Building a Fast, Energy Efficient NAS box – Part 4

Part 4 – Motherboard Selection

In this fourth post of the “Building a Fast, Energy Efficient NAS box”,  we build on our chipset evaluation/selection (see Part-2),  and review available motherboards (as of March 2010) for potential use in our NAS box.

Instead of just showing you the one or two finalist models, we go through our evaluation process and mention both desirable and undesirable features so that you can later use the same criteria as the basis for your own evaluation.

Some additional info before we start:

  • DDR3 memory provides a reduction in power consumption of 30% compared to DDR2 modules (wikipedia).  Not a deal breaker when selection a motherboard but something to consider.
  • We used a small (30Gig) 2.5″ SATA disk as our boot device.  [160Gb / $40]
  • You could also use a USB thumb drive (you would have to figure out the issues of frequent write with directories such as /proc /tmp and possibly do write your syslog on an external server… some research needed to implement this).
  • Another valid boot device is to use a mini-PCIe SSD if the motherboard has an unused mini-PCIe slot.   Anything 8Gig or above should be fine. [$16Gig / $70]
  • Some motherboard may have a PATA connector.    Use it as is or with a PATA to SATA converter and free up a SATA port for the RAID disks.

Some Chipset info:

  • NM10:  2x SATA – not compatible w port multiplier
  • ION:     4x SATA  – not compatible w port multiplier
  • Jmicron623:  2x SATA – OK w port multiplier.  Not as fast as Sil3132
  • ICH9:   6x SATA – some models have some ports compatible w port multiplier.

Common early Atom motherboard shortcomings:

Early Atom motherboards had the tendency to copy the Intel reference Atom motherboard which had some serious shortcomings if you want to use it as a NAS box.  Intel has since updated its reference motherboard but many vendors still have some of the old stuff on the shelves.   The three main problems with those are:

  • PCI expansion slot (we want the faster PCIe for a SATA or network card).
  • Only 10/100Mb/s ethernet instead of today’s standard 10/100/1000.
  • NM10 chipset:  Fine chipset but limited to only 2 SATA ports.

Motherboard Formats:

Our target CPUs (at the time of writing) are dual core Atom CPUs:  330, D510 or D525.  The performance difference between those 3 is small enough that you should not give it much importance in selecting your motherboard.

For those CPUs, motherboards tend to come in one of three formats (from smallest to largest):  Mini-ITX, FlexATX and MicroATX.

Mini-ITX:  The four mounting holes in a mini-ITX board line up with four of the holes in ATX-specification motherboards, and the locations of the backplate and expansion slot (i.e. PCI / PCIe) are the same (though one of the holes used was optional in earlier versions of the ATX spec). Mini-ITX boards can therefore often be used in cases designed for ATX, micro-ATX and other ATX variants.

Mini-DTX:   A slightly longer version of the Mini-ITX, it typically allows for two expansion slots.  Typically also fits in microATX case and can be squeezed in some more generous Mini-ITX cases.

FlexATX: It uses a subset of the motherboard mounting holes required for microATX and the same I/O plate system as ATX and microATX

MicroATX: Uses a subset of ATX motherboard and io pannel is identical.

Possible configurations for the NAS:

Given that we have found those nice Rosewill disk expansion units in 4/5/8 disk size, we now have considerable flexibility in how we design our NAS system.    We can have a very small case with only a boot device in it (may be just a USB thumb drive) and a eSATA connector (or two if you intend on using the 8 disk expansion unit) and store all your RAID disks in the external box.   The other end is to have a larger box that will host 4-6 RAID disks and a eSATA connector to connect an expansion unit if/when we need it.

Below, we rate each motherboard with the number of SATA RAID devices that can be connected to it.  We always assume a boot device which is not counted in the RAID devices.  We also make note of the possibility of eSATA or not.

We have filtered out all motherboards with an old PCI expansion slot since they cannot provide the necessary throughput for either an eSata card or a Gigabit ethernet and therefore are useless in the context of this project.   We would make an exception for a motherboard that has 4-5 built in SATA ports, 1-2 eSATA ports and  a Gigabit ethernet but none of the ones reviewed met those criteria.

All motherboards included in this review have at least a basic built-in VGA port. A some PCIe cards provide 2 SATA ports (compatible w port multiplier) and a PATA port which can be used for a boot device and hence freeing the 2 SATA ports for RAID duty.

Motherboards being considered:

ZOTAC IONITX-G-E Intel Atom 330 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX

  • 1-PCIe 1x,   1x mini-Pcie,
  • 4x build-in SATA (ION),
  • DDR2 667/800
  • Ubuntu compatible,
  • $140 at Newegg (URL)
  • *** Finalist ***

ZOTAC IONITX-K-E Intel Atom 330 PBGA437 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX

  • 1-PCIe 1x,   1x mini-Pcie,
  • 4x build-in SATA (ION),
  • DDR3 1066
  • No reviews,
  • $150 at Newegg (URL)

ASUS AT3IONT-I Intel Atom 330 PBGA437 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX

  • 1-PCIe 16x
  • 4x build-in SATA (ION),
  • DDR3 1066/800
  • No reviews / unknown ubuntu compatibility
  • $150 at Newegg (URL)

ASRock A330ION Intel Atom 330 PBGA437 NVIDIA ION Mini ITX

  • 1x PCIe 16x
  • 4x SATA (ION)
  • DDR3 1066/800
  • Ubuntu 100% compatible
  • $120 at Newegg (URL)
  • *** Finalist ***

ZOTAC NM10-A-E Intel Atom D510  BGA559 Intel NM10 Mini ITX

  • 1x PCIe 1x, 1x Mini-PCIe,
  • 2x SATA (NM10)
  • DDR2 800/667
  • Ubuntu compatible
  • $115 at Newegg (URL)
  • *** Finalist ***

JetWay JNC94FL-525-LF Intel Atom D525  BGA559 Intel NM10 Mini ITX

  • 1x PCIe 16x slot (only x4 lanes active) – good
  • 2x SATA (NM10)
  • DDR2 800
  • No review / unknown linux compatibility (probably ok)
  • $120 at Newegg (URL)

ASUS AT5IONT-I Intel Atom D525 BGA559 Intel NM10 Mini ITX

SUPERMICRO MBD-X7SPA-H-O Atom D510 Mini ITX Intel

  • 1x (x4) PCIe
  • 6X SATA (Intel ICH9R)
  • SoDIMM DDR2 or DDR3RAM  ($33/2Gig$64/4Gig)
  • Ubuntu compatible
  • NOTE:  Some comments about finicky RAM.  The two listed above work OK
  • NOTE2: Dual super Intel NIC,    Rock Solid server boards
  • $200 at Newegg (URL)
  • *** Finalist ***

*** ZOTAC NM10-B-E BGA559 Intel NM10 (D510) Mini DTX

  • 1x PCIe 1x,  1xPCIe 16x, 1x mini-PCI — GREAT!
  • 2x SATA (NM10)
  • 4x SATA (uses a Jmicron chip with an internal 4x port multiplier)
  • one side of  jmicron drives 4x SATA port, the other side drives 1x eSATA port
  • DDR2 800/667
  • ubuntu compatible
  • NOTE: Some comments about poor performance through port multiplier.  Easily remedied by using only 2 ports on jmicron and/or add Sil3132 SATA card.
  • $120 at Newegg (URL)
  • *** Finalist ***

 

Finalists summary:

  • The two ION sytems: ASRock A330ION ($120) and ZOTAC IONITX-G-E ($140) benefit from the ION chipset which provides 4 built-in SATA ports.  The zotac board also provides a mini-PCIe which could be used to setup a boot SSD drive.  Both motherboard require an add-on PCIe card to use an external eSATA disk expansion module.
  • The lone ZOTAC NM10-A-E (115) was included as a low price entry level system with a more modern Atom D510 for systems where one wants all the RAID disks to reside in the external eSATA disk expansion module (requires a PCIe add-on card).
  • The ZOTAC NM10-B-E ($120) is an interesting hodge podge motherboard.  Because it is slightly larger (Mini-DTX), it can accommodate two PCIe slots as well as a mini-PCIe.  This board offers a very good value with room to grow (you could add 2 add-in board with 2 SATA each (one would be used to drive an eSATA port).   Assuming a SSD/USB or PATA boot disk, this could leave you 7 disks for internal RAID.

The Winner is:

  • The SUPERMICRO MBD-X7SPA-H-O ($200) is the real deal server motherboard!  Dual Intel Gig-E, 6 internal SATA ports, rock solid motherboard with great reputation and Ubuntu compatibility.  It has an on-motherboard USB type-A female connector to accommodate booting from a thumb drive.  While it is the most expensive motherboard in our review, I still chose this one as it best duplicates the chipset used in the Synology DS1010+ and hopefully would provide the highest performance.

 

 

About admin

My name is Christian Marcotte.
I live in San Diego with my wife Carolyn and our son Jeremiah.

This site is a recording of my currrent ponderings, hobbies and interest.

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