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Nerdware: My Home Network, Rack Servers, CNC Machine

Pete Brown - 16 June 2008

I like to mess around with computers. Every primary computer I've owned since my first 486 has been built by me (my previous computers, a 286 and a Commodore 128 were purchased). I also run a moderately complex network at my house which I realize I have never fully described anywhere. So, thought I'd tell you about it here.


My first server was a linux box I had in our last apartment. It was running a commercial distribution that was optimized as a firewall. Back then, that was pretty necessary on a cable internet connection. (we were the first internet install the installer had ever performed, so that was a treat too - not to mention that the cable company was new to this whole broadband thing) I later replaced that with a linksys router+firewall that didn't take up so much room.

I like to tinker. Plus, the idea of having a rack of servers in my basement just did it for me. Originally, I started hosting my own server because my main site was going way over the quota of my ISP, and was about to cost me a ton of money. Either that, or I'd have to remove a good chunk of the desktop backgrounds I had made freely available. Since we had moved to a house with enough room for me and my computers, I repurposed an old PC as a web server and used Speakeasy DSL. That grew to include a file server and a mail server. Eventually, I got tired of having loose servers standing around, and wanted to put them all in a rack.


imageWhen I first moved here in 2001, I went through and wired the whole house with CAT5e and coax. Fiber required special tools and skills and CAT6 wasn't as available back then. Our house was built in 1979 and cable added later. The cable was split in a million places. In addition, the phone wiring, while professionally done and all home-run to the outside of the house, couldn't keep up with DSL and actually had a fair amount of noise on the line during regular conversations. The problem mainly had to do with proximity to electrical wiring and lighting added later by the previous homeowner.

The runs (three cat5e and two coax to all plates; at least one per room) all terminate in a panel in the basement utility room. Those provide network, phone and tv as appropriate. (We only have one TV and we keep that in the basement TV room as we don't like TVs in bedrooms or family rooms, but I wired it because all rooms originally had cable and I didn't want to downgrade anything should we sell in the future). You can see that the majority of the coax cables just hang loose in the cabinet. I only connected the one that is in use as any other coax cables (even terminated as all ours are) can contribute to noise in the system. While the effect would likely be minimal, I left them disconnected anyway.

I didn't want to do wireless as I knew I'd run servers and I just like wired connections better for their performance, reliability and security. However, since I also like to work on the deck sometimes and also need to provide access to my wife's laptop, I installed a Netgear wireless access point upstairs. The signal from the ActionTec router in the basement was too weak and unreliable upstairs and out on the deck due to the interference in the utility room.

I really need to clean up the wiring in this room, as I added a bunch of things after the fact, but here's a photo to show what it looks like now. Professional installers may want to avert their eyes. :)

Internet Access

I used to use Speakeasy and found their service and offerings both to be excellent. My favorite thing about Speakeasy was that they treated you like you knew what you were doing.

That said, I eventually moved from Speakeasy to Verizon FIOS. The copper running to my house wasn't adequate for any higher DSL speeds, so I had to go with fiber or cable.

The FIOS install was far from painless, as I have the "business" FIOS at my house. As a side note: why are developers and technical people always left out? So many things (laptops, pcs, internet access, operating systems, etc.) are often categorized as "business" or "consumer". However, the "business" one is usually the one with more features like, oh, static IPs, that certainly are not used only by businesses.

You can read about the FIOS install here and here.

Servers and Server Rack

A while back, I bid on and won an APC server rack on ebay. Shipping on those things is pretty crazy, so I waited until I could find one that was relatively local (this one was north of Baltimore, close to White Marsh, as I recall). My father in law and I took his pickup truck up there and loaded it in the back.

After that, I purchased a couple used IBM x345 dual Xeon servers from eBay, and outfitted them with new drives, RAID controllers, and upgraded memory. Those are nice 24x7 server-class machines at a cheap price. Sure, the processors are way outdated, but they do just fine as web and database servers for me.

Finally, since all those machines took some real juice, I had to install a window rattler air conditioner in the window, and run a dedicated 20amp circuit over to the rack. Luckily the electrical panel, the rack and the wiring panel are all in the same room, so that wasn't a big deal at all.

I also converted a couple of my other stand-alone "servers" (repurposed desktop PCs) into rackmount servers. They run the mail server, the domain controller and the VOIP server.

I ended up retiring the VOIP server (it's still there, just switched off) as VOIP inside the house just wasn't practical. It was difficult for my wife to use, as you can't do things like just pick up any old extension to join a call, and the server itself had some issues that made it go down sometimes. The real deal-killer, though, was the inability to get rid of the echo on the line. The 3CX folks (makers of the Windows-based IP PBX) said it wasn't them, and the GrandStream folks (makers of the HandyTone 503), despite trying hard, couldn't get rid of it either.


The rack has the servers I mentioned, a 24 port 100mbps switch (will probably upgrade it to gigabit some day, but I haven't hit any real limit yet with 100mbps), a KVM and rackmount console display (also an ebay item) and several stand-alone old battery backup / UPSs that need to be replaced.

Due to how the rack is positioned in the room, it's hard to get a photo, but these photos show a bit of it at a time. In the first, you can see the wonderful AC on the left. The piece of masonite (hardboard) leaning against the rack on the right is a simple attempt at a baffle to keep the cool air in front of the servers.

image image image


The basement utility room / workshop also includes my CNC control computer, the CNC controller box, and the CNC-converted Sherline mill. You can read more about those on my site here and here. You can also see me making a part for the mill, using the mill, on my page here. Sadly, I haven't had any time to work with that since my son was born and we started our renovation, but I'll return to it someday. It's really amazing and thoroughly gratifying to see your ideas make it from the digital world to the physical world.

imageimage image

When I was working with that, I would do all my designs on my main PC, and then copy the resulting set of CNC instructions to a share on my server. From there, I'd go into the utility room and load the instructions up on the machine and queue up the material. Sure, I could remote desktop, but I'd still have to load the material and zero out the bits before running the program anyway :)

Future Direction

So, that's my home network - for now. When I redo the entry way in the house, I might install a network camera there. Plus, there's always the media center PC when we eventually go that route, and the kitchen PC (when it's back on after the remodel). Finally, when my kids are old enough, I'm sure the consoles of the day will end up on our network.

posted by Pete Brown on Monday, June 16, 2008
filed under:              

3 comments for “Nerdware: My Home Network, Rack Servers, CNC Machine”

  1. Scottsays:
    Hi Pete. I'm a fellow Nerd.
    I've outgrown my 2nd hand 24 port patch panel and am considering the Leviton structure media solution. I think that's what you use.
    I have a generic patch pane which works fine until I add a new run. I have to unmount it...stretch the cables...pull the patch panel out...terminate...replace.

    I think something like you have...you could add a new run...terminate it and go on with your life without too much drama.

    Did I guess right with on the Leviton?
  2. Pete Brownsays:

    The leviton works like you described: pull it out, stretch the cable, terminate a new one. I just made sure that I had all the runs to the rooms completed in one go.

    I'm not sure that there's anything that will make that easier for you


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