I’ve written a few times about my quest to build the ultimate home storage/server rig. But one issue was surprisingly vexing: What kind of case has room for a dozen or more hard disk drives? In this update, I’ll talk about the various options as well as the one I ultimately picked: The NZXT H440 (and a Corsair power supply).
My Favorite Things (Hard Drives!)
Once I decided to go with a full-sized motherboard instead of the tiny Micro-ITX, a whole world of cases opened up. Where I once thought I’d have to fit everything into a U-NAS NSC-800, an ATX tower would give plenty of room for drives. Or would it?
It turns out that most ATX cases still hew to the old standard, with 1-3 front-facing 5.25″ drive bays, another 3-6 front-facing 3.5″ bays, and maybe a few more internal ones. This might have made sense in an era of CD-ROM and floppy drives, but this mish-mash of drive bays really isn’t optimal for a NAS or home server:
- Few cases have enough unobstructed 5.25″ drive bays to house a hot-swap multi-disk 3.5″ drive rack, so you can only fit a single 3.5″ drive per bay
- All those front-facing 3.5″ bays can house only a single drive, too
- Enclosing all the drives in steel bays or plastic racks means poor airflow is the norm, and heat kills drives
- Orienting the drives toward the front wastes space, intruding into the motherboard area of the case yet leaving empty space along the sides
My old tower case exhibited all these issues: Even at 1’8″ tall, it could only hold 8 disk drives! And the only cooling for these drives was passive airflow from the rear-mounted fans.
The Surrey With The Fans On Top
I’m a storage guy. I need lots of drive bays and lots of airflow all in the right places. And I don’t need any silly optical or floppy drives…
I think the designer of the NZXT H440 was thinking the same thing:
- They did away with all external drive bays and put three large intake fans in front behind a filter and faceplate
- They placed five dual-drive 3.5″ sleds sideways, facing left/right, behind all these fans (plus holes for one more at the bottom)
- They moved the power supply to a bottom compartment with room for cables
- There’s room for more fans across the top and an outlet fan at the back
- The motherboard compartment is roomy enough for easy access through the left-side panel
Although exactly the same size as my old case, the H440 is amazingly space-efficient, holding many more drives and much more efficient cooling.
NZXT says the H440 can hold 11 3.5″ and 8 2.5″ hard disk drives. This is technically true but not all at the same time. You can mount up to 13 hard disk drives total in the case:
- The 2 mount points above the power supply are only for 2.5″ drives
- The 5 drive sleds can hold two 3.5″ drives or one 3.5″ drive and one 2.5″ drive but not two 2.5″ drives
- The mounting holes under the drive sleds can hold either drive type
If you were wondering, It’s Fine To Mount Hard Drives On Their Side Or Even Upside-Down.
I Feel Pretty
Mounting the power supply and motherboard in the H440 was a cinch, with plenty of cable pass-through holes and tie-down tabs.
The PSU lives in a separate compartment at the bottom rather than the top, and this arrangement works surprisingly well:
- Air is pulled in by the PSU fan from under the case rather than from inside, as on normal cases
- There’s a static filter mounted underneath as well
- There’s ample room in front of the PSU for cables, though it a little hard to work with once it’s mounted
- Standard ATX power cables just barely reach from the PSU to the top of the motherboard, however
I picked the all-modular Corsair RM850x power supply. I wanted plenty of reliable power, and have had good luck with Corsair in the past. It’s a good thing the RM850x is Gold rated, though, since my FreeNAS rig rarely pulls more than 130 watts on the Kill A Watt even with 12 drives, a Xeon CPU, and five fans! In retrospect I probably could have gone with a smaller PSU…
The H440 case has two extra 2.5″ drive mounts on the “floor” above the PSU. This is the perfect spot for a pair of SSD’s to use for the FreeNAS System Dataset and other active data. I had two SanDisk Lightning SAS SSD’s (a giveaway from Data Field Day) so I used these. They’re way too fast for this use case, but it’s nice knowing I have all the performance and reliability I could possibly need!
Everything went in and wired up (even the just-barely-long-enough ATX power cable) and the system was almost ready. I connected the case power LED to the network activity jumpers on the board, and this gives a nice light show, though I’ll never see it once it’s in use… I ran one SATA power cable up from the bottom and another down from the top so I could power the “duplexed” drives in the sleds.
At The End Of The Day
With everything mounted, I decided to close up the case, and this is where I discovered the Achilles Heel of the NZXT H440.
Although the case is wonderfully roomy, the sound deadening material on the side panels makes the right-hand one very difficult to attach. It presses firmly against any cables mounted behind the motherboard (like that ATX power cable) and comes uncomfortably close to the SATA and power cables on the drives, too.
Eventually I figured out how to push the right-side panel into place while holding both the top and bottom, but it’s really not a good fit. I wish someone had moved the motherboard plate a tiny bit to the left to give a little more clearance!
Although their web site notes that the H440 comes with an old single-speed multi-fan distribution board, mine came with their more-modern PWM-controlled fan board. This is a really nice feature, since it allows the motherboard to control the speed of all of the case fans!
Tip: Connect the PWM fan board to the “Fan A” jumper on the Supermicro X10 board and set power to “Optimal Speed” in the BIOS. In this mode, the Fan 1-4 jumpers respond to “CPU Temp” and Fan A is “System Temp” controlled. Nice, especially with a PWM fan control board!
I absolutely love the NZXT H440. It’s almost perfectly designed to maximize drive space and smart cooling, and it’s affordable at around $100. It’s a great case for a FreeNAS or other server build!
Here’s my entire FreeNAS series so far:
Disclaimer: I bought my gear from NewEgg but I’m including some Amazon links here. If you click through and buy from Amazon I get a kickback from their Associates program. But buy from wherever you like, with the best service and prices.