UPDATED: WHS Server Case Review

Overall Score

I have an addiction. This is good because admission is the first step to recovery. After one such self-realization a person is now confronted with two choices. One, seek out help to cure the addiction and restore some balance to one’s life, or two, simply give in and feed the addiction uncontrollably. I choose the latter. Now this addiction itself is not physically harmful, except perhaps some hair pulling, but it does present a strange problem. You see my addiction is actually hard drives. I can’t stop buying them. Everytime I go online there is some $70-80 deal on some TB drive somewhere, or as I walk through my local Fry’s there is always some kind of tower of hard drives staring me in the face. Inevitably, I end up either clicking ‘buy’ or walking out of a store with some down priced OEM product. Like I said, it’s an addiction, I can’t help it, I like storage space.

One really neat application for so many drives is to setup a server to farm out files, be they video, music, or online software that I want archived safely away, a home server has many uses especially if you have multiple systems around the house. Not long ago, an XCPU overclocking Guru made mention of a nice 4U rack server chassis that he envied because it was not available where he lived. Looking it over online, I could not help but drool at the thought of having a home for 20, yes 20, hard drives for my server. So, to perpetuate my addiction, I again clicked the ‘buy’ button. The result, a nifty chassis with massive storage space that tucks neatly away serving me files at my whim.

The case in question is the Norco RPC-4020 4U Rackmount Server Chassis which, for this type of product, comes in very cheap at less than $300 bucks. Furthermore, it has a few features desirable for a home server application such as mine including standard ATX PSU mounting, acceptable ATX and eATX motherboard mounts, and most importantly, removable/hot swapable hard drives. As one might expect, the case itself is quite plain vanilla, no bling or special looks (it’s made to slide into a rack for goodness sake), so the review will be short and sweet giving you enough pictures, commentary and experience with the build to decide for yourself if this is something worth while.

 

The case comes well packaged, double boxed and securely fitted with styrofoam (not to be used to store electronically sensitive devices).

 

 

 

 

One thing is certain this beast is large, very large, and heavy weighing in at >38 lbs empty and topping 50 lbs when loaded with hard drives and PSU. It is made from SECC steel (adding to it’s weight) and is accessed by sliding off the top cover. The exterior is nothing special, in fact, it is not something to actually be shown off in your home therefore, a well ventilated room/closet with enough airflow to keep it cool is in order, hidden away nicely. In the center is the power, reset button, LED for power and hard drive, and two activity LEDs for network ports.

 

 

 

 

The unqiue feature of this chassis, for it’s price point, is the 20 hot swappable SATAII bays. The bays themselves plug into a back plane which provides both communication, power, and activity LEDs for each drive. Just behind the back plane are four 80 mm fans, with a power distribution strip. Beyond that is simply the motherboard mounts and PSU mounts….plain vanilla. You can also see along the top of the hard drive bays is another mount for an internal (non-swappable) hard drive and two other bays that can hold a slim floppy and slim optical drive.

 

 

 

 

The SATA back plane is actually well done for a case at this price point. There are 5 strips of PCBs, on the left side are two molex 12/5 volt connectors for power to each row of drives. The right hand side has the SATAII connectors, again, 4 per row with 5 rows yielding the 20 drives. The power connectors on the left allow for redundant power supplies, to power the drives, only one column of molex connectors use power, use of redundant PSUs is optional. Finally, the bank of fans is also shown, which provides one power input to drive all 5 fans. There are actually 6 headers, so it is possible to use a female/female fan extension to reach the MB and supply power to the fans. The cross support for the fans is removable, and it is strongly suggested you do so, the space between that cross support and the back plane is very tight. In fact, during the first attempt at the build a knuckle was gashed open — contrary to the companies claims of no lacerations.

 

 

 

 

Moving more toward the front of the case, let’s take a good long look at the hard drive bays. Each bay, of course, has a removable sled, simply push the latch button and the front flips open allowing one to pull the sled out. Each sled has it’s own power and activity LED indicator, which is nice to have, especially if you are working with large arrays of drives. Because the sled does not, itself, have any electrical connections, the LEDs are actually located physically on the back plane, a pair of plastic light pipes directs the light to the front of the sled. The picture below shows the two plastic slats used for this purpose. They work surprisingly well for this rather crude design.

 

 

 

 

 

Working on this chasis, building a server is not any different than most other builds. This particular case comes with a limited set of accessories to help in the job, some extra (very tall) standoffs which gives lots of room to route wires or cables, screws as well as short, tapered screws for hard drive mounting. A few adapter plates for different motherboard standards, and a socket 771/775 adapter plate which will provide extra support for heavy heat sinks attached to the CPU. In addition are 4 ‘sticky’ sided rubber feet, these attach to the side of the PSU that will rest on the bottom of the chassis (for support). There is no manual included, typical users will likely be experienced IT personnel/technicians therefore it must be assumed that detailed instructions are not necessary. The start of the build went very smooth.

 

 

 

 

The case accepts a standard ATX motherboard and ATX power supply. The trick comes when it is time to cable the hard drive back plane. The fit between the fan mounts and the back plane is very tight, almost not enought to fit one’s hand, and it was in an attempt to avoid removing this mount that resulted in a lacerated knuckle, as one may see in the close up around the SATA cabling below.

 

 

 

 

The final build turned out clean, it is a large case, as such, there is plenty of room for cabling. You may notice in the picture a small PCB mounted to the side of the case near the back of the PSU. This is an RF remote control receiver as described in another ‘how to’ article, very handy for remote powering up the server.

 

 

 

 

Reading user comments concerning this case one finds two general complaints, the first I have already addressed in that the space between the fans and the back plane is very cramped, luckily this is removable so I really do not see this as an issue (unless you are working with a non-modular PSU). The other is that the swappable drive bays ‘stick’. This is also not true, I have found all hot swappable bays will ‘jam’ if you try to slide the tray into the bay incorrectly. These caddies can be a bit tricky, but they are not nearly as big a problem as many comments might suggest. In all, the hard drive caddies and bays work fine.

Ok, so now it is together let’s sum up…

The Norco RPC-4020 provides an excellent choice for a budget server build. The unique feature of the cases, of course, is the hot swappable drive bays (20 of them) and, with some creativity, the case can actually house 23 hard drives. The case comes with seven fans, two exhaust and five mid-case 80 mm fans which provide adequate, but not killer, air flow. In addition to the fans, the case does generate some noise. Not surprisingly, this case is not really made for the living room or home office, it is a typical rack mount data center chassis and quiet operation is not at the top of the list of design goals. I built inside this case a windows home server, and have it currently populated with 12 hard drives. The video below shows a typical power up, boot to idle sequence with the activity LEDs working as specified. There are some long pauses in the video, the server is powered up remotely (you will not see a finger on the power button) then, after the boot sequence, the server will begin rebalance so major activity can be observed on the hard drives which occurs toward the end of the video.

 

 

 

The case is perfect for a high density hard drive farm, but the hard drives to run a bit warm as shown in the WHS screen shots below. A few points about this particular server. Microsoft is a funny company, they can release really great software and, turn around on the next revision and launch a real stinker. Windows home server is one of those that started as a stinker, but turned into something really well done. After releasing power pack 1, WHS actually turned out useful and corrected the bug of it’s biggest failure — data corruption. It is unfortunate because for what WHS is intended to do, it now does well but will always have this major black eye. Nonetheless, third party addons provide extra features such as the disk management addon (see below). In this application, we can see the temperature reported for most of the hard drives (drives connected to the high point raid card are not reporting temperatures). The maxtor drives are running the warmest, and it would appear that most drives run between 38-52 degrees C. My personal preference is to see hard drives at 40 deg or lower, but after a few searches over the web, temps in the 45-50 degree range should not generate much concern. Seagate, for example, specifies 60 degree max operating temperatures, while Western Digital has published MTBF is met at 55 degrees C, and does not degrade significantly until 65 deg C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naturally, the cooler the hard drive, the longer the lifetime. In this case, it may be worth installing some extra exhaust fans in the case as desired, however, the thermals are not near alarming; however, higher than what I typically see in standard tower cases.

Overall, the RPC-4020 is a great case for the home enthusiast looking to beef up and maintain a higher end server with lots of hard drive space. It certainly comes in handy feeding my hard drive addiction. This is not something you want sitting in your living room, but if you have a utility room or storage room with network connectivity, then this is a good choice for this application.

UPDATED: In attempt to improve cooling for the hard drives, we added 2 more exhaust fans, very simple actually. We inserted two dual slot Antec Cyclone fans in empty ports. We also replaced the two standard exhaust fans by the CPU with two ThermalTake 80 mm smart fans, and set their velocity to 1/2 their capability., they are about as loud but pull much more air than what shipped with the chassis. We then let the server run for approximately as long as we did to get the intial performance screen shot above. The results are much more appealing, and more in line with what we can achieve in a full tower with temperatures coming in between the 36-44 deg level. Making a long story short, it is highly recommended to add one or two more exhaust fans, such as those linked, to improve hard drive performance.

 

 

 

 

I will attempt to rate this on a scale of 1-10 for performance, easy of use and value.

  • Performance: 6/10 — the hard drive temperature are a tad high, extra cooling may be needed. (UPDATED 7/10 by adding more fans, temps fell)
  • Ease of Use: 9/10 ample room to work, the fan mounts are removable and makes cabling easy, if not removed get some bandaids.
  • Value: 9/10 – for what it is intended for, it does a great job. The case is sturdy, roomy, and the hot swap bays work fine.

Questions? Comments? Discuss in our forums…

 

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