tech_lab_itunes_logo As the last days of 2015 tick away, I wanted to share how I came about my new lab environment without spending a fortune. Some of you might want to set some goals for the new year and this might be some interesting input. My focus for this lab was that I wanted it to be not only friendly on budget, but also low on installation effort and support. It should work out of the box, it should be supported by the vendors (in this case, HP, VMware and QNAP) and it should not be rocket science to put it all together. If you want to use this article to compose a list of items to purchase, you can find a list of all the items described here below the article.

Of course, I call it a lab, but when you look at the specifications, this configuration easily serves any small or even medium business needs. Curious what’s in the box? Let’s go!

The Components – The Server

Not so long ago, Erik created his own new lab environment. He choose to pick low power low key systems as his hosts. Check his article here. He picked Shuttle barebones and added hardware to it. My goal however, was using something that has both hardware vendor and VMware support. So I started looking for a low power server and I found the Hewlett Packard Proliant Microserver. Now, I’ve seen this little cube before, but back then it was not as economical as this version was and the performance left a lot to desire. This version however, the Gen 8, packed enough punch to run several VMs without breaking sweat.

What I liked most about this little cube is the fact that it is supported for VMware. But apart from that, it offers some genuine server technology for a super eco pricepoint. It has Integrated Lights Out (ILO) management, it has two network interfaces, it has an onboard SD-card slot from which it can boot, it has a PCIe slot where you can add another NIC. The Microserver comes in various hardware configurations with different CPUs, ranging from low power low budget Celeron up to a powerfull Xeon E3. The only downside to this box is the fact that it “only” supports 16 Gigs of RAM. This might sound like more than enough, but if you add 3 Windows VMs with 4 Gigs each, you are soon nearing the end of resources. Then again, if you have 3 of these boxes like we have in this lab, you can have quite the serverpark without getting into trouble.

Here are the specs of the Microserver I use:

Item Specification
Brand Hewlett Packard
Model Microserver Gen 8
CPU 1 x Intel Celeron G1610T – 2 Cores @ 2.30 Ghz
RAM 16 Gb (2 x 8 Gb Non Registered ECC DDR3 DIMM)
Network
Ethernet 1Gb 2-port 332i Adapter (Broadcom Chip)
Extension PCI 2.0 16x Low Profile
HP-Microserver-Gen8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More specs on the internals and limits can be found at the HP website over here.

To make things move forward quickly, I added an HP Intel NIC to the mix. This low profile card has the model NC360T. Now, when you buy this card new of the shelf it costs about 100-120 dollars or euros. However, I found several sellers on eBay offering the new card for 20 euros. If you have no problem with that, it can save you a lot of money. I bought 3 for 60 euros. The NC360T can easily be mounted in the Microserver, however it did cause some hardware conflicts at first with the on board NICs and SATA controller. I had to deactivate Boot from LAN and the onboard Smart Array RAID controller, but then it ran like a charm. With 4 NICs and a remote administration port, this server is good to go!. The best part is, the pricetag. Here’s what I spend so far

Item Pricetag (Euro) Pricetag (Dollar)
HP Microserver Gen8 (2GB model) 239 270
Kingston ValueRAM (2 x 8GB) 140 157
HP NC360T (incl shipping) 25 28
SanDisk microSD card 16GB 15 17
Total 419 472

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it. A fully configured server with 4 NICs, 16 GB RAM and full support by HP and VMware for under 500 dollars.

The Components – The Storage

Next, I had to store the VMs somewhere. In the past I’ve done this on shared storage. And although the Microserver has harddisk slots and VMware’s vSAN could be an option, I went for an external solution. Our friends at QNAP kindly provided me with a wonderful NAS system that is fast, high performance and yet low power. I went for the QNAP TS-453A model. This system has a 4 bay chassis, but more importantly has 4 network interfaces so the network cannot be the bottleneck any more. Here are the specifications of the TS453A model:

Item Specification
Brand QNAP
Model TS-453A
Drive Slots 4
RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 10
CPU Intel Celeron N3150 – 4 Cores @ 1.6 Ghz
RAM 8 GB (2 x 4 GB SO-DIMM)
Network 4 x 1Gbit with port trunking
QNAP-TS-453A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More info on the QNAP TS-453A can be found here.

As you can see, this is a pretty powerfull yet powerfriendly NAS. Now, we need to add disks here and that was kind of a challenge. I could either go eco and use low power drives that run slow and have slow VMs, or I could pick enterprise NAS disks that run 7200 RPM but also have a higher power usage. I chose to go with the latter. I picked 3 x Seagate 2TB Enterprise NAS disks for the test as well as a Samsung 850 Pro SSD drive with 256GB as a cache drive. QNAP has the option to assign an SSD as a cache drive, either as read cache only (if you have 1 SSD) or as read and write cache (if you have 2 SSDs). As the TS-453A has 4 slots, I chose 1 SSD and 3 standard harddisks. I could also have picked 2 SSDs and 2 standard disks with larger capacity but for the sake of the budget, I did not. Here’s the pricelist for the NAS config:

Item Pricetag (Euro) Pricetag (Dollar)
QNAP TS-453A (8 GB) 665 749
3 x Seagate Enterprise NAS, 2 TB 429 484
1 x Samsung 850 Pro 256 GB SSD 135 152
Total 1,229 1,385

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, the pricetag is still an amount to recon with, but compared to having at least 2 disks plus 1 SSD in each host, this is the cheaper version with a lot of punch packed.

The Components – The Network

Moving on the the connectivity. This isn’t quite fair, as I already owned the switch I was planning to use, however for honesty I will process it as if I bought it specifically for this environment. The switch I went for is the HP v1910-24G. This is actually a 3Com switch (if you know HP a bit, you will notice it in the interface). It’s classified as a Layer 3 Light switch. This means that it’s not all the way full featured Layer 3, but it has basic Layer 3 routing functionality. It of course is a managed switch with vLAN capabilities and more. I picked the 24 port version as this will suit my needs. There also is an 8 port version as well as an 48 port. Here are the short specs:

Item Specification
Brand Hewlett Packard
Model v1910-24G
Ports 24 ports 10/100/1000 + 4 SFP ports
Switching capacity  56 Gbps
Average Latency < 5 μs
v1910-24G

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More information on the v1910-24G can be found here.

Of course you have to connect all the parts together. I picked 1,5 meter cables as everything will be close to eachother. As power cables and networking cables might be mixed together, I decided to go for quality shielded Cat6 cables with proper connectors. This way, external interference could not influence the performances of the network. I ordered green cables for the servers (12 in total) and orange cables for the storage (4 in total). Together with the switch that sums up to this:

Item Pricetag (Euro) Pricetag (Dollar)
HP v1910-24G Switch 265 298
4 x Orange CAT6 Cable 12 14
12 x Green CAT6 Cable 31 35
Total 308 347

 

 

 

 

Components – Total

Now, I’m assuming you will install VMware on it. As this is focussed on SMB or a Lab environment, I assume you guys out there will not spend tens of thousands of dollars or euros on vSphere 6 With Operations Enterprise Plus. For the sake of economy, I will add vSphere Esssentials Plus Term License to the mix. This way you will have all the fancy features with a limit of 3 hosts. Term license offers an additional option for customers with smaller IT budgets. The price includes the product license and Basic support & subscription for 1 year.

So, if we add it all together, it shows up like this:

Item Pricetag (Euro) Pricetag (Dollar)
Server (x3) 1,257 1,281
Storage 1,229 1,385
Network 308 347
Software 2,331 2,628
Total 5,125 5,641

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 16.49.18

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it. A full featured, fully supported 3 node cluster with VMware for well under 6K! This is a cluster that can easily run any SMB or Lab core infrastructure on a day-to-day basis and leave room for more. Of course more servers can be added, if need be. Keep in mind though that the VMware Essentials Plus license only allows for 3 hosts. You might want to switch license plans if you need more processing power or pick a more powerfull servermodel, i.e. the Xeon E3 version. In the next section I will go into the installation and configuration of the components and show you a few performance statistics.

Below you will find a list with the components described in this article for your purchase list.

Budget Cluster Purchase List


Other articles in the series Low Budget SMB: