Building a Custom Rack-Mount Server


1026 words · 6 minutes

The Dilemma

For years, I have been using desktops and a Raspberry Pi as the backbone of my homelab. I have always wanted to move toward a single dedicated server that could handle all of my tasks, but was often put off by the complexity of the choices (and financial roadbloacks at some times).

However, after purchasing a small server rack this past year, I have been researching to see what kind of rack-mounted server I could buy. I initially bought a Dell R720XD loaded up with everything I could ever want in a server - but I did not care for it. It was far too loud and the age of the CPU/RAM was something I wanted to improve upon.

After returning the R720XD, I decided that I wanted to build my own server with modern, consumer-grade PC components. This time, I am very happy with the results of my server.

Components

I'll start by listing all the components I used for this server build:

Building the Server

This took quite a while for me to build (in my opinion of time), totaling around 3 hours from start to finish. The case has some peculiar construction, so you have to completely remove the ODD & HDD cages to install the motherboard and other components first.

Now, I've never built a computer of any kind before, so I was quite nervous. Personally, the only challenging part was getting the CPU cooler to screw into the mothboard without sliding the thermal paste around too much underneath. I'm still not entirely sure I did a great job of it, but nothing's broken yet.

The main components were all fine and simple - however, installing the hard drives is slightly tedious as I need to power off the server and completely unscrew the HDD cage to install or remove any drives. Additionally, the drives are screwed directly into the metal cage with small screws, which is quite a bit different from the HDD trays I'm used to in other machines.

Seeing that the cases with hot-swap bays were 3-4x the price, I'm okay dealing with the tedium of removing the cage to install new drives.

Software

I'm not going to dive into the software as I have done so in other recent posts. However, I wanted to note that I am using Alpine Linux on this server and hosting most services inside Docker. No virtual machines (VMs) and very few bare-metal services.

The Results

How did my build turn out? Well, after migrating my other servers and their services over, I found that my server is blazing fast. The heaviest of my applications, Plex, is handled with ease. Even 4k streaming seems to be effortless.

I am very happy with the results and will likely continue to improve on this server as the years go by rather than buying another used server online.

Mistakes I Made

This post wouldn't be complete if I didn't write about the mistakes I made while building. The only real mistake I made beyond a "whoops I dropped a screw" related to airflow and fan direction.

While installing the two new hard drives that showed up on 2022-11-30 and getting ready to install the case in my rack, I noticed that the hard drive temperatures were quite high.

I used the smartctl command for each of my drives (/dev/sda through /dev/sdd):

doas smartctl -a /dev/sda | grep Temperature_Celsius

The results were unusual - all four drives were idling at ~44-46 degrees Celsius. The only drive that was cooler was my 10TB drive, which was at 38 degrees Celsius. I noted that this 10TB drive was also closest to the case fan.

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
# /dev/sda
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   147   147   000    Old_age   Always       -       44 (Min/Max 22/46)
# /dev/sdb
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   141   141   000    Old_age   Always       -       46 (Min/Max 21/48)
# /dev/sdc
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   144   144   000    Old_age   Always       -       45 (Min/Max 19/61)
# /dev/sdd
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   171   171   000    Old_age   Always       -       38 (Min/Max 14/56)

After looking to see if I could fit more fans into the case, I noticed that the 120mm fan used for intake from the front of the case was actually pushing air out of the case by mistake. This fan sits right in front of the hard drive bay.

Once I flipped the fan around to act as an intake fan, the temperatures dropped immediately! They are now idling at ~31-33 degrees Celsius. A single fan spinning the wrong way caused my drives to idle 10-15 degrees higher than they should have.

ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
# /dev/sda
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   209   209   000    Old_age   Always       -       31 (Min/Max 14/56)
# /dev/sdb
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   196   196   000    Old_age   Always       -       33 (Min/Max 19/61)
# /dev/sdc
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   203   203   000    Old_age   Always       -       32 (Min/Max 21/48)
# /dev/sdd
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0002   196   196   000    Old_age   Always       -       33 (Min/Max 22/46)

This was a silly error to make, but I'm glad I found it today before I screwed the case into the rack and made things a lot more tedious to fix.