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Mini-ITX based Home Server: Planning and Hardware //at 18:24 //by abe

from the availability-and-power-consumption dept.

Ever since my former desktop machine gsa died and I started using only laptops at home, I noticed a need for a home server for storing all my MP3s, holiday pictures, games, and backups of my other machines. And I also want a filtering web proxy at home again.

Current situation

Currently my Norhtec MicroClient Jr. “c2” with it’s 120 GB 2.5" harddisk does some of these jobs (mostly storage and backup), but it neither has the disk space nor the performance to do all the things I want.

For storage I once bought a TheCus N4100, the big brother of the popular and officially Debian supported N2100. Unfortunately there are a few things different than in the N2100 (NIC without MAC) which makes it much more difficult to get Debian on it and the original firmware doesn’t support NFS at all. *grmpf* I had hints from others who managed to get Debian on this NAS, but I didn’t find the time and leisure to really dig into cross-compiling kernels. (Although with the new 1.3.06 firmware, so called modules became possible also for the N4100 and a SSH module has been posted with which a Debian chroot could be installed and the required kernel build on the machine itself.)

I though wasn’t very angry when the N4100+ came out shortly after I bought the N4100, because the N4100+ was no more an ARM based device but had a Celeron processor inside instead. And a NAS which is built on average PC hardware wasn’t as appealing as some device based on some more exotic architecture mainly used in embedded devices. :-)

The Mini-ITX Appeal

This view changed rapidly, when Raffzahn showed me a few Mini-ITX boards and cases. I surfed around on store and stumbled upon the NAS-like ES34069 case from Chenbro featuring four S-ATA hotswap 3.5" slots, a slim-line CD-ROM drive slot, a SD card reader, and enough space for an additional 2.5" hard disk and a low profile Mini-ITX board.

Additionally, the VIA EPIA SN series of Mini-ITX boards sports 4 S-ATA ports and either a passively cooled 1 GHz C7 processor or an actively cooled 1.8 GHz C7 processor. That should be enough power for a small multi-purpose home server while still keep the power consumption low. And I’m not the only one having this idea, suggests this combination and Chenbro officially supports the VIA EPIA SN boards.

Additionally, Debian 5.0 Lenny seems to run fine on the SN series, only lm-sensors seems to have problems with SN18000G and SN10000EG (but not SN18000 and SN10000E).

So when the Chenbro ES34069 case showed up in digitec’s online shop, I ordered one there and a VIA EPIA SN18000G board at Brack. I didn’t order any disks since for data storage I plan to use the four Samsung 400 GB 3.5" S-ATA disks I bought for the N4100, and for the system I plant to use the 2.5" disk I initially bought for my MicroClient JrSX “c1”, but then continued to use it only with the CF card. Not yet sure, if I’ll also equip the slim-line optical drive slot, too.

The case took several weeks to deliver and the mainboard hasn’t arrived yet. Instead I got an e-mail from Brack that VIA products are currently very difficult to get in Switzerland. Reason is said to be that VIA tries to channel the distribution of their products to a single distributor. (Sounds somehow similar to what Apple tried with the iPhone and failed.)

Mini-ITX boards and power consumption

So I now have a nice case without a board. There aren’t that many Mini-ITX boards out there sporting 4 S-ATA ports. One which cleary stood out was the new Intel DG45FC Mini-ITX board with LGA775 socket. (In Switzerland neither available at Brack nor at digitec, but e.g. at PCP.) But reading the specs of this board it was also clear that it wasn’t thought for NAS systems but high-performance HTPCs — the focus seems to be on multimedia performance which a NAS doesn’t need.

Its newer sister, the Intel DQ45EK Mini-ITX board is focussed more on office and business PCs than on multimedia. But Intels remote adminstration is not really a plus for me (don’t need it, I’ve got SSH ;-) and it’s neither cheaper than the DG45FC nor does it have significantly lower power-consuption.

Despite the 120W power-supply there are people who already combined the Chenbro ES34069 with the Intel DG45FC or DQ45EK board, e.g. one of the administrators of the German NAS-Portal forums built such a machine and this German guy who wants to build a Windows Home Server based on such a combination. At least the NAS-Portal administrator found out that the board consumes so much power that together with the 4 S-ATA disks the included 120W power supply doesn’t suffice and the system is not stable in this configuration. Trusted Reviews review of the DG45FC explains why: It’s one of the first Mini-ITX board not following the MoDT idea, has a desktop chipset instead a mobile chipset and therefore hasn’t all of the power-saving features of those mobile chipsets.

But it’s easy to see anyway: Most of the CPUs supported by the DG45FC and DQ45EK boards have a TDP of 65W. Offically the processor cooler delivered with the case supports processors with up to 65W, but 65W is already more than the half of what the power supply delivers and according to the Trusted Reviews review, the board itself consumes another 35W itself. So for the four 3.5" S-ATA disks — which are usually not as economical as notebook disks — about 20W are left. This can’t work! The guy from plans to solve the problem by using a universal 180W notebook power supply instead of the original one.

In comparison to the 100W of the both Intel boards, VIA’s SN18000G consumes only 26W (the fanless SN10000EG even only 22W) and that’s board and processor! That’s about ¼ of what the Intel board consumes. Imagine the difference between having a 100W light bulb (suffices for a whole small room) shining 365 days a year compared to a 25W light bulb (often used in bedside lamps) in a year.

Other Mini-ITX mainboards with 4x S-ATA include the following ones:


For now, I decided to wait a little bit more for my VIA EPIA SN18000G board which still seems to be the best board for the Chenbro ES34069 case although not really cheap. But if I once in a not that distant future decide to have a desktop at home again, I’m quite sure it’ll sport a cute Mini-ITX case (perhaps a nice black-orange HFX micro M1 case by mCubed — unfortunately the M2 is no more available in a color combination including orange ;-) with an Intel DG45FC or Kontron 986LCD-M/mITX and a decent Core 2 Duo processor.

Software Plans

Of course my home server will run Debian GNU/Linux 5.0 Lenny on it, with software RAID-5 and LVM2 over the 1.6 TB of S-ATA disks resulting in 1.2 TB available disk space which will be offered using at least NFS, SMB and SSH (think sshfs). Planned software includes BackupPC (a very fine pulling backup system for machines which are not online 24/7) and Privoxy. I’ll perhaps also install Tor and a caching proxy like Squid or Polipo. Another idea is to run Mediatomb on that machine. :-)

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Hackergotchi of Axel Beckert


I usually don't buy new hardware. Why should I if I get old hardware I can use thrown after me.

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