Building a high performance free as in freedom server on a budget

The server

As may be brought to your attention in my previous blogpost everything Jiyu runs on completely free software. Today, I'd like to share the complete build process and specifications of the server that makes all of this possible.

Picking a motherboard

Because of non-free BIOS software the amount of hardware that is capable to run without any proprietary software is currently very limited. Any chipsets made by AMD after 2012 and any chipsets made by Intel after 2008 are already out of the question.

The best option for a completely free motherboard is avoiding the X86 architecture altogether and using an IBM POWER9 motherboard with OpenPOWER, such as the Talos II Mainboard. While I absolutely love this idea, currently the pricing of a Talos II board starts at $1500 without even including a CPU. I would definitely consider buying one of these in the future at a time when an investment like this makes sense for me to do so. So, I went back to looking for a X86 motherboard I could use.

Intel has a few motherboards available that use a 755 socket (Intel Core 2 Duo), which is very similar to my Thinkpad X200. While these motherboards are still fine for average desktop usage, two cores are not gonna cut it for the things that I want my server to do.

Eventually I ended up going with team red, AMD. All the free software compatible motherboards with AMD are intended for workstations and servers. In this case I'm building a server so that is exactly what I need.

Not wanting to go in great depth explaining the differences between the available AMD motherboards I ended up going for the ASUS KCMA-D8 motherboard. This motherboard supports the C32 CPU socket. However it has a dualsocket design, allowing you to use 2 CPUs which is a good way to compensate for the outdated architecture. This board also fits conveniently in a standard ATX case. You can get this board for about €350 which fits into my budget a lot better than the Talos II.

Getting the parts

All the parts

Getting the parts for this build was not the easiest task in the world. Most of the parts I needed for this build are no longer produced and are not easy to find.

The motherboard

Getting the motherboard was easy thanks to Vikings. I've first heard about these guys at FOSDEM in 2018. This Germany based company sells refurbished free software compatible hardware and runs free software hosting solutions as well. They sell a ASUS KCMA-D8 with free boot firmware preinstalled and it is RYF certified.

Their hardware comes with a 2 year warranty and their support is eager to help you out with your build. If you want your own free computer without going through all the same trouble scavenging parts from all over the world like I did I recommend buying their D8 prebuilt computer.

The CPUs

Like most parts in this list the C32 socket CPUs that this motherboard needs are long discontinued. I was lucky to find an eBay seller from the United States who was selling a lot of used Opteron 4284 CPUs for only $25 each. I picked up 2 of them to fit the two CPUs slots on the motherboard and hope they worked.

With 8 cores and threads, a base clock of 3 GHz and boost clock of 3.7 GHz this was quite a high-end option at the time these CPUs were produced. Especially if you have 2 of them they can easily keep up with the average computer produced today.

The only real downside of this CPU is that it uses the AMD Bulldozer architecture, which is known for having quite a high TDP compared to today's CPUs. But personally I think a little higher power consumption is a small price to pay for freedom.

The quest for coolers

The hardest parts to find for this computer were the CPU coolers. There are not a lot of coolers available for C32 sockets nowadays. On sites like eBay and AliExpress you can find copper blocks that work on this socket which are probably adequate, but I wanted to have real coolers that use actual heatpipes. Maybe mostly for aesthetic reasons as well, nothing visually screams “I have power” like a dualsocket motherboard with two giant coolers on it.

It turns out that Noctua used to make coolers for C32 sockets, a 120mm and 90mm version. I quickly found a Dutch store that still had 2 of the 120mm versions in stock and ordered them. Upon arrival I found out that they only sent me a single cooler and charged me back the money for the second cooler because there was a stock error on their listing.

Now I only had a single Noctua cooler for my dualsocket sytem and finding a second one wasn't gonna be easy. I searched for this cooler on almost every single European computer store and I learned how to say “out of stock” and “discontinued” in about 15 languages.

Eventually I found a 90mm Noctua cooler in the refurbished section on Coolmod.com, a Spanish hardware supplier. There was one problem however, Coolmod does not sent packages outside of Spain and Portugal. I signed up for a Spanish mail forwarding service and about a month later I was to be able to receive my cooler in the Netherlands.

Now I had two Noctua coolers for my system, a 120mm and 90mm, but it will have to do the trick.

The power supply

The PSU is the only off-the-shelve part I've used while building this computer. Power supplies haven't changed at all in the past 10 years and mostly still come with the same connectors. I ended up buying a Corsair RM550x because it has a 80plus Gold rating. A high power efficiency rating is important for a computer that will stay on all day and night.

The RAM

The ASUS KCMA-D8 motherboard has 8 slots for DDR3 memory. What's great about this motherboard is that also supports Error-correcting code (ECC) memory. ECC memory can detect and correct when data corruption occurs. This is a feature that you will typically not find on your average desktop computer because it is only really necessary in critical systems.

Currently I've installed 16 GB of non-ECC DDR3 memory that I've already had lying around. If I ever think 16 GB of RAM is no longer sufficient I will definitely upgrade to ECC supported RAM sticks.

Building the computer

Building a computer with mostly second hand parts is always very exciting. You're never sure if everything is gonna work if you build a PC from parts that are by previous owners probably considered a pile of random old junk.

First thing I noticed while building this computer is this board was quite picky when it comes to RAM. I have a pile of random assorted DDR3 RAM sticks. With trial and error I eventually found a set of memory that worked and the computer managed to post. Below is the computer booting from a Parabola LiveUSB for the first time.

First boot

Now to check if both the used CPUs from eBay are functioning I ran nproc.

nproc showing 16 cores

And it detects all 16 physical cores!

According to Vikings this particular motherboard can get pretty hot on the southbridge. They suggest installing a fan on the southbridge cooling block.

At first I was a little confused because there doesn't seem to be any place to mount a fan on the cooling block. I e-mailed Vikings about how I'm supposed to do this and I got the following reply:

With the zip ties that have been included in the shipment :) Perhaps not very sophisticated but does its job. – Thomas, Vikings GmbH

So that's what I did, and indeed it does the job.

Southbridge fan

Now all that's left to do is move the server into the case and connect the hard drives.

The server, fully assembled

And there you have it, my ultimate freedom machine, fully assembled.