Having made the fateful decision in the last post break the ties with commercial hosting companies and do it my damn self, I had some important decisions to make. The two biggest are intertwined: what software to use, and what hardware to buy?

The software part of that decision was actually pretty easy. It boils down to choosing either a Windows based system or a Linux system. Having been a network tech with experience in both, choosing Linux was the only logical option.

Let me tell you a bit about servers. You see, servers are very different from workstations. They are only accessed (or should be, anyway) by a systems administrator or two. Once setup, they should ideally hardly ever be touched except for updates or repairs. 99.9% of their time, as their name implies, they should be serving up information or accepting information, in one form or another. Ideally they should also have minimal down time.

Choosing the OS

Now, as to the operating systems (OS) and one of my favorite rants. On workstations, laptop, etc. the OS starts and run the computer, and serves as an interface between you and applications, printers, and so on. Computers became much easier for the general user when the OS started using a GUI - Graphical User Interface. In other words, you see images and icons you can click on to navigate around the computer and get your business done.

This is great, but maintaining and operating all those graphics and extras takes a huge part of the software and hardware resources.

Now the other option, CLI - Command Line Interface. This is software you access predominantly by typing commands on a plain screen (you will find some limited graphic options where you can use a mouse). If you are old enough to remember when computers were young and your choices were DOS or CP/M, you know what I mean.

CLI can be cumbersome and limited for doing most workstation business, but it can be very powerful and efficient for setting up and managing servers. Best part, your basic CLI uses very little of your server's resources, leaving it free to do its job. One last benefit - the system rarely needs to be restarted. You can add new modules, re-configure old, and simply issue and order to stop and start that "service", not the whole machine. This typically takes seconds and not minutes like a reboot, and the rest of the system is still available continuously.

My CLI server, currently using only 1% of its memory with a system load of 0.08%

Although there are other options, in today's server world you have Microsoft providing graphical software for servers, and Linux or Unix providing CLI software.

So clearly, if your goal is an efficiently running server, a CLI is the best way to go.

Now, let's talk about costs.  Windows Server 2019 Standard currently sells for $499.99. In addition, you will need to purchase at least one CAL, or Client Access License. If you would like to also run email, you will also need to purchase Microsoft Exchange Server 2016. I found a copy with 10 CALs for $619.

Now in the Linux CLI world, I considered the latest version of Ubuntu server, version 20.04. This is available to download for free. To add web server, ftp, mail, and a host of other capabilities involves simply downloading and installing additional modules, which again are available for free.

How is this possible? Well, back in 1991 a Finnish college student named Linus Torvald decided it would be fun to build a free operating system kernel (heart of the OS). He distributed it for free, with the requirement that you could not use it for commercial activity. Unfortunately, a kernel by itself gets you nowhere. You need libraries, compilers, a shell (what the user sees) and more.

For this, he teamed up with the GNU Project. GNU stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”, in what would become a typical quirky naming contest among geeks. GNU used the GPL or General Public License. To make a long story short, a new operating system was born and released to the geekasphere to play with and improve – provided it was always offered free, and the code you used to improve was also accessible to all for further tweaking.

It was a hit, and thousands of programmers all over the world began competing to make it better and better, and to add feature after feature. As a result, Linux grew from a few hundred lines of code to over 23 million lines of code – not counting comments!

Various “flavors” of Linux have sprung up, some using different installation methods for additional modules and upgrades, some with their own graphical interfaces for workstations, and so on. By license, all must be offered for free.

So how do they make any money? Well, some like Red Hat Linux and Ubuntu will offer service contracts along with the free software. You can choose to pay for installation and support at various levels, which is great for large scale users.

Progress?

With the decision to go Ubuntu made, it was just a matter of downloading the software and burning it to a DVD. Now all I needed was the hardware! Here I thought I would do very well, as the more efficient CLI does not require much in the way of hardware. I figured I could get a decent low-end computer for less than $1,000 and be good to go.

Wrong.

I started looking for simple server computers, one CPU, two hard drives (one for backup), and a modest amount of memory. The cheapest I could find started at $1500! After much searching and gnashing of teeth, I decided to turn to eBay and see what I could find in used hardware.

I hit the motherload.

I found the server pictured above, an HP ProLiant DL380p Gen8 server. It has 2 CPU’s with 8 cores, 96GB of RAM, and 8 (!) 900GB Hard drives with hardware RAID.

That’s a whole lot of nerd, so let me break it down. Two 8-core CPU’s means it has a boat load of processing power. 96GB of RAM, means it has space to think about a shit-ton of things at once. And 8 hard disks in a hardware RAID array means I have a huge amount of storage, with built-in backup capability.

RAID you see, in another example of quirky names, stands for “Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives”. The idea is you buy several smaller cheaper drives, and use them like they are one big drive. Without getting too technical, the data is “striped” across the drives, along with information for rebuilding a missing drive! This is huge, because it means I do not need a tape drive or backup routine. Instead, the drives are “hot swappable”. If a drive fails a little light turns red. You can pop it out and pop in a new one without having to shut down the server. Over the next few hours, the new drive will slowly be filled with the data missing from the demise of the old one.

Neat, huh?

This RAID feature can be handled either by software or hardware. Naturally, software RAID takes more system resources than a special hardware board that handles it, so this computer coming with hardware RAID was an added bonus.

So, bottom line is this is a professional server that is roughly a hundred times better than the $1500 cheapo, and I was able to buy it for less than $400! True, I need to order a $25 ancient VGA monitor, and I found and ordered several replacement HDDs in case of one of those failures ($45 each), but I was still way under my imagined budget.

Now it was just a matter of waiting for all of the hardware goodies to arrive …

TO BE CONTINUED