When designing and building a Plex server you’ll need to take a few things into consideration. Let’s start with logistical issues you should think about first. The physical size, noise, and heat generated by a standard enterprise grade server can be a problem for most people running a Plex server in their house. If you are looking for recommendations on an enterprise grade server that will be addressed in a later video. For now this article will cover desktop grade hardware that’s both practical for most people to run in their home, powerful enough to have the performance you’ll want, AND that won’t hurt your wallet too much.
Next you should determine the total number of transcodes you might require. If you are running this inside your home and will only have a few devices connecting at a time and those devices can direct play most of your media you should stick to the small server size recommendations. Otherwise figure out the number of devices that might be transcoding at any given time and save that for later.
While you can run a Plex media server on practically any physical device from a Rasberry Pi, to a Nas you’ll probably grow out of some of the smaller and cheaper options like a Rasberry Pi fairly quickly. I would recommend sizing your first server appropriately to avoid unnecessary costs down the road. Unless you know for certain that all of your devices can direct play all of your media i would stay away from trying to run a plex server on a rasberry pi.
We will be leveraging plex’s Hardware transcoding capabilities with quicksync heavily for this article. When selecting a CPU You should typically avoid anything pre-haswell generation as intel started focusing on quality over speed with quicksync in Haswell cpu architectures and later. You will also generally find slightly better Integrated graphics processors in xeons that have an iGPU.
For the small plex server build our recommendation is the T1700 Dell precision which can be found on ebay for around 200-300 dollars shipped. You can find a T1700 with an e3-1265L v3 for around $230 shipped. With hardware transcoding enabled this configuration will get you around 6-7 h265 transcodes and 15-20 h264 transcodes. If you can find a T1700 with a 1226v3 or a 1245v3 those are also very good cpu options. Be aware not all e3 v3 intel chips have quicksync support and you’ll want one that does. If you’re wondering which intel cpus have quicksync support a link can be found HERE. The idle power consumption for these computers is only 25-35 watts. So at idle it will only cost you 25 to 30 dollars per year to run this as your plex server. Compare THAT to the typical dual westmere server that i see most people running which idles at 250-300 watts that’s a savings of $260 per year in power alone. This doesn’t even take into account the difficult job of software transcoding streams on a westmere server and how THAT will further increase your power costs. I’ve seen my dual westmere server hit 535 watts at full load. This T1700 precision server will pay for itself in the first year of operation even if it just sat at idle.
For a Medium size plex server build our recommendations are the dell precision 3620 or T30 poweredge with the e3-1225 v5 cpu which can be found on ebay for about 350-400 dollars shipped. Don’t let the passmark score fool you, the e3-1225 v5 cpu will outperform the v3 cpu This is due to an upgraded iGPU something passmark doesn’t consider. This combination should net you around 10+ h265 transcodes and easily 25 or more h264 transcodes. All while consuming 35-45 watts at idle depending on your configuration.
‘CUSTOM’ LARGE BUILD
The final build I will go over today is a custom one. From my testing it appears you can get some great performance out of the new coffee lake or kaby lake intel cpu’s due to their new UHD 630 iGPU. Here is a list of parts and the associated cost for each of them. This build costs roughly $560 depending on the parts you use and will net you 14-15 h265 transcodes and 25+ h264 transcodes all while using an extremely small amount of electricity. At full load you are looking at around 125 watts and at idle this plex server will only consume 31 watts of electricity.
I choose the i5-8600k for its powerful UHD 630 iGPU and its overclocking capabilities. I have tested this machine with JUST quicksync AND with a P2000 GPU. With quicksync i was able to hit 15 h265 transcodes, and 25 h264 transcodes easily with room to go. After installing the Quadro P2000 It ended up taking it to 100% utilization at 28 h265 transcodes all while only using 50% of the CPU. I would guess you could add a second P2000 to this system and get over 50 h265 transcodes should you want it. You really don’t need to get an i7 here unless you really need the extra couple of transcodes it would net you and you don’t see yourself getting a P2000 down the road. Personally I don’t think it’s worth it as this build in its stock configuration is fairly powerful with quicksync and hardware transcoding enabled. If you want to splurge on an AIO Liquid cooler you’ll be able to get this cpu to 4.8 or 5ghz where it would likely perform close to if not better than the i7 8700k.
The one thing all of these builds have in common is they all have an upgrade path. So long as you purchase a full size atx case or the case you have is capable of adding a full height pci-e card you can add a Quadro P2000 to any of these computers to get more transcodes than you’ll ever need. This won’t require any additional power as i’ve run the P2000 in computers ranging from 200 watts to 300 watts without any problems. With any of these builds you’ll see well over 20+ h265 transcodes by adding the P2000. That said running any of these systems in the stock configuration still gets you quite a few transcodes without any problems whatsoever all while not adding much to your electricity bill each month. Not to mention all of these builds run with no noticeable noise AND they wont turn your house into a sauna in the summer time.
Now let’s talk about some issues you should consider when using quicksync:
- The first is that as of september 2018 it doesn’t appear Plex supports running BOTH quicksync AND Nvidia’s NVENC Hardware transcoding simultaneously. This means that you can run a GPU and hardware transcode on it until it hits 100% utilization, OR run with quicksync on a cpu via the integrated GPU and run that. You can’t do both simultaneously. This is very disappointing as you can enable onboard graphics on most motherboards while using a p2000, but plex simply won’t make use of both simultaneously. That said from my testing you CAN run multiple GPU’s and plex will use them both. I did this with a P2000 and a GTX 980 ti which added 2 extra transcodes in windows.
This meant that when i ran an RX580 AMD gpu and maxed it out at 7 transcodes the CPU was barely being utilized and i couldn’t get any more transcodes to load. I tested the RX580 and i was incredibly disappointed with it. I could only ever get 7 h265 transcodes before it hit a wall; it did not matter what host i put the card in; they all got about 7 h265 transcodes before they started buffering. Even my shiny new i5-8600k.
- Another thing i found was sometimes Plex would do software transcoding instead of hardware transcoding with quicksync even though hardware transcoding was enabled. It was fairly consistent and more noticeable on older generation intel cpu’s. I’m not sure why it does this, but the only way to force hardware transcoding is to manually stop the playback, cross your fingers and start it again. This happened in both ubuntu AND windows 10 pro. This is also very disappointing and i hope plex fixes this down the road. Please note I have not seen this same behavior while using the P2000 or any GPU for that matter. for whatever reason GPU hardware transcoding works flawlessly.
- One last thing to note, and probably the MOST important. There seemed to be an issue while hardware transcoding with quicksync mostly on older generation processors where the Plex server process would hang. The process would be running, the transcoder processes would also be running but nothing would work and all sessions would infinitely buffer with a spinning circle. I mostly experienced this issue on older pre haswell intel cpu’s, but i suspect it might plague all quicksync enabled plex servers maybe just to a lesser degree for newer cpu’s. I posted a link below in the description to a Plex forum post i wrote and if any of you have experienced this PLEASE comment on my post to help make the devs at plex aware of this bug so they can fix it. Right now i see this as a huge set back for anyone wanting to enable hardware transcoding on older intel quicksync capable chips.
So which of these builds is right for you?
The medium build with an e3-1225 v5 would actually be my personal choice ESPECIALLY if you wanted to add the P2000 to it down the road. The only reason i went with the i5-8600k was because i wanted to be able to turn it into a gaming computer down the road, while i could do that with the e3 the i5 will ultimately do better in video games. I also had unique space requirements, I ended up using a case that was the right form factor to fit in a small server cabinet i built at home to reduce the sound from my servers. That said I think the e3 v3 or v5 is the right choice for both power consumption, and performance. If you want to put your own server together like me and you like the built in m.2 capabilities of the z370 motherboard coupled with the ability to pick out your own case, fans, and cooler then go with the custom i5 large build. If you want something cheap, decently fast, and you don’t have demanding simultaneous transcoding requirements the small build will likely work great for most if not all of you. I think the small build is perfect for most households who also share with a few others. The best part is that it can be had for between two to three hundred dollars on ebay. I don’t think you’ll regret any of the builds i’ve put together today, but please leave comments and let me know what you think.