Gen8 Microservers

20Jan15

TL;DR

I’ve been a fan of HP Microservers since the original NL36 model. When the newer Gen8 servers came to market they were a bit pricey, but the cost has come down, and cash back deals have returned. Faster CPUs, larger official memory capacity, dual NICs and remote console capabilities makes these ideal for a home lab.

Background

I’ve been working on our new vns3:turret platform a lot recently. It’s designed to run on enterprise networks rather than in the public cloud, which means that I needed some VMware hosts to play with. My older NL36s and NL40 Microservers were pressed into action, but the need for more capacity pushed me towards the latest model (which isn’t all that new any more, and might well be replaced by a Gen9 offering any day[1]).

Price

A bare bones model with G1610T CPU, 2GB RAM and no disk is presently £149.95 (£179.94 in VAT) at ServersPlus. HP are offering £35 cashback so that’s an out of pocket cost of £144.94 – not quite as amazing as when the original Microservers came with £100 cash back, but not far off.

I went for the 16GB ESXi 5.5 Test Bed Bundle (which has since been updated to ESXi 6.0), and ServersPlus did an excellent job of getting me the machines quickly and efficiently.

Construction

The Gen8 looks a lot prettier than the earlier model, and it’s much easier to get the motherboard out (though that’s only necessary for a CPU upgrade as the RAM is now easily accessible).

Unfortunately the 5.25″ drive bay has been sacrificed for a laptop style optical drive slot, which limits additional storage options. The eSATA port has also disappeared.

The newer drive caddies don’t feel as robust as the older ones, not that it matters once a disk is screwed in.

Remote insight

Probably the best feature of the Gen8 is the inclusion of HP Integrated Lights-Out (iLO), which can be used to provide a remote keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) capability. Out of the box the remote console only works until the OS boots, but an iLO advanced license provides the ability to use KVM after boot. Those licenses are hideously expensive at full sticker price, but there’s a healthy secondary market, and I found one on Amazon for less than $20. A 60 day free trial license can also be obtained.

Since I keep the servers out in my garage (which is presently very cold) I’m glad that I don’t have to go out there.

Upgradability

16GB of ECC RAM is officially supported and very easy to install. It’s a shame it’s not 32GB, but with the standard CPU offerings the balance is probably right.

One of the things that put me off the Gen8 when it launched was the weedy CPU range. The Celeron G1610T and Pentium G2020T on offer are both a bit weak (though notably better than the AMD CPUs in earlier Microservers). Fortunately the CPUs are upgradable. I was able to find a couple of E3 1220L V2 parts on eBay for £129 each[2], which at 17W power rating are an ideal upgrade option. Others have had success with 45W CPUs such as the E3 1265L V2, and many have even got away with running full power 69W parts such as the E3 1230 V2 (even though the heat sink is only rated at 35W)[3].

Besides the extra speed on offer my main reason for doing a CPU upgrade was to get VT-d, though my attempt to pass through the B120i storage controller to a VM failed.

We’re going to need a bigger boat switch

The Gen8 has two integrated Broadcom GigE ports (which is great for VMware) plus the iLO has its own port (though it can share one of the main ports if required). Along with buying secondary GigE NICs for the other servers in my garage this has quickly pushed me from 5 ports to 8 ports to 16 ports

Running ESXi

The supplied USB drive with the HP customised ESXi 5.5 install just worked, and I was immediately able to start installing VMs onto iSCSI and NFS storage without even putting any drives into the bays. I’ve yet to load up these machines, but I’m tempted to migrate over a bunch of VMs from my present Hyper-V setup on a Dell T110 II as potentially both Microservers will have a lower power budget than the single larger server (and provide better tolerance to a single machine hardware failure).

NAS potential?

I had a go at installing NAS4Free on ESXi using raw device mappings (RDM) to 4x 2TB HDDs. Everything seemed to work pretty well, and I was able to get a nice big RAID-Z volume. That’s a setup I’d probably only use for warm storage or media files as I’d want SSD for anything else.

Conclusion

I really like the Gen8 Microserver. It’s proper server engineering in a small, cheap and elegant package. The best bit is the iLO capability, but there are plenty of other things to like about it.

Notes

[1] I’m not too concerned about the possibility of newer Microservers, as the Gen8 is very capable, and the Gen9 is unlikely to be offered at such a bargain price.
[2] In some places the Gen8 is available with the E3 1220L V2, though I’ve never seen it on sale in the UK.
[3] There are so many CPU choices that there’s a FAQ about them.



6 Responses to “Gen8 Microservers”

  1. Hi Chris, great article! ps. your test bed bundle link no longer resolves, cheers Simon.

  2. 3 Adam G

    Hi Chris, what did you search for to find an iLO for $20?

    • ‘hp ilo advanced’ should do it. Right now I’m seeing $22.99 with free shipping and $19.25+$4.57 shipping for a vendor that will email the key.

  3. Hello. I have just got one of these to play around with, same deal 16GB RAM from ServersPlus and a Xeon E3-1220L (on its way). It is actually replacing my N54L which runs Linux on the metal and a four disk btrfs array. I was really hoping to run ESXi 6.0 on this new Gen8 and passthrough the B120i to one of the VMs so that I can just keep the array as is. Will this definitely not work? What a headache!


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