Background

I've had various iterations of a personal media server dating back to 2008. What started as an external harddrive attached to a WD HDTV Live in college, has evolved into a full blown 20 core, 40TB (and growing!) workhorse, living in a Norco 4224 4U rackmount chassis on... an old Ikea breakfast table. Alongside my main server, I have an old gaming desktop pulling duty as a backup server. I've also got a Nighthawk router, but I plan on building a pfSense box in the near future to replace it. The truth is, it just feels wrong to have all of this gear strewn about like this, so I wanted to clean things up.

Is that.... PVC glue?

Requirements

  • Portable (on casters)
  • Room for 2 4U rackmount chassis + desktop case + UPS
  • Monitor/keyboard on top for local admin

Design

This project, like most, have been on the todo list for a while. The plan was to build something super quick and sturdy from 2x4's. But by the time I actually committed to building this thing, I found myself in quarantine without any usable length of straight 2x4. I did, however, have quite a bit of sizeable plywood off cuts from a recent project, so that's what I went with.

For those unfamiliar, servers aren't known for being lightweight. A chassis + standard parts alone is fairly heafty, nevermind a case loaded with drives. Rectally derived estimate on that.... well over 100lbs. I'm not at that point yet, but I still want to account for the weight of my gear, and then some. After all, this is my home server.

Build

To replace the 2x4s, I'm doubling up 3/4" birch plywood to get the same thickness. Most of the pieces are ripped down to 3.5". Once everything was cut to size, I started in on the sides, which consisted of 2 square frames laminated together. To try to give this a little extra strength, I alternated the lengths of the pieces to emulate a half lap joint.

I used pocket holes to put the individual frames together. This meant a quick assembly without waiting for glue to dry, and was a good way to make sure everything stayed flush during assembly. Then, the frames were just glued and clamped.

Next, I used a sander to break the hard edges and get everything smooth. I had no plans for any kind of finishing for this, just wanted it to be smooth to the touch. I got a little caught up in the podcast I was listening to, and ended up breaking all of the edges of the frames, including where it attached to the base. Not a huge deal, just ended up not making those seams as tight.

I also used pocket hole screws to attach the frame sides to the bottom, which is just a single 3/4" sheet of plywood. Even though I was gluing the entire assembly together, I'm paranoid about drilling into plywood endgrain... I just never end up with good results. In retrospect, it probably would have worked out just fine here.

7 pocket hole screws + glue, because overkill is underrated

Once I got the sides attached to the base, I installed the "rails", which were 3" rectangular frames screwed into the body. I didn't glue these in case I want to change the height to accomodate new/differently sized servers in the future. For now, it's sized for two 4U servers up top, with room on the bottom for the backup server and UPS. For now, I have a shelf on the top rails for my router to sit on.

To close everything up, I screwed a piece of 1/2" plywood to the top and some 5" casters on the bottom. Overkill? If anything about this project is overkill, it's probably the casters /s. Jokes aside, they were a couple dollars more than the 3" ones, and I was happy to take on the extra floor clearance - helps keep things dry in the event of a flood.

And that's it. I've got a freaking server rack!

Next quarantine project: rebuilding the media server

So how is it?

It's awesome! I really like the look of exposed plywood. Once it was assembled, this thing was surprisingly sturdy. The rack has enough weight by itself that it doesn't feel like it's going to tip over, which is... you know... good. The casters make it easy to move the rack around if needed. I don't plan on regularly moving it, but it's good to have anyway.

I did give some thought regarding fire risks and wooden racks. While you probably shouldn't be running a full rack of enterprise gear enclosed in kindling, I think I'll be alright with this setup. I've been checking up on the heat output regularly, and I wouldn't even consider it warm. I really like the fact that I can move the entire lab just by unplugging the UPS. It has enough battery capacity to keep everything online for about 20 minutes, which is plenty of time to move it to another outlet if I need to.

So at the end of the day, I'm super happy with it. I imagine that I'll move over to a proper metal rack eventually, but the goal of this project was to make a suitable server rack for the short term, and I think I did that.