I am a big fan of HP’s Microserver range. They make for excellent home lab hardware, and I currently have 2 x N40L models running a small vSphere 5.1 cluster for testing, blogging and study purposes.
It looks like HP have now officially listed their new Microserver range on their website – the N54L. The most notable change seems to be a much beefier CPU. The original N36Ls had a 1.3GHz AMD processor, with a slight improvement to 1.5GHz on the N40Ls. The CPU has always been the weak point for me, but has been enough for me to get by on. So the N54L models are now apparently packing 2.2GHz AMD Athlon NEO processors. This is a fairly big clock speed improvement over the N40L range and should make for some good improvements for those using these as bare metal hypervisor use.
The two models being listed at the moment are:
HP ProLiant G7 N54L 1P 2GB-U Non-hot Plug SATA 250GB 150W PS MicroServer
I have always enjoyed running my own home lab for testing and playing around with the latest software and operating systems / hypervisors. Up until recently, it was all hosted on VMware Workstation 8.0 on my home gaming PC, which has an AMD Phenom II x6 (hex core) CPU and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. This has been great, and I still use it, but there are some bits and pieces I still want to be able to play with that are traditionally difficult to do on a single physical machine, such as working with VLANs and taking advantage of hardware feature sets.
To that end, I have been slowly building up a physical home lab environment. Here is what I currently have:
2 x HP Proliant N40L Microservers (AMD Turion Dual Core processors @ 1.5GHz)
250GB local SATA HDD (just used to host the ESXi installations.
As mentioned above, I am using HP NC360T PCI-Express NICs to give me a total of 3 x vmnics per ESXi host.
Dell PowerConnect 5324 switch (24 port Gbit managed switch)
1Gbit Powerline Ethernet home plugs to uplink the Dell PowerConnect switch to the home broadband connection. This allows me to keep the lab in a remote location in the house, which keeps the noise away from the living area.
This is a work in progress at the moment, (currently finding the low end 2 x bay home NAS devices are not sufficient for performance, and the more expensive models are too expensive to justify).
As this is temporary, each drive provides 1 x Datastore to the ESXi hosts. I therefore have one large datastore for general VMs, and one fast SSD based datastore for high priority VMs, or VM disks. I am limited by the fact that the Micro-ATX board only has 2 x onboard SATA ports, so I may consider purchasing an addon card to expand these.
Storage is presented as NFS. I am currently testing ZFS vs UFS and the use of the SSD drive as a ZFS and zil log / and or cache drive. To make this more reliable, I will need the above mentioned addon card to build redundancy into the system, as I would not like to lose a drive at this time!
Platform / ghetto rack
IKEA Lack rack (black) – cheap and expandable : )
Currently, one host only has 4GB RAM, I have an 8GB kit waiting to be added to bring both up to 8GB. I also need to add the HP NC360T dual port NIC to this host too as it is a recent addition to the home lab.
On the storage side of things, I just managed to take delivery of 2 x OCZ Vertex 2 128GB SSD drives which I got at bargain prices the other day (£45 each). Once I have expanded SATA connectivity in my Micro-ATX FreeNAS box I will look into adding these drives for some super fast SSD storage expansion.
Lastly, the Dell PowerConnect 5324 switch I am using still has the original firmware loaded (from 2005). This needs to be updated to the latest version so that I can enable Link Layer Discovery Protocol (LLDP) – which is newly supported with the VMware vSphere 5.0 release on Distributed Virtual Switches. This can help with the configuration and management of network components in an infrastructure, and will mainly serve to allow me to play with this feature in my home lab. I seem to have lost my USB-to-Serial adapter though, so this firmware upgrade will need to wait until I can source a new one off ebay.
I wanted to add more physical NICs to my HP Microserver N40L machine to use with vSphere. The box comes with an onboard 1GBit NIC, but I wanted to play around with VLANs and multiple uplinks in my home lab. The problem is finding an affordable solution – most dual port NICs that are any use with ESXi (Intel chipset based) cost almost as much as the Microserver itself which is quite off-putting!
After trawling ebay and the VMware HCL I found that that the HP NC360T PCI Express Dual Port Gigabit Network Card would work well with ESXi 5.0 and that I could get these NICs (used) fairly cheap. I picked up a used card off ebay for only £30 ($46.97 US), which was in my budget. Problem was I could not find a card with a low-profile bracket, so I thought I would just make do with the normal bracket and either remove it, or modify it to fit.
The NIC itself has two 1GBit ports, and is based on the Intel 82571EB chipset and offers a 4 lane (x4) PCI Express bus. This means that I could use it on the HP Microserver’s 16x PCI Express slot (which is downward compatible of course). Apparently there are also mods out there that can be used to get this card to work in the x1 slot if you don’t have the x16 slot free – but I haven’t attempted this yet.
I first tried it out without the bracket (by just removing two screws that hold the bracket to the PCB). This worked fine, but was really not a permanent solution, especially for plugging/unplugging cables whilst the machine was powered up.
So out came the tools as I decided to modify the existing bracket to fit the Microserver’s low-profile chassis.
Step 1 – I drew a line at the point where the 90 degree bend in the bracket should be for a low-profile card. I then took a junior hacksaw and “scored” this line out (saw a little bit in to weaken the metal).
Step 2 – Now with the score mark in place, I simply used two pairs of pliers to bend the bracket along the score mark, which was now easy and accurate.
Step 3 – I marked off where the 90 degree protruding point of the bracket would end, and used the hacksaw to remove the excess. I then cut out a small notch in this top piece for the screw that holds the PCI card in place normally. I attached the bracket back to the NIC and installed in the Microserver.
And here is the final result after ESXi 5.0 recognises the new hardware –
If you have managed to find any good PCI Express NICs for the HP N40L Microserver, or have any advice or experiences with mods for hardware and the Microserver, please post in the comments section!
I recently purchased a HP N40L Microserver for my home vSphere lab, with the intention of buying a second unit to create a small vSphere cluster for lab work. This would take me away from having nested virtual ESXi hosts. You can actually currently get great deals on this hardware – with HP offering £100 cashback on the purchase cost. I ended up paying around £260.00 for my HP Microserver, getting 100 off, which means it only cost about £160.
For this price, this microserver makes great hardware for a home lab cluster build, however the one thing that has always been a downer on this is the fact that all specsheets and official documentation from HP list the maximum amount of RAM supported as 8GB for the Microserver. This doesn’t leave much room for VMs to run per host.
Today I received an interesting e-mail in my inbox from Serversplus.com. They claim to have tested running 16GB of Crucial ECC DDR3 Unbuffered (2 x 8GB modules) in the HP N40L Microserver! This, if it is true (which I am sure it is, as they are now selling bundles with 16GB RAM), is great news for us looking to build home labs on the cheap. Sure, 8GB modules are much more expensive than 4GB at the moment, but we now know that there is no 8GB limit on the N40L Microserver – rather 16GB. As soon as I can afford the two 8GB modules for a total of 16GB, I’ll be looking at upgrading my current Microserver to 16GB. If this works, I’ll definitely be purchasing a second unit.
Here is a screencap of the e-mail I got from serversplus.com –