Server Assembly, Days 2-10

It was an interesting and at times frustrating journey to get from a collection of parts to a completely assembled server. Along the way I had to deal with a lot more than just hardware issues, so the overall assembly process did involve several incidents of two steps forward and one step back. In the end, I am very happy with the results and I’m confident that this machine will be serving me very well for the next 6-10 years. I haven’t yet computed my final cost of construction because, honestly, I’m still buying parts. But more about that in a future posting when I describe the additional workloads that have been delegated to the server beyond my original plans.

Case closed

Many of the problems I encountered were the result of poor planning. I had been wanting/needing a new server for awhile, so I did have ample time to plan out this build. But then the Massachusetts “sales tax holiday” weekend was announced with somewhat short notice. This meant any purchases the weekend of August 16th would not include the 6.25% Massachusetts sales tax, and many online sellers, including Amazon, were prepared to honor the holiday. As such, I felt compelled to buy as many of the parts as possible that one weekend, because my overall savings could be hundreds of dollars. Combine that with sale prices on particular cases, motherboards, etc., on that weekend and whatever precise plan I had previously made went out the door and I instead went hunting for bargains on the appropriate class of hardware.

I made a couple of mistakes along the way, but some of my mistakes were to my benefit.

In retrospect, I probably would have not purchased the iStar-USA E2M10 case had I done more research. And, it turns out, that probably would have been a bad decision – that’s right, I’m saying that with more research, I would have made a worse choice.

I was drawn to the 2U size of this case and, more importantly, the 10 hot-swap drive bays. I also was able to get a very good price on the case, after doing a bunch of comparison shopping. So in something of an impulse buy, I committed to this case.

What I somehow failed to realize is that my impulse buy was for a case that did not include a power supply. I was also not fully aware of exactly what that 10 drive backplane was all about or how I would use it. I think I was under the assumption that I’d attach it to the motherboard the same as an external SATA enclosure. It said it was a SATA/SAS backplane, and I really didn’t understand what that meant. I just assumed it meant it could use either SATA or SAS drives.

Therefore, I had to buy a power supply. A 2U power supply. One that I could feel reasonably confident would fit and operate within in this case. After shopping around, I was able to get a very good deal on a 700W iStar-USA power supply, so that’s what I did. My total cost of case+power supply was still hundreds less than the cost of buying them together, based upon what I had found online.

Power supply

As for the backplane, there wasn’t much in way of documentation. Even what I could download from iStar-USA didn’t really help. But their support team was very responsive, and, in the end, it all worked out.

Turns out what I bought are two 6Gbps SATA drive bays and two 4-drive SAS mini-backplanes. So, yes, I can just drop SATA drives into all of the bays. I could even use SAS drives. However, I had no way to attach the SAS backplanes to my motherboard. Time for more shopping!

My solution was to purchase a HighPoint RocketRAID 2720SGL SAS host adapter. I previously had a good experience with a RocketRAID SATA card I used to connect an external SATA enclosure, so I was reasonably confident in my purchase. I also got to learn a lot about SAS. And this is why my impulse purchase was a good one and additional research would have lead to a worse choice. With additional research, once I determined that this backplane would require me to buy a SAS HBA, I simply would not have bought this case. I would not have researched SAS, because I would have simply seen it as additional cost. I would have been happy with an all SATA solution. But now that I understand the advantages of SAS over SATA (in terms of bandwidth and performance), I’m glad I spent a little bit more to get there. Besides, I got to play with even more new toys and gain some additional experience.

Highpoint SAS box
Highpoint SAS card

Of course, I then had to purchase two SFF-8087 SAS connectors. Oh, the joy of having drives and a controller card, and no way to connect them. Luckily, it didn’t take too long for me to get two cables shipped. Every time I had to wait an additional two days, I considered it to be a minor punishment – a time-out of sorts – for my lack of proper planning.

Now, this did lead to some other issues. In particular, I was going to now have 2 drives connected via SATA to the motherboard, and then the remaining drives connected via SAS through the HighPoint card. Plus I would soon make some decisions on how the operating system would be installed that would have some dramatic impact on all sorts of things.

Server innards

In the end, it was a very clean install in a very attractive and solid case. As expected, things got a bit cramped in there but I did my best to manage the cable clutter. I also installed the graphics card plus I also moved a Ceton InfitiTV PCIe card into the server – but more on that whole story later.

There was also an issue involving powering the SAS backplane. It requires six 4 pin connectors. My chosen power supply does not have them. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t on the list of compatible power supplies. Time to order another cable and wait another couple of days. By now you should be understanding why it took me nearly two weeks to assemble this beast.

With the construction finally done, the bigger problem was that this beautiful server was now destined to go into a truly horrible and disgusting place – and old, forgotten vault not worthy of its presence. Clearly, I had a much larger job on my hands, and something I could no longer ignore. My server closet was due for a massive overhaul. To call it a “rat’s nest” is an insult to reasonably well maintained rat’s nests around the globe.

Rat's nest 1
Rat's nest 2

Trust me, I wish these pictures were staged. That this wasn’t real. But admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery.