The search for a new budget board continues…

The JetWay JMA3-880GTV2-LF served as a budget board for all of about two weeks before being discontinued. Unfortunately this seems to be par for the course; the market for inexpensive motherboards is competitive and ever-changing. I quickly resumed my search for a new budget board right where I left off the first time. To recap, my research originally lead me to this list of options:

JetWay JMA3-880GTV2-LF
ASRock 880GM-LE

The first round of testing eliminated the ASRock board as I received two DOA boards in a row. The JetWay board is now discontinued so it is also off the table. In this second round of testing I therefore turned first to the ECS board as it was the less expensive of the remaining options.

I started testing the ECS A785GM-M7 with one red flag in mind – the board uses the Atheros AR8131 NIC. Atheros NICs in general are known to be hit and miss when used with unRAID, but I had no knowledge going in if this particular NIC would prove worthy or worthless.

I started running the ECS board through my normal set of tests and the preliminary results looked good. Memtest for 24+ hours passed and the board was able to boot into unRAID with the normal BIOS modifications (changing boot order, disabling all unnecessary components such as parallel and serial ports, and setting video memory allocation to the minimum amount). After these tests I would normally begin testing the motherboard’s SATA controllers, but in this case I decided to run the NIC tests first as I expected the NIC to be the motherboard’s weak point.

I test a board’s NIC by first building an unRAID array (running parity sync and a subsequent parity check) and then transferring at least 100 GB of data across the network both to and from the server. The client computer involved runs Windows 7, all cables involved are Cat5e or Cat6, and both my router and switch are Gigabit-LAN capable. I use TeraCopy on the Windows 7 computer with the automatic CRC checks enabled. This ensures that the data transferred from the computer to the server and back again with no data corruption or other problems.

The test results were very clear: the ECS board’s Atheros AR8131 NIC was incompatible with unRAID 4.7. The transfers would consistently fail in some way or another – sometimes the network connection would drop out, sometimes the CRC checks would find mismatches after the transfer. Both of these are common symptoms of an incompatible NIC. Interestingly enough, the exact same tests run on unRAID 5.0beta10 (the latest beta available at the time of testing) showed none of the same incompatibility. Despite repeated and redundant testing, I was not able to make the Atheros AR8131 NIC fail even once when using unRAID 5.0beta10. This indicates that there must have been some change between unRAID 4.7 and unRAID 5.0beta10 that added support for this NIC. The unRAID 5.0 beta release notes don’t indicate any specific Atheros NIC drivers added to unRAID since 4.7, but it is possible that one of the Linux Kernal updates included one.

I suggest that if you have the ECS A785GM-M7 motherboard and are having trouble with the NIC in unRAID 4.7, upgrading to unRAID 5.0beta10 (or newer) may help. Of course you will also need to take careful note of the other risks involved in running a beta version of unRAID. Regardless, even if the ECS board does work perfectly in beta versions of unRAID, I won’t endorse a board as an ‘unRAID budget board’ unless it runs in both the latest stable and the latest beta release. Hence, the ECS board is out. We are left with only one contender – the ASUS M4A78LT-M LE.

I started shopping around for the best deal on the ASUS M4A78LT-M LE when I noticed something interesting. Contrary to my original research, the LE version of the board was now more expensive than the non-LE version! ‘LE’ at the end of a motherboard’s model number generally indicates that the board is an ‘economy’ model of non-LE version. Often the LE boards will use the same chipset but a cheaper NIC or have few DIMM slots for RAM expansion. In some cases the LE board are better suited for unRAID, and in other cases the non-LE boards are a better choice even if they are slightly more expensive. It is very rare that a non-LE board would be less expensive than its LE counterpart, but at the time I was shopping for these boards that was the case! The ASUS M4A78LT-M LE was available at Newegg for $77 after shipping. The ASUS M4A78LT-M (non-LE version) was available at Newegg for $65 after shipping! A better quality board for less money? Why not! Today the LE board is still at $77 (ignoring a $10 rebate currently available) and the non-LE board is at $70.

Because of this change in pricing, the focus of my testing shifted to the ASUS M4A78LT-M which wasn’t even on my original list. I paired this board with an AMD Sempron 140 processor and 2 GB of DDR3 1333 RAM by Kingston (model number KVR1333D3N9/2G). I ran it through my normal suite of tests: memtest for 24+ hours, check boot from unRAID flash drive after BIOS modification, run at least one pass of preclear on each SATA port simultaneously to check the SATA controller, build and check parity, transfer at least 100 GBs of data to and from the array over the network using TeraCopy’s CRC checks. The board also proved itself compatible with the Supermicro AOC-SASLP-MV8 and SIL3132 SATA controllers that are used in our 15 Drive Eco server designs (also known as the 15 Drive Budget Box from Greenleaf Prototype Builds). This board passed all of these tests without a single hiccup. Its these kind of positive results that make for a reliable budget board…and a boring conclusion to a blog post ;) . I’m pleased to endorse the ASUS M4A78LT-M as my latest recommendation for the unRAID budget board.

The search for a new budget board

I love the diversity in the unRAID community.  Some users like to build frankenservers based on scraps and spare parts, others treat their servers like you might a fine wine; they are made of only the finest ingredients, and stored in a climate-controlled environment.  I strive to develop server designs to meet every user’s disparate needs at a price to match every pocketbook.  The keystone of any budget-minded build is an inexpensive yet capable motherboard.

During the 2+ years I’ve been an active member in the unRAID community, I’ve seen many budget boards come and go.  My favorites were the Supermicro C2SEE and the Biostar A760G M2+.  Both boards cost around $50, accepted very low power and efficient processors, and worked with inexpensive RAM.  The Biostar board was about 2 inches shorter than most microATX motherboards, which opened up lots of avenues for creative designs such as Queeg’s TinyTen, which packs 10 drives into a very compact space.

All good things must come to an end, and budget boards are no different.  We are in a new era of budget motherboards designed for HTPC applications.  The majority of today’s boards use the 880G chipset and have built-in HDMI.  Naturally little of this matters to the unRAID user, so we are constantly challenged with finding a motherboard that meets the perfect criteria for use in an unRAID server:

  • 6+ onboard SATA ports
  • Built-in Gigabit LAN
  • At least one PCIe x16 slot, ideally at least one PCIe x1 slot as well
  • Compatible with inexpensive and efficient processors and RAM
  • Fully compatible with unRAID
  • Inexpensive (ideally around $50, but at very least less than $100)
Small physical size is always a fringe benefit as well, as it allows for more compact server designs.  As we’ve had a bit of a dry spell over the past few months, I endeavored to find a new budget board suited for 15 drive or smaller builds as a labor of love for the unRAID community.  Once a suitable board is identified, I publish my findings in my Prototype Builds thread and in the unRAID wiki’s Recommended Builds section.  The purpose of this blog post is to document the process of the search, not just the results.
And away we go…
I started by zeroing in on only the motherboards that met or exceeded all of the minimum criteria.  The list was short indeed, only four boards made the cut.  They were:
I compared the various tech specs of all four boards and weighed them against their price.  The ASRock was the cheapest at $55, then the Jetway at $60, and the Asus and ECS boards were both tied at $70.  Not only was the ASRock the least expensive, but it also had the best match with the necessary criteria.  It was the clear choice, so I ordered the ASRock and put the rest on the back burner.
The ASRock board arrived promptly and just as quickly proved to be a big disappointment.  I was never truly able to test it for unRAID compatibility because I received a defective motherboard!  Twice!  Both the original ASRock board I received as well as its replacement simply would not POST.  I went through all the standard troubleshooting procedures, but the boards wouldn’t output any video or emit any beep codes even with different CPUs, RAM, PSUs, etc.  Enough hardware passes through my hands that I know I’m likely to see dead and defective components with some regularity, so I’m never put off by a DOA part.  Still, two DOA parts in a row is a bit much to stomach, so I gave up on the board after the second dud.  It is entirely possible that the ASRock board is the ideal unRAID motherboard, but unless somebody else wants to gamble on it, we may never know.
Going back to the list, the Jetway board was next in line as being less expensive than both the Asus or ECS boards. Spec-wise, the Jetway was the best choice.  The ECS board uses an Atheros NIC, which is notoriously troublesome with unRAID.  The Asus board looks good on paper, but I’ve had issues with Asus boards in the past showing odd and inconsistent incompatibilities with certain hardware, such as SATA expansion cards.
The Jetway board came with one small point of compromise – it featured only one PCIe x16 slot and no PCIe x1 slot, which sets it apart from every other board on the list.  If being used for a server that supports 14 or few drives, this would not matter one iota.  But for the popular 15 drive server design, that final drive would have to be relegated to the slower PCI bus.  I always aim to avoid using the PCI bus whenever possible, but in this case I decided to go with it.  While the PCI bus is considerably slower than the PCIe bus, a single hard drive is not capable of using up all of the bandwidth a PCI bus has to offer, so there would be absolutely no performance bottleneck.  If two or more drives were placed on the PCI bus, then I would expect some performance issues might be identified.  However, since my goal was a budget board that would support up to 15 drives, the lack of a PCIe x1 slot ends up being no big deal.
I ordered the Jetway board and got started on my suite of tests.  The purpose of these is to test the board for general reliability and hardware compatibility, as well as full compatibility with unRAID software.  My tests include:
  • Installing a CPU, RAM, and PSU and verifying that the board will POST.
  • Verifying that the board will beep when no RAM is installed.
  • Editing BIOS settings and verifying that the changes stick after a reboot.
  • Booting and rebooting from an unRAID flash drive.
  • Installing hard drives and verifying they are recognized by both BIOS and unRAID.
  • Preclearing multiple known-good drives simultaneously and checking for errors.
  • Building an unRAID array and running a parity-sync.
  • Running a parity check and checking for errors.
  • Removing a drive and allowing unRAID to rebuild it onto another drive.
  • Copying hundreds of GBs of data to and from the array over the network and verifying the data with CRC and/or MD5 checks.
  • Installing various SATA expansion cards and verifying that drives connected to them are recognized by the card’s BIOS and unRAID.
  • Running all of the above unRAID tests on drives connected to the SATA expansion cards.
The Jetway board passed all of the tests with flying colors.  I had no problems with it, not a single incompatibility or issue to report.  The board is Level 1 tested (I’ll post my results on this later this week).  I stopped here, there was no reason to test either the ECS or Asus boards as the Jetway was a better option anyway.  So I’m happy to announce that my latest recommended unRAID budget board is the JetWay JMA3-880GTV2-LF.
Ironically, the price of the Jetway motherboard has increased since I purchased it, so it is now on the edge of being too expensive.  It is currently selling for $77 after shipping, whereas I originally paid $60 for it.  Hopefully the price will come back down, or unRAID users can catch the board on sale.