Ask Dan: Box O' Drives wanted

Publication date: 21 November 2008
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I'd like to build a PC as a dedicated network storage device running OpenSolaris and ZFS with a stack of drives (initially about 5 but I would like to expand that in future). I'm trying to choose a motherboard, CPU and case which will be best suite this purpose. Any advice would be very much appreciated.


[Readers who have no particular interest in Solaris or even Linux should note that all of the gear I'm about to talk about will work just as well or better with Windows.]

If you need serious file-server performance, then you could end up spending a lot of money for this sort of system. But for home and small-business applications this won't be an issue (if you're using Gigabit Ethernet, you shouldn't expect to move more than about 30 megabytes of user data per second), and OpenSolaris itself has puny system requirements, by modern standards. Even if you plan to use a load of software RAID, you shouldn't have any trouble getting decent data throughput to the network-speed bottleneck from a bunch of ordinary ATA drives running from motherboard and/or add-on PCI or PCIe x1 controller cards.

Pretty much any modern CPU should be more than fast enough for this, too. Software RAID arrays of single-server-case dimensions shouldn't be a major load for modern processors.

So all you need to do, in the CPU-and-motherboard stakes, is get a mobo with a decent number of PCI and/or PCIe slots, and the finest, cheapest matching CPU that exists. DDR2 RAM is outrageously cheap these days, so you'll want a board that takes that, plus a bottom-end dual-core CPU.

You could go all the way down to a single-core Sempron, but the bang-per-buck graph looks pretty ugly there. A 2.1GHz Sempron is sub-$AU65 these days, but you can get a 1.6GHz-by-two "Celeron Dual Core" for $AU110, a 2.5GHz Athlon 64 for about $140, or a triple-core Phenom for about $AU170. Those more expensive options all, I think, have significantly better performance per core than the Sempron.

Because you don't (I presume) care about overclocking features and other fancy stuff, the mobo should just be whatever DDR2 board has the most slots for the least money. Plus onboard video so you can save a bit more money, and have another slot free for expansion cards.

Of the boards currently on sale from m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market, the ECS GF8200A and A780GM-A are likely lads, if you want an AMD-CPU system. The biggest difference between these two boards is given away in the names; the GF8200A is based on the Nvidia GeForce 8200 chipset, while the A780GM-A is an AMD 780G board.

If you were building a Windows box then there'd be pretty much nothing between the two chipsets; the 8200 seems to be OK for OpenSolaris, though apparently the onboard Ethernet adapter may not work. The 780G chipset seems to be OK too, with no notes about non-functional components, so that's the one I'd go for if I were you. Here in Australia, Aus PC Market have the ECS A780GM-A for $AU127.05 delivered (Aussie shoppers can click here to order it). If you're just using Windows then you might as well go for the cheaper GF2000A, though; it's only $AU117.37 delivered from AusPC (click here if you'd like to order one).

AusPC don't seem to have much in the way of cheap Intel-chip mobos with integrated video in the full-ATX size. (MicroATX and smaller boards don't, of course, make the cut for storage-server purposes, on account of having too few expansion slots.) But decent Intel CPUs are a bit cheaper, so it wouldn't hurt quite as much to pay more for the mobo.

The Asus P5E-V HDMI looks like a winner, here, though I'm not 100% sure the G35 chipset it's based on works perfectly with OpenSolaris. If it does, though, it'd be nice to have an Asus board, not a mere ECS like the two cheap AMD mobos. The ECS boards are probably just fine, but if I had to bet on which board would die first, I wouldn't put my money on the Asus.

All of the above boards also have a good number of built-in drive connectors. Five SATA sockets plus one two-drive-capable PATA socket on the ECS boards, six SATA sockets plus a PATA on the Asus board. So all of them can accommodate your originally envisaged drive count with their stock connectors, and it shouldn't be a problem to add three-to-five cheap two-or-four-drive controller cards down the track.

OK - what box to put it all in?

For a lot of drive capacity in an easy-to-work-on case, you could go with a Lian Li PC-201, which Aus PC Market sell for $AU390.50 delivered within the Sydney metropolitan area, here in Australia (delivery elsewhere in the country costs more for big things like cases and whole PCs). The PC-201 has bays for twelve 3.5-inch drives and seven 5.25-inch, plus a combo floppy bay that can take either. (Australian shoppers who'd like to order a 201 from Aus PC can click here to do so.)

You can easily convert 5.25-inch bays to 3.5 with cheap add-on adapter-rail doodads that mount one well-ventilated 3.5-inch drive in each 5.25-inch bay, or with a fancier module that packs them in tighter. Note that "hot swap" drive caddies, which let you add and remove drives while the computer's running, depend on you having a hot-swap-capable SATA controller. Standard mobo SATA controllers may or may not be hot-swap-capable. Pop out a drive when the controller doesn't actually support hot-swap, and the computer will hang. I've no idea what the state of hot-swap support is for OpenSolaris.

There's also the Lian Li PC-V2010, a descendant of the PC-V1000 I reviewed years ago. It's made in silver "A" and black "B" versions at slightly different prices, but Aus PC recently sold out of the black one. Australian shoppers can still order the silver version for $AU396 by clicking here. But it's got a mere eight 3.5-inch bays and seven 5.25-inch.

You can save a few hundred bucks, however, if you're willing to settle for a total of only ten bays. There's an Antec Titan that's only $AU153.67 (with no PSU included) from AusPC, and it gives you six 3.5-inch bays, four 5.25-inch bays, and one 5.25-to-3.5 adapter for mounting a floppy drive that you could probably use for a hard drive instead. (Aussies can click here to order it.)

You could also lash out on a "proper" server case with an integrated umpteen-drive storage system. That'd save you from bodging something up with multiple add-on cards, but it certainly wouldn't be cheaper.

Also, get a beefier PSU than you think you'd need for a computer that doesn't even have a separate video card. A ton of drives all spinning up at once can be surprisingly taxing. SCSI drives, and fancy controller cards for ATA drives, let you stagger drive spin-up so they don't all hit the PSU at once, but cheap gear will all power up simultaneously.

(If the PSU can't quite manage spinning all the drives up, by the way, it may get most of the way there by the time the motherboard starts beeping at you about drives not being ready and aborts the startup. Then you can just punch the reset button and the computer will start up fine, since everything's now already spinning. If you end up with a computer that does this, and if physically pressing the reset button once on every startup is not a problem, then don't worry about it. It's not symptomatic of any serious problems.)

Australian shoppers can purchase all sorts of PC components from Aus PC Market.
Click here to order!