Most of you know I don’t shy away from building (or refurbishing) my own computers. I used to draw the line at laptops, but in the last couple of years I’ve even rebuilt a few stripped-for-parts Dell and Toshiba laptops for the fun of it. Warped definition of “fun,” I’ll admit.
So when I saw a Facebook ad for a “cloud server” called “antsle,” I was curious but unconvinced. It was something like this:
The idea is you’re buying a compact, fanless, silent microserver that, in addition to some fault-tolerant hardware (mirrored SSD, ECC RAM), includes a proprietary user interface for managing and monitoring containers and virtual machines. You can cram up to 64GB of RAM in there, and while it only holds two internal drives, you can add more via USB 2.0 or USB 3.0, for up to 16TB of officially supported capacity. Not too bad, but I’ve been known to be cheap and/or resourceful, so I priced out a similar configuration assuming I’d build it myself.
Can you build it cheaper yourself?
Short oversimplified answer: Yes. Longer more nuanced answer: Maybe. Kinda.
I took publicly available information (and guesses here and there) on the components of the antsle one systems, priced them against Amazon Prime-eligible items on Amazon (where available), and compared to available pricing from antsle. Of course, Amazon pricing and availability may change, but I re-checked on March 28, 2017, and updated numbers slightly.
For the “antsle one Pro” configuration, case + motherboard + 16GB DDR3 ECC SODIMM RAM + 2x 512GB SSD + case came to $1,146.65 on Amazon vs $1149 discounted price ($1249 regular price) from antsle.
For the “antsle pro Ultra” with 32GB ECC RAM, 2x 1TB SSD, and case I arrived at $1,881.76 on Amazon vs $1,949 discounted price ($2,099 regular price) from antsle. The RAM was sold and shipped by Memphis Electronics (16GB ECC DDR3 SODIMMs) and the SSDs were “Usually ships in 1 to 4 weeks.”
The difference, aside from the obvious build time, risk of procrastination and ending up with a shelf full of parts, and likely blood sacrifice to the computer gods… is of course the software. Sure, you could install your own hypervisor and management interface, but for me in this use case, it’d be a source of further procrastination.
So I’m willing to go with the antsle OS and “antman” UI, and if I can live with 16/32GB RAM to start, it’s a fair price to get things going. If I wanted a larger chassis, it’d be easy to bring prices down, and if I didn’t mind fans, it’d be even cheaper. But a box that’s fanless, silent, pre-tested, and getting updates somewhat regularly is a great option for users/groups who don’t have in-house IT, or who don’t want to cobble their own systems together.
The memory prices are a bit high due to shortages and the pre-existing short supply of ECC DDR3 SODIMM memory. I can open the system up and upgrade the disks and/or RAM later, when prices come down or I find a great deal. And if I need 64GB sooner, there are two suitable VMware servers in my possession today, with five more coming up in the near future.
What’s in the box?
The antsle boxes are based on an Akasa fanless case, possibly with a custom heatsink that uses the case itself to draw heat away. They mention SuperMicro as a component partner, and specify 4-core (base model) and 8-core (pro and ultra) Avoton motherboards, Samsung Evo 850 SSDs, Gentoo Linux, and the KVM hypervisor as well as Linux Containers (LXC). Power is DC, probably via something like PicoPSU.
The board features four gigabit Ethernet ports plus an out of band management port (Chris Wahl would be proud), two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a VGA video port and a serial port.
While antsleOS is effectively Gentoo + KVM + LXC, and is of course open source, the secret sauce of the ‘antman’ management system is proprietary and closed source.
Upgrade options (available at purchase, or if you want to figuratively crack the case later) include more RAM (up to 64GB in the Ultra, 32GB in the Pro, 16GB in the base model) and more storage (two 2.5″ SSDs internally, whatever you can connect on the USB ports). I’m actually giving some thought to connecting my Drobo Mini via USB 3.0 for supplemental storage.
Who should consider antsle, and who shouldn’t?
A lot of the Facebook comments when antsle posts about their product either take issue with the concept that you can have a private cloud, or that you might pay for hardware when some people can get it for free from work, or really cheap on eBay. Do they have a point? Sure. I get free/cheap gear all the time, much to my significant other’s dismay. I proved it a bit on the last lab post here.
But can you get this sort of configuration, feature set, and apparent ease of use on eBay for $200 as some have claimed? Probably not. Can you get a cheap full-size rackmount server with lots more slots and cheaper-by-density RAM? Sure. Can you get your significant other to be okay with that full-size rack-mount or tower server sitting in the living room under the TV? Good luck with that. No way I’m putting that Intel reference system in the living room, even though it has 32 cores and takes up to a terabyte and a half of RAM. And would you carry that 2U server on a plane to use it in a hotel room? I don’t think so.
The key benefits of antsle are its footprint (size, power use, and sound/heat output), and the fact that it’s ready out-of-the-box to run VMs and containers. So if you’re looking to do personal hosting or “generic” development work with on-demand resource allocation, and you want it in a way that won’t take up a lot of electricity, space, and spousal tolerance, this is a great fit.
If you want to learn VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V, or Docker/Kubernetes/Contiv/etc, specifically for those technologies, antsle isn’t for you. If you’re hypervisor/container agnostic though, it’s worth considering.
It should go without saying, but you know how comments sections are… if you want a high performance gaming rig or an industrial production-grade scalable platform, antsle is not for you.
And if your primary expectation for hardware is that it’s free, well, you should stick with what people give you, rather than complaining that antsle provides a ready-to-run platform for barely more than the individual component costs.
What do you wish was in the box?
If I were building this myself from scratch, I’d probably be looking for full size RAM (maybe even with the option to go to 128GB someday), although between the power/sound/cooling envelope and the 8-core Avoton processor, that’s not as big an issue as it might seem.
Moving to Xeon-D would let you go to DDR4 RAM, and SuperMicro has a board (X10SDV-F-O) that will take 128GB of registered ECC DDR4, but only two Gigabit Ethernet ports (there’s a PCIe slot that could easily take an Intel X540-T2 though, albeit in a larger case). It’s also just over $800.
I’d love to see 10 Gigabit Ethernet, as that would turbo-charge external NAS/iSCSI storage. However, if such an option were available in mini-ITX, it’d probably double the price. Actually, now that I look, the X10SDV-TLN4F-O has dual 10GBase-T as well as dual Gigabit Ethernet, but it’s priced at $900.
And one last wish would be eSATA or SAS for additional external storage. But again, for the scale of the platform, I can probably live with 2-6 SSDs.
I’ll admit the druthers in this section go well beyond the designed use case for the antsle (developers or small hosting needs, mostly). But I’m always looking for off-label options.
So where do we go from here?
I’m planning to order a Pro with 32GB soonish. This should reduce procrastination and get me set up to try the box out before the summer travel season. I’ll also keep an eye out for deals on the DDR3 ECC SODIMMs I’d need to take it to 64GB.
If you’re interested in checking out the antsle offerings, you can find the antsle one ($699), antsle one Pro ($1,249), and antsle one Ultra ($2,099) on Amazon (affiliate links help us fund future expansion), or you can check out antsle’s web site for configure-to-order options and promotions (currently $50-150 off depending on model, if you join their email list). Either way, they’re fulfilled by antsle, so no Amazon Prime, although if your credit card gives you cash back from Amazon or if you have a pile of Amazon gift cards, you can help us out and yourself at the same time.
Have you used antsle, or used/built/found something similar? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Disclosure: While I’ve had an email exchange with the CMO of antsle prior to writing this post, the discount I’d be using is available to anyone who subscribes to their mailing list, and I don’t get any consideration from antsle for discussing their product. And while it is relatively resilient (mirrored SSDs, ECC RAM), I wouldn’t recommend it for an enterprise deployment into production. But then, it’s explicitly not aimed at that market.
Featured photo from antsle blog, January 25, 2017.