$9.99 Server

I’ve been looking for a “toy” server for a few months now to run at home. I didn’t want anything particularly powerful, but I wanted something that met the following criteria:

Small
I didn’t want something like a rackmount PC. I have a wooden rack for AV equipment, but I find that 1U rackmount cases are overpriced, bulky, and they’re just too darn wide.
Quiet
I’m not really sure where the server would live yet – it could end up somewhere where I don’t care about noise (the garage, or the closet with AV equipment), but it might also end up near my desk. Having an iMac has spoiled me in the noise department – it’s pretty much inaudible, and I love that.
Capable of holding a few hard drives
One thing I’d love to play around with is ZFS, which is usable on one hard drive, but infinitely cooler on many. I already have a few spare IDE drives laying around, so why not put them all in one case and make it a decent file server?
More powerful than most embedded PCs
There are plenty of thin clients and embedded systems out there that could handle the job, but I wanted something where I wouldn’t feel strained running a small Asterisk system on it, or encoding video on it, etc. I certainly didn’t need anything top-of-the-line, but a relatively modern CPU with more than 500MHz would be nice.
Cheap
Well, it goes without saying…

I ended up with an ASUS Terminator C3 that I bought used off eBay for $9.99 + shipping, which actually brought the total to around $40. It’s not quite the perfect system, but it’s pretty close. And for $40, you call can’t beat it. Some things to like about it:

Expansion slots
2 external 5.25″ slots, 1 internal/1 external 3.5″ slots, and one PCI slot. Oddly, there are two brackets on the back for expansion cards – I guess I could put some monster 2-slot video card in it, if they actually made 2-slot PCI cards. Regardless, in theory I could fit 4 internal hard drives, although after taking apart the case I’ve realized that’s easier said than done. One 3.5″ slot is taken for a floppy and would need some metalwork for the proper screw positions to fit a hard drive, and there just aren’t enough connectors from the meager 165W power supply to power it all.
More than barebones
Most sites selling the Terminator C3 sell the barebones kit, where you need to add (at a minimum) RAM and a hard drive to make it work. Mine came witih 256MB RAM, and a 40GB hard drive. I’ve since added another 512MB RAM I had sitting around from an older Shuttle PC, and replaced the 40GB hard drive with a 120GB model.
Unexpected data
Don’t folks realize when they sell things on eBay they should wipe the hard drive first? Whoever touched it last just went into the BIOS and disabled booting from the hard drive, rather than wipe it. However, there wasn’t anything sensitive on the drive – just a copy of Windows XP Home Edition with nothing else on it. I suspect they imaged it before selling to verify it worked. I guess I have another product key for XP Home now!

And the things I’m less happy about, so far:

Noisy fan
It’s actually not that loud, but I’m spoiled. Still, I might consider doubling my cost just to get a good, quiet 90mm fan for it.
Driver support
Windows seemed to work fine with it, but I wasn’t intending to run Windows on it. So far it’s been an uphill battle with the built-in network card and the built-in video card. I haven’t even tried the audio, but I suspect that would be a trouble spot, too.
Case design
Small cases always suck, but this one sucks more than I expected. The removing the outer case requires you hinge it at an odd angle, then disconnect the power bracket from the back, and then you can hinge all the drive bays around 180° to access the motherboard, cables, and most of the drives. The fact that the external 3.5″ bay is drilled to only accept a floppy drive also annoys me. Until I either get a dremel or a 5.25″ to 3.5″ bay adapter, I’m stuck with only one hard drive in it.

I’ve just started getting it up-and-running with OpenSolaris build 64. I’ll put more details on that in a separate post.

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