Software runs my life

Tag: Hardware

Rack mount server conversion

This project is to convert a standard ATX Tower computer into a 3u rack mount computer. This is so that it can be sent to an internet hosting company to be put into their rack. The reason why I chose 3u is because this is the smallest size that will still fit a standard power supply. This is meant to be a straightforward step-by-step guide for anyone interested in making their own rack-mount computer.

This is a picture of the rack case kit that i bought from a local electronics store. It doesn’t have to be a specialty computer store because servers are not the only thing that is mounted in the standard rack mount. It is a very basic case and although it may seem expensive, it is a fraction of the cost of a “specialized” computer rack mount case.

The first thing that i did was mount the Motherboard onto the base of the case. You cannot simply screw it straight onto the base because the metal case will short circuit the contacts on the bottom of the motherboard. Instead what i had to do was use spacers (your existing computer case would have used them i am sure) to keep the board above the metal casing. 

I did have to drill a few holes in the bottom panel of the case. This is very easy though after you lay the motherboard on top and use a pen to mark the holes to drill. You can then use one long screw through the case, the spacer and then the motherboard where you can use a nut and washer to secure the board.

This does raise an important point which must be carefully followed throughout all these steps VERY carefully. Make sure that you keep all metal shavings and filings away from your computer components! If metal shavings get into your computer components you can pretty much kiss them goodbye, so be very careful and always use a vacuum to clean up any shavings you make, especially before test fitting any components!

The first item that i chose to mount was the CD-ROM. This was because my CD-ROM is quite large and so it’s positioning was very important. As you can see it is large even by normal CD-ROM standards. I decided to mount it over the top of the CPU as the height was perfect.

For those of you who are thinking heat-wise maybe this is not such a good idea i thought about this! While the CD-ROM is not being used (eg. there is no cd spinning in it) it will generate very little heat, if any. And this being a server the cd should not be spinning very often at all.

I mounted the CD-ROM using one of the drilled cross bars underneath and by getting some rectangular aluminum tubing and screwing that to the side of the case and the CD. I also had to make a small right-angled bracket to screw the other side of the CD to the cross bar.

I also decided to mount the power supply at this stage. This is at the back of the case with the plug holes facing out the back. I put another cross bar in and made a strip of metal that allowed me to put screws into the cross bar and into the back of the power supply. I decided to screw the front of the power supply to the back panel of the case.

To make the back of the case strong enough to be used as a support i put in a cross bar at the top and bottom at the back and screwed the back panel on.

Note that the CD is mounted just behind the front panel and the socket and fan grill of the power supply just protrude through the back panel.

Now we have some work to do. I had to cut away the back panel to allow the fan and the power socket to protrude through the back. I also had to drill holes to allow the power supply to be screwed to the back of the case.

The case i bought had a steel main chassis, and aluminium front and back panels. The easiest way to cut this is to carefully mark where you need to cut using the components to trace around and measure off. Then because i know i probably made a mistake i drill a fairly large hole (say 9mm diameter) in the middle of the object i want to cut out. Then i test fit it, see how far away everything is and then start cutting the rest of the metal out.

The best tools i found the cut out holes were files and a saw with a removable blade. These are both pictured on the left. The steps are as follows:

  1. Drill a hole in the area you want to cut big enough for the saw blade to fit through it.
  2. Unscrew and remove the blade from the saw. Thread the blade through the hole and then screw it back into the saw again. Use this to cut a rough outline of the hole (go inside the line not outside!).
  3. Use the files to tidy up your messy cutting and make any tricky little curves or corners needed etc.

The blade that i have attached to the saw in the photo is actually more like a fine file than a blade. It is round and lets you cut very tight curves and corners which is very handy.

The tool to the right of the files is used to bevel the edges of the cuts you make. This is to remove sharp edges and generally neaten things up a little. Think about how many cuts you get going into your existing computer case and then imagine what it would be like if the case was smaller, like this rack mount case…

Next up to install was the floppy drive. This was actually fairly easy. Firstly i pinched the metal drive bay from my old computer case. This can fit both the floppy drive and 2 hard drives, so that is good enough for now. Again i used some of the square aluminum tubing cut into 2 lengths. One was for the side and the other underneath the drive bay.

This setup gives me just enough room to let the wires out of the back of the power supply and plenty of room for 2 HDDs as the picture shows. This also leaves plenty of room to fit more PCI cards if they are needed, although it does cover an ISA slot or two, but who uses ISA these days anyway? 🙂

I now have all my major parts nicely placed around the case. The top picture shows nicely how everything is arranged in the case. This arrangement does have it’s problems however. The damn power cable is a few cm too short!

No matter. I will have to lengthen it by cutting, lengthening and resoldering the wires. That is easier than it sounds, but still rather annoying! All the other power cables reach nicely and so do the IDE and floppy cables. I cannot move the power supply now because i have already cut the back panel. Besides as the overhead view shows there is now a large amount of space behind the CD there which could be put to good use with extra drives or even just a fan.

I am now quite happy with the installation of the components.

The next thing to do was to cut the holes in the front panel for the floppy, network card, graphics card, cd-rom, keyboard plug, mouse plug and the on and reset switches. I am also considering putting in an LCD screen so i will have to cut that hole as well.

An LCD screen will allow me to monitor things like CPU temperature, number of connections, network traffic etc. Again i used the same technique as for the back panel where i drilled a hole, used the hacksaw to roughly cut the hole, and then filed it all nice and smooth and clean.

I had to lengthen that main power cable by about 2 inches to make sure that it would actually reach the socket on the motherboard. It was quite annoying to do! I matched all the colours of the wires, and heat-shrinked each one so that they wouldn’t make contact with each other. I then used zip ties to keep the wires in a nice bunch together. It is important to do this to allow more air flow around the box and just to keep things a bit neater. As the pictures show the cables appear to be reasonably neat in the end.

Finally i finished cutting the front panel. I also drilled 2 holes, one for the power button and another for a red HDD activity LED. All the cables fitted nicely through the front panel so i was very happy.

Putting all the cables into the components (eg. the HDD, floppy etc.) was a little bit tricky, but everything fitted quite nicely in the end. You just have to make sure that you don’t get things tangled up, and which cables go over and under various things. There is still more than enough space for another 3 PCI cards and 1 ISA card, as well as room in the mount for another HDD. In the back corner i think another 3 HDD’s could fit quite easily.

Finally i have finished! The case is all together and it looks quite nice i think. There are plenty of ventilation holes in the top to allow the hot air to escape. There are also a number of holes in the sides and base to allow air to flow as well. I may yet need to put in a fan, but i will put it through some testing to see whether this is the case or not.

Well i hope that this tutorial has been informative for everyone and the pictures and steps i took clear enough for you. I hope as many of you as possible can do this, it really isn’t all that hard, just a bit time consuming. It is good fun running a server, and it helps the community, so why not do it today?! 🙂 Good luck!

Pipe goes International

I have mentioned Pipe Networks before, more specifically their “Project Runway” surviving a near death credit crunch experience. There have been two interesting developments since that time.

Guam Beach Cable Hole

Guam Beach Cable Hole

The first is that Pipe have put up a blog tracking the progress of the cable installation. You can view it at As with their DC3 data centre blog they have uploaded a ton of photos and commentary on a very regular basis. I am sure customers, creditors and other participants in the Australian networking industry appreciate the transparency of information delivered through these blogs. It is fascinating to see that, in the end, the data is flowing through a rather unglamorous combination of copper, concrete, seawater and sand. It is also great to see a company recognise the power of blogs as PR delivery mechanisms. I am sure they raise the public profile of the company significantly.

Also on the PR front the Pipe Networks CEO, Bevan Slattery, participated in an interview with Business Spectator’s Isabelle Oderberg. This interesting interview starts off with a glimpse at how close the project came to collapsing, and concludes with some comments regarding the NBN process and goals. I do agree that the Government is tackling the problem from the wrong end, they should be starting at the core and moving outwards. I guess it is easier to present end solutions to the common voter, you can’t deliver bit size statistics like 50% more bandwidth will mean 50% wholesale price cuts which will mean 50% consumer broadband saving.

Maybe the same is also true for the NBN tenderers? If the tender was only for backhaul, could they be guaranteed enough customers to viably support duplicating the infrastructure? Do they need retail customers and the bundling of products to put together a firm business case and profit margin? Again the big question is, if this rollout is viable then why has no-one done it already? At the end of the day the problem always lies with Telstra, they simply own everything that matters. Scarily, this monopoly is now extending into the wireless spectrum. Backhaul competition is a great first stage, and perhaps with the current financial state the tender process should be limited to that for now. But there should always be a second stage planned, one that makes the whole end to end process competitive. Until that happens we will be facing different versions of the current monopoly.

Personally I believe that Telstra should be seperated and that the core infrastructure (backhaul, exchange buildings and ducts) should never have left the public’s hands. There is enough infrastructure around, it is just being crippled to maximise profit and prevent competition. Now we are either going to have to buy them back or build around it, either way this is not an efficient or cheap process.

Server Upgrade

Tonight I performed a tower-to-rack conversion of the Naiman Clarke primary server, a new Dell Poweredge 2900. You may ask why we didn’t just get the rack mountable 2950 version to start with? Well that IS what we ordered, however Dell got a little confused along the way. Anyway they made it up to us with some good discounts and a free rack conversion and rails kit.

Tonight I simply changed the face of the server and moved the control panel so it will be correctly oriented when the server is rack mounted. This was a bit of a process however and required the removal of all drives and bays as well as around 60 Torx screws. You can see these lying around on the floor while I am in the process of reassembling the machine. I also took a few photos of the internals just out of interest. There are some pretty big and noisy fans in there! I thought Woodcrest chips were meant to be power efficient and quiet?

Hover over the pictures for a description:

Dell Poweredge 2900 High Shot Dell Poweredge 2900 CPU Close Up
Dell Poweredge 2900 Peripheral Bay Dell Poweredge 2900 HDD Replacement

VF700 Installation

The Zalman VF700 is a flower style copper heat sink and fan that can be installed on a variety of graphics cards, including the Nvidia Geforce 6600GT (both AGP and PCI Express). My version is a Gainward 6600GT AGP 128MB Golden Sample. One major problem with the AGP installation however is that the PCI Express bridge converter causes the GPU to be set higher on the card than normal. This results in a 30mm overhang as shown on this Zalman installation instructions site.

Old Heatsink

As I have a desktop style computer case (Antec Overture II) there is no room for this overhang, and I really prefer to have the lid on my case. As a result I decided to embark on a bit of a modding project. Basically the way the heat sink is built one side has much larger fins than the other, and these fins are the ones that overhang. If I could rotate the heat sink 180 degrees then this would no longer be a problem.

 First of all the old heat sink must be removed. This is as simple as pushing together and then pushing through the 3 white pins that hold it in place. It comes off very easily and is not held on with heat transfer adhesive like some other GFX cards. 

The old heatsink and the card.

With the heat sink removed you can clearly see the two major chips. The larger one in the centre is the main GPU and the one to the right of that is the troublesome AGP -> PCI Express bridge (the 6600 is a native PCI Express chip). You can also see the 4 10mm x 10mm memory chips surrounding the GPU.

Heatsink rotated and installed

First of all I installed the heat sink rotated 180 degrees. Because the holes are symmetrical this is not a problem and it fitted nicely.

Fins trimmed for the adjoining PCI slot

The next problem was that if you insert the card the larger fins actually touch the adjoining PCI slot connector. To fix this I trimmed some fins and bent some of them around out of the way. Copper is very flexible and easy to cut, any loss of surface area this small would be irrelevant to the heat sink’s heat dissipating capacity.

Memory heat sinks installed

The memory chips also needed to have their heat sinks installed. The guide recommends that you place one on top of each of the 4 memory chips and one underneath. Looking under the board I don’t see how this is possible (you just stick them on top of the component ‘legs’??).

Not only wouldn’t this hold very well, the tiny surface area and fact that the heat would have to travel through the board means that the cooling effect would be minimal. As a result of that I decided to stick 2 on each memory chip. Each sink only has a 50% coverage of the surface area, however they are located where they will still get a decent air flow. Note also that I had to bend and trim the heat sinks a bit so that they fitted within the bounds of the card (yes my case is that close to my cards). Of course rotating the heat sink around is going to cause more problems than just hitting the PCI slot! I also purchased a heat sink from Zalman for the AGP bridge chip (ZM-VHS1 HSI Heat sink).

Bridge chip hits

The large fins now cover the area directly above the bridge chip, so this makes installing the heat sink a little more difficult. As the picture shows the fins actually hit the heat sink and prevent it from being moved in and underneath the fan. Some more modding was required!

Cut down bridge chip

Using a grinder and some careful testing I ground down the heat sink so that it could fit in underneath the fan. This reduces the surface area of the heat sink, however the heat sink is located almost directly underneath the fan (as opposed to well away from the fan where Zalman intended), meaning the increased airflow should compensate for the loss of area.

Bridge chip is a beautiful fit

The bridge chip is also a little difficult to install underneath the heat sink, however it is certainly manageable. When the bridge chip is then installed with some thermal paste you can see just how nicely it fits underneath the fan. Needless to say I was pretty happy with this!

GFX card installed in case

The card could now be installed in the case. You can see the fins down near the slot are a little bent, but that the fan now fits nicely within the bounds of the PCB.

Fan running and all lit up

I fired up my computer and it looks pretty nice I have to say! The fan is also dead silent when connected to the 5V input of the included power cable. I am very happy with the result and I think it complements my Golden Orb II quite nicely. Sorry about the blurriness of the photo, hard to hold time delays still!

Blue Dell symbol

While I was in the modding mood I decided to brand my white box PC with a Dell badge that I ‘found’ elsewhere. It fits absolutely perfectly over the Overture on button and has a nice blue glow coming through around it. I am not a Dell fanboi, it just matches my monitor so nicely now!

I hope that this simple guide gives people with a similar problem to myself some help. There is no other 3rd party cooling system available for the 6600GT AGP card, so this was my only choice. I think this guide will be particularly useful to people setting up media centres which often have pretty tight space restrictions like my case.

I would recommend this card as it is pretty cheap these days and still offers very solid performance. Please be really careful not to damage your GFX card in the process of attempting this mod and also make sure you clean any metal filings off your heat sinks etc. before putting them anywhere near computer equipment! Good luck with it!

Design and Rack Mount Updated

I changed the design of the site to a much nicer design with the 3d cable sidebar i made in 3dsmax5. I also added the rack mount server conversion tutorial to the projects section of the page. I haven’t totally finished it yet but it will be soon, hopefully in the next few days so i can try it out as an edonkey server this weekend.

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