How feasible is it to put a regular desktop in a rackmount case?
March 23, 2017 5:51 PM   Subscribe

I have a couple boxes and I'm wondering if it might be worthwhile to try and condense them down to a rack but am I getting in over my head?

I currently have three PCs that I use regularly; a Windows machine mainly used for games, a Linux everyday driver, and my NAS. They do require quite a bit of space to be able to arrange them such that they and my desk are usable so I've been considering shifting them into some 4U rackmount cases and buying a second-hand rack off Craigslist.

I realize I could theoretically condense these all down to one machine with VMs but I'd rather have three machines running less of a load with cheaper parts than one bleeding edge machine.

While I know this is feasible, is there any potential problems with doing this that I'm not aware of or things I'm going to have to take into account?
posted by Socinus to Technology (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Racks are expensive. So are rack-mount PC cases.

Rackmount cases usually have very, very loud fans. It's because they're small, so it may not be as big of an issue in a 4U case, but will probably still be an issue.

I think you'd be a lot better off working out some kind of shelf or something. Racks really only make sense for higher density than you have to deal with.

Perhaps you can move them over to the floor beside the desk (on some kind of platform ideally so they don't suck as much dust), and pick up some longer/extension cables from somewhere like monoprice.com
posted by teatime at 7:10 PM on March 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


2nding everyting teatime said.

Depending on how weird your current systems are, you may have trouble finding racks that expose all the motherboard ports. I had to dremel parts of the case away doing a similar conversion for a work project. I never frankensystemed desktop parts into a rack computer again - the cost in my time didn't justify the meager savings compared to just buying servers.

Why does your NAS need to be at your desk?
posted by Candleman at 7:52 PM on March 23, 2017


Have you considered getting a KVM switch instead? That would let you keep the individual boxes running and do away with redundant keyboards, mice, and monitors.
posted by glonous keming at 8:08 PM on March 23, 2017


I did this many years ago, buying a beat up old telco rack and putting some rack shelves in it. Middle Atlantic is the most popular source for the shelves; they're not cheap.
posted by intermod at 8:39 PM on March 23, 2017


Three tower PCs side by side are roughly the width of a 19" rack, so I'm not sure what you will be gaining beyond that server-room aesthetic.

Heavy duty baker's racks are the standard way to compactly operate desktop gear. The wire shelves ensure that pretty much anything can vent properly without additional considerations.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:46 PM on March 23, 2017


What you're looking at is going to be firmly a pain in the ass if you have any expectation of making space efficiency gains (there are some atx 4u cases out there, but 4u? It's bigger and heavier than a compact atx desktop case). Suffice that I've got two or three half-disassembled rack cases, and two or three half disassembled desktop cases sitting in my office, and I don't know what to do with all of it- there are power supply form factor issues, and cable length issues. And in the end I'm not sure if the outcome is worth anything, let alone the trouble...

Also, the e5 v1 generation hardware is starting down the end of the price curve neatly. So you (or at least I) can buy a two processor capable e5 Dell for... $200-$700 (actual prices I've paid), mash some eBay parts together and get up to 8 3.5" disks, and enough cores and ram for damn near anything you would want to do at home, and probably come out ahead on cost, and do fine on power consumption and performance.
posted by wotsac at 11:19 PM on March 23, 2017 [1 favorite]


You can definitely get 3U and 4U rackmount cases that take standard desktop components. Newegg used to carry several Chenbro cases that fit the bill that are reasonably cheap and are nicer than the super-cheap ones you can get on eBay. Still not great compared to something like Supermicro (or even better, Dell/HP/Lenovo rackmount servers), but better.

I much prefer them over shelves, personally, especially with rails, but even without I still prefer the rack. As long as your motherboard has 4 pin fan headers and your fans work with PWM, noise isn't really an issue except with 1U or 2U kit that won't fit desktop components anyway.

All that said, people saying racks are expensive aren't wrong. You can find surplus gear for free or super cheap sometimes, especially if you are willing to take a couple of two post racks and add a kit to tie them together into a four post, but it takes some doing. I got several for free from a building owner that Sprint abandoned when they decommissioned a PoP. They actually left something like 70 racks, some power conditioning gear, and the CRACs, along with miles of cable, the cable ladder, and a bunch of other random stuff. Had I had someplace to store it at the time, I'd have taken it all and sold it on eBay, but I had moved into an apartment a couple of months prior. :(

I've also seen many companies leave behind 2-5 racks when they move, not to mention a few that closed up shop and disappeared one day leaving their landlord to dispose of servers, racks, UPSes, and all.

Point is, surplus stuff is often available if you ask around.
posted by wierdo at 11:59 PM on March 23, 2017


I colocated some servers in leased rackspace from a local company for many years; at first, it was two desktop machines sitting on a rackmount shelf; it eventually led to two "real" 1u servers, and two 2U rackmount cases with off-the-shelf ATX motherboards in them. Thoughts:

-- the rackmount cases had screw/mountpionts for motherboards that didn't have corresponding holes in the motherboards I used, and they weren't the screw in/out like multiuse desktop cases. I electrical-taped over them to avoid shorting out anything it was touching.

-- rackmount cases smaller than 4U (and 4U are *huge*) need a standoff so that the expansion cards are laid out parallel to the motherboard. This means a lot of hardware, particularly video cards, may not fit properly, or if you can shoehorn a big videocard in there the fan won't have enough space for ventilation.

-- Rackmount cases make up for their smaller "face" by being deeper than a regular PC. Rackmount cases are only space-savers in that you move the server to a different room, not because the cases are smaller.

-- Off-the-shelf CPU coolers generally won't fit into a case, because they're too tall -- you need to buy special low-profile CPU fans, or some water-cooling piping solution.

-- Because the case has such little clearance between parts, there are a *lot* of fans inside them, and they can be very noisy. The 'generic' cases I put my desktop motherboards in could be reconfigured as needed, so I kept the number of fans to a bare minimum; the 1U IBM/HP servers were ENORMOUSLY LOUD, like jet-engine-next-door, can-hear-them-running-anywhere-in-the-house loud. I could start the Windows install in my basement, go upstairs, and tell when it finished and rebooted by the sound of the fans.

-- because the cases are so much deeper, you will need to buy special extra-long SATA cables if it doesn't come with a backplane and drive trays.

-- you can't generally put a regular Desktop power supply into a rackmount case; the plus side is rackmount power supplies are usually higher-wattage and sturdier than regular PSUs.

Just to emphasize: a 4U server case is HUGE. They're about 2 feet deep and 19" wide and 6" tall.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:24 AM on March 24, 2017 [3 favorites]


Three towers side by side will take up about the same space as three rackmounts in the smallest rack you can get. Maybe the better solution is just better placement of what you have - shelf high on the wall? -under the desk? -in a different room and vnc in to them?
posted by 445supermag at 12:49 PM on March 24, 2017 [2 favorites]


Do it. It will be a fun project. Buy one or two flight cases and you are all set (be aware that flight cases don't fit "full server length" racks).

As far as I know there are even racks to put a playstation into a rack system.

Not enough plugs? Use something like this.

I even build a custom rack to put my old tube amplifier that I inherited from my grandfather in my rack. ;-)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:22 PM on March 24, 2017


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