I will split all the points equally amongst you all.
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by:paranoidcookie
ID: 12357289
RAID is a way of getting either redundancy (in case of disk failure) or extra performance or both.
I wont go into an explaination of how raid works theres plenty of examples like

http://www.adaptec.com/worldwide/product/markeditorial.html?prodkey=quick_explanation_of_raid

In your case I would recommend data safety over performance so either use a RAID 5 array or a RAID 1 mirror. Or a combinatoin the OS on a mirror the data on a RAID 5 set. If yo choose RAID 5 I recommend 5 disks 4 in the active set and one hot spare, a lot of people only use three disks for raid 5 while this works its not really giving a good level of fault tolerance.

I would always advise a RAID card over software if your budget will cope. The hardware cards take the work off of the processor and usually do a few other tricks for you as well (except for those cheap promise controllers which are basically software raid on chip).

IMHO SCSI is king for any serious RAID application in terms of performance and lower failure rates.

Finally good luck with you server I hope it all goes to plan
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by:c661jmb
c661jmb earned 20 total points
ID: 12357446
A site for secondhand servers: www.itrefurb.co.uk

They have a few Dell, HP and compaq servers there.

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by:DoTheDEW335
DoTheDEW335 earned 40 total points
ID: 12357564
When you purchase the hardware you will have instructions on building the raid array.
This page will also help:
http://www.pctechguide.com/tutorials/RAID.htm
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by:Panjandrum
ID: 12357655
Check the systemboard you will use, most manufacturers have RAID utility build in. (I don't know if it will be scsi capable.)

Othwewise If you install the appropriate RAID card you can use Hardware mirroring. This is mostly configured before you install the operating system. Somewhere at Bios level you can choose to access the RAID card utility and specify the disks and RAID you want to use. (Usually called Smart Array Card)

In Windows 2003 Advanced Server you can setup RAID using dynamic disks but I never used it before and I'm not familiar with customer who actually use it.
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by:salvagbf
ID: 12357767
Most RAID cards come with information on how to implement them.  The Adaptec card I mentioned previously will definitely come with a manual letting you know how to implement any RAID level you decide on.  If I were you I'd stay away from RAID 1 (mirroring, 2 drives, same data, one dies, the other's still up).  While it'd give you redundancy it'd make access to your database slower, which goes against the "Fast I/O" requirement you've mentioned.  Again, RAID 5 is the way to go.  RAID 5 splits the data over several drives and uses one drive for parity.  If a drive dies, the data can be rebuilt to another drive (hence the recomendations for a "hot spare") and you're back up and running.  The Adaptec card I mentioned also supports that.  As far as implementation goes, you plug all your drives into the RAID card, just like you would into a SCSI card.  The RAID card will have a BIOS that you use a key combo to get into and from there you build the array.  Again, the manual will have information on what to do and how to do it.

-Bernie
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