Server Setup Guide
Reviewed by: ajmatson
Reviewed on: July 7, 2011
In my many years of working with computers, I have commonly come across many people who would seek help on setting up servers, whether to share files or run games for LAN parties. In this guide, I will explain how you can run multiple gaming and file servers, while using affordable hardware that will both do the job and cosmetically look good. To make the process easier to understand, we will break this guide down into several sections based on necessary hardware and software. I will explain all the steps from choosing components, to getting the server up and running. Because this is intended for gamers and end users, I will also take costs into account and try to keep them minimal, as dependent on the needs of the server. In the end, you will discover that if you have ever built a computer in the past, assembling a server is just as easy. So sit back, relax, and let's dig in.
Hardware is one of the most important items in building a server, regardless of its overall purpose. Without enough power or memory to run the necessary applications, the server would subsequently be useless. Depending on its intended usage, however, the hardware may vary slightly. It is often a good idea to sit down and create a plan beforehand. Personally, I live by a rule of thumb that purchasing more than needed is better than having the server become congested or even fail when it is needed the most. For this guide, I will be putting together two different types of servers. The first will be a gaming server, designed to host multiple instances of LAN-based games. The second will be a file/web server, intended to back up data and make items accessible from any computer in a network. As always, hardware can vary depending on your needs; this is just a general overview of a configuration that I would use, based on the available hardware that I have on hand. Keep in mind that any computer can function as a server as long as the necessary software is installed. Therefore, you may even have old parts that can be reused for your server.
Gaming Server: The hardware for gaming servers needs to be robust in order to keep up with the players on the LAN. When putting together a gaming server, there are several key areas to which you must pay attention. Unlike a gaming PC, where the common focus is on the graphics card, a gaming server needs a strong CPU, plenty of RAM, and most importantly, high bandwidth network connections. If you plan on hosting multiple gaming servers, you may even require more than one network interface card. In this guide, I will be designing a gaming server specifically intended to host LAN parties. In terms of chassis, I used the CoolerMaster HAF 932 full tower case. By choosing a tower design rather than a rack mount chassis, it allows the server to be readily movable when required. Coupled with its high airflow capabilities and sleek gamer styling, the case will easily fit in with the LAN party scene while keeping components running cool. For the CPU and motherboard, I chose the AMD Phenom II X4 910e and the Gigabyte GA-MA790FXT-UD5P, respectively. This combination provides a powerful quad-core processor for running multiple game server instances, as well as plenty of connections and expandability for other needs. I also chose this particular motherboard because it features two Ethernet ports on the back panel — when running more than one game server at a time, you will need a dedicated network port for each game. As I mentioned previously, memory is also a key factor in server setup. Especially for a game server, it is important to have enough to run each game instance you desire. For this particular system, I chose to use 8GB (4x2GB) of Mushkin DDR3 1600MHz dual-channel memory. The high speed and large memory capacity ensure that games will not bog down during game play or loading sequences. For file storage, I chose two Western Digital 640AAKS drives and configured them in RAID 1. This subsequently duplicates and backs up all information between the two drives, ensuring that the LAN party will not come to a halt if one drive was to fail. Conveniently, RAID 1 is supported by the motherboard without the need for an additional RAID add-on card. Other miscellaneous items include a CD drive to install data such as the OS, a good heatsink to keep the CPU cool during intense and long LAN parties, and a low-end graphics card. Given that the server will not need to run intensive software or the games themselves, a powerful graphics card is not necessary.
File Server: While a file server needs to be powerful, it does not require as many high-end components as a gaming server. For a server intended for the storage of information, emphasis is placed on storage capacity rather than sheer computing power. For my file server, I chose to conserve space with a rack mounted case, the In Win IW-R300 3U Server Chassis. The ‘3U’ height specification ensures that it will accept standard hardware, including an mATX motherboard and stock heatsink. For the processor, I used another great AMD CPU, the Athlon II X4 635. At its current sub-$100 pricing and clock speed of 2.9GHz, this is a quad-core made in heaven. To run the processor, I wanted a strong mATX board with plenty of features, such as the Gigabyte GA-MA785MGT-UD2H. Having used this board previously, it offers the performance I need and most importantly, features five SATA II ports that can all be configured to RAID 1 for data protection via the SB710 Southbridge. For RAM, I chose to go with a set of 4GB OCZ Spec Ops Urban Elite memory. For a file server, a large amount of memory is not necessary; a decent set with a balance of speed and capacity is enough. The Spec Ops Urban Elite is rated for 1600MHz with timings of 8-8-8-24 at 1.9V. This gives us an adequate capacity while maintaining a quick processing speed. In terms of graphics card, I realize that the limitation of space in a rack case contributes greatly to the build-up of heat in the system. While using the onboard video chipset is an option, it consumes system RAM to function. Therefore, I used the same low-end video card as above. In many cases, a modern low-end GPU will emit relatively low amounts of heat. For storage, I opted for a three-drive setup to keep my data secure. The first – a 750GB Seagate 7200.11 drive – was dedicated to the operating system, virtual machines, internal programs, and miscellaneous software. The other two drives – both Western Digital 640AAKS drives – were configured in a RAID 1 setup and used for the storage of other data. Similar to the gaming server, if one of the latter storage drives were to fail, their information would be retained because it would all be mirrored and backed up between the two drives. Again, RAID 1 is natively supported by the motherboard, minimizing the need to purchase an additional RAID card.
Now with the hardware components picked out, let's evaluate some of the software options.
The software is the single-most important factor of a server. Without the proper software, the system is simply a pile of components with no purpose. On the other hand, any computer can be transformed into a server with the correct operating system and utility programs. In this section of the guide, I will introduce you to software that will get your new server box running and your content readily configured for storage and access.
There are many operating systems on which you can run your servers. Depending on your needs, you can opt for paid offerings such as Microsoft Windows or free offerings such as Linux. If you decide to use Windows, I would recommend two main versions; Windows Home Server 2011 and Windows Server 2008. Windows Home Server, the more cost-effective solution of the two, is geared toward the home user who may want to back up their files or maintain a personal web site. Based off the full-fledged Windows Server 2008 (as described below), you essentially have similar functionality as a professional server operating system. As a whole, Windows Home Server introduces a streamlined OS experience to everyday users who may not have the skills or knowledge to otherwise set up their own server.
Windows Server is a fully-loaded server operating system coupled with a respectively larger price tag. For those who want more control over the options and abilities of their servers, only a complete server OS experience will be adequate. Windows Server 2008 and 2008 R2 allow you to run any server-based application such as websites, email, and SQL. If you require a Home Exchange server for your email, then this OS is your only option. For those looking to run virtualization with a host server system rather than a hypervisor, Windows Server gives you access to Hyper-V. This is a fully-featured virtualization system built into the OS and will allow you to run multiple client operating systems with one machine.
Finally, we have the all-inclusive open source OS, Linux. Not only is it free, but there is practically an endless list of versions to choose from, such as Ubuntu, Fedora Core, and Slacware. However, it is important to keep in mind that Linux is a pretty complex operating system to run and understand. Unless you are willing to accept the task of learning its intricacies from the ground up, it may be a good idea to gather some research before diving in. In my opinion, Linux is the way to go if you are ready for the challenge. You have access to a full OS that costs no money, and has identical or arguably greater functionality as compared to enterprise server operating systems.
To maximize your server's hardware, you can also install virtualization tools. They allow you to run more than one operating system at a time, eliminating the factor of needing a separate set of hardware for each server. There are several good virtualization tools for both Windows and Linux. For Windows, there are two pieces of software that I recommend; Hyper-V and VMWare ESX. The former is built into the Windows Server 2008 package and gives the user plenty of control over the server hardware. Running natively with Windows, it ensures greater compatibility with other software.
On the other hand, VMWare ESX is an excellent freeware solution that has been commonly used for enterprise virtualization machines. An important utility of the VMWare software is the ESXi hypervisor. It allows you to run multiple virtual machines as though they were physical systems. Unlike host-based hypervisors, such as Microsoft Hyper-V or VMWare Server, ESXi does not need an OS of which to run on top. It is a small host that runs on the physical machine and leaves a minimal resource footprint.
Before you begin building your server, I also want to leave you with a couple tools that may prove to be useful. One is an awesome little program called XAMPP. It will help you easily set up Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Perl servers together at one time. In minutes, you will be running not only a Web Server, but a Database Server, a FTP Server, and even a lightweight Email server. Just install the application, configure a few adjustments, and away you go. Best of all, it can be installed as a system service, allowing the program to run whenever the server is powered on, regardless of system login. XAMPP can be installed on Windows, Linux, Solaris, and even Mac OS.
Another great little tool is Rokario Bandwidth Monitor 2. This allows you to view and monitor the amount of traffic going to and from your server in real-time. It is especially useful when running a game server because you can now track and determine the amount of bandwidth available on the network card for extra players. Keep in mind, there is both a free and paid version of the software.
This concludes our mini-guide for setting up a server. As you can see, it only takes a little effort to configure a system that suits your personal needs. If you have always wanted your own gaming or file server, I hope this points you in the right direction to get started. We will be working on a more in depth guide shortly this is just to give you a little taste.