We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat
Not to sound too obvious, I test IO systems. That means from time to time I have to refresh my environment if I want to test current hardware. Like you, I work for a living and can’t afford something like a Dell R910 Heck, I can’t afford to shell out for the stuff that Glenn Berry gets to play with these days. Yes, I work for the mighty Dell. No, they don’t give me loads of free hardware to just play with. That doesn’t mean I, or you, can’t have a solid test system that is expandable and a good platform for testing SQL Server.
The hardware choices, inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap
Well, most of the time. Realize I’m not building what I would consider a truly production ready server. Things like ECC memory and redundant power supplies are a must if you are building a “fire and forget” server to rack up. A good test server on the other hand doesn’t have the same up time requirements.
A couple of years ago I would have bought something like a Aerocool Masstige. It will take a full size motherboard and has 10 5.25 bays. This allows me to then put something like this 3×5 5.25 to 3.5 mobile rack. with 10 bays I can put 15 hard drives in plus have one bay left over for something like a CD-Rom drive or another hard drive. The Aerocool Masstige does have two internal hard drive bays as well making for a total of 18 3.5″ drives in one case. The cost does add up though. The case has been discontinued but can still be found for around 110.00. The three drive cadges will run you another 100.oo. Oh, and you need a power supply that’s another 100.00. That brings the cost up to 510.00. Considering that a 3U Supermicro case with 15 bays will run you 700.00 easily. Not horrible for the amount of drive bays but there are better options now.
Norco RPC-4224 4U Server Case
This thing is big, I mean really big. It is deep and tall. It was designed to be a rack mount server but sits just fine on a shelf if you have clearance in the back. I was looking at another version of this same case that houses 20 drives but the price difference just made this hard pass up. This case isn’t a Supermicro case. It doesn’t have the build quality. To be honest though, I’m fine with that. What it does have is the ability to take a large range of ATX motherboards and a standard ATX power supply. Right now Newegg has this case on for 400.00. With a power supply that brings the total up to 500.00 still cheaper than the Supermicro with a ton of drive bays to boot. If you have worked with servers and had to cable them up you may notice that the RPC-4224 has a very different backplane layout. Every four drives has its own backplane and four lane SFF-8087 connector. Usually, most back planes have a single or maybe two connectors for 8 lanes shared via on board SAS expander. Since this doesn’t have that feature it actually makes it easier to build this thing for maximum speed. I can ether buy a very large RAID controller with 24 SAS ports or I can buy my own SAS expanders. The only down side to the backplanes on this server is the fact they are SAS 3Gb/s and not the newer 6Gb/s ports. For spinning drives it isn’t that big of an issue but if you are planning on stacking some SSD’s in those bays it can hurt you if the SSD’s support the newer protocol.
The one warning I’ll make is this thing is very front heavy. Oddly enough having 24 drives stuffed in the front doesn’t make for good weight distribution. Pro tip, don’t put the hard drives in until the server is where you want it. It is a lot easier to move the case if it isn’t as heavy as two car batteries.
I thought long and hard on this one and settled on a GIGABYTE GA-Z68A-D3H-B3. This is a very reasonably priced motherboard at 129.00 with some nice features. First, it is based off of the Intel Z68 chipset which means I have video built into the system and don’t have to give up a PCIe slot to video. Secondly, it has USB 3.0 which makes it easy to hook up an external USB 3.0 drive and get some livable speeds. Thirdly, it has SATA III 6Gb/s ports native. It only has two out of the six ports available at that speed but it does give me a few more drive options outside a add on RAID controller. Lastly, the PCIe slots on board are upgradeable to the new PCIe 3.0 standard. This means I don’t have to change my motherboard out to get a nice little bump in speed from newer PCIe RAID controllers or solid state cards.
Another perk of the Z68 chipset is that it will support up to 32GB of DDR3 RAM, when it becomes available that is. In the short to mid term I’ve got 16GB of Kingston HyperX 1600 DDR3 installed. That’s 115.00 in memory. I could have shaved a few dollars off but buying this as a four piece kit saves me from having to play the mix and match game with memory and hoping that it all works out.
This is where things get a little complicated. Since I need a lot of flexibility I need to have some additional hardware.
I have an LSI MegaRAID 9260 6Gb/s card in the server now. At 530.00 it is a lot of card for the money. If you wanted to skip the SAS expanders and get a 24 port card you would be looking between 1100.00 to 1500.00. What’s worse, you really won’t see a huge jump in performance. Hard disks are a real limiting factor here.
SAS expanders are a must. There will be times where I will power all 24 drives from a single RAID card that has 24 lanes. There will also be times where I have smaller controllers installed and need to aggregate those drives together across or two connectors on a RAID controller. There are a couple of choices available to you. I opted for the Intel RES2Sv240 expander over the HP 468406-B21. The Intel expander supports the SAS 6Gb/s protocol and has one additional killer feature, it doesn’t require a PCIe slot to run. It was designed to work in cases that support the MD2 form factor. That means it could be mounted on a chassis wall and fed with a standard molex power connector. Why is such a big deal? It means I can stack these in my case and keep my very valuable PCIe slots free for RAID controllers and SSD cards. Newegg has them at 279.00 but you can find them cheaper. The HP expander is listed at 379.00 and requires a PCIe slot for power.
I opted for smaller 73GB 15,000 RPM Fujitsu drives. They aren’t the fastest drives out since they are a generation behind. What they lack in speed they make up in price. Normally, these drives new cost 150.00 a pop. But, I’m a risk taker. You can find refurbished or pulls for as little as 22 bucks a drive. Make sure you are dealing with a seller that will take returns! I personally have had pretty good luck dealing with wholesale companies that specialize in buying older servers and then reselling the parts. Almost all of them will offer at least a 30 day return. That means you need to do a little more work on your end and validate the drives during your return window. Now I have 24 15k drives for under 600.00 bucks.
I’m using a 2.5″ 7200RPM drive as my boot drive mounted inside the case.
You didn’t think I’d put together a new system and not have some solid state in it did you? I’ve got a few SSD’s floating around but wanted to buy the latest in consumer grade drives and see if they have upped the game any. I opted for the Corsair Force GT 60GB drive, four of them. At 125.00 they are a solid buy for the performance you are getting. Based on the new Sanforce SF2280 controller and able to deliver 85k IOps and 500MB/sec in reads and writes they are a mighty contender. The other thing that pushed me to this drive was the fact it uses ONFI synchronous flash. I won’t hash out why it is better other than to say it produces more reliable results and is faster than its asynchronous or toggle NAND brothers.
Again, the case is so big on the inside I mounted two 1×2 3.5″ to 2.5″ drive bays to house them. That was an extra 50.00 a pop.
RAID HBA 530.00
SAS Expanders 558.00
24 15K drives 558.00
4 SSD’s 500.00
Grand total: 3205.00
What does this buy me? A server that can do 2GB/s in reads or writes and 160k IOps or more. I’ll let you in on another little secret, shop around! Don’t think you have to buy everything at once. Don’t be afraid to wait a week for your parts if you get free shipping. By taking a month to put this machine together I paid about 2700.00. A huge discount over the listed price getting 30% or more off some stuff like the expanders, RAID controller, SSD’s, Case and CPU.
Just in case you were wondering what it looks like:
With the bonnet off (early test setup):
The SAS Backplanes cabled up: