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Building a White-Box Computer System

There's a lot of emphasis these days on so-called white-box system solutions. What's your opinion of such computers, and how would you design such a system?

The primary reason that users give for buying a white-box solution is cost; however, I don't believe cost should be the main consideration. Rather, the system's overall simplicity and straightforward design should be the most important concern. The ultimate white box is a computer that offers a range of conveniences not usually seen on standard systems. It's also important to provide maximum flexibility for any system, whether it's a server, a workstation, or a standalone PC.

For my ultimate white-box solution, I started with a Gigabyte 8KNXP Ultra motherboard. This motherboard has native support for IDE RAID, Serial ATA (SATA) RAID, and Ultra320 SCSI RAID (0, 1, 1+0). You can turn off RAID options in the system BIOS. (The Gigabyte board's BIOS is Award-based.) I chose an ENlight Ultra 320 drive module (EN-8721) that sits in three consecutive 5.25" exterior slots. Surprisingly easy to install and set up, the module has termination enabled, and the drives default to SCSI IDs 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. You place each 80-pin drive in a mount, and place the mounts in the module. The module will handle five SCSI hard disks (I used five Ultra 320 36GB disks).

Given all that the computer case needed to house, I chose a Lian Li PC-V1000 aluminum case. I chose the case for several reasons:

  • the bank of 5.25" floppy slots on the front to house the ENlight array. The only change I needed to make to mount the module to the case was the removal of the ENlight module's side rails.
  • the case's excellent heat dissipation
  • the set of six internal 3.5" slots
  • the case's compartmental interior, which is laid out with ultimate simplicity

I placed the hard disks in slots by putting special screws in the sides of each disk and locking it in the slide with sliding tabs. You can remove either side panel of the case to perform system maintenance. For power, I used a Vantec Stealth 520-watt power supply, which fit perfectly into the case and has ample power for most any task.

In addition to an NVIDIA GeForce video card and a Lite-on Technology IDE CD-ROM drive, I added an Exabyte VXA-2 Packet Tape drive to the system. Because I couldn't place the tape drive on a RAID controller, I used an LSI Ultra160 SCSI controller (LSI21040). I set the VXA-2 to SCSI ID5 and connected it to the LSI card's external 68-pin connector with an Ultra320 cable.

For connectivity, I used the built-in Gigabit Ethernet. To be thorough, I moved a USB2 drive onto a built-in USB2 port. In addition, the motherboard has sound, and I added a FireWire controller. I then installed Windows Server 2003. Drivers for all components were readily available. Needless to say, I'm delighted with the resulting system. I mean, how many workstations have a RAID 5 set of 80-pin, hot-swappable hard disks? To be honest, I'm amazed that all devices on the system work well and without IRQ or I/O conflict. Furthermore, Windows 2003 handles everything superbly.

Numerous individuals and companies helped me build the system. I especially want to thank the following companies for assistance with the ultimate white box: LSI provided me with the two SCSI controllers, and Exabyte provided me with the VXA-2 unit. Furthermore, the technical assistance of both companies was superb. ENlight sent me drivers, as did Gigabyte and LSI. UltraBac Software graciously assisted me in designing various aspects of the unit—especially the backup aspects needed for the network. Mark Templeman assembled the system for me and did so with minimum supervision. Finally, I'm grateful for the numerous conversations I had with my son Ian, who is an IT professional and tries to keep me on the right track.

No system is ever better than its support. Fortunately, I can handle the setup and can fix most problems. If something breaks down, then support becomes a major concern. Any white-box system must have accessible and nearly immediate support. Believe it or not, maintenance of my ultimate white-box computer is surprisingly simple. I'll update readers about any problems that arise with this system.

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