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Redesigning VBOX Again.

The site you’re currently looking at is brought to you by VBOX, a small server sitting on a shelve under the TV in our living room. The current version of VBOX is the third iteration, the first one being built twelve years ago, back in 2003. I sold it in 2007, probably to raise cash for the second VBOX. That one I held on to, and it’s stored somewhere in the basement as a backup for the third VBOX, which was assembled in early 2010.

The VBOX is up and running pretty much all the time and the current server has been at it for over 5 years. I wouldn’t be too surprised if some of the hardware is starting to feel a little funky, especially the two Kingston SSD drives. They were budget drives bought in a time when SSD drives weren’t main stream and the technology and the hardware still had a long way to go compared to today’s SSD drives. The two drives are set up in a RAID11 configuration, so I’m relatively safe if one of them decides to go tits up.

Aging hardware and the imminent danger of a complete meltdown and inexcusable downtime on this precious site gives me a great excuse to build the fourth VBOX. Let’s call it VBOX4, as an homage to both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.

My choice of motherboard form-factor is Mini-ITX. The boards are small, yet relatively powerful and feature rich, and most of them come with integrated CPUs with attached heat sink and/or fan. The upside is that you don’t have to dick around with heat sinks and cooling paste, the downside is that you can’t replace the CPU. For the VBOX4 build I’ve singled out two potential motherboards, the ASUS J1900I-C and the GIGABYTE GA-J1900N-D3V. The two boards are pretty similar; they both use the same CPU, a quad-core Intel Celeron J1900 running at 2GHz. They also support the same amount of RAM, 8GB, and the same kind of RAM chips. The only real differences that matter to me is that the ASUS board has what looks like a slightly larger heat sink than the GIGABYTE board and the GIGABYTE board has two LAN connectors, compared to one on the ASUS board. A larger heat sink means better cooling, but I doubt there’s a big difference. Two LAN connectors means there is a backup if the one currently in use stops working. Which motherboard will I get? I have no idea. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.

When it comes to disk drives, I’m returning to Kingston: Two SSDNow V300 SATA-600 drives in a RAID1 configuration. No exactly top of the pops, but good enough for my needs. I’m maxing out the supported RAM, with two 4GB Corsair Value Select 1333MHz chips – you can never get too much RAM.

Another good reason for using the Mini-ITX form-factor is that there is a huge range of enclosures available. Finding the right enclosure has turned out to be one of the biggest challenges when designing VBOX4. It has to be as small as possible, but with room for the two SSD drives and the heat sink on the mother board. The enclosure also has to look good, since I plan to put it on display in the living room, and not hide it somewhere out of sight. After a lot of searching, the enclosures from Streacom seem to be my best option. They are well designed, looks good and sturdy, but at the same time they are anonymous, just like a piece of technology on display in the living room should be.

One of the goals I’ve had when assembling all the VBOX version has been to make it as quiet as possible. The ultimate objective has been to make the server fanless, thus without a single moving part, making it completely silent. Unfortunately, the crammed enclosures have made that hard. I thought I’d managed it with the third VBOX, which uses a ASUS AT5IONT-I motherboard that has a huge slab of a heat sink, but I eventually decided to add a small fan because the CPU temperature got a tad too high. In hindsight and after reading my own entry, I guess the CPU would have been fine even without the fan, but high temperatures decrease hardware lifespan, so it’s better to be safe than offline.

Because I want a quiet system, I did consider Streacom’s FC5WS Evo fanless enclosure, which looks absolutely lovely. But even though it would have made my dream of a truly fanless VBOX come true, it would also have absolutely wrecked my budget, forced me to use a non-Mini-ITX motherboard and I would have had to fiddle around with cooling pipes, cooling paste and probably wrecked something in the process. In the end I think I’m settling for Streacom’s F1CWS Evo, a tiny enclosure that should have room for everything. I’m not entirely sure about the heat sink on the ASUS motherboard, but from what I’ve seen on pictures, it should be enough room for both the SSD drives and the board. For some strange reason, neither ASUS nor GIGABYTE is capable of telling how tall their boards are, even if this is probably very interesting information for system builders that try to cram their boards into small enclosures.

So now all that’s left is to decide on a motherboard, order the parts and sit back and continuously refresh the postal service tracking site.

Footnotes

  1. I’m also backing up everything important on the server to a USB memory stick and an external location every night. I learned about taking backups the hard way, like most people who actually back up their data. And, yes, I regularly do test restores. Still, data can be lost, but I feel reasonably safe.

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