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Building a Cheap, Screaming Virtualization Lab Server

As most of us know, today's home labs, and even a number of corporate labs, are pulled together with whatever parts users can get their hands on and/or recycled hand-me-downs. Typically this is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to stand up a server lab for testing and engineer use. However, what's gained by getting things set up quickly is lost in power and effectiveness. How many of us in IT wish we could get an affordable system that also does what we need it to do?

"Voila!" There IS a cost effective way to build a screaming box and I have discovered it -- with some significant help from my CDW guy. (By the way, major shout out to my CDW guy, Nick Geaslin, because he definitely went above and beyond the call of duty on this one!)

Now what I'm not going to do is list/part-out building a white box. Number one, that is just way too much work, what with figuring out what parts are needed, sourcing them, configuring and testing, etc. Unless there is a very compelling reason to build a specific kind of system, this seems to me a very inefficient way to go. More to the point, things can go horribly wrong, if the end result doesn't do the job, or works against you.

So, my approach is to look at an established architecture that I am pretty sure is going to meet my needs and customize it. I'm going to expose a way to take an HP shell and toss in some really good extra parts to create one killer server for a virtualization lab.

First things first, you need a server shell that can scale with the number of disks, amount of memory slots, CPU and a good raid controller. For this, I'm going with the HP ProLiant ML350 G6 Tower Server, (more info here).

Why did I pick this server? Because the HP ProLiant I selected meets the following specs:

  • Supports Dual CP -- this shell comes with 4-core single CPU
  • Holds 8 2.5" Drives
  • On Board RAID: 6 Gb/s; 256 MB RAM and write-back cache; Dual-Channel RAID and back plane
  • Has 18 DIMM slots for up to 192 GB of RAM!
  • (2) NIC's 1 GB
  • Lights out integrated

Now here are the three "ingredients" that HP doesn't want you to know about, but if you do, you can turn a solid workhorse of a server into a super-screaming racer! Add:

  • Affordable 32 GB of RAM that works
  • Affordable SSD drives
  • The HP part number for 2.5" drives trays (This is the "super-secret" component)

For Memory I went with Crucial memory, (2) 16 GB - DIMM 240-pin - DDR3.

For SSDs I also went with Crucial: (2) Crucial M4 - Solid State Drive - 256 GB - SATA-600. Note: install the drives using the outer slots working your way in to take advantage of both channels on the RAID controller right away. These drives are killer with ~45,000 IOPS in comparison to spinning disk running ~100-~200 IOPS. Because I like to play with fire, I put two of these in a RAID 0 and get 2x the IOPS! Talk about running a lot of VMs at one time and never waiting again!

To tie it all together, we sourced the "super-secret" hard drive trays to mount the SSD's: (2) CPB-TRAY HARD DRIVE,2.5",SATA.

The trays are key here because they are the actual SKU part that HP uses so you are guaranteed a good fit.

This whole setup should cost you less than $3,000. As in most labs, you use disk space and memory before you use all the CPU, so if you want to double your horsepower with 32 GB more of RAM and 500 GB more of SSD space, you can do so for less than $1,500. The first unboxing and mounting of parts can be done in under an hour, while the doubling of horsepower can be accomplished in under 15 minutes.

Users can take the time to source and get the parts from a few places and save a little more money, but if they pick all this up from CDW they will get free tech support for any issues.

So another shameless plug for my CDW rep, Nick Geaslin (nickgea@cdw.com), for setting me up so nicely! The best part is that this server can really perform the work that my team needs for software development testing, engineering support and QA work. It is about as good as it gets for production quality in a lab setting, so results are accurate and so is all your decision making, which is essential for me.

Posted by Jason Mattox on 03/14/2012 at 12:49 PM


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