Building a new VM server Part 1: Intro and Hardware

[sc:hardware-category ]At the moment, my servers at home consist of two VMWare host servers and several VMs on each. The hardware specs are:

  • Server 1: Quad core 3.2 ghz AMD processor with 8 gig of RAM. 3 250g disks (OS and VM partitions) and 1 2tb drive for file storage.
  • Server 2: Dual core 2.2 ghz AMD processor with 8 gig of RAM. 3 250g disks (OS and VM partitions) and 1 2tb drive for file storage.

Both servers run Windows Server 2008 R2 with VMWare Server 2.0.2 for the Hypervisor.

The file storage disk is currently shared and replicated between the two Windows servers using DFS for redundancy.

The current workload for these servers has pretty much stretched them to their limits and it’s time to upgrade to something with a little more oomph.

And so…

The Plan

My mandatory upgrade criteria includes:

  • At least 4 cores
  • 16 gig of RAM
  • Standard ATX form factor
  • AMD based

On the nice to have list includes:

  • Remote KVM management
  • Two processor slots

I usually build my home servers from standard PC motherboards, but currently most of those top out at 16 gig of RAM so I’ve had to expand my search a little bit.

I’ve been using AMD processors for many years now and my preference to keep them now has more to do with ensuring all the VM guests transition smoothly more than anything else.  However this may break this time as it looks like I’ll be moving to the Opteron processor.

VMWare server will likely be making an exit at this time as VMWare seems to have pretty much abandoned updating the product and the limitations on how many processors it can support.  Which leaves me choosing between ESXi (now renamed VMWare vSphere Hypervisor), MS’s Hyper-V or the various Linux based virtualization solutions.

The Motherboard and Hardware

After looking around quite a bit, I’ve settled on the ASUS KCMA-D8 motherboard, some of the reasons are:

  • Standard ATX form factor
  • Standard ATX power supply
  • Support for greater than 16g RAM
  • Remote KVM support with optional module
  • 2 processor support with 4 or 6 cores

Of course finding the MB and buying the MB turns out to be two completely different things.  The vendor I was looking to purchase it from turns out to not have ANY CPU heat sink and fan that supports the Opteron 4100 series processors.  I’ve had to order the heat sink and fan from a vendor I have never used before however it turns out they were a very good choice and I’ve received all the parts without incident.

So the server components are as follows:

  • MB: KCMA-D8
  • KVM Option: ASMB4-iKVM
  • RAM: 4 x KVR1333D3E9S/4GHB (16g total)
  • CPU: 2 x AMD Opteron 4122 2.20 GHz
  • CPU Fan: 2 x Dynatron F555

I picked up a basic mid-tower case and power supply from the local computer shop and I’ll be using disks from the existing server when I finally move everything over to the new system.

Currently my disk configuration on the VM’s is spread out over two disks.  Each Windows VM has at least two virtual disks on separate physical disks to allow for backups to reside on a separate disk in case of hardware failure.

I expect to change this to instead use disk mirroring to support redundancy in case of hardware failure.  My current thought is to use the built in Windows RAID support, but the D8 motherboard does support hardware raid on the SAS ports.  There is conflicting statements in the manual if the SATA ports are supported but it would seem likely they are, however, using the built in Windows raid functionality will allow me to change motherboards without have to rebuild the entire raid disk set.

After assembling the components on the motherboard I hit my first snag with the hardware build.  The KCMA-D8 motherboard is a standard ATX form factor, however it uses pretty much every inch of the ATX spec and the generic mid-tower case need a little TLC with a pair of tin snips to remove some of the 5.25 drive bays.  The mid-tower case won’t work for a long term solution as with the motherboard installed, only two of the five 3.5 drive bays are available.  I’ve ordered a large tower case that claims it’s “silent”, so we’ll see how that works.

After getting everything installed in the case and hooking up a keyboard and mouse, the second hardware issue came up.  The F555 heat sinks have a high speed fan on them, which sounds kind of like a front load washer running at full steam inside of the case, times two for the dual processors Smile.

The MB has several fan settings, from full to whisper mode, however they seem to have no effect on the fan speed, which runs at a constant 5000 rpm.  By accident it turns out I had plugged one of the fans in to a case connector instead of the cpu connector, which ran the fan at ~3000 rpm.  This had the effect of making the system livable, however it was still too loud to be a long term solution.

After checking the temperature of the CPU while running and their thresholds, I pulled the stock fans off of the CPU heat sinks and installed a low speed 80mm case fan on each.  These run virtually silently and after stressing the server for a bit, it looks like I loose about 5-10 degrees of cooling, still well within the thermal limits for the AMD 4100 CPUs.

The only issue I’ve found with the motherboard so far is the extremely basic video card that is on board, it’s pretty much just a frame buffer, no 2d or 3d acceleration at all.  Screen redraws are slow and painful to watch, however dropping in a replacement video card means that the IP KVM no longer works.  Luckily the console isn’t used much so its a trade off I’ll have to live with as the KVM functionality is more important then the video performance on the server.

Next up in part 2… selecting a new hypervisor!

Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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