Desktop PC

This is the most popular choice, for all the obvious reasons: they are understandable, common, cheap, and built for home use. They can also be upgraded easily with additional cards, and replacements for worn-out (or too noisy) parts are available in your local bricks-and-mortar store. The current range of machines is fast enough to perform transcoding for a couple of media head units around the house, as well as handle all the other standard tasks.

Unfortunately, the home machine is intended to be used as a home machine, that is, for a few hours in the evening to check e-mail and play games. Using it as a server, running 24/7, can strain the physical components of the machine (fans and discs mostly) and increase the risk of breaking the machine's integrity. Unlike racks, these machines are built to a price point, not a quality factor, and so will use components that allow the price to hit that magic 299 figure, or whatever. Consequently, these components might have a lower tolerance for temperature variances (which will happen if the machine is working all day) or have a lower mean time between failures (MTBF). When the machine is continually accessing data, either from memory or from a hard disk, the chance of this happening will naturally increase.

My personal setup uses a desktop PC as the media transcoding server, which runs most of the time. I bought higher in the price range than I would for a traditional desktop machine, with quieter-than-standard fans and better components. I also bought spares for the fans at the same time so that if I needed to replace the moving parts of the machine, I would have some available. RAM chips (which are, admittedly, also likely to go bad over time) are usually available for many years after a machine's release, whereas the particular size of CPU fan isn't. This is because any server that lasts several years will outlive the current design of processors and motherboards, making spares for these components very difficult to come by. I also admit that when (not if) these components finally die, I will probably be unable to buy replacements and so will have to endure the pain of setting up an entirely new machine.

Mini-ITX

The Mini-ITX is a family of machines based around the 170 x170mm ITX motherboard. Within this specification, there are a number of different options with varying processors, graphics chips, and cooling methodologies. This includes many machines that are fanless, relying only on the heat sink for cooling. This makes them more energy efficient than their desktop counterparts and suitable for placing in more communal areas, such as the living room where they are often used as media players.

Like desktop machines, there are a wide range of configurable options with ITX machines including TV (S-Video) and DVI output, compact flash (CF) adapters for diskless operation, wireless networking, and so on. They also have standard PCI ports for other cards. This configurability is both their manacle and demonic charm, because the workability of any particular device isn't necessarily known when you buy the machine. Although any ITX is powerful enough to run all the basic services of an HA setup, most machines cannot transcode media fast enough, and the older ones cannot play back modern formats (such as DivX, which has a fairly high CPU requirement). Furthermore, there are some issues with outputs, other than SVGA, being supported by the Linux drivers, making it an issue for using them as a head box for anything other than projectors. New combinations of ITX are released on a regularly basis, along with updated drivers, so always check with your dealer for support, along with the current web forums.

The other configuration consideration with the ITX machine is the case, since it's not supplied with the machine and you have to buy it separately. Furthermore, since space is such a premium here, you should buy any and all peripherals you intend to keep inside the case at this time. You should not expect to be able to update, or add to, the components and still have it fit within the same case. Even a 3mm gap between components can be the difference between a nice working system and one that overheats. So, consider whether you want a hard drive or CF card and whether a (slimline) DVD player would be necessary at the start.

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