Want a beefed-up gaming or video-editing PC with dual Intel Xeon processors for under $200? The parts are out there, but finding and putting them together could prove difficult. This article covers what parts to look out for, and where to find disused server hardware that will make for an excellent gaming platform or workstation.
Unfortunately, there are some caveats. First, these are older server processors, which means they need older motherboards and special RAM. While cheap, they’ve likely suffered years of heavy use, leading to wear and tear. Their long-term reliability might not be worthwhile. Second, if you want performance comparable to today’s desktop systems, you’ll need to use a dual-CPU motherboard (which isn’t the same as a dual-core CPU).
Linus, from Linus’s TechTips, created a video on the subject:
While Linus uses a grittier approach (he doesn’t even bother with a case), I have some additional tips on building your own rig from moldering, throw-away server components.
The DIY Junkatron Parts
The easiest method of rolling your own PC from server parts is to buy an entire server. An entire server offers 100% part compatibility (the biggest concern and issue), as well as overall cheaper cost. On the downside, shipping can be really expensive, and it’ll restrict your choice of graphics card. If any component fails, the server might also require proprietary replacement components. Most users, without access to a disused server, will probably end up buying the parts à la carte.
The five most important components — in order of importance — are the motherboard, the case, the RAM, the power supply, and the Central Processing Unit (CPU). While all of these parts are important to performance and inter-component compatibility, I list the CPU last because once you’ve picked the other components, the CPU becomes more of an afterthought.
The graphics card is the only part we don’t tackle, as server machines typically don’t have discrete cards – but you can read about how to pick the best GPU for your system, then purchase either new or used, using the notes in this guide that restrict your choice (such as motherboard and case size). Keep in mind that a decent GPU will cost more than the entire system. Something along the lines of a NVIDIA GTX 750Ti is probably the most suitable option, since it’s power efficient, inexpensive, and easy to fit in most cases, though you could also go with an AMD Radeon R7 360 and not lose any sleep over it.
Selecting the right motherboard determines the rest of your build, including the case, power supply, RAM, and the CPU. The primary advantage of choosing an older server motherboard is that it may include two CPU sockets, instead of the standard single socket on an ATX desktop motherboard. Don’t confuse the CPU count with the number of processor cores. Server motherboards can offer two physical processors which boosts performance in games using the upcoming DirectX 12 (DX12) Application Programming Interface (API), which more efficiently uses multiple processing cores. If DX12 or AMD’s Mantle is used in future games, an 8-core Intel system could provide performance on par with, or superior to, today’s latest two and four core processors.
However, before you pick a processor, you must first choose the motherboard, which determines the processor socket compatibility. As far as manufacturers go, Supermicro is highly recommended – they tend to offer better operating system compatibility and often work with Linux and Windows 7. Many are even upgradeable to Windows 10. However, there’s a lot of Supermicro boards out there, with differing CPU sockets. A CPU socket determines the kind of processor that you can use.
CPU Sockets: The two most suitable sockets include the Core 2 Duo generation of LGA771 socket and the Nehalem-generation of LGA1366 sockets. LGA771 uses DDR2 RAM or FB-DIMM RAM, whereas LGA1366 uses DDR3. Both LGA771 and LGA1366 come in dual-socket configurations. Pictured below is a dual-socket LGA1366 E-ATX Supermicro motherboard:
PCIe speeds: Most LGA771 and LGA1366 sockets include support for x8 and x16 PCIe speeds. However, the motherboards aren’t designed to accommodate a full-length PCIe GPU. This requires that users either find short-length PCIe GPUs or that they measure the motherboard to determine whether or not their GPU of choice will fit inside of the board.
If you can find a motherboard with the CPUs still attached, also make sure the heatsink-fan combination is included. Finding server-compatible heatsinks can be expensive.
I highly recommend staying away from motherboards pulled from pre-built units. These include any Dell PowerEdge, HP Proliant, or other similar server builds that rely on proprietary components — unless you’re buying the complete server unit, including the case and power supply.
Here’s a quick checklist of things:
- Measure the motherboard to make sure it fits in your case.
- Try to buy a motherboard sold alongside a CPU and RAM, which allows you to test whether or not the board works, without buying additional processors and RAM. You don’t need to take this step if you know what you’re doing.
- Not all server motherboards are E-ATX in form. Supermicro also sells a number of ATX motherboards, which should fit into most ATX cases.
- Supermicro provides a list of their server motherboards. Look for ATX form factor boards with LGA1366 or LGA771 sockets.
I list the case second because many motherboards can come in irregular form factors, which include Extended ATX (E-ATX). Brand new E-ATX cases, unfortunately, can be expensive, and often offer no more PCIe slots than a regular ATX motherboard. That’s because E-ATX boards tend to run deeper, rather than wider, which is suitable for a server or workstation, but not for a gaming or video-editing machine. Fortunately, server motherboards come in both E-ATX and ATX form factors.
Here’s an example of an E-ATX case on Amazon:
It’s huge and primarily designed for squeezing in a large number of hard drives. I don’t recommend buying an E-ATX case, unless you already own a server motherboard: some E-ATX form-factor motherboards won’t even fit inside of an E-ATX case.
As mentioned earlier, the motherboard determines that kind of RAM that you’re using. Unfortunately, almost all DDR2 server motherboards require either ECC DDR2 or FB-DIMM RAM. FB-DIMM is a different form factor to DDR2 memory modules and this limits compatibility to special motherboards. Here’s an example of how DDR2 differs from an FB-DIMM stick:
You’ll notice that they are not pin compatible. Therefore, it’s critical to pick the right RAM. An FB-DIMM stick of RAM won’t fit into a DDR2 socket; a DDR2-ECC stick will fit into a DDR2 socket, but it probably won’t work with the motherboard if it doesn’t support ECC memory.
While DDR2 RAM costs almost nothing, particularly for 1 or 2GB sticks, ECC and FB-DIMM memory are notoriously unreliable and have higher latencies than non-ECC RAM (which is bad). Above all other concerns, ECC RAM can be extremely finicky about what kind of motherboard it works with. The easiest method to guarantee compatibility is to purchase the motherboard with RAM. Alternatively, you can check the motherboard’s approved RAM compatibility list from the manufacturer’s website.
Keep the following tips in mind:
- RAM must be used in pairs.
- ECC DDR2 RAM is not pin-compatible with FB-DIMM RAM. Check your motherboard for compatibility.
- Don’t mix and match sticks of RAM.
- DDR2 and FB-DIMM RAM is for LGA771 socketed motherboards.
- DDR3 is for LGA1366 socketed motherboards.
A final note: DDR3 RAM is significantly easier to use as all DDR3 is the same form factor, regardless of its server capabilities. However, many server motherboards still require ECC memory, which can cost more than non-ECC RAM. Similarly, check the motherboard’s approved RAM compatibility list, before buying anything.
The Power Supply
Picking a power supply can also be a hassle. For those not in the know, read about picking the perfect power supply. Pay careful attention to the total wattage of your build and the number of CPU power pins required by the motherboard.
Dual socket motherboards require more power than single socket boards. Often the motherboard will have an 8-pin CPU power connector. This means that the power supply must also have an 8-pin (4+4), rather than a typical 4-pin CPU power connector, though you can buy an adaptor cable. Regarding load capacity, most 600-watt power supplies will work for a dual processor build. For better stability, though, you might want to overprovision on wattage. Those old server boards can be extremely power hungry. You should also consider the power requirements of your graphics card.
If you have an old (and powerful) power supply on hand, you should consider reusing it: Can I reuse my old power supply?
I recommend using eXtreme Outer Vision’s wattage calculator to determine whether or not your power supply can provide enough wattage.
The CPU and Heatsink-Fan
The CPU and heatsink-fan are both determined by the motherboard (how to mount a CPU heatsink). There are four kinds of processors available to LGA771 and LGA1366 sockets. These are:
- Core: 65nm production process. LGA771 socket. It’s the slowest of the four architectures.
- Penryn: 45nm die-shrink of Core. LGA771 socket.
- Nehalem: New architecture based on a 45nm production process. LGA1366 socket.
- Westmere: Die-shrink of Nehalem on a 32nm production process. LGA1366 socket. Westmere is the fastest.
The Penryn or Core architectures are cheaper. Even so, I’d argue that Westmere or Nehalem offer better bang-for-your-buck, as they use DDR3 RAM and the LGA1366 socket, which makes finding heatsink-fans a much easier (and cheaper) process. Of particular interest is that Penryn, Nehalem, and Westmere can include hexacore (and greater) processors. These cost a fair amount more than quad-cores, but make it possible to roll your own 12-core machine. Unfortunately, not all of these use the standard server sockets and configuring around them can increase compatibility issues. I do not recommend using anything higher than a quad core.
Some things to watch out for:
- Dual-socket motherboards require identical processors. Don’t purchase a dual and a quad-core CPU (difference between dual and quad core CPUs) and expect them to work in tandem.
- LGA771 server boards may not come with a proper mounting bracket for a heatsink-fan. This could require (as Linus suggests) a MacGuyver style DIY mounting bracket.
- Heatsinks on servers are designed for cross-flow (air moving across the heatsink) and may not include a proper CPU fan.
Places to Buy
eBay is the easiest and most convenient place to purchase used electronics on the Internet (how to shop on eBay like a boss!). It also allows for filtered searches, as well as the tools for determining the true market price of any old server motherboard, processor, or stick of RAM. On the downside, the prices can be slightly higher than you’d expect and if any part doesn’t work, it can be a pain to return to the seller. eBay alternatives exist, but I haven’t used many of them.
University IT center: Many colleges and universities sell off their used computer equipment after upgrading, often for a pittance of what they originally cost. Unfortunately, they offer first dibs to current students and faculty. But if you are a current or faculty member, a university is oftentimes a one-stop-shop for getting a complete server system on the cheap. Some universities even sell their used server hardware over the Internet. Try searching the Internet for key terms such as the name of your college and “surplus” or “auction”.
Public Auctions: Many state and local governments also auction off their surplus electronics. An auction is a good way to acquire an entire server on the cheap, since you don’t have to pay for shipping. But in my experience, public auctions tend to be messy and disorganized. I recommend buying from a univeristy over a public auction.
ServeTheHome provides a really great price-tracking thread on Xeon processors. While the price on second-hand LGA2011 (a much newer socket) has been plummeting recently, they are still not as dirt-cheap as LGA1366 and LGA771 processors.
Is Building a PC From Junk Worth It?
I’d say yes, but only provided you love tinkering with computers and want a good budget project to keep yourself occupied.
Have you built a PC from used server parts? What were your experiences?