Let’s start with the obvious requirement for any computer-related guide: hardware. In the computing world, hardware refers to the physical components that make up your computer, from the case to the speakers on your desk. Luckily, hardware is relatively cheap, and you won’t need much to get started.
At a bare minimum, all computers consist of five key components:
- Power Supply: The Power Supply Unit (PSU) provides the electricity needed to run the main components.
- Motherboard: Also known as the mainboard, the motherboard is the foundation on which the computer is built. The motherboard shuttles data between the different components.
- Short-term memory: Also known as Random Access Memory (RAM), this is where your computer stores data that needs to be accessed quickly. Short-term memory is volatile, meaning its contents will be lost when it loses power. Running programs and open documents are placed in short-term storage.
- Long-term memory: This is where your computer stores large amounts of data that isn’t frequently accessed. Unlike short-term memory, the contents of long-term memory are preserved indefinitely. All of your installed programs are stored in long-term memory. Long-term memory frequently comes in the form of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs).
- Central Processing Unit (CPU): The CPU is the brains of the operation. The CPU reads, interprets, and manipulates the data traveling through your system.
Peripherals aren’t essential, but they make it easier to interact with the computer. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are thousands of different peripherals available.
- Network Interface Card (NIC): The NIC allows the computer to communicate over a network. Wired NICs are recommended for speed and reliability.
- Input: The keyboard and mouse are the standard input devices for most computers. Newer forms of input, such as voice recognition and touch input, are often used to supplement the keyboard and mouse.
- Output: The most common form of output is the monitor. Computers use the monitor to present a visual representation of the data that’s being processed. Other output devices include printers, speakers, and projectors.
What You’ll Need
To start working on your server you’ll need a computer that has all of its core components, a NIC, a slot for CDs or USB devices, a keyboard, and a monitor. You won’t need much to begin with; personal servers aren’t too demanding and can run on a device the size of a credit card. Any computer that’s less than 10 years old will work fine.
The components that will have the biggest impact on performance are the CPU and short-term memory (RAM). The speed of the CPU limits the amount of data your server can process at any given time, while the speed and size of RAM limits the number of programs and background processes that can run at a single given time. Modern CPUs are designed to run multiple tasks side-by-side through processing units called cores. For example, software designed for a 2-core system can run one task on each core and return the results simultaneously whereas a single-core system would have to wait for one task to finish before starting the next.
Another important component is long-term memory. Long-term memory stores all of your computer’s program files, documents, and settings. This is also where your operating system – the software that actually runs your computer – lives. Most long-term memory comes in the form of a Hard Disk Drive (HDD), which stores data on spinning magnetic disks. However, HDDs are facing competition from a relatively new type of drive known as Solid State Drives (SSD). SSDs use technology similar to that found in smartphones and USB drives to provide superfast access to long-term data. As a tradeoff for their performance, SSDs provide less storage space for the price.
Once you have the main components, you’ll want to grab a blank CD or USB drive to store an image of the operating system. I’ll expand more on this in the next section.
To put this all in perspective, here’s how my own server is configured. This setup lets me stream media, share files, sync calendars and contacts, and manage backups for a handful of users. Note that some of these components may be excessive for your needs, and definitely shouldn’t be considered as a baseline:
- Case, motherboard, and PSU: Shuttle DS61
- CPU: Intel Core i5 2.9 GHz quad-core processor
- Short-term memory: 8 GB DDR3 RAM
- Long-term memory: 1 TB HDD
- NIC: Built-in Gigabit Ethernet
- Peripherals: 1 TB external drive for backups
As An Option…
If you don’t have a physical computer, there are a few alternatives. One is to fake it using a technology known as virtualization. Virtualization lets you run a virtual computer on an existing computer by emulating virtual hardware. The virtual computer has no idea that it’s virtual and behaves exactly like a physical computer. You can create a virtual server, play around with it, break it, and restore it to its initial configuration with little to no effort. Virtualization is a bit too involved for this guide, although if you’re interested in learning more I suggest VirtualBox. VirtualBox is a popular, free solution with tons of documentation and user guides.
Another alternative is to use a Virtual Private Server (VPS). VPSes are servers hosted by a company and made accessible over the Internet. VPSes require you to connect remotely, but the responsibility for maintaining the server’s hardware shifts from you to the company that owns the hardware. Most providers allow you to backup, rebuild, restore, and otherwise manage your VPS from a web interface. Digital Ocean provides full-access servers starting at $5 a month.
If you live in an area that’s prone to blackouts or brownouts, you might consider investing in an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). A UPS is a combination surge protector and battery backup designed to keep your devices running even if your home or office loses power. If your computer suddenly loses power while running, it could lead to data loss or corrupted files. A UPS could provide the few minutes needed to shut your devices down safely.
Now that you have your hardware, it’s time to start with the fun stuff. Software is the driving force that brings your hardware to life. The next section explains how to install an operating system and actually begin using your computer.