Setting the scene

Paul's picture

In the early 1990s (when I first began building PCs) the purchase of a computer was a major investment so a single ‘home PC' had to perform a broad range of duties: it had to act as a gaming PC for the kids, have an office suite and various accounting and taxation applications for home management activities, connect to the internet via the phone line, and so on. Even as the price of PCs began to reduce and households acquired more than one these poor machines were still being overloaded with a mass of games and diverse applications. Not surprisingly, applications and PCs ‘locked up' regularly as they struggled to manage the conflicts and resource allocations of all this code; some of which was poorly written.


My PCs were no different and as time went by and the data stored on these machines became greater in both quantity and importance I decided to network the machines together (using Windows for Workgroups 3.11) and began backing up critical files to floppy disk. This was not entirely successful, because the infrastructure was only as reliable as the computers on which it was running and security was poor (I don't believe my wife ever deleted any critical files but that was more by luck than judgement).


The solution seemed to lie in the acquisition of a server, running a server operating system to manage data, security, back-ups and network management; and so entered Windows NT Server 4.0. At first this appeared to be a great success but as time went by and an ever greater number of features were added to the server (DNS, DHCP, WINS, RRAS, Antivirus, etc...) this machine, too, became less reliable; perhaps never locking up but certainly requiring regular reboots to ensure all applications kept providing a reliable service.


Not long after Windows 2000 Server was introduced it became clear to me that the ‘single server' model was not sufficiently reliable to leave running unattended for long periods (months at a time). I decided to build several servers and dedicate single or groups of duties and applications to each of them. Over a period of several years I set up five individual boxes across two sites (see figure 1). It was a great success; machines did not need regular restarting and would run for long periods while giving reliable service.


All was well for a year or two and then a new problem began to emerge - hardware failures. For financial reasons my five servers were built from industry standard components (this is not an enterprise environment and auto-reliable servers with inbuilt redundancy were out of the question). CPU fans failed; graphics adapter fans failed; power supply fans failed; and each failure usually resulted in failure or shutdown of the machine due to component overheating.

Home network, five servers

Figure 1: Home network across two sites with five individual servers.