21
Mar
20

Building a Replacement Server 2.0

I built my current server about five years ago as a replacement for my Sparcstation 20 so it could be retired from the role and used in a more desktop role. Recently the machine I built suffered what I thought was a hardware failure and hasn’t been up in some time. This has brought forward plans I’ve had for quite a while to replace it with something more power efficient. I’ve been struggling for quite a while to find something that is relatively cheap, but also more power efficient than the 60-100W my old Celeron 2.4 Ghz uses.

One option I had been investigating for a while is the plethora of small form factor PCs that are generally available. I looked at various offerings from Intel, Gigabyte and others that are available and found that whilst they were indeed quite power efficient, they also tended to cost quite a bit for a bare bones system that would require buying additional components. For this reason I decided it would be better to go for another option.

I had looked among my collection of old hardware for an alternative, and couldn’t find anything that was suitable, so I was going to have to buy something new. With small form factor PCs ruled out due to cost I had to do some research. I ended up finding some videos from Phil’s Computer Lab where he used old thin client machines for various purposes such as retro gaming or in some cases being able to play fairly modern games. Checking out the specifications of the thin clients they appeared to be reasonably powerful, efficient, cheap, and you get a complete system that require minimal additional components. Sounds like a winner!

I ended up buying an HP T620 thinclient with the 1.5Ghz Quad core AMD GX-415GA chip. It came with 4 Gb of DDR3 memory and 16Gb flash in the form of an M.2 drive. Whilst not terribly impressive specs for a modern machine, it’s fairly good for 2013 technology and is certainly better than the old Celeron I currently have. The most exciting aspect of the thin client is its power efficiency. I had a fairly good idea that it would be significantly better than the old machine because the power brick is 65W, so the likely maximum energy draw has to be less than what the old machine draws at idle. Being a low power device it is passively cooled and is completely silent in operation.

So I got out my kill-a-watt style power meter to see how much energy I could expect this machine to consume, I was pleasantly surprised. With the default operating system (embedded windows 8) it used a whopping 2W after boot at idle. Being so low I was completely astonished! I wasn’t planning on using windows as the operating system, so knowing the idle power may be different I went about the software install. Like previous server installs I’m using NetBSD again, partly because it makes it easy for me to migrate, but also just because I like it.

I had some difficulties installing because of UEFI, but once I resolved that the install went smoothly. Hardware support turned our fairly well, with all the major devices except the wireless working. Given I’ll be using Ethernet that’s not much of an issue for me. After boot on a clean install the idle power consumption is around 7W, which is still quite impressive. I suspect the higher consumption is because of the open source radeon driver not having good power management, which I can’t do much about at the present time.

The only issue I had after installing the operating system was the distinct lack of storage, 16G is not really all that much and I know that I’ll need more. Luckily these thin clients can take upgraded storage, mine has a mSATA slot that some revisions of this unit don’t. So I went online and bought a 120G Kingston UV500 mSATA SSD. Had my unit not had that slot I could have upgraded the M.2 drive to something larger. There are also a number of USB ports that could be used for external storage.

I’ve now deployed the new machine and I’m quite happy with the results. I’m quite happy with the performance, which I’d say is in large part due to the SSD storage. I like that it’s passively cooled because that makes it completely silent. Lastly the extremely low power consumption makes it very cheap to run, and I managed to get mine (including the extra storage) for significantly less cost than you’d pay for most small form factor PCs.


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