"You're cutting a hole in it?!"

I've been case-modding for years, mostly in a hurry and from necessity rather than aesthetics, so the recent surge in public interest has been interesting to watch - an entire industry offshoot has grown up, providing both practical and decorative hardware and addons, and is startlingly reminiscent of the custom car scene of the seventies. In both arenas, the first wave of modification techniques tended to be purely for performance, followed by a cosmetic second wave that showed off the first - and in PCs, now, cosmetics are as important as almost anything else… case windows, neon lighting, electroluminescent "string", laser-cut fan grills, custom paint-jobs… all that's missing are the dual chromed exhausts, and I expect the silicon equivalent real soon now…

I'm not so fond of art for art's sake, when it comes to a server, so my main priority has been modifications to increase the efficiency of the case cooling. Providing an uninterrupted airflow seems to be the key, and as I'd already tidied the interior of the case as far as possible, fitting machine-rounded IDE cables, shrouding the power cables in spiral-wrap and routing the wiring for fans and thermal sensors along the chassis elements, it seemed time to open up the rather restrictive vents in the SC750's front panel.

I read and pondered for several months about the best way to actually cut blowholes (the argument rages, still!) and finally decided on a good quality hole-saw as the safest and cheapest method - if used in a traditional hand brace-and-bit, the only disadvantage seemed to be the amount of hard work involved… the recommendations for all the power tool techniques came together with a firm warning about how easy it is to ruin your case panels if you slipped or the tool ran away from you - without much experience of jigsaws or whatever, I was happy to wear out my arms if it meant I could take it slowly and carefully. Tests on the case of an old 386 (it died nobly, and for the cause!) showed that it certainly was hard work, but that neat and tidy holes were possible without much difficulty.

The plastic front bezel of the Supermicro was the first target - although the intake fans are only 80mm units, I couldn't resist making the blowholes as large as the cosmetics of the bezel permitted. The shiny new Dremel will make short work of the metal chassis if I ever decide to upgrade to 120mm, and in the meantime I loved the "means business" look of the pair of big chrome grills.

This meant ditching the air filter built into the bezel, and having seen the dust that accumulated in it over a month (smoking kills CPUs!) I wasn't happy abandoning filtration altogether. However, the third-party filters I found online seemed even thicker and denser than the stock materials, and I wasn't about to sacrifice most or all of the additional airflow that the larger apertures would bring. My new ProLiant ML350 servers at the office suggested an answer - they have a rather elegant metal mesh like the radiator grill of a sports car, and I was rather taken with the style. I only needed a few square inches, so some scrounging was in order. Eventually I chose a more open mesh, once gracing the base of a PABX cabinet, and nicely industrial - it lurks just behind the chrome grills and hides the fact that my front fans aren't the monsters the intakes suggest… It seems to be working, too - enough dust gathers on the mesh to make me relieved that it's there, but it doesn't hamper airflow nearly as much as a conventional filter, as shown by a further drop of a couple of degree in average case temperature when the modifications were complete.

It still wasn't enough to please me, though, with CPU temperatures still in the high thirties and the main disk drives still uncomfortable warm under heavy IO. Modifying the chassis to house larger front fans would certainly be possible, but I have no inclination to strip the PC completely at present, and fortunately the Supermicro "Xeon Cooling Kit" that I ordered with the case (cover all eventualities!) provided a solution in the form of a further pair of 80mm fans suspended over the CPU slots. However, in one of Supermicro's stranger design decisions, there are no vents in the case side panel and without that the fans were mostly cosmetic, in some tests actually raising the temperature of the core components by just circulating hot air around the lower part of the case.

These are now in place, and look very slick as well bringing most of the motherboard-area temperatures down by a further few degrees. Unfortunately, I have to keep my PC on the left side of my desk (the central heating thermostat is on the right side, a few inches away from where the PC's main exhaust vent used to pour out 30°C air - we had a cold winter, last year, wondering why the room never warmed up!) and as well as removing all the benefits of the SC750's swing-out side panels, it means that I can't enjoy the look of long-anticipated side blowholes either.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extra fans don't seem to have raised the noise level significantly, and by this time we really are getting used to the omnipresent whooshing drone. The PC does have a tendency to hover a few millimetres above the desk, and we have to warn guests not to stand too close to the fan inlets in case they lose articles of clothing or small pets, but it isn't unbearable now that our eardrums have adapted.

The next step will be a little more work to cut semi-circles in the chassis to provide clearance for the two rearmost bolts of the side fan guards and, as the thought of stripping the case to bare metal is far too daunting, I'll probably tape plastic sheeting over the internals, carefully vacuum afterwards, and sacrifice a chicken to the gods of metal filings. Further plans for the case are on hold for the moment, but next time I have to strip the electronics, say for a motherboard upgrade, I'll use the Dremel to cut away some more unnecessary metalwork - the rear exhaust fans have the usual close metal slats, and a circular guard would both increase airflow and reduce noise, as well as looking neat. Every little helps!


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