08
Sep
14

Building a Replacement Server

I’ve been using my old SparcStation 20 for about 3 years for storing my source repositories, allowing VPN access and web serving among other functions. I originally set it up like this as an interesting project to see if I could make good use of exceptionally old hardware with more modern software (NetBSD in this case) and it turned out to be quite handy. The experience as a whole has been a very positive one.

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Sun Keyboard and Mouse

Now the time has come to not so much retire the SparcStation, but move it into a new function as a vintage workstation. I was very fortunate to receive a donation of a type 5c keyboard and mouse suitable for use with it, all I have to get is a frame buffer card and I can plug in a screen and use it as a desktop. Fortunately frame buffer cards are much easier to find than keyboard/mouse combinations so I shouldn’t have an issue finding one.

Having decided to build a new server machine, I went looking through my collection of old hardware to see what I could build out of my spare parts. I already had the large tower case recently donated, so I checked out what was installed in it. Turns out it was a Duron 800, which is quite reasonable, but after measuring its power consumption (about 70W without hard drives) I decided I could make a machine that was cheaper to run with some other parts.

Obviously I want something more efficient than the SparcStation, which uses around 130W with everything installed. It turned out to be quite difficult to find x86 hardware that is efficient once everything is installed. After looking at what I have and doing a bit of research I decided to try out the old Coppermine Celeron 800Mhz as it had quite a low TDP. Powered up with a graphic card but no hard disks it used about 60W, unfortunately it didn’t want to boot, and no amount of prodding got it to work.

Looking in my collection of old hardware I didn’t have many alternatives. I could use a socket 7 based system, but that would likely be _slower_ than the sparc and may use a similar amount of power. I have some Pentium II boards, but I wanted them as spares for my Win98 system. In the end I used some suitable socket 478 (Pentium 4) hardware, which initially looked bad efficiency wise. The P4 of course was known for running hot, and hence also using lots of power.

My older brother donated a MSI socket 478 mainboard to me some time ago without a CPU. I looked through my collection of CPUs and found a Celeron 2.4Ghz and heat sink. I installed it and 1Gbyte of DDR and it worked with little effort, but the power consumption without hard disks was about 80 something watts, not ideal. I decided to press on with this hardware as I had no other vintage parts that would be suitable, and that power usage ought to be the worst for the board and processor. That and I don’t have money for new hardware at the moment.

Machine Assembled

Machine Assembled

So I assembled the machine in the chassis with a Pioneer DVD drive and two Western Digital hard drives. I selected two 80Gb ATA WD drives as they turned out to have the best power consumption and reasonable capacity. All together, just sitting at the BIOS screen the machine used about 100W. Again a worst case and not that great a saving, but at least it’s significantly faster.

I decided to stick with NetBSD for this build for a few reasons, firstly it is simpler to migrate the configuration and data from the old machine. Secondly I like NetBSD because of how light it is and how easy it is to work with. I downloaded the latest version (6.1.4 as of this writing) and went through the install process. Installation was fairly easy, but I couldn’t get X to work correctly on my hardware. I didn’t have a local X server before, so I didn’t worry about getting it to work beyond XDMCP.

After installation I measured the power consumption of the machine at idle, I was pleasantly surprised that it dropped to about 65-70 Watts, a nice improvement over the sparc. Power usage peaks at about 100W when the machine is under full load as I first thought. After setting up the hard disks to power down after idle for a while I managed to reduce this to just bellow 60W.

I’m now happy with the hardware I have set up, although I could use modern hardware and save even more power. I’m currently in the process of setting up the software. I’m rebuilding the kernel and userland for NetBSD. It’s a surprisingly easy process, and well worth it especially for older hardware. I’m not ready to deploy the machine yet, but it looks like it will work well.

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