New hardware thoughts for home labs (Winter 2013)

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my first home lab post, on the occasion of rolling a Shuttle SH67H3 VMware server. Since then, I’ve rambled on Twitter about a lot of other options, and figured I would bring some of them to your more-easily-searched-for attention.

I will update this post in the near future – most recent update 2013-12-12 – so you can look (probably at the bottom) for new details and references.

Disclosure: I’m not paid or coerced to promote the items in this post. Anything I own below was bought with my own money. Most of it probably will not blend. Any references to vendors or manufacturers are based on my experience and not any consideration from the company.

Many of the links are to, and if you buy through them, I get a small commission credit to spend on more coffee gear or some of the same things. I appreciate your support and suggestions.

My lab cluster today

I recently bought two batches of rackmount servers at absurd prices. We’re talking less-than-the-memory-was-worth prices. For now, I have an NEC Express 5800/120Rh-1 (dual E5405/16GB) and a HP DL365 G1 (dual-core Opteron 2214HE/16GB) running 5.5. vCenter Server is running on my NUC i3 box out of convenience. When I get some more PC2-5300F RAM, I’ll switch out that Opteron for another Xeon to get a bit more consistency.

The downside to this environment is that it’s noisy and a bit power-hungry. At rest, the two servers use about 400W. So until I upgrade the UPS, I’m a bit stuck on that level of server.

But the upside is that the two servers as configured cost less than I spend on coffee in a month at home. And my lab is in a location that isn’t as sensitive to power load or noise as my home office might be.

Using a Dell Poweredge C6100 for dense rackmount computing

There are a lot of 1u and 2u rackmount servers out there on Craigslist, eBay, Weird Stuff, and such venues. I’ve picked up various HP boxes for chump change and scrounged for memory, so it is an option. You can probably get a dual socket 8-core server (DL160, DL360, DL365, DL380, DL385) with some memory and drive trays for under $100 until you run out of power outlets. If your tolerance for power draw and noise allow, that’s definitely a cost-effective way to go.


There are also a lot of Dell C6100 “blade” servers (pictured above) out there as well. These are 2u enclosures with up to 4 two-socket nodes. Each blade can take 12 DIMMs (up to 192GB), two quad or hex core Xeon processors, and 3 LFF 3.5 drives or 6 SFF 2.5 drives (SATA, SAS, SSD). And from what I’ve read, you can run four dual-L5420 blades at about 300W.

I’m seeing these priced at around $750 for a two-L5520-node config, or a four-L5420-node config, with minimal RAM. You can find a four-L5520-node config for around $1k, or you can add extra nodes later. ServeTheHome has a thread on community update findings, including fan improvements and internal USB.

I don’t know what the noise level is out of the box, but hopefully one of my readers can chime in. Or I may pick one up next month and come back with an update.

Ye Olde HP Proliant Microserver… And Ye Newe Microserver

I have a Proliant Microserver N40L in my environment. It, and its siblings N36L and N54L, are classic home lab servers, with secret BIOS tweaks and undocumented memory upgrades and a $200-300 price tag. Much like the NUC, they are, but perhaps a bit less processing power and a lot more expandability.

Microserver Gen 8

Well, HP released their Microserver Gen 8 this summer, with two dual-core Pentium processor options. One option has a G1610T 2.3GHz processor, and the other has a G2020T 2.5Ghz processor; there’s even a stackable 8-port switch to match. You still get four non-hot-plug SATA bays; the new ones offer a glitzier front door and a laptop-size optical drive bay. You also get dual gigabit Ethernet and a dedicated iLo port.

The price has gone up with the specs; you’re looking at $450-500 for the base 2GB/250GB system, plus your upgrades, so probably $700 with 16GB of RAM.

Be sure not to purchase the Windows Server bundles (unless you’re into that sort of thing). The Microserver Gen 8 shows up in bundles between $700-1200 with various Windows licenses included, and if you’re throwing your own OS on afterward, there’s no reason to shell out the extra money.

NUC NUC… not again…

Intel has added new Next Unit of Computing (NUC) models to their line, with 4th generation i3/i5 processors. There’s an i3-4010U model and an i5-4250U model available. Perhaps obviously, they’re no longer fanless or silent, but probably quieter than the options above.

Wilson Canyon NUC with USB

You still need to add your power cable, some laptop memory (8GB or 16GB depending), an mSATA module if you want internal storage, and a flash drive to boot from. So you’re probably looking at about $600 for a complete system, give or take. But if space is of an essence, and your workloads can handle 16GB dual core modules, this is a great option.

As an aside, Intel has 4th generation NUCs with support for an internal 2.5″ drive. These don’t seem to be as commonly available, but it’s something to watch for if you need more internal storage.

A surprising contender – Dell’s Inspiron 660 desktop

I was having an exchange on Twitter with someone looking for options with Gen 3 PCI Express for virtualization lab use. He ended up getting an Inspiron 660 desktop, which has more convenient expansion options than pretty much everything above.

The i5-3340 model with 8GB of RAM comes in under $600 on Amazon (you can buy it directly from Dell but might get quicker delivery from Amazon). You should be able to load it up with 16GB of RAM, and you can get 4x and 6x SATA (and 4x SAS) drive bay inserts to get dense 2.5″ drive deployments. Probably won’t need that DVD burner on a hypervisor platform, will you?

What else can I read about home lab options?

I’m glad you asked. One thing that pushed me to write this post was Chris Wahl’s update on his home lab. He’s moving to Haswell, and building out a well-optimized lab. He’s an avid advocate of remote management, so definitely take a look at his board selection if you need remote control of your server.

Simon Seagrave at TechHead has a lengthy write-up on the Microserver Gen 8 that’s worth a look if you’re leaning that way.

2013-12-12: Erik Bussink has built a compact lab with the Shuttle XH61V that finds a happy medium between my Shuttle and NUC builds.

2013-12-12: A friend on Facebook reported in with Benjamin Bryan’s blog about installing a Xeon E3 in the HP Microserver Gen 8. This may be the best reason to go with the low-end G1610T model.

2014-01-14: Greg Schulz (@storageio on Twitter) has a new post today on some of his recent discoveries and acquisitions. Check out Dell Inspiron 660 i660, Virtual Server Diamond in the rough? for a surprising choice for virtualization.

If you’ve written a blog post about sub-$1k home lab servers, feel free to let me know and I’ll try to get you added to this list. I’m happy to exchange links and spread the joy of home lab adventures.

6 thoughts on “New hardware thoughts for home labs (Winter 2013)

  1. Thanks for the fast answer but i have another question.

    A low profile video card requires 300W.. the problem is the output is 150W.

    Do you know where can i find a power supply that can handle this?

    i like Microserver gen8 because it is silent.

    Kind Regards


    • I can’t help you with this, although you may find something with a Google search.

      There are plenty of resources out there for building quiet desktops. Hope you find what you need.


  2. Pingback: Dell Inspiron 660 Virtual Diamond in the rough? | StorageIOblog

  3. Pingback: Overkill in the #rsts11 lab workshop – a #homelab update for 2017 | rsts11 – Robert Novak on system administration

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