The hard drive is one piece of technology that has advance pretty clearly over time. What was once a massive machine capable of holding only a few megabytes of data is now a device small enough to fit in the palm of your hand- with enough room to hold every video and picture you’ve ever taken. Most people will likely never fill the 500gb or 1tb drives that you’ll find in your average store bought computer, and to some the very existence of a 2tb hard drive seems excessive. But for me, 2tb can barely hold one of my “case mod build video” projects. Add to that a considerable library of HD movies, music, and other data and the appeal of a single, large device to throw your files onto should be clear.
This project is all about having storage space. I wanted a very low powered system running 24/7 and, like the stellar remnant from which it derives its name, for it to run cool and contain a mass completely unprecedented for its size. I’d say a 1.6ghz Intel Atom, 2gb of Ram, and over 16tb of storage in a case no bigger than a shoe box accomplishes this quite well. This is the Black Dwarf.
The plan was simple: put as many 3.5″ hard drives as I could along with a system to control them in as small a package as possible. I also wanted it to be some sort of raid array for redundancy, and deciding that 4 drives would not be enough, I realized I needed a board with an expansion card slot for a raid controller. After looking at various Mini ITX options I happened across a form factor I had never seen before over at LogicSupply.com. The Quanmax KEEX-2030 is a 3.5″ (or ECX) board powered by an Intel Atom N270 with a PCI Express x4 slot.
The open slot would be filled with a HighPoint Rocket RAID 2680 8 Port Sata/SAS raid controller card from Newegg.com. This system would mainly be storing files over the network, so this relatively low performance controller was an acceptable choice considering its very small size.
The motherboard had an onboard power supply, however powering the 8 3.5″ hard drives would require more juice than what the lone SATA power cable the board offered could provide- so I got an addition Serener 120w DC-DC PSU that would be powered through an external AC adapter, both courtesy of Logic Supply.
In addition to being tasked with storing huge amounts of files on the systems 8 3.5″ drives this computer would also be running 24/7 running sharing files on Bit Torrent. For this I would give it 2 additional 2.5″ hard drives to be controlled through the motherboards built-in SATA controller. The drives would be ordered later and for construction I would use dead disks.
And for memory Crucial hooked me up with a 2gb DDR2 SODIMM which mounts to the underside of the board.
The last big component I decided to include was a Matrix Orbital display. The system would be running headless, so I figured this would be perfect to quickly monitor it’s status.
Pre-visualization for this project included carefully stacking the parts on my workbench followed by a very crude drawing with some numbers. The replacement 3.5″ hard drives would be low power, 5400rpm drives, allowing me to stack them relatively close together in the case.
The next step was to create the internal panels that the hard drives would mount to. I chose aluminum also to help dissipate heat from the hard drives, and cut the pieces out with my jigsaw.
The main exterior panels would be made from steel with a clear lid. I first cut the bottom panel and fixed some motherboard stand-offs on one end. This was followed by the two side panels, and a small piece on the top that would later mount the buttons and hard drive LED’s. The pieces were then welded together.
A thick piece of aluminum was then cut and mounted to the back of the rear-most hard drive via the drives mounting threads. This would close off the back compartment where the computer components would be to both channel air properly past the hard drives and also serve to secure the hard drive assembly to the case body. This was done by cutting and tapping small steel tabs that were then welded in place.
The front panel would need to be removable to allow the large hard drive assembly to be put into place. It also would need to have some detailed cutting done as it would also be the faceplate to the Matrix Orbital display. For this reason I decided to also make this piece out of aluminum, cutting it out with a scroll saw, and then filing it to fit the display. Tabs were then welded to secure it to the body.
As I moved onto the main computer compartment I started by cutting a small piece of steel to match the small auxiliary PSU board. I then attached some steel stand-off screws and welded the screws in place onto the body. Another sandoff was also used to secure the RAID controller to the case in the same fashion.
To make cutting detailed holes easier I again chose aluminum for the back panel. Allowing proper clearance for the motherboard I fitted the panel and then cut a large 120mm hole for the thin (10mm) Scythe fan on the drill press using a large hole saw. Tabs were once again cut and welded to the main body to secure the back panel.
I then measured and cut out holes for the motherboard connectors on the jigsaw.
After mounting the motherboard and RAID controller I needed to cut a hole in the thick slanted plate that held the hard drive assembly in place in order to accommodate the SATA cables.
The 2 2.5″ hard drives would be mounted to the opposite side of the slanted hard drive plate via some stand-off screws using the mounting threads on the underside of the drive. I cut a pair of small aluminum brackets to then gang the two drives together using their side mounting threads.
I then cut out a piece of aluminum to sandwich a mesh fan grill I bought to the back of the case.
I also used aluminum to fashion small feet for the system, which were cut out and filed, and then bent on the metal break. The feet would also help to secure the front and rear panels.
One of the most difficult parts to fabricate for this project would be the clear plastic cover to view the drives. I chose a piece of 3/16″ thick Lexan due to the materials resistance to cracking and chipping when being machined. The first step was to cut a few strips, 2 for the sides and one for the top piece that would also be bent to be the front piece as well. The two side pieces were then cut to match the angle of the metal on the case.
I wanted the plexi to sit smooth with the rest of the body, but it also needed to overlap for it to look right and fit snug. I used a router table to rabbit the edges to accomplish this.
The top edges where the side and top pieces would be joined also had to be beveled on the router to fit together.
The next step was finding out exactly where to bend the top piece and bending it on the metal break. Lexan was a great choice for this reason as well, as it is able to be bent without worrying about heat or anything; it bends just like metal.
After trimming the top piece and rabbiting the front to fit snugly under the aluminum front panel a bit of sanding was required to get everything to fit together as tightly as possible. Finally the 3 pieces were glued together and clamped to dry.
The joints were not perfectly smooth and clear but that’s ok as I wanted to round the corners out and would later paint strips across the edges.
I got a couple Lamptron switches that would be placed on the small top panel above the computer compartment. One was for the main power button for and the other was going to be a power switch to turn on and off just the 3.5″ hard drive array. I also drilled 8 small holes for 5mm RGB LED’s to monitor the 3.5″ drives.
I decided that the system would need some easy access usb ports as another option to get files on and off the system. I purchased a couple long single usb header cables and was able to fit them to the front panel in between the drives and the very sides of the case.
Lastly I marked and cut some lines on the very bottom of the case where air would be able to enter and cool the system. These were cut with a cutting wheel and then filed smooth.
Most of the parts where then painted black, and many of the aluminum parts where simply sanded to give them a bit of an industrial look. I received the final hard drives from Newegg which included 8 2tb 5400 rpm drives. Wiring the system took some time due to the secondary mini-psu, as well as the led’s for the RAID drive status, but once complete the system started up and ran without any problems.
Despite the close quarters, all the drives as well as the cpu maintain an acceptable temperature thanks to the solitary 120mm fan. The 8 2tb drives have been configure as a single volume raid 5, with 12.7tb of useable space. The entire system consumes less than 90 watts under load, and while the CPU jumps to around 80% when writing files to the raid array, performance wise the raid 5 will get the job done at about 88MB/s write and 266MB/s read.
Final Product / Sponsors
And a big thanks goes out to my sponsors:
- Quanmax Industrial KEEX-2030 Atom 3.5″ Mainboard (Intel Atom N270)
- 2GB Crucial DDR2 PC2-5300 SODIMM
- Highpoint RocketRAID 2680
- Serener 120w DC-DC PSU
- 8x 2TB Western Digital Caviar Green 3.5″ HDD
- 320GB Western Digital Scorpio Black 2.5″ HDD
- 30GB OCZ Vertex Series SSD
With over 200 hours of footage totaling over 1.5tb of data, the Black Dwarf made for my biggest worklog video yet. Original music produced by Phil Lehman-Brown.
Production Time Lapse
Before I started this project I set up my new Kodak Zi8 to capture the entire progress – video and build – from start to finish. This is what 100 hours of work looks like in 6 minutes.
Time Lapse Suspension Dolly
One thing I like to do with every one of my big worklog videos is experiment with a new way of shooting the process. For this project I built a motion controlled time lapse dolly that ran alone a suspended piece of track.
One of my sponsors, Newegg.com asked me to make a video sharing my creation for their Youtube channel.