Converting a PowerEdge SCSI backplane to support SATA

This post describes how to build a 8 drive storage server for under a hundred bucks (drives not included).

Last summer I bought a Dell PowerEdge 2800, which I converted to use silent fans and SATA drives instead of SCSI drives. See the project page for this server for more information on how to hack the BMC’s firmware in order to swap the fans agains silent ones.

This post is the writeup of the conversion of the server’s backplane from SCSI to SATA. My main reason for this conversion was money: servers that offer a lot of swappable SATA drive slots are quite expensive. SCSI-based servers, on the other hand, are quite cheap – nobody uses plain SCSI anymore I guess. After searching a bit on the internet, I’ve bought a Dell PowerEdge 2800 that supports 8 SCSI drive slots for 25 bucks.

I gutted the SCSI backplane and replaced the connectors with SATA connectors. Adding in a 3Ware 9500S-12 PCI-X card, I’ve ended up with a raid system that supports 8 SATA drives. (Cold-swappable only, which is what I aimed for. This server is not a production server, obviously, but just our home storage).

In the following, I illustrate the steps how I converted the PowerEdge 2800 to SATA. It’s quite easy to do, so I hope I can inspire others. Apropos others: there is a similar project that was featured on Hackaday around the same time I’ve started with my project.

Assumptions:

  • you do know how to use a soldering iron and which end of a screwdriver is the front
  • you have a Dell PowerEdge generation 8 (or similar, this should also work with generation 7 and 9 servers as the 2900)
  • you have a SATA hardware raid card (I used a 3Ware 9500S-12, but any other will do)

Required material:

  • 90 degree angled all-in-one SATA connector (I used Delock type 84307)
  • cables for connecting the drive LEDs
  • connector(s) maching the pin headers of your raid controller
  • glue, solder, time

So, let’s start! Open up your server and remove the backplane. Obviously, you have to remove all drives before being able to detach the backplane. I say obviously after I ripped of the connector of my floppy drive by brute force – I removed the harddrives but forgot completely about the other drives. D’oh!

Step

I first thought about replacing the whole backplane, but after I bought the server I realized that all the front-panel buttons, the optical drive etc are connected to the backplane. The backplane is therefore essential to the server, and the server does not even boot without it. So we have to leave the backplane in, fair enough.

The first step is to remove the old SCSI connectors from the backplane. Remove first the protective plasic shield from the backplane. Keep it, we will stick it back on later! The SCSI connectors are 68-pin bastards, so unsoldering them is out of the question. In the picture you can see the first connector removed – I pulled of the plasic part with some heavy pliers and stripped the pins one by one with a cutter.

Step

Next, remove all connectors as shown in the picture. After removing the first ones by hand, I ended up using a Dremel to remove the pins. It does not have to be perfect, but pay attention to remove any short circuits. You do not want to disturb the underlying SCSI system that is still active in the server, or (even worse) short circuit the power planes!

Step

Next, we are going to solder the harddisk access LEDs. This step is optional, but as everybody loves flashing LEDs this will give your project some street cred. No, seriously, the LEDs help you to see access on the harddisks and (if your controller supports it) to identify a specific disk/controller port.

The PowerEdge features 2 LEDs for each drive, of which we will use only one (does not matter which one). First, identify the traces on the backside of the backlane for each of the LEDs. Mark them with a pen according to drive number and if it’s the anode and the cathode. Cut the traces leading to the controller of the backplane leaving enough copper for you to solder a cable on.

In the picture you can see how I did this for one of the ports: one cable connected to the anode of the LED, and the other to the resistor, which in turn is connected to the cathod of the LED. Don’t forget to include the limiting resistor into the mix, because else you might burn your LEDs!

Step

Here you can see how I connected all ports on one side of the backplane. Note that I soldered the cable on the back of the backplane (is that the frontplane?? ;) Remember to fix the cables in place with a little hot-glue. No hacking project can call itself a proper hacking project without a little hot-glue, right?

Step

Next, we prepare the connectors to the raid controller. Most raid controllers support pin headers for connecting the drive LEDs. You’ve checked that your’s does support this before starting to solder the cables to the LEDs, right? Along the same lines, you’ve made the cables long enough to go all the way to the raid controller, even when all the fans etc are in the system? Ok, good.

Step

Configure your connector according to your raid controllers pinout. In my case, the pinout was given in the manual of the raid controller: here’s the relevant page. Pay attention not to swap pins.

Step

Reattach the isolating protective plastic shield and put back the power cable. Your backplane should look like in the picture above. Note that I’ve cut away the two bars at the bottom of the backplane’s PCB (at the bottom of the two big cutouts, which were closed before). This allows me to insert the backplane easier with all the cables in place, but it is not really required. If you do this on another type of system, make sure that there are no traces running in this part of the PCB.

Step

Now we start doing the actual conversion to SATA. Mount all drives in their drive cages and stick them in your server. With the backplane still unmounted, you should be able to see the back of the drives. Here, I plugged in the angled all-in-one SATA connectors (I used Delock type 84307, which worked really good).

As the PowerEdge servers do not have many drive power connectors and we cannot reuse the power connectors of the backplane, we have to connect the power cables of the all-in-one connectors together. This also reduces the cable mess. In the picture you can see how I did it: add the connectors one by one: plug the all-in-one connector in the drive, cut away the power cable that is longer than the distance to the next drive, add the next connector and solder the two cables together. Repeat until you have the whole column completed. It’s hard to explain but easy enough to do, so have a look at the pictures.

Step

This is how the end result should look like. Remember to properly protect all solder joints by shrink-tubes or similar. Use zip-ties to clean things up. In the end you’ll have a single power connector for each column of drives.

Step

Next, we need to attach the SATA connectors to the back plane. The idea is that the connectors stay on the backplane when you pull a drive out – without this you would have to dismount the backplane each time you want to swap a drive. I thought about many different ways to do this, but in the end I chose to use a kind of construction glue to do it. There are for sure ways to do this in a cleaner way, but this serves the purpose and is quick and cheap.

The glue should have the following attributes:

  • stick on plastic
  • must remain (at least a bit) flexible
  • must be able to cover distances of a few millimeters
  • must not shrink upon drying (will pull the connector back)
  • must be viscose (not too liquid)

Apply the glue to the back of the SATA connectors as shown in the picture (the white stuff). Be sure to clean the connectors and the backplane from any fat residues before doing so. Additionally, push your drives as far as possible to the front (there’s usually a little play in the cage mounting mechanism, and you’ll want it to be maxed out).

Then, put the backplane in. Wait.

Step

This is how your server should now look at the interior. You can see the 8 SATA cables coming out of the cutouts at the bottom of the backplane, just along the two power connectors. Additionally, you can see the cables that will connect the drive LEDs to the RAID controller (the two gray cables).

Step

After you’ve waited long enough (see glue instructions), you can remove and re-insert your drives to check if everything is in order. This is how your empty drive slots should look like.

Step

Plug the power connectors and connect the SATA and LED cables to the RAID controller. Fire up your machine and check the drive status, and the drive LEDs. Remember that your drives are only cold-swappable, so you have to shut down your server before changing them.

Welcome to your new SATA-based storage server!

25 thoughts on “Converting a PowerEdge SCSI backplane to support SATA

  1. Hi!

    Well after attempting this modification myself with a Dell 2800 server; i’ve successfully managed to get the system into a fully working file server!

    However; I seem to be experiencing a problem where the drive LEDs are illuminating (i’ve not attempted to solder up the LEDs yet). What would cause the backplane LEDs to illuminate without being wired upto my SATA controller?

    • Well, if you power the backplane the SCSI controller is powered as well. I guess it’s just desperately searching for drives… :) Just cut the traces as I did (no need to solder the LEDs right now) and you won’t see anything anymore.

      Great to hear that someone else managed to do the conversion!

      • Thanks for the advice! I also made a modification to your chosen route by not gluing the SATA and power molexes to the backplane; the Dell drive trays have a ‘spacer’ in them (a little metal bracket that sticks out inside the floor of the tray) I removed these which allowed the inserted drive to be at the front of the caddy; thus giving it a bit of room at the rear. Means i cannot remove a drive without taking side off the machine but that’s not an issue for me!

  2. Hi. I am building an identical NAS next week, and am wondering why these drives couldn’t be hot-swap? The Enterprise SATA standard supports this, and using these right-angle connectors glued to the backplane, shouldn’t it be functionally identical to a proper hot-swappable drive cage?

    Thanks for the write-up!

    • As far as I know, you can’t. I mean, you can easily hot-plug thing from the software side. But as all discs are on the same power bus, there is nothing whatsoever that protects the other disc from spikes in the current when you detach a disk. (If you look at the SCSI backplane of Dell, you can see extensive protective circuits) I am not 100% sure about this, so maybe the SATA standard does include some protection on the discs side, but I’ve never tried. Correct me if I am wrong!

  3. One detail that I need is where to the molex power connectors plug in to get power ??
    My 2800 has no molex power feeds for drives. Should it?

    Thanks,
    Bob

    • No, it shouldn’t. The old SCSI drives are powered directly by the SCSI connector. The power is thus distributed by the backplane. There are 5.25″ slots on the right side of the server, for connecting a CDROM or similar. Next to these slots, I had a molex connector. I soldered a bunch of new ones to this connector. (step 7 above)

  4. Mine must be a different 2800 backplane from yours. I have the 14 pin connector that I find everyone complaining about NOT being able to get Dell to supply the cable for. It appears to be what would feed drives that one might add (DVD, CD, etc) but I have no idea which pins to tap for 12/5 volts to make my own cable to feed my drive banks.

    Thanks for helping me. I will get it but I have to fight the good fight first!

    bob

  5. UPDATE:
    I tapped the 80 pin SCSI connector for 12/5 volts. It will not even spin the drive. I tested the molex end and voltage is there and correct but no happy. I am probably doing something wrong but I found something that should work for sure.

    For those that have the same backplane as I do on their PE2800 (which has the 14 pin header there ready to receive the Dell Part G2536), you’re in luck. There are Ebay sources available and various online sellers. Google for that part number if you need that cable for your project. Sometimes the part number is slightly different and may appear as:>> CN-0G2536

    Good Luck,
    bob

  6. Great write up! I have a client who has a spare DELL 2800 lying around and wants to use it as a single SATA Drive storage device. (I tried to convince him to go with multiple drives). Will I have to still remove the SCSI connectors (8) or just install a SATA Controller via PCIe slot and tap the power via a 14 pin connector that is on the backplane?

    Regards,

    Frank

    • Thanks! Not sure if I correctly understand… You want to use a single SATA drive in your client’s server? I guess you want to mount that drive in the 5.25″ slots on the right? In that case, there is no modification needed, just use the power that is supplied by the server for mounting drives in the 5.25″ slots (eg tape drives etc).

      • Hi arnuschky,

        I just wanted to be sure about the procedure. I have purchased a 2 port SATA controller PCIe. I do plan to mount the drive in the 5.25″ drive bay.

        Thanks for the clarification.

        Frank

  7. Thanks for posting all of this info. I’m doing the same reconfiguration of a Dell PE2800 that I picked up for $40, but have run into some issues with finding compatible SATA PCI cards. I picked up two SYBA SY-PCI40010 PCI SATA II (SiI3124 based) cards and despite being recognized during boot, both fail to recognize any physical drives in the SATA controller’s BIOS setup. I’ve updated the BIOS of the server (A07) and each of the cards themselves, but no luck. I’ve turned off SCSI completely in the Dell’s BIOS as well. The SATA controllers themselves are recognized by Win7, but no luck seeing any drives. Also tried various other OS’s with no luck.

    Any ideas as to why no drives are recognized, or do you think it’s just an incompatibility with the cards?

    • I am using a different controller for my discs (3ware 9500S), but I tried to add a Sil3124-based controller once for swapping some data around. I can’t remember the cause, but I never got it to work.

  8. Thanks and great project. Started mine but can’t seem to get windows to install on sata drive attached to 3ware 9500S sata board. I haven’t modified anything yet but wanted try it before doing the rework.

    All scsi drivers are out. Installed 3ware 9500S Hooked up sata drive. Turned off Dell RAD, configured 3ware for single drive and saved setup.

    I boot up and run system setup. I can see the hard drive on the 3ware board and select it in the boot order but when I try to load windows XP or server 2003, windows install starts but then can’t find a hard drive to install to.

    What am I doing wrong?

    Thanks for you help! Can’t wait to get my massive file server working!

    • Just some pointers – I am not really sure about this as it’s been a few years since I used Windows. Usually, you need to add the 3ware driver to the windows setup so that setup can recognize the controller. That means, you need a driver floppy (yes, really) with the driver. There’s a message during setup startup, something like “press f5 to add a driver”. You press f5, insert your floppy and that adds the driver to the setup. Google is your friend: http://www.manualslib.com/manual/232413/3ware-9500s-4lp.html?page=61#manual

  9. You are my hero. I have a Dell PE 4600 with a similar back plane, I also have some 300 gig SCSI drives that I would like to retain in my system. Is there any reason why I couldn’t perform your modification to only 4 of the 8 hots swap bays?

    • I doubt that this is possible. 1) SCSI is a bus, and you will need to make 100% sure that you don’t produce short circuits on the connectors that you remove. 2) I don’t remember the changes that I did to connect the LEDs for the SATA drives, but I remember cutting some traces on the PCB. Depending on the electronics, this might still be possible, but I can’t tell. 3) I am not sure if all the SCSI infrastructure on the backplane reacts well to tapping into the power as I did.

      If you really want to go for it, I’d try to do a half-conversion, and if it doesn’t work just go for a full conversion. Just remember to test with SCSI drives that you can afford to scrap. Every change you do is of course your own responsibility!

  10. I’m planning to do a similar project with parts from my old dell 2900. But unlike your server mine has a perc 5i SAS controller and backplane. So the only thing I have to do is feed power to the backplane. And this has got me a little confussed. The backplane gets its power from a 22 pin header from the powerboard. This connector has yellow, black and grey wires. The yellows most likely are 12V and the black ground, but I’m not sure about the grey wires. The best I could find was that they probably are for power OK signal from the motherboard and have to be 5V when power is stable.

    Do you have any knowledge on this powerconnector and any tips on how to connect this to a regular PSU?

  11. Well the server isn’t in a state where I can turn it on to measure anything. So I’m hoping to find the answer somewhere on the internet.
    Thanks anyway.

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