The Glowy Server Case

"Cheerfully humming away"

Inspiration and assembly

This aluminum case was built as fallout from my ongoing effort to reduce household power consumption while still leaving the home server running 24x7. I’d already done one server swap; switching out an AMD K7 and an Intel C/500 for a pair of Via C3/533 mini-itx motherboards, but that was just a logic board swap which left me with 8u of loud whirring cases that still ate >100 watts (75 kwh/month, which is about US$80/year at our current electricity rates.)

I shopped around for a rackmount case that looked nice, but didn’t find anything that would fit the bill. Most rackmount cases seem to expect that you’ll be using nothing smaller than a mini-ATX motherboard, and that you’ll be putting a CD-Rom drive into the case. A few short cases exist, but they are quite expensive and they still don’t look all that attractive.

I’d bought a low-power Jetway C7/1.2ghz board (it claimed 9 watts, which turned out to be 20 watts when I added in a flash disk and memory), a couple of 2½" SATA drives, and a Berkshire Products PC-Watchdog so I could have an Iron Sysadmin to keep it running. Those things sat around the house for a long time until I came across a display rack of aluminum sheet and angle at the neighborhood hardware store (and for a little while after that before I decided that riveting the case together was the best way to finish it in finite time.)

it's Inspector Supervillain

The final design of the case was to build a frame out of aluminum angle, then use pop rivets to fasten aluminum sheet (and a couple of sheets of perforated steel for the front and back walls) into the frame. I built a motherboard tray out of a two pieces of aluminum angle riveted into the bottom of the case, then threw two other pieces of angle in to further stiffen the case bottom. It took me a while to decide how I could build the back panel, and I finally decided that I would use a sheet of perforated steel as I mentioned above, then cut a rectangular hole in it for the logic board backplate to fit into (this required another piece of aluminum angle to compensate for strength lost by cutting the hole for the backplate.)

This system is equipped with a 1gb flashdrive (the root filesystem) and a couple of 160gb SATA drives. The two SATA drives are mounted on a cut and polished piece of plexiglas that is velcroed to rubber pads on the bottom of the case. These little notebook drives are not very loud, but I’ve had enough experience with cases that end up being a lot louder that my auditions of individual components would lead me to think.

The PC Watchdog is ready to stand guard

My Iron Sysadmin for this case is a used Berkshire Products PC watchdog which I purchased from an online salvage house. This PC watchdog had to be fairly heavily modified to fit into the case (I had to rip out the USB connector and build a custom cable that went from the watchdog to the internal USB header on the system board) but it survived being hacked at with a soldering iron and talks happily to the watchdog program that lives on the system.

All lit up

The glowy part of the name came from the power switch I installed. I wanted to install a mac-style power button, but couldn’t find one. But I could find a pushbutton with a glowy annular LED from a british company called Bulgin (what they call a vandal-resistant switch) which comes in many different colors including purple. When the machine is turned on, it produces a nice soft purple counterpoint to all of the other lights that are festooned around the motherboard and PC watchdog.

The power supply is fairly tiny, too; I’ve pretty much standardized on the ituner mini-itx ultra-small power supplies, and I put a 120 watt one into this case.

Oh, look, FreeBSD won't boot off _this_ USB cd-rom. Grrrr.

As is now standard with the PCs I build, this box does not come with a CD-Rom drive built in. I don’t use cds very often, and I figured that I’d just use an external USB drive to install FreeBSD. But this system doesn’t interact well with FreeBSD on the whole USB mass storage front; FreeBSD 4.8 doesn’t find the CD and FreeBSD 6.2 dumps core when I try to load from USB. So I had to tear the box open and attach a CD-Rom drive to the unused IDE port to get the system onto it.

Parts list

  1. The case is made of aluminum and steel, with a Bulgin “vandal-proof” illuminated power switch.

  2. The system board is a Jetway J7FWE-1G2 VIA C7 board, running at 1.2ghz. It’s allegedly a fanless board, but it runs quite hot so I’ve put a small quiet fan on the cpu heatsink to reduce the possibility of reenacting the China Syndrome.

  3. There is 512mb of core on the system, two 160gb SATA disk drives (2½ inch drives, because they take much less power to run than the 3½ inch disks I’ve traditionally used in servers), and a 1gb solid state disk for the (readonly) root filesystem.

  4. The watchdog timer is a modified Berkshire Products USB watchdog. The modification was that I tore off the USB header and directly wired the watchdog card to an internal USB cable so I could plug it directly into the system board without having to put an external usb cable into the box.