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Cheap home server options

If you have a large collection of music or movies, it’s nice to have a server to put it on. And having a server lets you do some other cool stuff too. But if you’ve priced an enterprise server, it might scare you off. Let’s talk about cheap home server options.

The cheapest of cheap home servers

Low-end HP or Dell servers intended for small workgroups, such as this HP ML115, or an ML110, are very inexpensive secondhand and make for a good cheap home server. Image credit: Contri/Flickr 

The first servers were just glorified desktop PCs, and that makes it tempting to just repurpose a PC. For home use, chances are that would be OK. Put some storage in it, and put a good network card in it, and it will probably be OK. The better the PC was in the first place, the better it’s likely to fare as a light-duty server.

Light-duty enterprise servers

Don’t write off real, honest-to-goodness servers entirely, though. If you don’t have a PC to repurpose, look into enterprise servers. Used enterprise servers are surprisingly inexpensive, especially the lower-end ones. I wouldn’t run an airline on these light-duty servers, but you’re not running an airline.

Three good server types to look for are the Dell T110HP Proliant ML110, and Lenovo TS130. Look for one that’s new enough to use DDR3 memory. But with some luck, you can pick up a serviceable example of one of these models for $100-$200 depending on its CPU speed and how much memory it has. The Xeon x3430 CPU you most commonly find in these is no longer a top-end performer, but it still outperforms some of today’s budget CPUs.

Expect to need to put new hard drives or SSDs in them. Here’s how I buy SSDs.

Any way you look at it, these servers are a bargain. For about what a budget CPU and motherboard costs, you get an older but high-quality motherboard and CPU with first-rate networking in a high-quality case with a good power supply and some memory. You can buy a 100-series server from Dell, HP or Lenovo and hotrod it for less than it would cost to build something comparable.

IBM stopped making servers in 2014 and sold its business to Lenovo. You can try looking for a late-model IBM server if you like vintage computing and like the idea of owning something built by IBM before they pulled out of the market.

Regardless of which brand you buy, a server will likely cost less than an off-lease business desktop computer of the same make. The reason is usually because the desktop will come with a Windows license and the server probably won’t. A business desktop can do just fine as a cheap home server, but there’s no point in paying for a Windows license you won’t use, and a server will usually have better expansion options.

What about rackmount servers?

You can get a used rackmount server surprisingly cheaply. A 1U server that’s only about four years old may sell for less than $150.

The problem with them is they are loud. Really loud. Since they’re about as thick as a pizza box, they need a large number of high-speed fans to keep them cool. In a home setting, the noise gets obnoxious. Larger servers have room for larger fans that can spin at a much slower speed and still generate enough airflow to keep them cool.

You’ll pay more for a freestanding tower-style server, but it won’t be as loud and the form factor is more convenient in a home setting, too.

What about larger servers?

Sometimes you can find a good deal on a larger server. If you’re browsing around and see a larger server at a good price, it’s worth considering. Bigger servers can usually take multiple CPUs and more memory and probably have hardware RAID. Just keep in mind the bigger servers can approach the size of a dorm fridge.

How much memory does it need?

Home servers usually need modest amounts of memory. You probably think you need more than you actually need, but it makes sense to go ahead and load a server up with 16 GB of memory while 4 GB DDR3 ECC modules are still easy to find. This makes the server a bit more future-proof.

What operating system to run

Microsoft used to have a product called Windows Home Server that cost 50 bucks. For reasons I don’t understand, they axed it. If you want to run a cheap home server, chances are you need to run Linux. But don’t panic.

Turnkey Linux offers free, prebuilt Linux appliances that install effortlessly off USB. Turnkey Media Server will meet all of your audio, video, and photo streaming needs and it’s able to act as a simple file server. Turnkey is based on Debian, which is a proven and stable Linux distribution. I’ve run this webserver off Debian for about 15 years, so I can vouch for it.

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2 thoughts on “Cheap home server options”

  1. If you’re setting up a server specifically as storage, FreeNAS is another OS option worth looking at. It’s a turnkey network attached storage (NAS) server based on FreeBSD, and offers the advantage of using the super-robust ZFS file system by default. The developers sell pre-packaged FreeNAS servers (that’s how they make money) but you can also install it on most PCs. I run mine on an older desktop PC that slid down my personal food chain, but it should also work well on the server hardware you recommend.

    About the only catch is that it’s fairly hungry for RAM because ZFS is like that. 8GB is the recommended minimum and 16GB or more is better. One other quirk is that you can’t boot it from the storage drives. The usual way of handling that is to use a couple of cheap USB sticks as the boot drives – a couple because you normally use a RAID 0 pair for that.

    1. Good point, I’d forgotten about FreeNAS. Thanks for pointing that out. I assume it prefers Intel NICs like Pfsense does, is that the case?

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