Saturday, March 27, 2010

Using a Server as a Desktop computer - Part I

Servers used to be, and still is, the high end of computers that are pricey but reliable and powerful. These beasts are built to last and are usually ultra reliable. You can find these servers on the used market for a fraction of what they used to cost, so the temptation to buy one as a desktop computer replacement is strong.

The company I work for allowed me to sign out a decommissioned server for personal use. This is a SuperMicro server that comes in a full sized motherboard and case. Specifically, this machine was a platform to test Intel processors before they were released as retail products. As a result, the Xeon CPUs in this server are beta versions of the final product, but they run fine.

Being a server, this machine has all the bells and whistles of a server, but some of the essential features are missing for desktop uses, namely, a PCI-e x16 video slot, built-in sound, etc. It does, however, comes with two gigabit Ethernet ports, SCSI & SATA RAID controllers, 7 hot swappable SCSI bays, redundant power supplies, and 5 fans that when run in server mode, sound like a jetliner taking off; it's deafening.

The biggest problem is the lack of a video card slot. The built-in video has 16 MB of video RAM that's not even enough to display a full resolution screen. To use this server as a desktop machine, the first thing to do is the find a way to install a better video card. This particular motherboard has two PCI-e x8 and one PCI-e x4 slots, and we know that x16 cards will run in x8 slot in reduced speed.

As far as I know, there are no current PCI-e x8 video cards on the market. However, there are adapters available to convert a x8 to x16 slot. This is what I bought. You can buy one of this converter cards from eBay for $0.99, with a $37 shipping charge. The picture below shows what it looks like:

This poses another problem, of course, because now the video card will be half an inch taller. It can't be screwed on the chassis like you would normally. Like everything else, if you want something really bad, you will find a way to get it. In this case it's actually quite simple. Just need spacers and I happened to have left over ones from the college days when we had to build microcontroller projects on prototyping boards. These spacers are available from electronics parts stores. If you live in Toronto, Active Surplus on Queen & Johns have them. The picture below shows the spacers with the video card installed:

Will continue on the next post...

1 comment: