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I'm looking to build a set of home servers to play around with. In doing so they will be on full time, looking to run a very low volume family web site, and probably a file server with SFTP etc on it as a separate device.

My question amounts to, given that configuration, what would make server hardware worth the extra cost as compared to buying desktop hardware and running the same open source server software?

What is it about server hardware that makes it better?

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10 Answers

For a small home-server with low-traffic, I'd just buy a regular old PC, or recycle an old laptop. I've got a 5 year old laptop that sits humming on the shelf serving out media and more. Works well, costs next-to-nothing.

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+1 for pragmatism! This isn't the popular answer, but for most families it's the right one. As long as you have a good backup strategy in place. –  John Rudy Aug 18 '09 at 19:37
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I stand corrected; it's apparently quite popular now. :) –  John Rudy Aug 18 '09 at 21:09
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You will get more bang for your buck going for a strictly server system because less resources are focused on things like the video and audio sub-systems and there is more focus on the memory, CPU and drive sub-systems. Also, many desktop systems do not support higher level RAID arrays (5, 10). But, in general, for what you're talking about, using desktop hardware is reasonable.

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Do not buy server hardware for this. For this use-case, such hardware is absolutely not required.

You buy server hardware where it costs you lots of money to power the machine down, say to change a harddrive.. You don't need redundant power-supplies, hot-swappable drives and RAID for your family website..

Do not use RAID (specifically RAID-1, mirroring) - RAID-1 is used so you can be up-and-running quickly after a drive-failure, not as a backup.. It probably doesn't matter if the site is down for an hour while you restore a backup, but it is a problem if you lose the data!

Instead of RAID, use the second drive to routinely clone the system (every night), or copy important data (the site and file-server contents). It's also a good idea to do an "off-site" backup once a month (either with a second drive, which you send back and forth, or an online service like Mozy)

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What you get for extra money on "server" hardware is often partly:

  • Hardware support contract with the vendor.
  • More "robust" hardware, for example ECC memory.
  • "Server only" features in the chipsets and add-on cards that aren't (as often) found in desktop hardware.
  • More powerful fans - servers sit in data centers, so noise is less a consideration :-).

I repurpose old systems for my server(s). These were gaming systems in their previous lives, so they're quite capable of some basic server functionality. Hardware failures are an issue because replacing one component in an old system can be quite difficult because the old hardware isn't available anymore.

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Server vs. Desktop. Server has more redundancy built in such as multiple lans, RAID, PSU and in some cases CPU and Memory. For home use its not usually in issue but if you are storing data that is important I would look into a RAID setup.Server vs. Desktop. Server has more redundancy built in such as multiple lans, RAID, PSU and in some cases CPU and Memory. For home use its not usually in issue but if you are storing data that is important I would look into a RAID setup.

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There's nothing strictly designated as "server" hardware. For your specific needs, web server/file server,

  • 500GB+ SATA hard disk
  • 1GB of RAM
  • Celeron CPU

should do the trick.

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I agree with Jonathan. For what you want to do, just recycle one of you old systems or find someone who recently upgraded theirs and see if they will let you have their old system or sell it to you on the cheap. As long as it isn't ancient it will work fine. If you are planning on using Linux as your OS almost anything will work.

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I spent at least a dozen years playing with various hardware configurations trying to build a perfect home server. I started with the cheapest PC under my desk running FreeBSD, then moved to an industrial strength server running Fedora Core OS, then a recycled old laptop with Ubuntu Server, then a hacked Linksys NAS with custom firmware and a bunch of packages for a web server, ftp, etc. In the end, I settled on a vanilla consumer-grade NAS (Network-Attached Storage) and I supplement it with various services "from the Cloud". I use Google Apps to store and share documents, calendars and to host email, for example. I use Google AppEngine to host my many websites (it requires programming skills, check out Google Sites or any number of blog hosting services if you do not want to learn programming). I use http://rsync.net and MobileMe for offsite backup (there's also Mozy and many other services that are easier to use than rsync, for example). I use del.icio.us for bookmarks, flickr.com to store and share images, and so on and so forth.

All this is to say that unless you have a copious amounts of free time to invest into building and maintaining your own infrastructure, you'd be better off my going with the hosted services. Yes, it often costs money (albeit usually not much) and privacy is always a concern, but you won't have to spend your weekends in the "server closet" in your basement trying to patch your crashed media server just so your wife could watch the latest episode of "Project Runway".

The NAS that is my "home server" now: Western Digital MyBook World Edition NAS.

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It really depends on what you want your server to be, but it looks like it's not very stressing. I agree with what most of the responses are, try to re-purpose any hardware you have laying around for this - it's definitely your best bang for the buck.

I've been using an old Athlon XP 2000+ system with 1GB of RAM, a 160GB drive that's my OS drive and a RAID 1 of 400GB as my data drive. This has been more then enough to do simple file sharing, music streaming, TiVo Desktop and a dev webserver all on Vista no less!

The great thing about using some of the older or notebook hardware (as long as it's not P4 class processors) is that they have pretty low energy requirements. Maybe not as low as the new low energy processors, but decent enough that I don't feel bad leaving that one computer on all day!

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You'll be absolutely fine with a regular desktop. Maybe beef up the processor and RAM (at least the RAM) before you begin hosting content from it. Also make sure your security settings are tighter than tight before you go live, especially if you're storing family documents or personal documents that you do not want the possibility to be shared out.

Also, make sure your ISP supports web hosting. Comcast, for example, requires a business class account to allow hosting. Don't get me wrong, you can do it with minimal effort, however you're looking at a breach of your ISP's TOS if you host a server without their permission.

Even running Windows you could easily configure something for your setup. Otherwise Fedora, Ubuntu, or even free BSD would work for you.

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