Many experts in the VMware field have different opinions on what server makes a good home lab server. The discussion ranges from white boxes, using parts found on Newegg or Tiger, to branded boxes, with the ML110 a seemingly popular choice. I’ve always had a range of home servers, all white box, for testing (and breaking) Windows environments as I continued to learn and master that platform. However, I finally decided it was time to invest in a server dedicated specifically to VMware learning, especially as I continue to study for the VCAP-DCA.
Climbing on the Shoulders of Those Who Came Before Me
One of the huge advantages of the VMware community is that, on the whole, there are a lot of talented, positive people who are willing to discuss their virtualization passion online and share what they know. An article written by Curtis Preston sparked my interest in the VMware home lab, in which Philip Jaenke and Eric Siebert discuss some lab builds. The infamous “Baby Dragon” is pitted against an HP ML110. Both authors make a lot of great points about support vs price points. Eric also has a great compilation of home lab resources on his blog.
Meet the Black Dragon: The Dell T110
- System: Dell Tower Server T110
- CPU: Xeon X3440 (2.53 GHz)
- RAM: 8GB (4 x 2GB) of DDR3-1333 ECC
- Disk: 2TB (2 x 1TB) WD SATA
- NIC: Imbedded GbE
- RAID: SAS6iR hardware RAID 0/1
- Support: 3 years 8×5 next day on site
- Price: $1046
- Having support for 3 years is great for peace of mind on the hardware.
- Lots of space on the drives for using this as both a VMware lab, and hosting some files on it using a file server virtual machine.
- All components are fully supported by VMware’s HCL.
- Low cost and arrived fully assembled and ready to go. There was a time where I was gung-ho to build boxes and spec out parts, but these days I prefer to just click, pay, and dedicate my time to the lab work or being with the family (not necessarily in that order).
It only has 8GB of memory. I would prefer to see it with 16GB as with the Baby Dragon.(See Update below) There is only one NIC, although there isn’t much stopping me from adding another one.(See Update below)
Update 1: Upgrades!
I have since made two significant upgrades to my Dell T110 to make it a bit more potent as a VMware lab server. Both upgrades worked fine in vSphere 4.1u1 and required no special configuration or drivers beyond what is already loaded.
- Network – Installed a pair of 1GbE NICs, using the “Intel EXPI9301CTBLK Network Adapter 10/ 100/ 1000Mbps PCI-Express 1 x RJ45” which has been listed on the unofficial VMware HCL for quite some time. I decided against a dual or quad port NIC as they are cost prohibitive for me in a lab server, and the T110 comes with a total of 4 PCIe ports (1 used by my SAS 6/iR RAID card) so I might as well use them! Newegg Link
- Memory – Installed a quad set of 4GB memory DIMMs, boosting the server to 16GB of memory. Specifically two sets of “Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM ECC Unbuffered DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) Server Memory Model CT2KIT51272BA1339” Newegg Link
Hopefully if you’re in the market for T110 (or G2) you can use these links to supplement a purchase with some cheaper upgrades. If or when I get another one, I’ll probably just get it with 1 or 2 GB of memory and purchase the sticks from Newegg.
Update 2: A Dell Gripe
My biggest gripe at this point is how extremely frustrating it is to do firmware upgrades to a Dell server (in general), especially when compared to HP. The Dell Server Update Utility DVD consists of 3 split ISO files, took multiple hours to download as it came at 200KBps (super great for 1999, super slow for 2011), and ended up being too big to burn onto a DVD!?! I ended up snagging the System Build disk and then mounting the firmware repository over USB. Compared to grabbing the HP SmartStart DVD (single file, took me 4 minutes to download) and letting it auto-magically upgrade everything with a single boot, this is terrible. I really love Dell equipment for the price and reliability … and did I mention the price? Hence I only mark this as a “gripe” rather than a serious issue.
If you have a better way to upgrade a Dell, please share in the comments. Maybe I’m just technically challenged in this arena. 🙂
Overall, for my first attempt at a home VM server, I’m very pleased with this box. I’ve worked with Dell for quite some time, and am “comfortable” with their technology through repeated use and experience. The goal here was to find an alternative to some of the other popular builds while staying competitive on spec and price.