Home Server: Best Bang for the Buck?
February 28, 2008 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to build a new PC for use as a headless server to run Asterisk. I've got a few conflicting goals for building it, and I'd like to get the Hive Mind's help for balancing power, size, cost, and efficiency.

Asterisk has fairly minimal requirements, especially as this system would be handling, at most, 2 simultaneous phone calls and a single IP phone. The minimum requirements look something like:

Processor: 500mhz
Memory: 256mb
Hard drive: 20gb

And that's really it. I would like onboard video (since after it's installed I won't even have a monitor), onboard ethernet, a couple of USB ports, and a DVD-ROM drive. And it needs to work well with Linux, specifically CentOS/Fedora.

Now, here's what I'm trying to balance, and how they conflict:

1) Power. I'd like to go higher than the minimum, especially if I'd like to run other processes on it, or repurpose it later. But the higher the power, the more...
2) Cost. I really don't want to spend a lot more than $200 on this, and no more than $300, if it can be done (and I don't see why not). But you have to spend more money to get smaller...
3) Size. I'd love a small form factor that I can stash behind the entertainment center or somewhere inconspicuous. Especially since the smaller systems often have better...
4) Efficiency. I hate giving money to the electric company. I'd like this to use as little power as possible.

The most limiting factor is my budget, obviously. But how much power can I fit into the smallest, most efficient package that my $200-300 will buy me?
posted by CrayDrygu to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
I'd say pick up someone's old VIA Eden / Mini ITX based system or a Shuttle PC, they will most certainly do what you are aiming for with reasonable power consumption.

The VIA EPIA platform (iirc) is completely fanless, so couple that with an IDE to CompactFlash adaptor and a suitable power supply, you can do this silently too.

Check out Mini-ITX.com and ebay, see what you find.
posted by rc55 at 4:11 PM on February 28, 2008

I plan on installing Asterisk on my alix1c pretty soon. From what I've been able to read it should be up to the task and it only draws about 5W. Currently I'm running Asterisk on an Intel D201GLY but I don't like the fan.
posted by jackmakrl at 4:30 PM on February 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

D201GLY2. Only 533 MHz (but outperforming VIA Eden chips of much higher rates), cheap, mini-ITX and very low power.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:32 PM on February 28, 2008

The D201GLY looks pretty good. Is the CPU fan loud? And any suggestions for a smallish case to put it in?
posted by CrayDrygu at 5:36 PM on February 28, 2008

FWIW, asterisk runs great on a VPS. Very small and quiet! ;)
posted by kamelhoecker at 6:09 PM on February 28, 2008

jakmakrl: Is it easy to get a CD or DVD drive hooked up to the alix1c? Tried to look it up myself, but I'm on a pda so it's not easy. Plus I'd love to hear a personal experience story :)

If you get Asterisk on that thing soon, I'd love to hear how well it worked out.
posted by CrayDrygu at 6:29 PM on February 28, 2008

Keep an eye out for those specials office and electronics stores occasionally run for $300 laptops. You could score a Core Duo 1.6 GHz machine with a gig of RAM (or two if you're lucky) in your price range. These were common in the days leading up to Christmas but I just saw one at Office Depot a couple weeks ago. Or buy a slightly used laptop.

Of course, make sure your distro has drivers for all the ports you'll be using; I wouldn't think this would be a huge problem for Ethernet, DVD, and USB, if that's all you need. At worst, you might get stuck with no wireless and lowest-common-denominator video.

The advantages of using a laptop for a personal server are many. 1) Extremely compact and flexible placement. 2) Built-in screen and keyboard for when you just NEED it, no rooting around in the closet or giving your main PC a reacharound to get to the cable ends. 3) Built-in UPS that lasts a couple of hours. 4) Very low power consumption. 5) Nearly silent. The main disadvantage would be disk speed, as laptop hard disks are no speed demons, but that really shouldn't be much of a factor for a personal server.

I am currently running a Fujitsu laptop as my home mail/Web/VPN server. (I'm running Windows on it, though.)
posted by kindall at 6:31 PM on February 28, 2008

The alix1c has a 44 pin IDE connector on it so you can use laptop style components. Right now I have a normal 40 pin IDE DVD drive connected to a 40 to 44 pin adapter and an external power supply. It works fine for installing stuff. The alix1c only has one IDE connector, it's kind of designed to boot from a compact flash card. So if you want to have a 20gb hard drive and a DVD drive one of them is going to be USB.
posted by jackmakrl at 7:35 PM on February 28, 2008

Slightly more expensive than you're looking for, but you might be interested in the blackfin-based IP04, essentially a purpose-designed Asterisk box.
posted by hattifattener at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2008

On the OS end, my home server runs Windows Server 2k3. Yes, it's pricey, but if you are a student or know someone who is, you may be able to get it for free or nearly so.

One of the big advantages of a true Server OS is advanced disk use and RAID services, but XP Pro can be pressed into service if you slipstream an XP install disc with the right registry tweaks. (Please pardon the stale self link.)

If you decide not to run with Server 2k3, then I'd strongly recommend you download a linux server ISO and learn the ins and outs of *nix server administration. You never know when that will be a handy skill professionally.
posted by SlyBevel at 9:49 PM on February 28, 2008

OH. Asterisk. You'll already be in a *nix environment. Good for you!
posted by SlyBevel at 9:51 PM on February 28, 2008

SlyBevel: Yes, linux is pretty much as requirement for this project. :)

I actually work for a VoIP provider which uses Asterisk in its backend systems, and supports it for its customers, which is my major motivation in building this box - to have a system where I can play with settings without having to worry about breaking anything.
posted by CrayDrygu at 11:29 AM on February 29, 2008

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