Budget mini-ITX home server build


For the past three years, I have been using a Linkstation Live for my home server.  When I bought it, it seemed ideally suited to my needs – it’s small, consumes under 30W full-load, and can be hacked to run Linux (I was running Debian).  It’s primary purpose is to serve files (functioning as a NAS device, as Buffalo intended), but I also use it for some more interesting things, such as hosting a subversion repository, serving music with mt-daapd, and managing a small VPN.

I started outgrowing the ARM9-based Linkstation at least a year ago – it was bogging down under the load of the many services it was running.  However, earlier this year Debian Etch became unsupported, meaning that I was no longer receiving security updates – a potentially major problem for a server that has a few ports open to the ‘net.

I started thinking about building a replacement using more modern, faster parts, but still keeping the server’s footprint small – both in terms of space and energy consumption.

After doing some research, I discovered the mini-ITX standard for motherboards and the Intel Atom D510 dual-core processor.  When combined with the right case, these would yield the perfect home-server for my needs.

Here’s my build list.  All parts are from Newegg.com:

Foxconn RS233 Black+Light Silver Computer Case – $44.99 (includes 150W PSU)

Intel BOXD510MO Intel Atom D510 Mini ITX Motherboard/CPU Combo
– $79.99

PQI POWER Series 2GB 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Desktop Memory
– $38.99

HITACHI Deskstar HD31000 1TB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5″ Internal Hard Drive – $64.99 (no longer listed @ Newegg)

SAMSUNG Spinpoint F3 1TB 3.5″ SATA 3.0Gb/s Internal Hard Drive -Bare Drive – $58.99 (a good substitute)

StarTech BRACKET Metal 3.5″ to 5.25″ Drive Adapter Bracket – $11.99
(For mounting a 2nd hard drive.)

Athena Power 10 ” Extension & Conversion Four-In-One9
– $6.99

Xion XON-DRBY525MB 5.25″ Driver Bay Cover Kit, Mesh, Black
– $9.99

Note: Prices listed are current as 9/17/10 and are subject to change.

The total for all parts at the time I bought them was  just under $250 (excluding shipping).  Not bad!  As of today (9/17/10), the prices have gone up slightly and the total is $257.93, although the Hitachi hard drive I bought has already been discontinued.   Newegg frequently has deals on 1TB 3.5″ drives, so finding another one in the $55-$65 range should be pretty easy if you look around.

Here are most of the parts waiting to be assembled:

New server parts

I spent a lot of time looking for a case, and I’m extremely happy with the Foxconn RS233 Mini ITX case I found.

Foxconn RS233 Mini ITX case

Everything fit very nice inside, including a 2nd 3.5″ hard drive I had lying around that is used for backups.  (The 2nd hard drive is installed in the 5.25″ bay, using adapter brackets.)

I added a short power supply extension cable to the motherboard power connector.  This is because the 150W PSU that comes with the Foxconn case has a short power cable that can’t reach the motherboard power connector without stretching.  It can be forced to fit, but the extension was inexpensive and gives me some peace of mind.

New power cable routing

I initially had some problems with hard drive temperatures, but installing this clean-looking grill in place of the 5.25″ bay cover solved that.  For testing, I just left the cover off the bay completely, which provides great ventilation but allows cat hair to rapidly collect inside the case.

Grill installed

I also covered the case’s top vent to keep the exhaust fans from sucking air through there instead of through the front of the case (past the hard drives and CPU).

Top vent sealed

Here is the finished server.  It’s small!


I spent a couple evenings installing and configuring Ubuntu Server 10.04 LTS, which I am very happy with so far.  It did force me to learn how to completely install and configure Ubuntu via the command-line (Server doesn’t install a GUI), but it was all stuff I mostly knew already, and I probably gained some geek-cred.  😉

While I still have a few things left to set up (OpenVPN takes a bit of configuring), I’m very happy with the performance of this box.  While a dual core Atom is nothing compared to a typical desktop machine today, this machine is lightning-fast compared to the 200MHz ARM9 it replaced.  For a small home server, this is a perfect solution.

Power consumption is about 35W with both drives spinning, about 30W idle.  Just a few watts more than the Linkstation, for a system with >1.5GB more memory and what feels like 10x the processing power!

10 thoughts on “Budget mini-ITX home server build”

  1. Thanks for the great tips. I am looking for a cheap case to build an energy efficient home server. Those 30-35W really impressed me. How did you measure the power consumption?

  2. I’ve got a quite similar set up except that I’ve got an older Atom board in mine that only has 100mbit ethernet and I’ve got FreeBSD installed on mine running ZFS. It’s been a nice stable, quiet NAS that just sits in the corner serving up data 🙂

    1. James,

      Cool! ZFS looks interesting. Why did you chose to run it?

      Quiet/stable (and low power) are all very good traits for a home server box!

      1. A few reasons:
        1) The FreeBSD version of it is now pretty stable, and runs well on 64-bit hardware.
        2) ZFS is kind of like a smart RAID. If one needs to rebuild a RAID-Z it only needs to recopy data actually occupying the disk, rather than resilvering the entire disk. All used blocks have 128-bit checksums, snapshotting is fast/cheap, it supports a couple types of compression, snapshots can be serialized into a stream (including ones that are differences between snapshots), so that you can backup your filesystem and update snapshots on a remote machine easily with zfs send/recv, etc..

        There’s a bunch of other stuff too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZFS, much of which is supported on FreeBSD: http://wiki.freebsd.org/ZFS

        It looks like you’re using only one disk, so you wouldn’t be able to use a RAID-Z with that, however you can have it store multiple copies of data on a single disk as well.

  3. Hi there Jeff !

    I’ve just assembled my home server and it’s very similar to yours! I’m using an atom n330 mini-itx board (I find “x86″s so soothing… no need to cross-compile missing libraries) and the exact same distro =) .
    One thing I find very practical to do is to use webmin for monitoring it and also for managing all those samba shares…

    It’s currently consuming about 55W @ full load. Although I have 3HDD ( 2 for a RAID1 “safe” (file loss trauma) and another for junk) I suspect that my PSU is to blame as it was way too cheap to be power efficient..

    Diego Spinola (http://www.pachube.com/feeds/9936)

    1. Diego,

      The 330 and 510 are very similar in performance – great processors for the money, and low power too.

      I don’t have much experience with web administration. I did install ebox, as recommended by Ubuntu, but was very disappointed with how it “took over” management of many services in a way I didn’t like. It didn’t uninstall cleanly either, so now I won’t touch it with a 10 ft. pole. I’ll take a look at webmin sometime, but I am pretty happy with the console for now.

      I purposely tried to get the lowest wattage PSU I could find, since they tend to be most efficient close to their maximum load rating. In the end, the case dictated the PSU (it came with one). For a while I was looking into the picoPSU:


      but decided against it due to cost. I suspect that a nice ~80W picoPSU would be even more efficient than the 150W supply that came with the Foxconn case I have.

      I considered RAID but didn’t implement it for a few reasons. Instead, I run a nightly rsync to a 2nd hard drive, which seems to work ok.

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