Severing my Mac

Previously, I blogged about my Mac Pro, and its workstationlike qualities making it ideal for a home server. Unfortunately, it turned out to be… less than ideal in practice, and so I’ve embarked on an all-new server adventure!

(Okay, “all-new” might be a bit of an embellishment… nevertheless…)

The Mac Pro made for a really nice and capable server system. With ample RAM and a powerful Xeon processor, plus the fact it makes for a sort of statement piece in my living room, meant that on paper, it should’ve been perfect.

Unfortunately, it has one serious glaring issue: power usage.

You see, we recently got a smart meter, which tells us how much power we’re using at any given time. And naturally, our computers use a fair chunk of power when they’re in use – but those are modern, efficient systems built with parts from within the last decade.

The Mac Pro is none of those things, and… well, the upside of it using server hardware is also its downside. Servers chew through power like my wife chews through Bebeto raspberry laces. As such, the Mac Pro used more power idling than my main PC does when it’s actually in use. The smart meter had lots of red warning lights and moaned that we were over budget, and it was less than ideal all round.

So, unfortunately, I’ve had to retire it for now. I suspect at this point, it’s just gonna be a (very nice and memorable) part of my collection, and won’t really get used much. Sad.

The Next Generation

Anyway; not all hope was lost. You see, I did some research into more efficient server options. Lots of ideas came up: mainly NUCs and SBCs, neither of which were exactly suitable for my use case. NUCs (a.k.a. Next Unit of Computing) are some sort of system-on-a-chip solution which, while efficient, are also pretty darned expensive for what you get. SBCs, on the other hand, would be ideal as they’re small and easy to tuck away; but it’s hard to tell what capabilities they have, and they never have enough RAM.

This stumped me for a little while, ’til I realised that I actually had most of a server just lying around. I have more hard drives than I’ll ever know what to do with, I have a Mini-ITX board from a previous project I never got round to… and I also have one of these:

A white computer case, with a fan grille on the front and ventilation on the side. It's clearly a very small case.This is a SilverStone SG05-Lite case, and it is adorably tiny. I’m pretty sure it’s smaller than my microwave, even. I love tiny electronics, and it’s the ideal size that I can stick it on my desk and work on it. It’s also small enough that I can easily tuck it away downstairs.

Other components include:

  • Intel DH61DL motherboard (which came with 2GB RAM)
  • 10GB PC-10600 total RAM (remarkably difficult to get hold of…)
  • Intel i7-3770 (to replace the i3-2120 that the motherboard came bundled with)
  • Noctua L9i CPU cooler
  • Be Quiet SFX Power 3 PSU
  • Some 500GB Seagate SSHD I nicked from a laptop one time
  • 500GB Western Digital ‘Green’ HDD

Other than the case, I didn’t buy any of these new specifically for this project. The Noctua cooler was something I picked up for my Windows XP build, before finding it didn’t fit. Everything else was sourced from eBay or CEX. It’s the perfect budget server!

And it’s great.

She’s Electric

A terminal screen, running the program 'B Top'. It shows that my server is scarcely breaking a sweat, using very little of its 10GB memory and barely touching its CPU.

This was taken while watching a transcoded video through Jellyfin.

When I say this system is super cool, I’m not kidding. Look at those delightful temperatures! It usually idles around 30°c, and doesn’t get much warmer than that even when I’m doing heavy CPU stuff with it. Admittedly, that isn’t very often.

I will say that it handles Jellyfin transcodes a lot better than the Mac did – at least, based on watching a single episode of Doctor Who on my Roku. Previously, I had an issue where the video would kind of ‘hiccup’, which would put it out of sync with the subtitles. Haven’t had that happen to me yet!

Everything else is relatively low-power, so I doubt I’ll be maxing this little server out any time soon.

One aspect that does make me a little sad – for no especially good reason, mind – is that I can’t get OpenSUSE to work on this system. At all. I’ve tried MicroOS, the brand-new Leap Micro, as well as the standard Leap image; it just won’t boot. I ran into the same issue with Fedora IoT, the immutable server distro from Fedora. So, I’ve just got plain ol’ boring Debian running at the minute.

I suppose that’s no bad thing – Debian really is a great system. But, I dunno, I was excited to have something new and tasty to play with!

Watz Next?

While I’m really chuffed with how it’s working right now, there’s some definite upgrade potential with this system.

The LEDs

First of all, the LEDs. The SilverStone case has blue LEDs for power and disk activity, and lemme tell you, they are bright. Unnecessarily bright, to the point where I just had to unplug them entirely. I don’t really want Blackpool Illuminations in my living room! So, I think it would be nice to replace them with something a bit more tasteful; I’m thinking a nice amber LED will be ideal. And some resistors, because it’s just too darned bright.

More RAM

The system current has 10GB RAM – that is, one 2GB module which came bundled with the motherboard when I bought it, and another 8GB module that I got for a stupidly high price at CEX. I should like to get another 8GB module, and max the board’s supported RAM out. 16GB ought to be enough for my needs; at least for now.

Solid State Drives

The drives are basically “stuff I found that would work”. It would be nice to get a proper (ideally low-power) SSD to use as the boot volume, and perhaps a larger 5400RPM spinning rust drive to replace the aging Green drive.

Fun fact, that drive is most likely the one I used as my boot volume when I built my first ever PC! It was SLOW! But for this purpose, it’s more than suitable.

Complete Refresh

This board is very old, and the components are very old – we’re looking at a system that, a decade ago, would’ve been getting on a bit. There is also very little in the way of expansion options, although I’m not sure if that’s really necessary.

And while it still works – and works really well, mind you – it’s not the best. A newer board would likely be a lot more power efficient (or, at least, capable of greater efficiency) and, crucially, would support M.2 hard drives. That last point would be of the greatest benefit, given the tininess of the case.

Plus, it’d probably support OpenSUSE.

That’s about all I have to say about that for now. Gosh, I do like rambling, don’t I?

About LunarLoony

IT support technician by day, artist also by day, video game enthusiast by day as well. Not keen on doing things by night... when else am I supposed to sleep? I have been making internet things since about 2005, and advocate for personal websites and blogs and things. I also run Broken Circus, where I make short films about video game history!
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