26 August 2015

Convert An IBM X-Server To A Graphics Workstation

Why do this? I started this project after buying an unused IBM X3250 type 43652AM motherboard. This hardware is now cheap and I guess it came from replacement parts stock that is obsolete. Commercial server units of this era (2007-8) have now been upgraded. If you have ever heard an X-server or blade server boot-up you will understand why I put it into a PC case. They are very loud and they are designed to fit in a box only 4cm high.
First you will need a full size ATX case. Plenty around as people now see them as furniture :) You need an angle grinder to cut-out the whole length of the rear panel because these boards are no way compatible with standard motherboards.
Drill out holes for the support pins using the board as template.
This unit can take LGA775 quad-core Xeon processors and 8Gb of ram. Good enough for a video or graphics workstation.
Depending on what type you have, you need to trawl the IBM or Lenovo tech docs to find the fastest CPU for your server. They will not boot with the wrong CPU, and this one only uses standard ECC ram. They take a graphics card but will not boot with a graphics card in the PCIe slot. More on that mystery later.
Once it is mounted and connected to the front panel you are ready to complete the project. It uses standard SATA hard drives, DVD burner and power supply. Servers do not have onboard audio so I used a tiny USB sound card. These have headphone and mic jacks on something the size of a thumbdrive.
Nowhere in the tech docs did I read anything about using a PCIe graphics card in this server. I discovered it is possible. Later model IBM servers take Nvidia Quadro cards and could be converted to workstations quite easily.
This board will not boot with a graphics card in the main slot. The single PCIe slot on this mother board is an '8X PCIe slot'. That means this board is using an 'x8' data lanes rather than a 'x16' data lanes used by most motherboards. Apparently the difference is negligible in performance and I found that was true. I have an identical X-server and I used the riser card from that in this project. It has 2 8X PCIe slots. I didn't use the metal riser hardware just the fibreglass board pushed into the mobo PCIe slot. I then used a 'pci-express 8x to 16x riser card adapter flexible extender extension cable' that goes from slot 2 on the riser card to the connector on the graphics card. As far as I know, that's the only way to get a graphics card to work in an X3250 server.

The video solution actually made finishing the project easier because I had cut-out the case to the whole length of the mother board Now I could put the graphics card anywhere the flexible cable would reach.
I mounted it above the motherboard and screwed to the rear panel. 
 I did not expect to have to go down this path just to improve on the onboard ATI graphics with 16Mb of ram. I added a Gforce 7100 with 512Mb of ram and it works very well. It could even be upgraded if needed. I have included a close-up below of this set-up because its so unusual.
The project has the fastest processor the board will take which is a quad core Xeon X3220 (2.4G/8m/1066). I tried a Xeon X3230 but it does not work. No overclocking is possible on this board so thats as good as it can get. The computer runs ice cold and being a new board will last for years. I recently discovered a leaking caps issue but that has been repaired.

< PCIe slot
< slot 2 of riser card to adapter cable

< video card

< adapter cable to video card

The machine now runs Mint Linux with the XFCE desktop. It has the max 8Gb ram (4 X 2Gb). I used the correct ram for this machine because it was too hard to buy suitable ram on ebay. The machine does what I want and it's very quiet, runs cool and is reliable. You can leave a server on all day right? It's a bit fragile moving it around with the riser pushed-in and nothing holding it down. Would I do it again? Hopefully not, buying a high quality, standard overclockable motherboard would have been easier.

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