I've been doing pro VFX for about 7 years now and the nature of my projects in TV and film are just screaming at me to buckle down and get some more juice behind my simulations and renders, and finally start setting up a file server/license server and a render farm.
The problem I keep running into is that I don't have as much knowledge with hardware as I do when it comes to being an artist. I have tried to ask on multiple forums and I am either told "it's too complex" or it turns into a pissing match between tech geeks trying to outdo each other instead of providing any decent info.
First off, my main OS is Mac, and my machine quadruple boots into OS X 10.5, 10.6, Windows 7, and Linux. My main 3D package is Maya, and even though to date 99% of my projects were done with Mental Ray, I have just started using RenderMan Studio. I also do a lot of video and audio/music work, hence the Mac, so I use massive amounts of data for an individual who owns a small company.
After doing my own research on and off, it definitely seems that building servers from scratch is the most cost effective, money:power. But when it comes to hardware there are so many options that I never have had to deal with since I use Mac hardware and have been for the last 15 years or so.
Since this is a long question, preliminary info would be nice on setting up a file server from scratch or from my existing machines, and also for beginning a render farm. I am leaning towards linux for the farm because of stability and the fact that it's supported by all the 3D apps I use. However, a dual-boot farm might make more sense since I can't render after effects files on linux.
The hardware I already have at my disposal besides my workstation is:
1) PowerPC G5 Mac (last of the powerpc generation) with dual proc (4-core I believe), 32GB of RAM and a Quadro card. maybe 2 TB of internal drives in it.
2) PowerPC G5 maybe 2-3 years older with 16GB of RAM and maybe 1 TB of drives
3) a really old G4 (one of the dark blue ones) that I haven't even fired up in years. so that's probably too old to do anything.
I was thinking of getting a dirt cheap computer as a license server, like a Mac mini, and then possibly converting one of the older Macs to a file server that runs OS X or Linux, and use maybe an 8-bay external RAID chassis loaded with 2TB SATA drives.
I would also need a very good router with NAT capabilities and a built in Firewall.
For a render farm, the bladed server approach seems to be ideal as it's more compact, uses less power and costs less than turnkey servers. Without a stack of cash to load it up though, I might have to start with a single blade and then keep adding to it when projects come in.
Anyway, there's the general idea and some things I think might be useful. Any info will be appreciated from those of you who know more about this stuff.