Selecting, Finding, Shipping, and Installing a Silent Rack

WeekendWarrior

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Apr 2, 2015
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Over the last year or so I hoped to either build or buy a silent computer rack. During that time, I almost gave up several times because the cost and/or time involved was very substantial - whether I built (substantial time) or bought (substantial cost). Ultimately, I recently had two successful purchases and learned a lot in the process. Because others have shown a similar interest, I'll summarize my experiences here.

To Build or Not to Build - that is the Question

The subject of whether or how to build your own silent rack is a very deep subject and has been discussed extensively in the STH forums. I spent untold hours researching this subject in the belief that it would be a satisfying project and that building my own a silent rack it would save money. I came up with five different designs, each of which was OK but none that were particularly good. At the end of that research, I was skeptical about my noise suppression results and believed that I would spend a LOT of time iterating to achieve reasonable noise suppression, and also believed that the aesthetics of my final solution would - at best - Ikea-like. If someone wants more details about my considerations and findings, I can discuss those separately. The combination of those aspects, and the belief that "time is money" to some extent, led me to look for a commercial solution. I now know that this was the right choice for me.

What are the Commercial Options?

ServeTheHome members actively discuss several commercial options for silent computer racks. The options I am most familiar with (and now own) are the Netshelter CX and the Ucoustic 9210. Both are very credible options although they target similar but not identical use cases. I'll describe each briefly although more detailed discussions are readily available in STH forums and elsewhere. Other options exist of course - maybe owners of those options can add to this discussion.

Netshelter CX

This product is made by APC - a very well-known brand - and seems to be well regarded. I discuss my strategy for finding, shipping, and installing this unit later below.

The high-level characteristics of the Netshelter CX are that it does a very good job suppressing noise from a "moderate" amount of equipment. The CX does this by drawing ostensibly cool air in from the bottom of the unit, and pulling it through the racked computers before exhausting it out the back. Air is drawn in by negative pressure - pushing the air out the back creates a pressure differential that pulls air in through the intakes near the floor. Air is also drawn through the walls or rear doors of the unit, which prevents a direct-line path for noise to escape the unit. Moderate noise baffling exists within the unit (on all sides) so the existence of the baffling and a somewhat circuitous airflow path through the sides and back of the unit means that this unit has a width and depth that is noticably greater than an ordinary rack (19" standard width).

Airflow comes from a series of fans on the back door of the unit. Those fans have a low/high speed switch.

In addition to the large physical dimensions of this unit, it is very heavy because its doors and wall panels are fairly thick. The 38U Netshelter CX was between 450 and 500 pounds when empty. This need not be a show stopper - even for one person if that person is handy with tools - as discussed below. But, the unit's weight does complicate shipping and installation logistics.

The exterior appearance of this unit is that of a laminated cabinet such as a Ikea unit (although generally nicer). The wood framing is 1/2" particle board. One of my doors warped a little so I am not entirely keen on basing this design on particle board but that was not a show-stopper for me because I was able to get it back into shape. Overall, the unit looks great in my office so its overall aesthetics are very good.

IMHO, the construction quality of this unit is good but not great. I took my unit apart to get it to my second-floor office and I was a little underwhelmed by its construction quality. APC's "deconstruction" document suggests that this unit comes apart easily. I don't agree and found their instructions to be inadequate for disassembling this unit. I'm pretty handy on smaller projects like this so it is somewhat disconcerting that the instructions were not appropriate to the task. Like all things, though, your mileage may vary. This unit could only partially disassemble so it took two people to get my disassembled unit up to the second floor.

Finally, the 38U Netshelter CX is spec'd to cool up to 3600 Watts. That may not sound like much but that is probably more than most of us need. That issue is discussed separately below.

In summary, the Netshelter CX is a very good combination of many factors, works effectively for its stated purpose of cooling up to 3600 Watts, and looks good while doing so. Construction quality is not great but that consideration is not enough - IMHO - to negate other positive features. This is a good choice for someone that wants a silent rack.

Ucoustic 9210

This product is made by Usystems (usystems.co.uk). I recently acquired a 24U version of this model for a good price. My strategy for finding, shipping, and installing this unit is discussed separately below.

This unit comes in "active" and "passive" versions. The active version has large fans in the back doors which substantial enhance the unit's cooling ability. I have the active version so my comments reflect that version.

The high-level characteristics of the (active) Ucoustic 9210 are that it does an excellent job suppressing noise and exhausting heat from a large amount of equipment. This unit is made completely of steel except for its foam noise baffling. It is rated for cooling 12KW of equipment, which is a LOT of equipment. The large rear fans move a lot of air out of the unit and are powered by a single 120V plug. My unit also came with an exhaust unit that redirects air through piping or out a window.

The 9210 looks good - albeit "very techy" - and fits in nicely in an area dedicated to tech devices. It would look very out-of-place in a living space, though.

This is a very substantial piece of equipment. Its enclosure is almost entirely made of steel with substantial noise baffling. The 24U unit weights approximately 430 pounds per Usystems's website. See page 15 of http://www.usystems.co.uk/sites/default/files/UCoustic Edge 9210i brochure.pdf. Thus, the 24U 9210 is a little lighter than the 38U Netshelter CX. It feels like a bank safe due to its all-metal construction.

Construction quality on the 9210 was excellent. My unit appears to have had several years of use (but not abuse) and the doors and panels still fit together very nicely. Ucoustic used more screws than were minimally necessary for rigidity, and the result is a really solid/stable enclosure. The unit disassembled fairly easily and its pieces could be carried upstairs by a single person.

Now that the overviews are complete, let's address specific issues.

What are Your Cooling Needs?

Although we (I?) may be driven at times by aethetic or "cool technology" considerations, silent racks are expensive and their selection may turn on practical considerations. Each product can remove a certain, specified amount of heat from the rack while maintaining relatively low noise levels.

Consider first how much power your computers will consume because silent racks are rated by their ability to remove heat from a specified power level for components.

An ordinary wall socket is on a 15 amp circuit (at 120V); i.e., 1800 watts. A 30A circuit (comprising two 120V-15A feeds), consistent with 30A NEMA plugs on data-center-grade PDUs and BBUs, is 3600 watts. Thus, unless you're going to have more than one dedicated 30A circuit, the 38U Netshelter CX should be adequate for your needs. A more likely scenario for most people is that they can get by with a unit that can keep a 1200W network cool.

Consider also that electricity is expensive. We pay 0.16/KWh in the Bay Area (CA), so 1000W 24h/7d is $115/month (not counting tiered pricing and other details). I don't personally own a hydroelectric power plant or live on a solar farm so I will have short periods where I use a lot of power (2X 30A circuits) and the remainder of the time I'll be at 1KW or less.

The amount of heat each unit removes varies by manufacturer and size. For example, the Netshelter CX is spec'd to remove 1.2KW, 2.4KW, or 3.6KW for the 18U, 24U, and 38U sizes, respectively. See http://www.apc.com/salestools/DOCN-8NNHXQ/DOCN-8NNHXQ_R1_EN.pdf.

Similarly, the Ucoustic 9210 comes in 12U, 24U, and 42U sizes. See Acousti Products - UCoustic Server Rack Cabinets. The 9210 also comes in "active" and "passive" models, and the thermal capacity of the 9210 differs dramatically between these models. The active model has fans in the rear doors and has a 12KW thermal capacity. The passive model (without rear door fans) can remove 1.75KW, 2.25KW, and 2.75KW, for 12U, 24U, and 42U sizes, respectively. See page 15 at http://www.usystems.co.uk/sites/default/files/UCoustic Edge 9210i brochure.pdf.

Consider also that you may want to keep a 20% reserve on your power needs (relative to a 15A or 30A circuit) so that you are not tripping circuit breakers as a unit powers up.

Can You Exhaust Air Out of the Room?

The Ucoustic (active) 9210 has fans in the back door that actively remove hot air. Owners of the active model may want ducting to remove air out of the room. See Usystems Ucoustic 9210 Cabinet Ducting kit | Comms Express. The passive version of the 9210 does not have fans in the back door and would not utilize venting out of the unit. The Netshelter CX does not have ducting options.

Where Will You Locate the Rack?

You may need to consider where the rack will go when making your selection. Dusty, hot, or wet locations are obviously problematic for some racks. A garage may seem like a good choice, but it will probably be dusty and may get quite hot in some parts of the country. Most manufacturers derate their unit's cooling capacity when the ambient air is hot because the unit's ability to replace hot air with cool air is dependent on the existence of cool air for air intake. This may seem obvious but it is worth mentioning.

The Ucoustic 9210 has significant air filtering for all intake air so that unit may be a reasonable option in dusty environments like a garage. Usystems advertises the 9210 as suitable for dusty environments. By contrast, the Netshelter CX does not filter incoming air so it would be less suitable to dusty environments.

Additionally, you will need to consider hallway widths when selecting or installing a unit. The Netshelter CX is narrow enough that it can move through a standard hallway and can turn around corners reasonably well. By contrast, the Ucoustic 9210 is wider and can move through standard hallways but CANNOT TURN AROUND CORNERS in those "standard-width" hallways. Both units disassemble to some degree although the 9210 comes apart easier and more effectively.

Finding a Commercial Unit

Netshelter CX and Ucoustic units are very expensive if purchased new. The small ones are several thousand dollars and the larger ones are $5000-6000. Even used ones on eBay can be pretty expensive.

The best way to find silent racks is to locate them on Craigslist. I found mine through Google searches on "craigslist netshelter" or "craigslist ucoustic." I did that once every week or two. I recently found my Netshelter CX in Fresno, CA (about 3.5 hours away from my location). The unit was a full-size (38U) unit with a damaged door but in otherwise new condition for $300. I had to arrange shipping (discussed below) but the cost for shipping was about $250; i.e., $550 total. That's a great deal for a near-new unit.

Another thing I do to locate silent racks is to create a "saved search" on eBay so that I am notified if a unit becomes available. I set my price range so that I am not notified of units outside that price range. Unfortunately, shipping prices on eBay seem higher than can be achieved with some initiative on Craigslist.

Does Acquiring a Silent Rack Incur "Debt"?

A consideration to keep in mind when deciding whether to acquire a silent rack is that it may be challenging to sell (or otherwise dispose) of this rack when your needs change. Human nature focuses on our current needs and benefits from solving those needs but we often overlook a future challenge that comes with a solution to today's needs.

The seller of the Netshelter CX I acquired listed it on Craigslist for two months before I saw it. He described receiving a decent number of inquiries but nothing ever came from those inquiries (until my call).

The reality is that silent racks are great but they appeal to a pretty limited market. Depending on your location, you may find that finding a new home for your silent rack is difficult and/or time consuming. It's better to acknowledge and account for such factors up front rather than being surprised when they occur when you're trying to move out quickly.

Shipping a Silent Rack

The size and weight of a silent rack is similar to that of a full-sized refridgerator (for half or full-sized racks) or of a consumer safe for mini-racks. Few of us can move a full-sized refridgerator without help or have a vehicle that can do so. Thus, the odds of finding a reasonably priced silent rack that does not require some form of shipping arrangements is very low.

Moreover, it is unlikely that your seller will deliver it or arrange shipping for you unless you are purchasing the unit new. Sellers of used units simply want them out of their present location and they probably don't have a truck and don't want to be burdened with your shipping needs anyway.

If you understand how to ship these items, however, your understanding can be a competitive advantage when trying to acquire a silent rack because few people know how to do this.

I live in the Bay Area, which ought to be the best place in the world to find these units used, and I only saw one or two a year come up locally. But, that does not need to stop us as discussed next.

If you find a silent rack on Craiglist, you can arrange for relatively inexpensive shipping if a couple factors work in your favor:
1. your seller is willing to provide a pallet and put the unit on the pallet
2. your seller can secure the unit to the pallet with tie-downs or some reliable means
3. your seller can be a little flexible on pick-up time during a predetermined day (e.g., 4-hour window)

If your seller answers "yes" to these factors, here's what you do to get a competitive quote for trucking from uship.com (a competitive shipping quote service similar to Kayak for less-than-truckload shipping):

1. go to uship.com and click the "Get Free Estimate" button
2. among the 7-or-so shipment types, select "Freight / LTL (less-than truckload)"
3. among the next categories of shipment types, select "LTL used commercial goods"
4. in the resulting next web form,
a. under "item 1" ("Handling Unit"), select the "pallets" pulldown
b. enter the width, length, and height of the unit based on information identified from the manufacturer's datasheet (and add 4" height for the pallet). In a perfect world you would know the width/height of the pallet [probably standard size] but you may not know that
c. enter the weight of the unit from the manufacturer's datasheet (and add 30-40 pounds for the pallet)
d. obviously avoid checking the "stackable" checkbox because your unit would be damaged if something large was stacked on it
e. provide the pick-up and drop-off locations. I strongly suggest selecting "lift gate service" at pick-up and delivery because that is how the unit will be put into and taken out of the truck. See http://supposeudrive.com/images/liftgate04.jpg. Getting lift gate service costs a little ($30?) more but it's worth it because the driver loads/unloads the unit in about 30 seconds with their liftgate.
f. check the "call before delivery" checkbox so that you get a heads-up call before the delivery truck arrives.
g. click the continue button to get quotes

I found that Uship offered EXCELLENT rates compared to communicating with shippers directly. For example, my Netshelter CX shipment (500lbs) cost $250 through Uship and ultimately UPS but was quoted at $1000 when dealing directly with UPS directly. Dealing directly with the shipper is also less attractive because it often requires providing fairly detailed shipment-type codes - I may have not fully understood the codes and that may have increased my UPS quote - but even that does not explain the price differences relative to Uship. Uship quotes include a Uship fee separate from the shipper's fee, but my all-in cost was $250 with lift service, shipping 500 pounds from Fresno to N of San Francisco. The driver was super-cool on delivery and it arrived next day. My actual costs came in $20 below Uship's quote also. I'll take this deal any day of the week.

For grins, I did a quote for shipping 500lbs from Texas to San Francisco and the cost was around $550 (3-day delivery). For my shipment and the Texas->SF shipment, UPS was the lowest-cost provider. I had a great experience with them and have no qualms recommending them.

Because shipping is probably the biggest impediment to acquiring a silent rack, I hope this perspective opens the door for others to join the silent rack club.

Summary

The Netshelter CX and Ucoustic 9210 are both very good overall solutions as a silent rack. Although the Netshelter CX is better known than the Ucoustic 9210, the 9210 is IMHO a slightly better solution if you can accept its "data center" appearance. Shipping can be a strategic advantage when acquiring a unit beceause other prospective buyers might find the unit before you do but will have a hard time sorting out the transportation logistics. Uship did great on my shipment. Moving either unit up stairs will require disassembly.
 
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bubbagump00

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Great post! Would love to hear more about the performance of the UCoustic rack vs the Netshelter CX.
 

Kelv1n

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May 21, 2019
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Moving either unit up stairs will require disassembly.
Sorry for dredging up an old post - but I've found a Ucoustic rack for a good price, my concern is getting it into the room I want it in (on the ground floor), as the door is only 70cm wide. Can it be disassembled to do this? Or enough panels remove to manoeuvre it through.
 

WeekendWarrior

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Apr 2, 2015
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Sorry for dredging up an old post - but I've found a Ucoustic rack for a good price, my concern is getting it into the room I want it in (on the ground floor), as the door is only 70cm wide. Can it be disassembled to do this? Or enough panels remove to manoeuvre it through.
Yes, in fact, I just disassembled and reassembled a Ucoustic rack this week. Taking it apart takes an hour or so - possibly longer the first time.

The doors come off easily - seconds not minutes required - because the doors use hinges that are open on top and thus allow a door to slide into the hinge and be held in place by gravity. This description may not help a reader unless you have a Ucoustic to look at when reading the description but suffice it to say the doors come right off and go right on.

The side panels come off easily. With a phillips screwdriver and 10 minutes, you can get both side panels off by loosening the clips in the locking mechanism. Again, the description will only make sense if you have eyes on a Ucoustic but this is a very easy step. Note that these panels are heavy and that you want to avoid losing the 2 brass pins that hold each side panel in place along the lower surface of those side panels.

At this point, you've got top and bottom sections held in place by several posts on each of the left and right side.

To get the Ucoustic through a narrow doorway, take the top off and use the open top space to navigate the Ucoustic through the doorway after putting the Ucoustic so its front or back side is toward the ceiling.

Each top corner has 4 bolts that hold it in place (usually covered by foam insulation). These screws are pretty tight so you'll probably want socket wrenches to get them out. Remove the top 2 bolts in each corner.

The top piece is also fastened by bolts to the frame along the underside of the top piece. IIRC, 2 bolts on the underside must be removed to allow the top piece to be removed. Note that the top piece fits snugly so you may need to jostle it a bit to get the top piece out.

Putting it back together, after getting it through your doorway, is simply reversing the steps of course.

You may find that setting the top piece in back in place requires getting all four corners "just right" and that this is a tricky operation given that the top piece is somewhat heavy.

That brings up a general observation: you may want a few minutes (spread over an hour or two) of a second person's time when doing parts of this operation (removing the top, setting the top back in, putting the Ucoustic base on end so you can navigate it through the doorway) because the top and bottom sections are somewhat heavy. I can do it by myself but these operations are on the upper end of what I would do myself given that I'm reasonably tall (long arms help) and reasonably strong but am not exceptionally so in either category.

Good luck - you will like the Ucoustic if it is in good condition and you take some time to get to know how it operates and comes together.

WW