Can we combine compact size, high performance, and loads of storage? We’ll give it a shot

Length of Time: 1–2 Hours | Level of Difficulty: Low

The Mission

If you couldn’t tell by now, we’re performance junkies here at Maximum PC. Just last summer, we were crazy enough to build a $30,000 liquid-cooled computer with two PCs inside it. But you can’t drive in the fast lane all of the time. Sometimes it’s better to take a quiet Sunday drive down to the park and have a picnic. That doesn’t mean the meal has to be bland, but we will be shifting gears for a new palate (with a side of mixed metaphors).

For this righ, instead of building for just speed, we’re also building for capacity. But that’s a pretty straightforward challenge; anyone can slap a bunch of hard drives in a case and call it a day. We’re going to up the ante by shoving eight hard drives into a mini-ITX case. At least, that was the original plan before motherboard maladies intruded. Whatever, we like having massive storage options in addition to our turbo-charged gaming PC or A/V production workstation. This way, we can create a library of full-system backups, and stream media to devices, in a discreet and portable form factor.

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form

Rocking Out

If you want to cram a large number of drives into a mini-ITX system, special gear is required. We were originally going to go with the Asrock C2550D4I, which has 12 SATA ports and an integrated lowpower Avoton quad-core CPU, and support for ECC RAM. Unfortunately, we discovered it’s quite finicky about what RAM it will accept, and appears to strictly adhere to modules on the qualifi ed vendor list. After many failed boot attempts and different slot confi gs and half a dozen DIMMs, we had to give up. It’s not just us either, the Internet is rife with people reporting similar problems.

So, we had to switch to Plan B: a conventional Intel Z97 motherboard and Haswell CPU. This cuts our maximum drive count to four, but we could always install a RAID card in the PCIe slot to add more if we wanted. You can also remove a part of the 3.5-inch drive cage to make room for a long card, though this does sacrifi ce one drive tray.

But what kind of mini-ITX case could even hold eight 3.5-inch drives? Enter the SilverStone DS380, whose entire front is a series of drive bays measuring about 11-inches tall. It’s also over 8-inches wide, giving us room for a variety of activities. This case also takes SFF (small form factor) power supplies, and we went with the Silver-Stone ST45SF-G, a bronze-rated unit pumping out up to 450 watts.

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form ingredients

 

1. Step on Board

Our replacement motherboard is the Asus ROG Maximus VII Impact. Compared to Plan A, this one has a full x16 slot, USB 3.0, shielded integrated sound, dualband 802.11ac, and of course, a spot to install a Haswell CPU. (We went with an unlocked model because we didn’t have the locked version handy and this board with a locked CPU would be a crime.) You have to install a couple of modules on the board such as the Wi-Fi.

 

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 1

Our max RAM capacity is reduced to 32GB, and we lose eight SATA ports and one fan header. You can install a RAID card to add more SATA ports, instead of the video card, but we wanted a hybrid build. By way of compromise, we slapped in three 6TB hard drives and one high-powered 1TB solid-state drive.

2. Getting Cagey

This is a compact case, so we need to temporarily remove both drive cages to give the board enough clearance for installation. The main drive cage in the front is secured with four small black screws on the side, and two chromed screws underneath the case. Once those are removed, you can slide the drive cage toward the rear, and lift it right out. Then, the 2.5-inch drive cage at the top of the case comes out.

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 2

The motherboard has a vertical extension that holds additional voltage regulators, which is attached via two screws. Remove these, line the board’s four corner holes up with the pre-installed standoffs in the case, and screw in the board.

3. All Wired

With the board installed, we can begin hooking it up. We attach all four SATA cables now, since they’re easy to reach with the drive cage removed. The Impact’s audio comes in though a daughterboard. We plug that in, screw it down, and connect the front-panel audio cable to it. There’s an additional minicard to add two fan headers, and another for Wi-Fi. The I/O shield has perforated holes that you tap out and send the Wi-Fi connectors through.

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 3

4. By the Power Supply of Greyskull

Since we have the case open, now is a good t ime to install the power supply. It goes in the top, and there’s an intake grill right there for the PSU to get cool exterior air. We take the flatcable kit and connect the motherboard power, CPU power, SATA power, and Molex. Our hard drives will be getting their power from the PSU’s Molex cables; both of them plug into the drive cage’s backplane and provide all the juice needed there. We’d never find an SFF PSU with eight SATA connectors anyway (this one has two).

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 4

The motherboard power cable is a bit tricky to plug into the board because it’s nearly flush with the bottom of the case, but we managed to wiggle it in after a few tries. The CPU cable also has one end specifically for the PSU and another for the mobo.

5. Piecing it Together

With the motherboard hooked up, we can drop the drive cages back in. Note that the backplane of the 3.5-inch cage has two data connectors per drive. One is actually for dualchannel SAS drives, while the other is for SATA or singlechannel SAS. (They’re clearly labeled to avoid confusion).

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 5

We take the other ends of those SATA cables we plugged into the motherboard earlier, and we attach them to the SATA side of the backplane, one by one. Then we put the cage’s screws back in and unlock the door, which uses a five-sided bit as a key. With the door open, the drive trays slide out from the front. Since the backplane has integrated SATA/SAS connectors, you just put the drive into the tray, attach a few screws, and slide the tray back in. The drive is now installed.

Although we can’t populate the whole cage with drives, three 6TB units give us 18TB, which is a very good start. Plus there’s the 1TB on the SSD, which we’re using to boot Windows. If only we had 10TB drives!

6. In Plane Sight

Since the SATA ports on the board are close to the backplane, we can tuck most of the SATA cabling behind the cage. All three fans have twist ties pre-attached, so they need minimal adjustment. The rear fan cable is a bit tricky, though. Its cable is not sheathed, so the wires are easily snagged. You can tuck away the wires, as there isn’t a fan header particularly close by. You also want to keep it well clear of the CPU’s heatsink, to keep the wire insulation intact. We ended up just stringing it along the bottom of the case. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done.

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form step 6

The other cables are mostly hidden by the sheer bulk of the 3.5-inch drive cage (which would weigh over 15 pounds after populating all eight trays). This is not a flashy case with a side window, but you’re unlikely to be fiddling with its innards often, so appearance is not a high priority.

 


 

Hybrid Theory: Big Capacity, Small Form callout

1.) These funny-looking cylinders are capacitors that help provide power to the storage devices in the 3.5-inch drive cage. 2.) With 8TB 3.5-inch drives on the way, this eight-tray cage could hold 64TB of data—plus the four-drive 2.5-inch cage. 3.) We wanted to add a third-party CPU cooler for overclocking, but the space here is just a little too tight. 4.) We added a grill to the rear fan, since there’s a non-trivial amount of wiring hanging around the area, even after tidying up.

Fancy Toys Bring High Price and Mixed Results

Ironically, we started with the Asrock C2550D4I because we wanted a more straightforward build. With an integrated CPU and cooler, it cut down on the steps we needed, giving us more time to fiddle with Ubuntu (the CPU on the original board doesn’t support desktop versions of Windows, and we couldn’t justify $700 Server 2012). It’s been a while since we gave desktop Linux a spin, but that’ll have to wait.

As far as we can tell, the C2550D4I is picky as hell with RAM. Asrock has a very short QVL list for RAM and many of them aren’t sold in the United States. After burning hours trying to get the board to POST with a fistful of different modules in every possible configuration, we gave up. But rather than completely bail, we decided to make something of the system, especially since we had some nice hardware waiting in the wings.

Almost no video card would be possible without the removable section on the 3.5-inch drive cage. Not even that shorty Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 that we used in one of the Minecraft builds last month. Even then, the dimensions of the cut-out clearly limit you to a reference-sized card—we ended up with only a few millimeters between the card and the edges of the cage. Luckily, we have several reference units lying around (and we made sure we chose one you could still buy).

Problem Fans

The other half of the equation was Silver-Stone’s cable kit, which is short and flexible. At $30, it’s not a cheap kit, but with over $3,700 already invested, it’s a relatively small expense. You could try using your own cable set, but, for safety reasons, we don’t recommend it. Each power supply’s set of cabling is designed for a specific range of tolerances. Our original power supply was 300 watts and had integrated cables, but only one PCIe connector. We needed two for the GTX 780.

We almost fit a Cooler Master 212 EVO on top of the CPU, but the capacitors on the drive cage’s backplane poke into that space. Putting the fan on the other side of the radiator fin stack would also compel us to reverse the airflow of the rear exhaust fan, or else the rear exhaust and CPU fan would be fighting over the air coming their way. There would be no proper exhaust for the case, and heat would build up. We could’ve experimented with a 120mm closed-loop water cooler, but the build was already in overtime.

We’d consider this build a qualified success but we honestly don’t recommend anyone follow our blueprint. It would have been cool to slap a load of high-capacity drives in there and see what the Asrock CPU-plusmobo combo could handle. At $280, the C2550D4I would also have been considerably cheaper. On the bright side, we get more adaptability with the higher cost and desktop OS driver support. But our price tag is on the high side. You’d probably be fine with an Intel Core i5 CPU, $125-ish mobo, 8GB of RAM, and 250GB SSD. That slashes about $1,000 off the build. Then you can go with much less expensive 4TB or 3TB drives. But like we said, why let the fancy toys collect dust?


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