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I'm am looking to convert an old Dell Dimension V400 (cira late 90s) into a file/backup server. For an OS I'm going to be using lubuntu 10.04 (I like my debian packages), but disabling lxdm (its login manager) when I'm done so its always in CLI. The OS will be on its own disk, and on disk #2-3 (yet to be purchased) will be the network share. For backups I'm going to use bacula and 2 external USB 500 GB drives. Bacula will also be backing up 2-3 Windows machines. Files consist of mainly documents, program databases (IE QuickBooks), and other small files.

However I'm worried if this computer is just a little too old to do all this. I've already upgraded the RAM to 512 MB, and am probably going to invest in a PCI USB2 card and 100baseT Network card, but with a 400 MHz Pentium 2, it seems like any operation is going to take forever, backups especially, and the fact that I'm using PATA isn't going to help.

Is this computer simply too old and won't handle these functions, or can it pull it off? Is there another product that does the same thing and is not expensive? Should I consider RAID, multi-disk partitions, or other forms of internal redundancy? Is a SCSI or SATA controller + drives worth the cost?

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8 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

What you should be considering is what the bottleneck actually is. In this case, I'd say that your network card (only 100mbit) will hit it's limit before your processor or your disks do.

Consider that a 100Mbit network only realistically transfers at 12MB/s, that's all you have to keep up with. Generally, unless you're doing some fancypants things like compression, deduplification or calculating RAID5 parity, the processor will spend most of it's time waiting for the disk(s).

For a NAS in this day I'd recommend at least 1Gbit (60MB/s, but you can push it to 80+ if you use fun things like jumbo frames and IPv6, probably not worth the fuss for a home server). That really depends on the size of the disks that you're backing up and how long you're happy to wait for it to happen.

Unfortunately, this pushes the bottleneck back on to the motherboard. I couldn't find anything definite of what the speed of your disk controller is, everything I saw pointed to Ultra-ATA EIDE, which caps out at 16MB/s, making it next to useless to go for gigabit lan. Of course if you're fine with 100mbit, disregard the next paragraph :)

At this point, it would be faster to run all your disks through USB (theoretically the max is 60MB/s, but I've never seen more than 40 - YMMV) than to use the onboard PATA interface. If you want the full speed out of your disks, spring for a PCI extension card (possibly with some cheapo hardware raid, if ubuntu software raid taxes the CPU too much) and plug your internal disks into that.

Seems backwards, but the CPU is probably the fastest part of the rig.

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Yea the speed of the internal bays was on my mind, but I didn't really think about it. I considered Gigabit, but I don't think that my network is even Cat 6, or if anything else (including the router) is. But I guess I'll get it for future proofing. Other then that, I think with your advice and everyone elses, I'll be fine. Thanks! –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 0:18
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my current NFS server:

processor   : 0
vendor_id   : AuthenticAMD
cpu family  : 5
model       : 8
model name  : AMD-K6(tm) 3D processor
stepping    : 12
cpu MHz     : 474.955
cache size  : 64 KB
fdiv_bug    : no
hlt_bug     : no
f00f_bug    : no
coma_bug    : no
fpu     : yes
fpu_exception   : yes
cpuid level : 1
wp      : yes
flags       : fpu vme de pse tsc msr cx8 pge mmx syscall 3dnow k6_mtrr
bogomips    : 949.91
clflush size    : 32
power management:


xxx@t4:~$ free -m
             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:           372        364          8          0          0        337
-/+ buffers/cache:         26        346
Swap:          486          0        486

It has been running since '99 when I moved into this house. Operates as an NFS server and Samba share , svn repo backup, etc. The 45 watt power supply is about the only thing that prevents me from replacing it with something else.

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AMD-K6, remember that from a computer history lesson... Anyway, do file operations in general (usage or backup) seem fast enough? Any limitations that you have noticed? –  TheLQ Jun 27 '10 at 18:46
    
I ripped a DVD to it, and watched it across the network. It has a 100mb/sec card in it and had no problem. For a while it was running in a back room with ndis drivers and a wireless card and a webcam, but, a kernel upgrade broke both so I moved it. It backs up 2 machines now (migrated the laptops to time machine off the air port) –  karmawhore Jun 27 '10 at 20:59
    
K6 from Computer History? My first personal laptop was a K6-2 380, and my first non-386 was a Cyrix 686... (which was worse than a celeron). Ah the memories... (And I'm sure there's plenty of people on this site who's first PCs farrr outdate these) –  Mark Henderson Jun 27 '10 at 23:22
    
@user46526: Well, thats a relief that something similar works for you and is surprisingly still going. –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 0:22
    
@Farseeker My Atari 800 and I suddenly feel very, very old. –  Skyhawk Aug 11 '10 at 22:20
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I'd think it will work, but: If you plan to backup the whole windows machines with this, it won't. You said

Note that this backup will also be backing up 2-3 Windows machines

If this means you do regular backups of the whole workstations with something like MS' backup tool, you have huge blobs which can't be backed up incremetally and this means loooooong backup runs with this configuration. Also, the fast ethernet may not be enough. When you say Windows machines I assume these have XP or newer and a possibly long time grown set of installed programs.

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One is XP, another is 7, and the last one that might get simply archived is a media server with some obscure version of Windows CE. The program that I am using to do backups is bacula, linked in my post. It doesn't just handle local files, it handles everything. –  TheLQ Jun 27 '10 at 19:48
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Honestly, as long as the equipment is tested and:

  1. Is likely not to break on you (ahem, RAID); and
  2. Can respond to your demands, like storage space and throughput

…anything goes.

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The computer itself has never been tested like this, but since its my own box it is expandable. And with more research and asking around, I think your right that RAID isn't the best tool for this job –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 0:21
    
Tested = some basic tests of the memory, motherboard and low-level hard disk checks for tonnes of bad sectors and SMART status. If you did do RAID (array with parity), you'd at least have some measure of protection against hardware failure. –  msanford Jun 28 '10 at 12:56
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My answer is pretty similar to those already posted, but I thought I'd also chip in that I'm running a Pentium III (400MHz) with 512MB of RAM, with software RAID 5 on 12GB PATA disks (I also have a 250GB external USB disk attached). Even with the network saturated at 12MB/sec, the disks keep up just fine, and the RAID 5 hardly uses any CPU time.

It's currently been up for 385 days, and before that just over 400 days (I had to take it down to replace one of the disks). I use it for Samba, NFS, DNS, DHCP, CUPS, and lighttpd.

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While I cannot directly answer 'yes' or 'no' when it comes to something that old being able to handle that load, I would like to share my very first server setup. On an old desktop originally built for Windows 98, with a 766MHz Pentium III (I believe) with 384 MB of RAM, I was able to successfully host files, a couple websites, DHCP, DNS, VPN, and RDP using Windows Server 2003. Ah yes, the OS was installed on a 20GB IDE hard drive that was about 15 years old.

Like I said, it was my first experimental server for home use. It took a lot of abuse for awhile before I decided I need something more robust in order to handle incoming SQL stuff.

In comparison with the specs you have, you should be able to judge just how far you can go. The ubuntu family runs great on "next-to-nothing" hardware.

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Thats actually quite impressive. I think I'll be using this box then because with you not too far ahead of this computers time and the other comments, it seems like it will work –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 4:15
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I would say it will be fine. I have a Dell Dimension 3100 with 512MB of RAM in it. I wiped XP off it and put Ubuntu on it, for the sole purpose of a NAS/backup server type thingy for my laptop.

I have Microsoft Synctoy on my laptop and Samba on the Ubuntu box - every once in a while I will run a Sync of my laptop of what I would consider my critical files (documents, music, pictures, downloads etc). I can always re-install the OS from disc anyway, so I don't bother with system files.

I thought it would be slow too, but I was pleasantly surprised. Also, since I'm running SyncToy, the first one is huge and takes an absolute age, but it's relatively painless thereafter. The only thing I changed from the original setup was get a 500GB hard disk from Ebuyer and put that in as a secondary disk. I'm not too bothered if one fails, as I have another copy on my laptop so I can just sync it up again.

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If you bought it with the standard specs, a 3.20 GHz Pentium 4 is about 8x faster then a 400 MHz Pentium 2. While I'm glad that you have a working NAS box, this isn't exactly what I was looking for. But you mentioned SyncToy, so thanks for that. Currently researching. –  TheLQ Jun 27 '10 at 18:58
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It's a matter of determining whether the hardware is capable of doing what you want and is reliable enough for the task. It has absolutely nothing to do with how old it is.

So, is it capable and reliable enough?

  • Yes: Use it
  • No: Replace it

It's that simple.

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The issue is that I have no idea if it can, and I'm not going to spend several hours and $100 on a large "if". However if I ask it here and see what people have done, then I can do it safe enough. –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 1:41
    
@Lord.Quackstar, if you're unsure it doesn't make sense to spend money on something this ancient, at least not when there are far better machines available second hand for little more than you need to spend. –  John Gardeniers Jun 28 '10 at 3:35
    
"far better machines available second hand for little more than you need to spend" I can only think of two types of second hand computers: refurbished and old computers from family or friends. Well refurbished is still kinda expensive depending on what computer you get, and none of my friends or their friends or family have old computers. –  TheLQ Jun 28 '10 at 4:13
    
@Lord.Quackstar, have look for "swap meets" or similar in your area. They're often a great place to pick up really cheap computers. –  John Gardeniers Jun 28 '10 at 8:57
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