Hack Together a Home Server

Image from homedepot.com

Wow, it's been ages since I wrote anything up for this blog. So, here's a quick one from a hardware project I'm wrapping up for my home; for many years, I've fun a desktop machine that has in the loosest terms been a "server" for my own needs. It's usually been whatever is handed down when I build a new PC for photo editing and/or gaming, so it's a pretty low-spec machine running some variant of Windows. It runs my email, hosts media like photos and videos so I can access them from other machines on the network, runs a small private FTP box for easier file transfer, things like that. It's essentially a NAS but with a OS around it so I can remote in and do useful things. Apologies in advance if this makes your eyes glaze over. May I suggest looking around for another blog post while you're here instead?

 
Anyway, last weekend, the most recent iteration of that box became unresponsive overnight. Testing implied a power issue, but a second PSU and then later testing of both PSUs against a testing meter proved that wasn't the case; in any event, the machine wouldn't POST and trying to power it up spun the fans for a second or two and then nothing. Could be the core, could be the RAM, could be the motherboard... but this was a machine last upgraded two and a half years ago, if you don't count storage upgrades, and that was just for a new workstation graphics card. The guts were mostly several years older, with the core being (if I recall properly!) an original Intel i5 chip, well after the first i5s were well out of style and picked up on clearance before that chipset died out entirely. Not much reason to try to find the flaw and replace it in a machine like that. Let's just go out and replace it. The wife's out of town on a work trip, she won't mind!

Options

I already ruled out the first option just above - I didn't want to try to bring the old thing back to life with a few new parts. Finding a decent chip for the chipset would probably be difficult and more expensive than it was worth, and it would probably have to be used. Who knows what you might get in terms of longevity, and the CPU might not be the issue anyway. Same could be said for either the motherboard or the RAM, really, so that option just went straight out the window.
 
I could have also just gone with a NAS. I would have had to find a container that could support both 2.5" and 3.5" drives if I wanted to recycle all of the storage, but the small-form-factor drive was a small SSD that wasn't necessarily useful outside of a genuine computing device. I do most of my personal email from my phone or from Gmail's browser experience these days, so I didn't necessarily need to keep the box for that purpose.  I did still want to be able to do some real OS-type things with that data when needed, though, so while a NAS would have likely been cost-effective it would be less flexible and I didn't feel like changing how I do things.
 
I could also build a new machine and keep the old case around for a little bit longer. That case had been to hell and back; it was a budget-minded case from when I built my very first hand-built PC back in 2005, and had served many purposes and traveled thousands of miles in that time. But again, that's not very cost-effective; building a new machine usually limits your options for saving money on the main components as it's still hard to find parts to put together a machine that's a year out of date at first POST even if that's what you want.
 
So I settled on a fourth option: buy a refurbished PC off the shelf. I figured a reputable refurb would be less likely to have significant longevity issues, and I could get a sufficient machine pre-built for far less, and that's just what I found last weekend: Dell had a small-form-factor desktop workstation running Windows 8.1 with an Intel i3 from a couple years back, a 500GB hard disk, and 8GB of RAM in one stick, upgradable to 32 as desired. And as luck would have it, that particular model had an additional 40% off sale going last weekend, so I was able to snap it up for under two hundred dollars, shipped to my door.
 

Modification

There was a lot not to like about that machine, price point notwithstanding. For one, while I would be able to get by with Windows 8.1 if I needed to, the old machine was running on 10 and I, like most people, didn't like 8 much. Unfortunately, the old machine was also running on a 32-bit version, which, why would you want that anyway? The first order of business was to get that thing modernized. Luckily, with a brief search, I discovered that Microsoft's big push to get people to upgrade from 7 and 8 to 10, back when 10 first released, still existed but without publicity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this option still worked, and within a couple hours of opening the Dell box I had the machine on the most recent OS for free.
 
The next problem was to ensure that all the software I needed got installed. Of course, for most things this wasn't a big issue, but a number of settings for various software were unable to be easily copied over after install due to not having a way to pull them from the old dead PC. In the end, now that it's all complete, even this wasn't too difficult, though my Carbonite setup got very confused and ended up re-uploading dozens of gigabytes' worth of photos. All apologies to my ISP.
 
After that, it was the realization that the hard drives just weren't at all what I wanted. Nobody wants to go from having a boot drive on a SSD to one on a standard 7200RPM SATA disk, right? This one required some fairly dumb maneuvering, with a backup of the SSD to another machine for safety's sake, followed by a manual copy of various data from the SSD to the new machine's HDD over an external drive enclosure. With that all in place, I then had to essentially reverse the process, using Macrium Reflect Free to clone the necessary partitions in the other direction, from the HDD over to overwrite the SSD. 
 
Oh, but, the new chassis only has room for one hard drive, because it's a tiny case meant to live well out of the way of everything on or under someone's desk. And it's a 3.5" bay, and I only have a caddy to adapt this SSD into a floppy-size bay. But that's okay, because instead I can take out the optical drive that game with the new machine, right? A computer like this doesn't need an optical drive anyway. And it's a slimline drive and has its own caddy! But of course, that's not going to be quite that easy either. The proprietary Dell PSU only has one standard SATA power end, with a mini-SATA sort of thing powering that optical drive. Which also means that the proprietary caddy will block the SATA data port on the SSD once I put the caddy inside (the SSD caddy I already had fit pretty well, surprisingly, which makes me think that Dell might have offered this machine with a SSD in that spot as an option at some point). 
 
So, two problems here. One, I can't hook up both my drives at once, and two, even if I could hook them up I would have a physical obstruction on one of them. The first problem proved to be pretty simple - a $5 part, a y-splitter for SATA power cables. It turned my one standard SATA power end to two, and also gave me a bit of extra cable to work with. The second just required a total lack of finesse: I got out my Dremel and cut out a hole in the plastic caddy so that the SSD was no longer blocked.
 
The last thing in the case was just annoyingly cosmetic. Pulling the optical drive naturally left a hole in the front of the thing. I couldn't find a blank on eBay, on Amazon, or even from some guy with files for 3D printing the thing. Dell's site certainly didn't have one. But, hope springing eternal, and that hole really grating on my nerves, I hopped on sales chat with a Dell representative. After about 40 minutes, he discovered that while they didn't sell the part on the website, they did have them in the warehouse, and I was able to get one ordered for a whopping $4. And while I was told not to expect it until nearly Halloween, it's already on a truck to show up at my house this week. Good thing, as well, because for now I have that hole on the case covered with bright blue painter's tape - a servicible hack that looks one hundred percent ridiculous.
 
All told, I feel like I got a great deal here. This is a PC that will probably be the last one I ever need for this purpose, if I'm lucky, because I would be shocked if it didn't give me a good five years' labor if not more. I got the entire thing plus what essentially became a bonus hard drive for me to use in another project for just a shade under two hundred bucks. And not only that, it will now take up a third as much volume under my desk and has a PSU half the size of the old one, which should save me money in the long run on a machine that runs 24/7/365.
 
And I got to take a ten-thousand-RPM rotary cutter and chop stuff up for parts of a computer. That was fun.

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