Building a computer is a great opportunity to learn about hardware and software. Among the many reasons to build a server, you get control and customization, and no surprises. One of the biggest reasons to DIY a server: it’s cheaper than buying a new prebuilt machine.
While a server is similar to a computer, certain characteristics better suited for backend operation. Learn all about the best parts for building a server, from the motherboard to the case.
What Exactly Is a Server?
You’ve probably heard the term server thrown around a lot. But what exactly is a server? Techtarget defines a server as “…a computer program that provides services to other computer programs (and their users).” The dedicated machine that such programs run on is also called a server. Like in a restaurant, the server delivers services to the clients (customers).
Any computer can act as a server. I’ve run servers off of laptops and netbooks. But most dedicated servers come in one of two form factors: a desktop or rackmount case. Additionally, hardware is typically engineered for reliability and to maximize computing power and efficiency. As we’re focusing on the best parts for building a server, we’ll look at desktop style parts rather than rackmount cases. Rackmount servers are more common in enterprise environments whereas desktop style servers are suited to both enterprise and homelab uses.
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The Motherboard
Even though it’s not technically a server motherboard, the MSI H110M microATX motherboard makes a worthy server. Since the MSI is an LGA 1151 socket motherboard, it’s compatible with i3, i5, and i7 CPUs. Therefore the H110M delivers maximum compatibility with processors.
Furthermore, MSI outfitted the H110M with two DDR4 RAM slots with a maximum of 32 GB of RAM. You’ll also find four SATA3 ports. But its suitability as a server motherboard depends on your needs. By using non-ECC RAM, you’ll cut down on your build. However ECC RAM yields increased reliability, a major concern with server builds. Additionally, 32 GB of RAM should be sufficient for most homelabber uses, but it’s lacking for more processing intensive tasks like machine learning.
If you’re looking for a stellar home server, especially for media, the MSI H110M is a great pick. Lifehacker listed it as the motherboard of choice in its $600 workhorse PC build. Inclusions such as 7.1 channel on-board audio and an HDMI port compensate for lack of ECC compatibility. Alternately, htpcBeginner lists an exceptional headless home server build powered by the GIGABYTE GA-H110N. It’s slightly cheaper and pairs well with an i3. Like the MSI, it’s not a true server board, but delivers high performance in a small footprint.
- Really affordable
- Wide CPU compatibility
- Up to 32 GB DDR4 RAM
- Versatile, can double as an HTPC/gaming PC/server hybrid
- HDMI port
- Not ECC RAM compatible
- Lacks “true server motherboard” features
The Supermicro MBD-X10SLL-F-O is a microATX server motherboard. Supermicro outfitted this server board with an LGA 1150 socket. For the CPU, the Supermicro supports Intel Xeon E3-1200 v3 and v4 processors, as well as Celeron, Pentium, and i3 CPUs. You can add up to 32 GB of DDR3 ECC RAM, and there are two six SATA connectors Two boast a 6 Gbps transfer speed while four are limited to 3 Gbps.
If you need video out, there’s a VGA port but no DVI or HDMI. While this is fine for a headless build or those who plan to use a screen sparingly, you’ll want to add a dedicated GPU if you wish to have a hybrid server HTPC or gaming PC build. Reviewers praised the simplicity and noted wide-ranging operating system compatibility. Notably the server distro FreeNAS runs very well, and virtual machines handle well with the Supermicro. However reviewers did note that documentation is pretty barebones. If you’re familiar with computers, you should be fine. But poor documentation might present a challenge for novices. As an alternative, check out this eight-core gaming PC build. It’s affordable and uses a server board. however, it’s an older LGA 771 socket motherboard. Overall the Supermicro MBD-X10SLL-F-O offers phenomenal value.
- Great value
- LGA 1150 socket
- Compatible with Xeon E3-1200 v3/v4, i3, Pentium, Celeron CPUs
- Up to 32 GB ECC DDR3 1600 RAM
- Six SATA connectors
- Excellent compatibility
- VGA only (no HDMI, DVI, or DisplayPort)
- Poor documentation
ASRock is known for its quality components like motherboards. Although ASRock dominates with gaming caliber motherboards, its server motherboards are exceptional as well. The EP2C612D16C-4L is an excellent server motherboard. The ASRock features 16 DDR4 DIMMs, 12 SATA3 ports, and an M.2 PCIe slot.
For the motherboard, it’s a socket LGA 2011. Therefore the ASRock is compatible with Xeon E5 processors. It’s a dual socket motherboard. As a dual socket motherboard, the ASRock EP2C612D16C-4L will require a slightly more expensive build. That’s because you’ll need not one but two CPUs. The Intel Xeon E5-2603v3 ranks among the cheapest at $262. But you’ll have to multiply that by two. So while the ASRock motherboard clocks in at a modest $320, expect to pay more than that for the CPUs.
Nevertheless, the ASRock board offers a solid combination of reliability, expandability, and price. Although it’s an enterprise-level motherboard, it’s also available for homelabbers. You can skimp in some areas like RAM, case, and hard drive to make this a slightly more affordable build.
- 16x DDR4 RAM slots
- Dual LGA 2011 R3 sockets
- 12 SATA3 ports
- M.2 PCIe slot
- Three PCIe x16 slots
- LGA CPUs are pricey
- Requires two CPUs
- Only includes VGA outputs
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The CPU
CPUs are motherboard dependent. You’ll need to match the CPU to your motherboard socket (for example, an LGA 2011 socket requires an LGA 2011 CPU). You don’t necessarily need to have the latest CPU as it’s typically easy to upgrade. But, if possible, try to snag a motherboard and CPU that are fairly new so that your socket doesn’t immediately become obsolete. That way you have a clear upgrade path.
The Intel i3-4150 is an LGA 1150 socket CPU. It’s compatible with Z87 and Z97 motherboards. Although the 4150 is an LGA 1150, not an 1151 or 1155, it’s a rock solid processor. The i3 is suitable for entry-level servers. If you’re running an LGA 1151 socket like the H110M, the Kaby Lake i3-7100 is a great value at $120. The LGA 1155 Intel i5-3350P is a great CPU with a current gen socket. It’s Sandy Bridge, but you can always upgrade to a Kaby Lake i5 or i7 in the future.
- 4902 PassMark
- Great price to performance ratio
- 1150 socket is a few generations back
- Only suitable for home servers, not enterprise environments
- Not a true server CPU
The Xeon E3-1226 v3 is a beast of a processor. It’s a Haswell chip that’s compatible with LGA 1150 sockets. The Xeon server CPU has a 3.3 GHz operating frequency with a 3.7 GHz turbo. There are an 8 MB cache and Intel HD P4600 graphics.
Thermal Design Power is 84W and the PassMark is just shy of 8000. However, as powerful as the Xeon is, it’s only on socket LGA 1150. The newer SkyLake LGA 1151 Ex-1225 v5 is slightly more powerful and efficient. If you’re running an LGA socket 2011 motherboard, the six-core E5-2603v3 is a great mid-range selection.
- Almost 8000 PassMark
- Dedicated server CPU
- Only LGA 1150
- Requires ECC RAM
If you can afford it, the Intel Xeon E3-1270 sports stellar specifications. The Intel LGA 1155 Sandy Bridge CPU has a 4 x 256 KB L2 cache, 8 MB L3 cache, and 3.4 GHz operating frequency. It’s among the latest processors as a Sandy Bridge. The E3-1270 features eight threads and keeps power consumption low. Since it’s a dedicated server CPU, many motherboards that support the Xeon will require ECC unbuffered RAM. ECC RAM clocks in at a higher price than normal non-ECC RAM. But the extra cost yields additional data reliability.
Yet the E3-1270 is pretty expensive. Additionally, it requires ECC RAM which is pricier and may be a deterrent to those trying to keep the price low.
- LGA 1155
- Over 8000 PassMark
- Dedicated server CPU
- Likely requires ECC RAM
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The RAM
What RAM you use is dictated by your motherboard. If you’ve got an ECC RAM capable motherboard, you’ll snag ECC RAM. If not, your machine won’t post with ECC RAM in it. Additionally, specifications like DDR3 and DDR4 further narrow the pool of potential RAM sticks. TechTarget outlines the basics of server memory selection in an excellent post. As this varies a based on motherboard specifics, I’ll give a few suggested sticks that are both ECC and non-ECC. Usually, with RAM it’s best to avoid off-brand memory. While you might be tempted to max out your RAM, here’s how much RAM you really need.
Crucial’s CT2KIT102472BD160B offers ECC buffered RAM. It’s DDR3 and 1600 PC3L-12800. Reviewers noted that the Crucial kit uses slightly less power than traditional DDR3. This is a major plus for servers. When you’re running an always-on system, decreasing power draw maintains an energy efficient server. Users commented on wide-ranging software and hardware compatibility. The Crucial works fine on servers such as the Lenovo ThinkServer TS140 and with operating systems such as FreeNAS.
However, note that the CT2KIT102472BD160B is unbuffered. It works on systems that don’t support Registered ECC. Like all ECC RAM, it’s more expensive than non-ECC counterparts. Additionally, as often holds true you’ll pay a slight premium for a name brand in Crucial as opposed to an off brand. But this Crucial ECC 16 GB kit ranks among the most reliable memory available. It’s an excellent part for building a server.
- Name brand
- Uses less power than similar RAM
- Lots of hardware and software compatibility
- More expensive than non-ECC RAM
- Pricier than off brand RAM
Kingston is one of the most recognized names in computer components. The KVR1333D3E9SK2 16 GB ECC RAM kit offers DDR3 supports and PC3-10600 1333MHz speed. Reviewers found the Kingston ECC RAM reliable and compatible with an array of hardware and software. Users reported the Kingston ECC 16 GB memory playing well with Oracle Enterprise Linux 6.5, and functioning across a bevy of servers such as the HP Microserver N54L.
Again, you’ll pay extra for both ECC and a name brand. However, the slight price jump is worth the premium for the reliability.
- PC3-10600 1333MHz
- 16 GB
- Lots of hardware and software compatibility
- More expensive than non-ECC RAM
- Pricier than off brand RAM
Team Group makes an excellent RAM kit in its 16 GB DDR4 series. At a mere $115, the Team Group memory clocks in an excellent price to performance ratio. You can get the T-Force Nighthawk series in 2666, 2800, 3000, and 3200 MHz rates. Tom’s Hardware praised the Night Hawk value and XMP performance. However, the Night Hawk faltered with overclocking. Additionally, Team Group’s Night Hawk RAM is LED-lit. This may be a plus for more flashy servers, a minus for those seeking a muted server, or a non-issue depending on your case.
- Variety of MHz data rates
- 16 GB dual channel
- Excellent price to performance ratio
- Great XMP performance
- Poor overclocking
- LED-lit may not be suitable for some servers depending on environment and case
Overall, whichever RAM you select for your server depends on motherboard compatibility. Factors like DDR type and ECC or non-ECC will determine which options you have. While these are best picks for both ECC and non-ECC RAM servers, there’s a lot of choices and what you pick remains hardware dependent.
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The Case
Selecting a case for your server requires a lot of thought. Many metrics narrow down which cases are the best parts for building a server. Specifications, such as the number of hard drive bays, motherboard form factor, and optical drives all shape the case.
A lot of this comes down to use. If you’re building a server for enterprise or small business use, that likely differs from home use. Homelabbers might create a server that’s essentially a Network Attached Storage (NAS), whereas other homelabbers may opt for an HTPC media server combo or even gaming PC/server hybrid. Consider these specs when buying a server case:
- Number of hard drive bays
- Optical drive bays
- Motherboard form factor
While it’s marketed as a home theater PC (HTPC) case, the SilverStone Grandia makes for a spectacular server case. The form factor is conducive to stacking so you can make your own makeshift server rack. If you plan to create a media server or gaming PC server build, the Grandia looks at home in an entertainment center. SilverStone’s Grandia supports ATX motherboards and includes quick access filters. Drive cages feature mounts that do away with the need for adapters.
It provides superb cooling and dust-prevention and supports cards up to 12.2 inches long. If you need a GPU for graphics, processing, or both, the Grandia is a solid choice. Moreover, you can pack in 10 hard drives.
- ATX support
- Great cooling
- Easy to install hard drives
- Supports cards up to 12.2 inches long
- Optical drive bay
- No PSU included
The Fractal Design Node 804 is a superb server case. Since it’s a microATX cube case, the Node 804 offers a space saving design. It’s compatible with both microATX and mini-ITX motherboards. On the front I/O panel you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports as well as audio in and out inputs. Lifehacker praised the Fractal Design Node 804’s small yet not too cramped dimensions. Additionally, Lifehacker found the Node 804 similar but much cheaper than comparative server cases. Plus, the cube style case appears just as comfortable under a media center as a server/HTPC, and as a dedicated server in an office environment.
AnandTech added that thermal performance is spectacular, especially for a case of this size. But the Fractal Design Node 804 lacks hot swappable features like “true” server cases. Hard drives are admittedly difficult to access when compared to dedicated server cases. Additionally, there’s no optical drive bay. You can easily add a USB external DVD or Blu-ray drive, but if you need an optical drive on a regular basis with your server you might consider the Cooler Master HAF XB EVO. It’s a similar size and shape but adds optical drive bays. Additionally, the HAF XB features up to four hard drive or SSD drive bays, ease of access, and stellar cable management.
- MicroATX and Mini-ITX support
- Ten hard drive bays
- Cube-style case
- Great pricing
- Solid thermal performance
- No hot-swappable hard drive bays
- Lacks optical drive bay
- PSU not included
Lian-Li makes some of the most beautiful PC cases available. The PC-V1000LB is a sleek ATX mid-tower. You’ll find a whopping nine hard drive bays, an optical drive, and four front USB 3.0 ports. Underneath, the PC-V1000LB is outfitted with wheels. This is a great touch which helps particularly when you’ve got your server on a carpeted surface.
Tweaktown appreciated the aluminum which lends the PC-V1000LB a premium feel. Additionally, the plentiful hard drive bays and ample room for components makes the Lian Li an excellent server case. I saw the Lian Li in action with a dual Xeon setup, three GPUs, and a liquid cooler. If you need a serious server for intensive tasks that require GPU processing, the PC-V1000LB is a great pick. But it’s not cheap.
- Premium aluminum chassis
- ATX compatibility
- Nine hard drive bays
- Lots of room for expansion
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The PSU
Which Power Supply Unit (PSU) is right for your server once again depends on your case, and therefore motherboard. It’s best to stick with well-known brands. When selecting a server PSU, get a low wattage power supply unless you’re using running a beefy GPU. If you’re running a headless server, a GPU is overkill. Moreover, you can upgrade the PSU in the future should you need a GPU for display, GPU processing, or both.
Seasonic SSR-360GP is a high-quality 80 PLUS Gold-certified PSU. Clocking in at 360W, the SSR boasts incredibly high-efficiency and low-power draw. Tom’s Hardware appreciated the efficiency and power. In their review, Tom’s Hardware likened the Seasonic to PSU offerings from Gigabyte. Also, the included cable ties, screws, and Velcro ties make the SSR a solid pick.
However, cable lengths are lacking. Additionally, it’s a bit expensive for the wattage. But in benchmarks, the SSR-360GP clocked in a decent hold-up time and inrush current. With PSUs, performance matters much more than cable lengths. The SSR-360GP scored stellar in benchmarks and balances high-performance with efficiency.
- 80 PLUS Gold-certified
- Good hold-up time
- Great inrush current
- Short cable lengths
EVGA Supernova G2 comes in a variety of wattages. There’s everything from 550 watts to 1600 watts. It’s an 80 PLUS Gold-certified PSU, and sports a 140mm fan. Additionally, the EVGA is AMD Crossfire and NVIDIA SLI ready. TechPowerUp awarded the Supernova a 9.1 out of 10 in their review. Under full load, the Supernova remained cool at 47 degrees Celsius. It’s efficient, silent, and sports Japanese capacitors.
Still, the price is a bit high. Additionally, 5VSB efficiency suffers slightly. Ultimately, the EVGA Supernova is reliable and efficient, albeit a bit overpriced.
- Cool under load
- Semi-passive operation
- 5VSB efficiency suffers
XFX makes a stellar supply in its XFX ATX P1550GTS3X. Like the Seasonic and EVGA, it boasts 80 PLUS Gold certification and delivers at up to 90 percent efficiency under normal load. It’s available in a range of 550 watts to 750 watts. It’s an ATX style PSU. While it offers excellent reliability, the 550W iteration only bears two PCI-E connectors. Step up to the 650W or 750W version and you’ll find four PCIe connectors. Johnny Guru scored the XFX a nine out of 10 in its review. Similarly, Johnny Guru found the XFX a reliable, stable, PSU with great voltage stability and ripple suppression. Yet the XFX was a bit loud and lacked modular cables.
Nevertheless, the XFX is Crossfire and SLI-ready, as well as simple to install with EasyRail Plus technology. This balance of efficiency, performance, reliability, and simple installation make the XFX P1550GTS3X a phenomenal value.
- 80 PLUS Gold-certified
- SLI and Crossfire ready
- Easy to install
- Up to 750 Watts
- Only two PCI-E connectors on 550W iteration
The Best Parts for Building a Server: The SSD
For hard drives, you’ll want to maximize storage. Thus, skip SSDs except as a boot drive. Unless you need all SSDs for incredible speed and reliability, a traditional hard drive stack in a RAID array should be fine. But now might be the best time to upgrade to an SSD, and these SSDs are your best picks.
The Samsung 850 EVO is one of the more popular SSDs and for a reason. It ranges from 250 GB to 4 TB. There’s a performance-enhancing RAPID mode. Unfortunately, this isn’t available for macOS or Linux however. Samsung 850 EVO performance rivals that of the 850 Pro which is a tier up. CNET commented that the 850 EVO yields an excellent combination of price and performance.
- 250 GB to 4 TB storage options
- 6 GB/s transfer speed
- Great mix of storage, speed, and price
- Samsung Magician software only Windows compatible
The Crucial MX300 begins with a 275 GB option and ranges to 2 TB. The MX300 boasts 3D NAND technology and Dynamic Write Acceleration which boosts file transfer speed. CNET discovered that the Crucial isn’t as high performing as the 850 EVO. But the MX300 lowers the price and adds 3D flash memory. Thus, it’s a solid budget-oriented SSD with premium specs.
- Storage options from 275 GB to 2 TB
- 3D NAND
- Budget performance with premium specs
In the SSD realm, PCI-e offers top-end performance. The MyDigitalSSD BPX is a PCI-e SSD that ups the performance and price antes. However, the BPX manages to offer NVMe memory but keeps the price low. Tom’s Guide benchmarks outed the BPX as an M.2 SSD that’s not the fastest. Yet Tom’s Guide performance tests also concluded that, well, it’s not the slowest.
- M.2 form factor
- 120 GB to 480 GB storage options
- Beat higher-end NVMe SSDs in certain benchmarks
- MLC flash memory
- Not the fastest NVMe SSD
The SSeagate Barracuda ST3000DM001 balances speed and affordability. Since you’ll likely be storing a lot of data on your server, I’d suggest a pretty sizeable hard drive. The Barracuda clocks in at a mere $74 for 3 TB. Furthermore, it’s a 7300 RPM spindle. You won’t witness an SSD-level of performance, but the increased speed is noticeable over a slower 5400 RPM stack. There’s a 64 MB cache, and a SATA 6 GB/s connection. Server gurus We Got Served recommend the Seagate Barracuda as a hard drive of choice in their guide to server storage.
- Excellent price-per-GB
- 7200 RPM
- 6 GB/s SATA connection
- 64 MB cache
- Not an SSD
Since this article was published, Seagate has released a new version, the Seagate 3TB BarraCuda (ST3000DM008).
Along with Seagate, Western Digital leads in the storage space. Its WD Blue WD10EZEX boasts a zippy (for a mechanical hard drive) 7200 RPM speed, 64 MB cache, and 6 GB/s SATA connection. You’ve got storage options from 1 TB to 5 TB. Especially if you’ve got several hard drive bays, you can create a beefy stack in your server. A few several TB hard drives in RAID offers a superb base for lots of storage on the cheap.
If you really value a low-power build or need ample storage, check out the WD Green line. Western Digital offers its Green hard drives in configurations from 1 TB to 10 TB. These reduce power consumption up to 40 percent. There’s also IntelliPower that balances aspects such as caching, transfer rate, and spin speed. IntelliSeek optimizes seek speeds. However, a 1 TB Green WD hard drive retails for $75 whereas the Blue is a mere $50. Still, if you need maximum performance and want to have a truly energy efficient server, opt for the WD Green.
- 7200 RPM
- 6 GB/s SATA connection
- 1 TB to 5 TB storage options
- 64 MB cache
- Not an SSD
- WD Green hard drives offer better efficiency
The Best Parts for Building a Server: Final Thoughts
Although these are the best picks for a server build, there’s no formula. Just like building a desktop, lots of factors impact which server build is right for you. A great way to cobble together a fantastic server but save money is using standard desktop components rather than server parts. You’ll still have a high performing machine, but without paying a premium for a server motherboard and CPU. Sure, there are drawbacks, but especially for a home server this is a viable solution and you likely won’t notice a difference. Much of what dictates a server build is its purpose. If you’re setting up a media server, your criteria differ from a web server set up. You can even use an old PC if you’ve got low system requirements.
I didn’t cover GPUs as many servers won’t even need a GPU. If you’re building an HTPC/home server combo or gaming PC/server hybrid, the GTX 1050 Ti delivers mid-range performance at a budget price. If you can afford it, the 1060 ups graphics performance ante while keeping price pretty reasonable. However, if you need a GPU for data processing, the Quadro line is spectacular for applications like AutoCAD. It’s not cheap, but the K5000 packs 4 GB of GDDR5. Or if you have about 5K, you can snag a Tesla K80.
Finally, there’s another option for building a server: The barebones build. I went with a Lenovo TS140 and use it primarily as a Plex media server. I’ve also had a lot of success with Shuttle XPC desktops as home servers. But many XPCs feature proprietary motherboards which limit future expansion and upgrades.
Now that you have built the machine, why not check out how to set up your own WAMP server?
What is your recommended server build and what are you using your server for?
Image Credit: Denis Rozhnovsky via Shutterstock.com