ESXi home server build 2015

I have been wanting to build a home server for quite a while already, a Raspberry Pi has done some of the duties I have had in mind but it’s woefully under-powered for most of the stuff and it’s memory card failed a while back so why not build a proper one this time.

Background

From the beginning it was clear that the machine would run a bunch of virtual machines. With this goal in mind it was clear that it would be based on VMware ESXi 6.0 and needed 16 GB ram and something along the lines of Xeon E3-1230v2. Rack mounting was unfortunately not an option as there just is no space for a rack in my current apartment.

I happened to have a bunch of 3 TB hard drives, a mix of Western Digital red and green, available for this project but everything else was on shopping list. I will get back to performance of this drive mix later but I’m hoping the greens will play nice with the raid.

Do I need to build it myself?

First I thought of HP’s home server / small office offering carrying the name Microserver, possibly with an upgrade to Xeon E3-1231v3 but decided against it because of seemingly short lifetime. Microserver has only one PCI-e slot and lacks proper integrated hardware raid. This means proper hardware raid would take the only PCI-e slot and there would be zero room for upgrades. Also VMware does not support this platform at all so ESXi runs on it only as long as HP is willing to provide drivers for it (Of course it will run longer if you are willing to hunt and use third-party drivers, but I’m not). It is definitely a cheap option to consider, but I think a more generic build will become cheaper in the long run as components can be upgraded as needed.

After exploring the Microserver I was pretty much settled on 16 GB of ECC ram and E3-1231v3, which seem to provide very decent performance and most bang for the buck. So the important stuff left to hunt were motherboard, raid card and enclosure.

Building it myself

Lets begin with the raid card, I’m not going to go all the cards I thought of as that would take forever so lets just cut to it. I decided to go with Dell Perc H700, which is pretty much an LSI MegaRAID 9265-8i. I admit it’s a bit on the older side but it provides very decent performance for a home server and can’t beat it in bang for the buck. The Dell one is the cheapest 9265 clone I could find at around 80€ used and it seems to have decent support from both VMware and Dell.

Motherboard was definitely the hardest part, I’m not exactly sure why because I ended up with a Supermicro board that has pretty much everything I want but was quite hard to find. The board is called X10SLL-F and I managed to source it from a German reseller for a little shy of 200€. This board is based on Intel C222 and features two PCI-e x8 plus one x4, double nics and ipmi with dedicated nic. And every single bit is supported by ESXi 6.0 out of the box.

Finding a proper enclosure wasn’t an easy task either as I initially wanted Microserver-like external hard drive caddies but had to give up on that idea as I simply couldn’t find a good one featuring at least 8 of them. After looking at a bunch of more ordinary cases I chose to go with Fractal Design Define R5 because of the nice hard drive “caddies” and the good experiences I have had with Fractal Design cases before. To make it a little bit less boring I chose to rotate the hard drive cages 180 degrees to face the other side panel for easier access as the server will be located so that the side you would normally open will be facing a wall. They have definitely not planned for this but it works ok, you have to temporarily remove the plastic things guiding the upper cage to make it fit under the optical drive’s cage which I decided not to remove. It is a little wobbly but works just fine.

Complete home server shopping list

Rest of the build is pretty standard, here is the complete home server build, just add some hard drives. Notice that those Amazon links are not the ones I bought, just couldn’t find manufacturer’s site for them and the eBay items I bought are not likely to survive as long as Amazon ones. The battery and battery cable are actually for even older Dell Perc cards but work just fine with H700 and were a little cheaper.

The whole thing comes out a little short of 1000€ when all parts except the raid adapter are bought new. HP Microserver with the same ram and CPU upgraded to E3-1231v3 would come out as about 575€ with integrated raid or about 700€ with the same raid setup so I consider my build to be definitely worth the 300€ extra, and if you are on a budget you can probably cut it down to pretty near the 700€ by buying used.

Picture time!

Sorry for the quality, I will get a camera, promise.

The brand new home server! The raid card heats up too much without a dedicated fan so I used my mad zip tie skills to mount one for it. Only two drives at the moment as I haven’t got past testing yet.
There was no good place for the raid battery backup unit so I got to use some more of the zip ties. Unfortunately the Fractal Design supplied ones were too short.
The drives are accessible from the “wrong” side as well.

What’s next?

I have already installed VMware ESXi (vSphere) 6.0 and additional VIBs for raid status to be visible to ESXi and Dell’s OpenManage to be able to control the raid card without booting the machine all the time. I might write another post on the installation as it wasn’t very straightforward and guides I found online are outdated. But now excuse me as I’m going to play some more with the new home server.

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