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I am pretty much a hardware guy, but what I know about a render farm is basicly that your talking computer cluster.
The option them become limited by your choice of software and your budget.
Most cluster are Linux because it works well and its free. There are some good software package with the same price tag. free.
Windows HPC cluster runs well also, but you have the added cost of the OS.
You can build a basic cluster out of a bunch of induvidual system or by using a blade or Intel modular server system.
The modular servers have the advantage that they are easir to manage configure and take up much less space.
I ask around and see if I can get some more information for you from one of the more softwere focuced people I know.
Here is a interesting artical I found on a linux cluster http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,2845,1815789,00.asp
I read the article, but instead of becoming a hardware geek, I'd rather concentrate on my animation. Therefore, a "designed render farm" is more practical if not too expensive.
I did a bit of reading on the 3d max software.
It looks like 3d max includes a rendering off load server engine called backburner.
This site had a video demo of it. http://designreform.net/2008/12/3ds-max-rendering-with-backburner/
With this, a render farm would be a simple as a group of windows systems on a local network (gbit ideally) running the backburner server and one (your workstation) configureded as the manager.