A low power home server?
May 5, 2007 11:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to build a home server to act as a file store, mp3 streamer etc. Is it possible to do so without destroying the planet? What ultra-low power options out there for use by the general public?
posted by hydrophobic to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I agree with Burhanistan. I use an old PIII 1ghz with a 300w psu....if you could find something that runs off a laptop you'd probably do even better.
posted by furtive at 11:37 PM on May 5, 2007

For ultra-low power, I've been mucking about with an Asus WL500Gp, which is a wireless AP with 2 USB ports. Running OpenWRT with a USB hard drive it can do samba and download torrents, almost silently. The big downside is that this setup won't spin down the hard drive, so it's going to be on forever. My response to this is to have a not-ugly drive case, and the whole things sits under the tv as a wireless client, and I'll turn the disk off when I'm out, though I think there is one firmware arrangement (with the Oleg firmware) which allows some hard drives to be spun down in usb cases.

I haven't fully migrated all my home-server functions to it yet, so I've still got a pc running most of the time... but that's really down to my laziness so far... If you just want to do samba and not use much power, it could be worth looking into.
posted by pompomtom at 12:31 AM on May 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I use a Small Form Factor PC. You can get them from Biostar and Shuttle. Several models are Energy Star compliant, with high efficiency power supplies.

Set you power setting for the monitor off in 5 minutes and the hard drive spin down in 15 minutes. It won't draw a lot in that mode. You can get even more aggressive with the power settings, but that's your call.
posted by Argyle at 12:32 AM on May 6, 2007

There are a number of low-power options. Linux runs on a lot of different architectures, including the very small ARM processors.

One of the cheapest ways to go is to get one of the Linux-based wireless access points that has a USB 2.0 port. You install a custom firmware on it, plug in a drive, and voila! Instant NAS. (network-attached storage). These are small and slow devices, and don't move data around very fast, but they're adequate for light work. Slimserver is known to run on these, but because it's in Perl and they have slow CPUs, it can get pretty draggy.

Some manufacturers do small NAS boxes for you, usually to this same basic design, but it's all prebuilt. Asus is a good example; their WL-700ge, for example comes with a drive built right in. It's an access point, a 5 port switch, and a NAS device, all in one. Including the drive, they're about $200. (They have other products too, including ones that come without drive; you can look on their website.) They're not real quick, but for basic fileserving they're likely adequate. Slimserver is still kinda slow on these; updating your music library takes ages.

If you want to get more technically advanced, you can build a small PC on the VIA EPIA x86 line. They're fairly slow chips (1ghz-ish), but are very low power. They're quite a bit faster than the chips in the cheapo NAS boxes.

This is much harder to do, because you have to buy the parts to make a very tiny PC, build it yourself, and then install an operating system. You can tweak it to do exactly what you want, and these chips are fast enough to run Slimserver very comfortably. But you'll put a lot of hours into it, which may not be appealing. (if you like to tinker, though, it's a lot of fun.)

Alternately, you can just recycle an old PC, it's not going to use any more power than it did when you were using it as your desktop. :)

You will probably notice that I'm a bit focused on Slimserver; that's because I really like it as a music-sharing center. It's entirely free; you can download it from Slimdevices. It's best used in conjunction with their Squeezeboxes, which are expensive but VERY good music players. But you can use it with virtually any software MP3 player, or the Roku Soundbridge products. (much inferior, but a lot cheaper.) The one caveat: this software is not terribly stable and tends to break a lot. Releases are particularly bad. The website tells you to avoid the nightly stable builds, but this is exactly wrong; the nightly stable builds will almost always work better than the main releases. (because they include bugfixes since the last stable release.) I'm using a nightly snapshot from late October, and it's been just awesome.

There are a metric assload of options here. You might want to check the forums over at avsforum.com. Browsing the HTPC areas should be highly educational.
posted by Malor at 12:34 AM on May 6, 2007

Mac mini's use all laptop components which are light on power consumption.
posted by AaRdVarK at 12:46 AM on May 6, 2007

A lower-power box (like something Mini-ITX-based or a Mac Mini) in combination with a well-configured Linux(*) setup can be set to hibernate after a period of non-use - and then wake up when something connects to it.

I suspect, since you're asking, that you'd be OK with an initial 10-15s connect time as the 'penalty' for those kinds of power savings.

(* I say Linux, despite the apparent facility existing in Windowsland, solely because in my experience Windows machines spray pointless network packets at each other like so many incontinent hydrants. If you had a drive mapped in Windows... the server'd power down and then get woken up immediately several times per hour. I guess you could probably work around that by [for example] using WebDAV for file storage and then stopping all packets from reaching the home server at your home router which aren't destined for port 80. Worth thinking about, anyway.)
posted by genghis at 1:52 AM on May 6, 2007

I'm using an old 700MHz Pentium III box running Ubuntu Dapper Server 24/7. It's got 550GB in two 3.5" Seagate drives that never spin down, an ultra-quiet Papst fan instead of whatever came standard in the power supply, and a Pentium IV-grade CPU heatsink with a resistor in series with the fan to make it only just run. No mouse, keyboard or monitor attached - I just ssh into it. Spookily quiet, and uses about as much juice as my fishtank light and pump. CPU temperature sits pretty consistently 10°C above ambient.

The Seagate drives are pretty good on power consumption as drives of their class go (certainly better than Maxtors, if operating temperature is anything to go by); I could reduce consumption a bit by running one big drive instead of two smaller ones, but I quite like my present policy of buying a new drive every couple of years at whatever the minimum $/gig price point is, and replacing the smaller one.

The 700MHz PIII is a pretty good compromise between reasonable server performance and power consumption in an el cheapo x86.

If you happen to have tropical fish, and you put your server gear under your fishtank, and arrange for the exhaust air to blow up a very narrow chimney behind the tank to get reasonable thermal coupling between the air and the tank, then most of the juice you pump through your electronics will be reflected in reduced consumption in your tank heater.
posted by flabdablet at 2:11 AM on May 6, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, some great responses. Thanks!
I've been fiddling around with linux + jinzora + mencoder etc, and I really like the look of those slimdevices for setting up multi-room audio, thanks Malor.
That wikipedia page is great flabdablet, I'll see if I can get hold of a PIII or maybe a low end core duo, they look pretty effecient too.
I've been having an idea, my USB2 IDE card has an internal port... if i plugged a big 'ole flash disk into that, would it be sufficient/fast enough for the OS, and would I save energy against spinning a disk?
Maybe a PIII, a couple of 300GB HDs... a couple of slim devices for the kitchen and bathroom, could be a fun project!
posted by hydrophobic at 2:57 AM on May 6, 2007

Yes, you can use flash as a system disk. This is pretty common. Flash, however, wears out when you write to it, so it's best to mount the filesystem read-only if you can. If that's not feasible, then with Linux, make sure to add 'noatime' to the mount options for any flash partitions. Otherwise, Linux writes filetime access info every time you read a file, which A) slows things down, and B) wears out your flash. And don't put swap on a flash drive, that's very bad.

Flash drives have gotten pretty robust, so as long as you don't abuse it with heavy write access, it'll generally last longer than a hard drive would anyway. If you treat them very carefully, they can last a lot longer than a hard drive. And they use no power except when being accessed.

I wouldn't suggest putting Slimserver on one, though. That uses a database to track the songs, and does a great deal of writing. You could probably get away with it for a couple of years, but if you go that route, do extra-regular backups of any data on the flash you care about, and consider having a spare on hand if it's not too expensive.

On that list of processors, the Via Eden chips are the ones I was talking about... 1ghz, 7w power draw. You don't usually even need a fan on one. It'll be about as fast as a P3/733... maybe a little slower. (it's not as efficient, clock per clock.) Looks like they have a new model line that's quite a bit faster (the C7), but draws a little more juice.

BTW.... Squeezeboxes, while expensive, are fabulous devices.
posted by Malor at 3:11 AM on May 6, 2007

Seconding a Mac mini; it has an energy efficient design for the utility it provides.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:14 AM on May 6, 2007

Linksys NSLU2. Very low power, and very capable once you flash it with Unslung/Optware.
posted by zippy at 5:12 AM on May 6, 2007

Yay zippy, seconding unslung NSLU2. Mine is running Firefly, which is what happened to mt-daapd.
posted by jet_silver at 7:19 AM on May 6, 2007

I ran (until lightning killed it, another story) an 1 GHz Via Eden box as my home firewall, web server & file server. I built it from components bought at mini-itx.com and ran OpenBSD on it.

Very impressive, the PSU was a laptop style brick with no fan, the CPU ran fanless, so the only thing you heard was the disk (a Seagate Cheetah) which I especially bought as it was quiet.

The only issue is the fact that silent power supplies supply limited wattage, so I made do with a laptop CD/DVD drive as they consume less power although they run slower.
posted by hardcode at 7:21 AM on May 6, 2007

Another vote for the NSLU2. Inexpensive ($80 at NewEgg), very low power, and absolutely silent. For protection against lightning and such, my NSLU2 and the drive it manages are plugged into a UPS along with the DSL modem a wireless access point/router. Cheap insurance.
posted by dws at 8:30 AM on May 6, 2007

As a baseline, Infrant claims that one of their slick little NAS appliances (which can run some media server software) typically draws 55w with 4x250GB drives.

I personally have a VIA EPIA board that I scrounged up in my 3 drive home server. I run ubuntu. I've never measured power consumption though. I suspect that the 250W power supply I have is running outside of it's optimal range.
posted by Good Brain at 8:48 AM on May 6, 2007

If you are willing to consider building a PC I encourage you to read this article. Particularly the section on power supplies.
posted by okbye at 9:09 AM on May 6, 2007

low power == via cpu
c7 is newer, better and more expensive.
c3 is solid, cheap and more than enough to push a home fileserver.

what I use at home:

1. asus c3 terminator. inexpensive and very quiet, just add ram and hd. 2 ata ports + 2 sata ports, 2 external and 1 internal (2 if you ditch the floppy) bays.

2. freenas.

3. bsd-compatible wireless card. so's to hide the little guy out of the way if you like.

while I don't doubt the slug is even lower-power than the terminator box, freenas is just so much nicer and more flexible.

for some reason they stopped selling the terminator with a cd drive, so to install freenas (or test-run it as a livecd) is a little bit of work.

from personal experience: freenas also runs just fine off a CF adapter hooked to the ata cable; also also runs just fine off the liveCD using the floppy to save config settings.
posted by dorian at 9:37 AM on May 6, 2007

oh and my boss has bought several of these mg350hd for various members of his extended family, and they all absolutely love it.

I would buy one in a heartbeat if I did not already have the freenas box in place.
posted by dorian at 9:47 AM on May 6, 2007

If you're that concerned about the power consumption, offset it by changing something else in your life. Start taking the bust to work one day a week, or leave the Air conditioner set a few degrees higher. The AC alone should offset the power consumption from a lightweight server.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:02 AM on May 6, 2007

"Seagate drives are pretty good on power consumption as drives of their class go"

No, actually Seagate drives are about the worst when it comes to power consumption; something like 13W while seeking when, say, Samsung would be eating 9W. Also, I don't have numbers to hand, but I vividly remember a graph showing they consume quite a lot more than average when spinning up too. See Storage Review and compare/contrast a few options if you really care about that extra few watts :)

Personally my home server is a dual dual Opteron with 8GB and space for 7 disks, so I'll avoid recommending anything in particular. I'll just warn you that USB and Firewire are pretty crap ways to attach disks to a system (no power management, no SMART, not enough bandwidth and not particularly effecient driver wise) compared with, say, eSATA, and that you'll really want GigE if you're serving anything significant -- something systems lacking PCI-Express/HyperTransport-attached NIC's are unlikely to be able to drive very well.

Certainly a 700MHz PIII with everything attached to a 32bit 33MHz PCI bus is not likely to push more than 20MB/s, if that, and it's probably going to be less effecient than a faster, newer system with frequency scaling and working ACPI.
posted by Freaky at 10:30 AM on May 6, 2007

The only problem you'll have with using an old PC is it may not have ATA133 (limiting HD size to 127gB) and it probably won't have SATA.

Slient PC Review would be another good resource to check out. They're about silence first, which also means power/efficiency second, since that will generate less heat. You'd also be very surprised how low power systems built with current (non-VIA) parts can be.

NSLU2 is nice, but you'll almost always hit CPU limitations before anything else. And already mentioned, it is much less flexible.

I have a NSLU2 and I'm currently looking for something with more CPU power to replace it.
posted by easyasy3k at 10:56 AM on May 6, 2007

I use both a Mac Mini and an old Lombard Powerbook - as home servers. Small footprints and tiny power draw. Years ago I ran a high-traffic server from a Powerbook 3400 which I kept stashed in a desk drawer.

"California Servers," or laptops, work great, even for certain enterprise uses.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:57 AM on May 6, 2007

If you've got the old hardware available, I think you'll find it hard to argue with the efficiency of re-using an old machine - be it desktop or laptop - rather than going out and buying new.

Yes, the old hardware will probably consume a little more power compared to some of the suggestions outlined above, but think of the energy savings in disposing of your old hardware, building the new and transporting it to you.

Personally, I re-cycled an Athlon XP desktop into a home server last time I upgraded my desktop. It runs Kubuntu (and Slimserver, among other things) and sits in the loft, headless. Sadly, I don't keep tropical fish, but flabdablet's suggestion to make use of generated heat is genius, I think. I use Nomachine NX to log in remotely and securely.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2007

Nthing nslu2. It's what you want. And you can run slimserver on it. Note that lots of the solutions posted above are not really low powered. A 700mhz Pentium will still consume a significant amount of electricity. Shit was less efficient when those were made than today.
posted by rbs at 12:09 PM on May 6, 2007

Via C7, and a RAID-5 array of notebook (2.5") drives. Should be just a handfull of watts. Everybody is so concerned about the CPU, but tend to ignore that all those extra drives suck up a lot of juice. You can get 180GB 7200 rpm 2.5" notebook drives pretty cheaply these days.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:14 PM on May 6, 2007

Freaky, following your link got me to this consumption comparison for the class of drives I'm using, clearly showing Seagate having the second lowest power consumption while idle (which is where mine spends most of its operating time) and right in the middle of the pack on seek. I think that justifies the claim that Seagate drives are "pretty good on power consumption as drives of their class go".

The performance bottlenecks on my network are the 100mbit Ethernet and possibly-as-much-as-30-mbit 802.11g wireless LAN, not the drives, PCI bus or CPU in the server. The 700MHz PIII is quite adequate for the job I'm asking it to do. I can achieve >11MBytes/s over Ethernet with FTP, or ~5MBytes/s with Samba.

My DIVX compressed videos only need ~400kbytes/s, Ogg Vorbis audio ~60kbytes/s. Even 802.11g wireless has no problem at all moving bits at those rates. I therefore have zero motivation to go to gigabit Ethernet or upgrade my server, or even put more RAM in it than the 256MB it has.

The only things in the whole system that cost actual money were the disk drives and the quiet PSU fan. Everything else I put together from equipment that would otherwise have gone to landfill.

I am not powering down the drives when not in use, even though the old mobo is in fact ACPI capable, because I like the instant availability of the thing, I'm not convinced that powering drives up and down is good for them, and I'm on a 100% green electricity supply plan so I'm not fussed about CO2.

If I figure my total power consumption at 50W, which won't be far off the mark: at AU$0.14 per kilowatt hour, it costs me $0.14 * 50 / 1000 * 24 = seventeen cents a day, or AU$60/year, to run this thing. Assuming I could get a new box with zero power consumption, I don't think it would save me its purchase price within its expected service life.

Hydrophopic, the Core Duo U2500 does look like quite a dainty little sipper, especially given its 1.2GHz speed, but I doubt you'll pick one up for free just yet :-)
posted by flabdablet at 7:49 PM on May 6, 2007

Response by poster: Civil_Disobedient, I think your set-up sounds nice, I'm looking into it, but I'm in the UK and getting hold of VIA hardware seems a bit of a problem at the moment, anyone got any hints?

chrisamiller - your idea of offsetting is great, but in my opinion not a viable method of changing our energy consumption... we should be doing those things already! (I am slightly biased, UK living = high fuel prices, no need for AC).

flabdablet, you seem to have it nailed, I'd love to hear what you run on your box. Redirectly the heat output is pretty cool, I'd have to go get some fish...

Nice Guy Mike - I think you're right, until I can find someone to hand-me-down my existing PC to I'm not sure I can justify buying a new one to lower energy/ costs, the initial outlay will far exceed any savings.

There is far more to weigh up than I first anticipated, I never realised how varied CPU and HD power consumption is... Why are electrons so much harder to push through an Athlon?!
posted by hydrophobic at 12:36 AM on May 7, 2007

No point buying in fish just to use up your spare heat, since you'll be using up more juice in other ways for them (pumps, lights and so forth). Just find creative uses for your box's waste heat that you would otherwise need to burn fossil fuel to produce.

In fact, if you currently have fossil-fuel home heating, and it's thermostatically controlled, then all the electricity you pump through all your home applicances is already being offset against that, and you should be looking at ways to cut that back before saving fifty watts in your server is even on your horizon.

My box runs Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper) Server, with vsftpd, openssh, samba, squid and (soon) asterisk and Koha.
posted by flabdablet at 12:53 AM on May 7, 2007

I'm looking into it, but I'm in the UK and getting hold of VIA hardware seems a bit of a problem at the moment, anyone got any hints?

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:13 AM on May 7, 2007

flabdablet: Meh, you mean your drives don't spend 90% of their time spinning up and down? ;)

My Seagate external drive likes to do this; the drive powers down with 15 minutes or so of inactivity.. and every 20 minutes, Windows apparantly pokes it and it spins back up. Really, if you need external storage, use eSATA if at all possible.

But, er, yeah, their power comsumption isn't anything special (aside from poweron), but they are still a few watts above the floor. Seeks get a bit worse without acoustic management.. but ultimately it's still on the order of a couple of watts.

hydrophobic: Core 2 and modern Athlons are roughly on par with regard to power consumption, with Athlons being somewhat better at idle (oh, here I go again); both Core 2 and the latest AMD64's have TDP (Thermal Design Power)'s of 65W unless you go for more expensive low voltage parts.

Older chips use larger transistors and more "leaky" materials, and so need higher voltage to maintain a particular frequency reliably. You can underclock and undervolt most chips to some extent -- modern CPU's have Cool 'n' Quiet and SpeedStep (AMD and Intel respectively), whole older ones may need fancier motherboards with controls suited to overclocking.
posted by Freaky at 12:03 PM on May 7, 2007

yes, underclocking and undervolting not just cpu but memory, definitely good stuff -- my previous asterisk server for a few years: barton core and ddr running 133 (and at times much closer to 100), with fair reduction in voltage as well. with a decent heatsink I was never quite able to go passive (altho with the proper chassis and a nice quiet 12cm fan it should be possible) but that machine was damn quiet and did not give off much heat at all.

while I have finally managed to combine desktop, router/firewall/asterisk into one (asus p1 amd64 barebone, 2 pci slots filled with 4-port ethernet switch card and 4-port digium fxs card) it's at the price of still needing a separate fileserver box to fit the multiple bigass drives. meh.

anyway no argument here that things like asus bios q-fan setting, and speedstep/on-demand cpu work a treat in power and noise reduction, without all the previously needed clock/volt fiddling.

for anyone looking at the jetway c7 boards, I recommend getting the cheaper ones from newegg. personally I bought the more expensive (same exact model as newegg or ebay, but better capacitors, better passive heatsinks) from logicsupply and I have to say that the premium charged by places such as logicsupply (or minibox) is not really worth it. and while logicsupply has amazing customer service... so does newegg. altho few places sell the jetway addon cards (3-port lan, dvi, etc.) so if you want any of those logicsupply and minibox may be the best bet.

for those across the pond these are the favorite stores I have read about:
and always a good source of news and reviews:
posted by dorian at 3:30 PM on May 7, 2007

oh and why not go into bios and turn off any devices you are never using (serial, parallel, irda, unused ata/sata ports, floppy, modem, audio, &c. &c.)

while I have not gotten around to empirically testing the wattage difference, it sounds like a good idea no? heh.

and after installing whatever os to hd or flash or whatever, disconnect the cd/dvd drive if you don't need it!
posted by dorian at 3:35 PM on May 7, 2007

If reduced power consumption is the main aim, underspecifying still beats underclocking and undervolting :-)

Seriously: have a poke around at your local landfill/recycling center. Schools are also another good source of "obsolete" computers perfectly suitable for re-purposing as home servers. Typical ex-school computers will have had the shit pounded out of their keyboards, mice and monitors, and their hard drives will want replacing on the basis of size let alone age, but there will be years left in their CPU, mobo, PSU and RAM. You're looking for machines of about 2000-2001 vintage to find P3 processors, so beware capacitor plague.
posted by flabdablet at 7:03 PM on May 7, 2007

easyasy3k: I have a NSLU2 and I'm currently looking for something with more CPU power to replace it.

If it's just CPU speed you need, on many NSLU2s (all but the most recent) you can snip the leads on a single resistor to double the CPU speed for next to no increase in heat or power consumption.

I haven't yet needed to do this, but now that I'm testing django (python-based templating running on top of a db), I'm considering it. If you're just running an iTunes server, fileserver, or serving up static HTML, though, it's unlikely you'll need to do this.
posted by zippy at 11:12 PM on May 7, 2007

zippy: I already did that. rsync and rdiff-backup were still obnoxiously slow taking hours to backup locally compared to 15 minutes for a remote server. Samba performance was also only at 6MB/s, when any real computer can push 9MB/s. For my needs, it didn't perform.

For iTunes sharing, file serving, print sharing, & etc, it was great. Fun and very cheap way to learn linux and provide the aforementioned services.
posted by easyasy3k at 7:21 PM on May 8, 2007

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