The Great “Buy or Build” a Home Server Debate

by Stephen Bruce on May 10, 2010 · 14 comments

in Windows Home Server

There is an ongoing debate within the Windows Home Server Community regarding Do It Yourself Build vs purchasing a ready to run Windows Home Server.  It is an interesting debate that I am sure at one time or another many of you have participated in.  Rather than discuss my personal thoughts and experiences I think it would be best to discuss what is known, the challenges, the pros and the cons.

To begin I would like to point out that not every server configuration will meet the wants, needs or desires of everyone.  It’s very clear that for some the needs are simple while others have greater needs and have gone out and built Frankenservers.

So what is Windows Home Server anyway and what was its original purpose

The concept behind Windows Home Server was to be easily setup and run in the home as an appliance.  Basically you set it and forget it.  The intention was to backup up your home computers, share files, provide remote access to those files and to stream media content.  Think of it as a cool room ornament requiring little to no attention from the end user.  It was not long before you the enthusiast user began to take it to an altogether different level, and so for some of you the Windows Home Server has become something all together different than the original intended purpose but that’s a good thing.

First let’s look at the manufactured home server

HP was the first to manufacture a Windows Home Server or WHS.  They were later followed by Acer, Asus,  Lenovo, Tranquil and others.  These units are pre-configured, ready to run out of the box and require minimal setup by the end-user.  You plug them in, connect them to your network and turn them on. Software is installed on a client computer to set them up because they have no external video connection.

They are simple to use, and often come with additional software enhancements provided by the OEM.  Most consume very little power and run fairly quiet so they are home friendly. Most come with a 1 year warranty, some options for expandability and often meet the needs of the average person quite well.

So what’s the big fuss with the DIY Servers when you have manufactured servers available?

Many of the individuals who built their own servers previously owned manufactured servers and eventually out grew them or really needed something more robust in addition to something they could easily get parts for.  Obtaining parts for a manufactured unit is often difficult and so the comment about being able to control your configuration and obtain replacement components is one of the primary reasons mentioned as to why people often take the DIY route.

So what is clear is control over the component configuration and to that extent the sky is the limit with the only restriction being your purchasing power.  For some there is a need for performance that the manufactured systems do not have and a need to have a large enclosure for drive capacity.  One other thing to remember is many of the DIY build server components have 3 year warranties compared to the manufactured servers which often come with a 1 year warranty. 

So the big fuss with DIY builds is really performance, component control, longer warranty of the components used but it comes at a higher cost as well.   It also means that when you build your server your customer support is spread out between all the component manufactures so there is not just one phone number to call for support but many.

The DIY Builds are fun but there is an unforeseen difficulty factor with them

One of the difficulties in building your own server has to do with choosing a configuration that works best for you.  Some know right away what they want while others have to put a great deal of thought into it.  Just determining which components to include in your build can be the hardest part of planning your build, as we’ve seen from several topics in our DIY forum.

Once you have acquired all the components then you need to make sure you have all the drivers in hand and usually loaded on a USB flash drive for easy access during the installation.  Of course you need to purchase a copy of Windows Home Server OEM.

Sometimes unforeseen issues arise which are best illustrated in the forums by those who have shared their build experiences with the community.  For this reason I have listed six DIY Builds for you to check out and I encourage you to do so if you’re contemplating a DIY Build.  For we learn from each other and having said this all you need to do is click on the name of the server project below to read about each particular build.

AndromedaLilisqit ~ SHAWSHANK’S RedemptionSuperWHS II ~ SNIPER STORM ~ NORTHSTAR

So where is the debate and what’s it all about anyway because it seems pretty straight forward

The debate really comes down to ones preference which is determined by their wants, needs and desires.  For many the manufactured units will serve you well.  The DIY Builds that some have shared their build experiences are all wonderful and it’s not proper to put one above the other but just to say each has their own merits.  What you run for a server is not always best for another.  So what it really comes down to is which type of server will meet your needs.  My server configurations may not be suitable for you or yours for me but viable none the less.  So there is no such thing as the best unless it’s serving you well.

  • If you want simplicity and something easy to setup then you want a manufactured server
  • If you want high performance and flexibility then you will want a DIY Build
  • If you desire low power consumption you can go either route
  • If you desire control over your installed components then you want a DIY Build
  • If you are on a limited budget and want something low cost then a manufactured system is a good chose.  Or if you happen to have a PC not being used that meets the minimum requirement of WHS you might consider installing WHS OEM at a cost of around $100
  • If you are not sure which route to take then consider buying a refurbished unit and learn from that but keep in mind they only come with a 90 day warranty.
  • If you’re an avid cigar smoker then you might want a Home Servidor which is probably one of the most original servers out there currently sold by Donovan West.  I only mention it because it’s unique and it fits the original room appliance thought process for the WHS.

So there is no right way or wrong way, it just depends on you want.  In the end the only thing that matters is what works best for you.  I hope you will share what works for you with the forum community as it will ultimately show just how diverse of a community of Windows Home Server users we are.

Did you choose to buy or build your Windows Home Server? What were the factors that helped you make your decision? And has the recent availability of the Windows Home Server Vail Beta influenced your decision?





Article by

By day I am a Plant Engineer running a food container manufacturing facility which supplies containers to the Chinese Restaurant Industry. By night I spend my time helping others with their Windows Home Servers, working on various server projects. My other interests are animals, photography, media streaming, cultural history and linguistics. You can find me in the MediaSmartServer.net forums as Comp1962


{ 14 comments }

martmeister May 10, 2010 at 5:55 pm

This is an interesting article which brings up some good points. Before I jumped into the WHS world, a refurbished HP EX485 caught my eye and I have never looked back and this is why. To mark off most of your points: it’s simple, has the OEM license, it’s has decent high performance (change the 440 to an E5200 or E3300), it’s slightly flexible in that you can upgrade memory, CPU, PSU and plenty of storage via eSATA, it can be had on a limited budget (for me it was $285) and has fairly low power consumption. I think it is the best all round system out there. It has a little something for everyone.

Rhinoevans May 10, 2010 at 10:56 pm

I disagree with your first point:
■If you want simplicity and something easy to setup then you want a manufactured server

The main reason I did not go with an HP (and I was just waiting for Amazon to drop the price on the EX 495 to $599 which I had seen many time, and I was buying) was because of all the extra software that was included that seem to cause most user problems. Twonky, all the extra MEDIA stuff that did not support more common file types like MKV, and of course, the restricted upgrade path based on outdated hardware right out of the box. Sure some did a CPU upgrade, but we are still talking outdate Pentium Dual Core. Less power consumtpion and way more processing power with i3, i5.

Here is my link to my DIY based on an i5 / Zotac MB:

http://www.mediasmartserver.net/forums/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=7793

Terry Tremethick May 11, 2010 at 4:05 pm

A balanced article. Obviously the web site’s name endorses HP. I appreciate the HP builds having had one however the lack of power without upgrading, they have custom cases and are expensive. However, their support is excellent. You can call Canada and speak to someone within minutes etc. I think you should have mentioned this in the article. I have built machines for many years and made many errors. The reason I did is because of cost. However being able to call someone 24×7 is positive and worth $$$ especially for an average “human being”.

Comp1962 May 11, 2010 at 4:24 pm

@ Terry Tremethick ~ The article was on geared to one OEM server even though this site consists of many HP MSS Users. The articles intention was to point out some key differences between OEM vs Build. HP does have great support and my experiences with them have always been positive. However I have never had the need to contact them for Server Support.

@ Rhinoevans ~ While I understand your comment about the software HP installs and that some have reported issues with it. The mention of simplicity is very true and I will explain it this way to help clear this up. If you were to take a non-technical person and ask him to set up an OEM purchased system and then give him a build even provide him everything he needed to get the job done. The OEM system would be running first. The point being here is that the OEM Systems are preconfigured and it takes little to no time to get them running. The added software in them is optional to run. These units are not high powered units but server many well. Some who have out grown them have moved on to DIY projects as mentioned in the article. For a person with a technical backround they can go either way but sometimes there is some added frustration to putting a DIY Build together and for the fortunate no frustration at all. Most of the frustration has to do with the drivers but the OEM Systems have those all preinstalled so the units are ready to run out of the box which is a requirement by Microsoft if you read the WHS-OEM documentation that came with your servers software. So thats the reason for the comment in the article.

Comp1962 May 11, 2010 at 4:29 pm

@ martmeister ~ I am happy your pleased with your EX485 and found it at a good price too! Best of all your happy with it as are many others. I hope it continues to serve you well in the future too. Always nice to see someone happy with thier hardware as its a very good place to be.

RonV May 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm

I built my own server based on information from these boards and MaximumPC. I wanted to not only have about 8 TB of storage I wanted a removable SATA bay that I can load another HD to backup the system. None of the current WHS vendors have this feature.

The hardest part was to find AMD chipset drivers that would install under Server 2003 for AHCI on my ASUS motherboard. So I initially installed using native IDE SATA support and this MB supported setting up 2 of the 6 ports in AHCI separate from the IDE mode. I set these ports to AHCI and windows asked for a driver which I used from the ASUS CD XP directory along with hacking the INF file to make it work with Server 2003. Now all my ports are AHCI and hot swap along with the external SATA.

For my friends I have suggested the HP EX485 that has been at Costco.com. After I show them my home server and what it has done for our 4 PC’s in the home they want to get everything consolidated and secured. So far two have purchased the HP and they did the install themselves without any problems.

Damian May 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm

I went from owning a EX470 to building my own (Shawshank as Stephen linked to). My main reasons with going the DIY route were as follows:

- Needed more expansion then the EX4xx provides (and don’t particularly want to have multiple enclosures hanging off)
- Component goes bad on the EX4xx, you are f’d. Maybe you can send it away for repairs but that is not an optimal solution, especially since my server gets used daily for streaming media. With a DIY build if something goes bad I can have it fixed and up and running within days.
- Control over components, so I can pick and choose what hardware is used to meet my needs.

Now that being said a DIY build is not for everyone, and the simplicity (i.e. all in one packaging of an OEM build such as the HP EX4xx) definitely has its appeal. I generally recommend that if someone is just getting into home servers then the OEM build is a great way to go to get comfortable with WHS and home servers in general. If down the road you find that you need more from a home server then a DIY build may make more sense.

ladino May 14, 2010 at 8:45 am

I first came across EX-495 earlier this year. A month & a half later I had filled it up & was looking into more expansion bays & promptly added a TR8U. I liked the idea of a single chassis, & while doing my research came across the Shawshank & the Andromeda builds. Shortly thereafter, I decided to do my own build.
-I looked at single chassis build with room for growth
-Me being in control of components
-Flexibility to reconfigure components as needed
-sheer fun & the learning experience

Comp1962 May 14, 2010 at 4:25 pm

@ ladino ~ Thanks for sharing! Are you still running your EX495 along side your DIY Build or do you just use the server you built. I ask this because I believe I am not the only person running multiple servers in the home even though I really only need one I still like my EX470′s so I keep them running giving them tasks to do. One does my client backups, the other is running VAIL and my primary does everything else but is used for streaming my media within the home and online.

@ Damian ~ The spare parts issue is a problem I would like HP to address but since I was not one to wait for them I managed to acquire my own spare parts to keep my EX470′s alive as long as possible. Hey they are my children these days and I treat them well.

facke02 May 15, 2010 at 10:16 am

I currently have the Tranquil SQA-5H Windows Home Server. I’ve had issues in the past and now having more in the last week. They seem to be PSU (NTOSKRNL) and Controller (Si3124r5) card related. I’m working with the vendor, but not having much luck so far.

Seriously considering building a new DIY server and use the Tranquil for a Vail test machine or sell it.

Nice write-up…

Ken

Harry B May 16, 2010 at 7:45 am

Been following your website for a while. Inspired me to build my own WHS for WHS Vail. Used a Silverstone case that wouldn’t look out of place on my AV rack with a Gigabyte GA-D510UD (motherboard+Intel Atom D510 processor), & followed instructions here.

Thanks!

Helrazr May 23, 2010 at 1:40 am

Good article, The enthusiast PC/Server/HTPC market has changed quite dramatically over the past 5-6 years. From a DIY perspective, you can’t really price up a system for basic use (i.e., mother-in-law surfing and e-mailing PC) and be competitive with an off the shelf tier 1 vendor machine anymore. As a matter of fact, by the time you research the cut rate parts and factor in DIY build time, go grab all the gear from your local computer store etc. It is just faster, easier and in my opinion from having supported friends and family machines for the past 20 years, better to let the customer service at Best Buy handle them. That probably sounds kind of selfish I suppose, but I’ve built countless computers over the years and I’m personally really happy that when my mom wants to get my step-pop a new computer and widescreen monitor, She can run into Bestbuy or Walmart and grab an eMachines EL1321-02cSmall Form Factor Desktop with 20″ Widescreen for $450 clams.

I recently bought an off the shelf HTPC, to DIY a similarly specced unit from parts was going to cost me at minimum and extra 50% cash.

Servers are the one possible exception to this rule depending on whether or not you are planning a rack mount build. Unless you need a specialized enterprise configuration, front end with fibre attached or SAS disks etc. plain ole sata drives will do an outstanding job in a SOHO environment for dealing with the mainstream duties a WHS is intended to provide. If you’re planning on a virtualized environment, those VM’s will probably be a heck of a lot more responsive on a SAS pool but to compare DIY WHS apples to apples, yeah a DIY server solution can be a fun project if current commercial WHS units are too basic and won’t necessarily break the bank to do it. If sata disks and non-ECC memory are no concern there are tons of good chap mobo solutions with built in RAID controllers.

I guess it all boils down to how enthusiastic you really and how big your bankroll really is when it comes to DIY projects these days.

Comp1962 May 23, 2010 at 11:53 am

Now I have multiple servers running at the house, two are HP EX470 MSS units which I would not trade for anything because they have served me well and continue to do so. One is running the HP 3.x the other is running Vail. My primary server is not really a DIY Build but a DIY Modified HP ProLiant that offers me very good performance for streaming my media content both in the house and online. Now the EX470′s would do it but not as well as the ProLiant. The newer HP MSS units would also out perform the EX470′s.

For now I am happy with what I have running but I am also keeping a close eye on Vail and what it will bring to the table in future. One thing I do like about Vail besides its 64 Bit is that it has on its remote access logon page the option to chose a language display so this week I will build a test server for work running Vail using an available computer from work. Those who know me know that I work with many Chinese people and we share documents on my server only now I will place the documents on a second server running Vail and try to get the Chinese people to use it so they can help me better evaluate the Chinese Language options in Vail. I will also verify other languages like Spanish for use by my Spanish speaking employees.

The point is that DIY makes good sense when you have existing equipement thats not being used to allow you to evaluate if WHS be it v1 or Vail works for you before you jump in an buy the software or possibly a server from and OEM like HP or others. I think Microsoft has done well with the try before you buy option and a DIY Build allowing you to get exposure to what WHS is all about and can do for you. What you do in the end is upto you and as I always say only you can determine what works best for you not others.

Patrick J. Greene July 31, 2010 at 7:27 am

I started with a demo version of WHS on junk hardware [old drives, etc] that I had laying around. Purchased WHS, installed on junk, and quickly realized that WHS was becoming the center of my whole house media network. I picked out CPU, MB, Case via the internets and slapped together my new mini-monster. That was about two years ago. Currently, I am still running the same base unit setup, but have added 4 x 4 drive eSata Cases using port mulitpier on a PCI-X card [currently 24TB Raw], and a 4×4 RAID 8TB ‘off-site’ backup unit for critical files. There was a moment during the junk to DIY build where I considered an HP unit, but I have gone far beyond what it would have allowed me to do, at least in the hardware arena. I am in the process of putting together a ‘temp’ test bed for VAIL, my second try, in order to evaluate if I want to make the move. So far, I’m not seeing any real benefits it would add to my setup, except native ‘advanced format’ drive support. I don’t like, nor plan to use, Microsoft Media Center stuff, I find it too clunky. What I would really like to see is some kind of division of network traffic for WHS. What I mean by that is – say the capability of one NIC supporting WAN traffic, one NIC supporting LAN traffic, and a final NIC for maintenance / admin traffic. Ideally, either the WAN or the Admin NIC would host the nightly backup traffic.

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