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29 Sep 2014

New ESXi Whitebox Servers for Home Lab

I’ve been thinking about retiring my old home lab server hardware for some time now. I’ve had two little HP ProLiant ML110 G5 servers for 5+ years. They’ve been good little machines and didn’t cost too much to run, but I can now tell that time has taken its toll on them. They each have a dual core Intel Xeon processor and maxed out at 8GB of RAM. With the management components of products such as vSphere, vCAC, vCD, etc. nowadays requiring at least 8GB per appliance, these machines have basically been made obsolete by the requirements of most enterprise applications today.


So I needed to find some hardware to replace these two servers. I needed to find a server, or “whitebox” that meets the following requirements:

  1. Needs to be affordable to purchase and to run 24x7;
  2. Needs to be quiet;
  3. At least a Quad-core processor;
  4. Needs to have 32GB of RAM per host.

I’ve been looking around for “small to medium business” class servers, but I’ve not quite been able to spec something up that met all my requirements, and when they did, I just couldn’t justify the expense. The alternative was to buy decommissioned DL380s from eBay, but then I’d be footing a pretty high energy bill, and not to mention having to live with the constant noise of server cooling fans, blowing out the heat that resembles the money I’d be spending in energy bills, from the back of the server.

So, I did what any other techie in my position on a budget would do. I built my own whitebox to run ESXi 5.5 on. When I first purchased my ML110 servers, it was in the ESX 3.0 days (remember those). ESX 3 was very fussy about hardware and literally wouldn’t install on most non-HCL hardware. Today, ESXi 5 installs on almost anything (although not supported when run on non HCL hardware).

After having a look at what’s available on the market for mid to high end desktop computer components, I realised that there is a lot of processing power being packed into today’s desktop class products, and that at a fraction of the cost compared to enterprise server components.

Intel v.s. AMD:

Considering what I’ll be using the servers for, to run vCloud Suite products mostly, I determined that AMD offers the best value for money. They provide processors that fit my requirements perfectly. Although Intel provides premium processors which in my opinion are far superior to AMD processors in terms of performance vs. energy consumption, AMD offers processors with lots of cores (perfect for virtualisation), high clock speeds (not that I’m all that fussed about maximising GHz per core) and all the processor extensions required for the workloads I’d be running, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent Intel processor. Yes sure, if I was building a new gaming machine, or a flight simulator, or a vSphere environment for a customer production environment, then I’d push for Intel, but for my home lab, there’s not much sense in spending the additional $$$.

So, with the processor vendor decided, here’s what I came up with:

  1. AMD FX-8320E 8-Core FX Series CPU = £106.6 Incl. VAT*
  2. Asus M5A78L-M/USB3 Socket AM3+ Motherboard (Micro-ATX) = £49.98 Incl. VAT
  3. 2x CORSAIR CML16GX3M2A1600C9 (32GB Dual Channel DDR3) = £247.58 Incl. VAT
  4. 350W BeQuiet PURE L8 BN221 Power Supply = £35.22 Incl. VAT
  5. Gigabyte GZ-MA02 Case (Micro-ATX) = £24.00 Incl. VAT

Total = £463.38 Incl. VAT

*For you guys in the US, VAT in the UK is sales tax in the US.

You’ll notice that there are no HDDs or SSDs included in the hardware list above. That’s because I’m not playing with VSAN or any other local storage or caching at the moment. Storage is currently provided by my Synology DS1512+ NAS.

All these components arrived on Saturday, 27 September 2014, and I can report that with the exception of one small issue (which I’ll explain below), ESXi 5.5 Update 2 is running marvellously on the whitebox.


Well, there is one catch here that could be a serious issue for those who aren’t planning on installing an additional supported NIC. The on-board Realtek 8111E/F PCIe Gigabit LAN controller is not supported and not even detected by ESXi 5.5. This isn’t an issue for me as I had installed a quad port 1Gbps NIC card that was sitting on my desk for a while, which is supported, so I hadn’t even noticed the on-board NIC wasn’t showing up until I came to configuring the networking.

However, if you try and install ESXi on a system built with this motherboard or any other motherboard with the Realtek 8xxx series NIC without installing a supported NIC first, then I’m afraid ESXi won’t even install.

I did see on the community forums and some blog posts that suggest there are unsupported drivers floating around, that might enable the on-board NIC, but I’m not too fussed with it at the moment as I have a quad NIC card installed, which probably cost me about £20 off eBay.


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Last modified on Tuesday, 09 December 2014 15:57
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