Cisco C22 M3 “Build” report: From Zero to vSphere in… two days?

Hi folks. The pile of project boxes in my home lab has gotten taller than I am, so when a Twitter follower asked me about running VMware vSphere on one of the systems not too far down in the stack, I took the challenge and said I’d try to get it going to see what I could report back.

Disclosure: While my day job is with Cisco, this computer was purchased out of my own pocket and used no proprietary/employee-only access to software or information. I do not provide end-user support for Cisco gear, nor do I recommend using used/aftermarket gear for production environments.

That system is a now-discontinued Cisco UCS C22 M3S. Yes, C22, not C220. It was an economy variant of the C220, more or less, with a lower cost and lower supported memory capacity as I recall. The one I have features a pair of Intel Xeon E5-2407 v2 processors (quad core 2.4GHz) and 48GB of RAM. The RAID controller is LSI’s 9220-8i, and for now I have a single 73GB hard drive installed because that’s what I found on my bench.

This is a standalone system, even though it’s sitting underneath a UCS 6296 Fabric Interconnect that’s freshly updated as well. I have the two on-board Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as a 4-port Gigabit Ethernet add-on card. And by way of disclosure, while I do work for Cisco and probably could have gotten a better box through work, I bought this one in a local auction out of my own pocket.

Warming up the system

The first thing I needed to do was make sure firmware, management controller, and so forth were up to date and usable. Cisco has long followed the industry standard in servers by making firmware and drivers freely available. I wrote about this back in 2014, when HPE decided to buck the standard, even before I worked for Cisco. You do have to register with a valid email address, but no service contract or warranty is required.

Since I was going to run this machine in standalone mode, I went to the Cisco support site and downloaded the Host Update Utility (HUU) in ISO form.

Updating firmware with the Host Update Utility (HUU) ISO

I loaded up Balena Etcher, a program used to write ISO images and other disk formats to USB flash drives. USB ports are easy to come by on modern computers, but optical drives are not as common. I “burned” the ISO to a flash drive and went to boot it up on the C22.

No luck. I got an error message on screen as the Host Update Utility loaded, referring to Error 906, “firmware copy failed.”

Doing some searching, I found that there were quirks to the bootability of the image. A colleague at Cisco had posted a script to the public community site in 2014, and updated it in 2017, which would resolve this issue. So I brought up my home office Linux box (ironically a HPE Microserver Gen8 that I wrote about in January), copied the script and the iso over, and burned the USB drive again with his script. This time it worked.

Recovering a corrupted BIOS flash image with recovery.cap

Alas, while four of the five firmware components upgraded, the BIOS upgrade was corrupted somehow. Probably my fault, but either way I had to resolve it before I could move forward.

Corrupt bios recovery, before and after

Seemed pretty obvious, and I figured the recovery.cap file would have been copied to the flash drive upon boot, but I figured wrong. You have to extract it from a squashfs archive inside the HUU ISO file. There’s even a ‘getfw’ program in the ISO to do this. Easy, right?

Of course not.

Turns out newer versions of OpenSSL won’t decrypt the filesystem image and extract the needed file, and even my year-out-of-date CentOS 7 box was too new. So I spun up a VM with the original CentOS 7 image and extracted there.

  1. Get the HUU for your system and UCS version (don’t use a C22 BIOS on a C240 or vice versa, for example).
  2. Mount or extract the ISO file
  3. Copy the GETFW/getfw binary out
  4. Unmount the ISO file
  5. ./getfw -b -s <HUU ISO FILE> -d .

This will drop a “bios.cap” file in the current directory. Rename it to “recovery.cap” … put it on a flash drive (plain DOS formatted one is fine), put it into the system, and reset your machine. You’ll go from the first screen with “Could not find a recovery.cap file..” to the second screen transferring to controller. And in a few minutes, your system should be recovered.

Preparing to boot the system

This is the easiest part, in most cases,  but there are a couple of things you may have to modify in the Integrated Management Controller (IMC) and the LSI WebBIOS interface.

Set your boot order. I usually go USB first (so I don’t have to catch the F6 prompt) followed by the PCIe RAID card. The RAID card will only show up if supported and bootable drives are installed though. This can be changed on the fly if you like, but I prefer to do it up front.

Check your RAID controller settings. Follow the BIOS screen instruction for going into WebBIOS (the text interface to configuring the RAID card), and make sure that you have disks presented in virtual drives. I had plugged a UCS drive and a random SSD in and only the UCS drive (a 73GB SAS drive) showed up. It did not appear to the F6 Boot Order menu though, as it was not set bootable in WebBIOS. A few key taps fixed this, and the drive appeared. Again, you can change the boot order after installing, but why not do it first?

Moving forward with VMware installation

This is the easy part, more or less. I went to VMware’s site and grabbed the Cisco custom ISO (which should have current drivers and configurations for Cisco components, especially the RAID controller and network cards). You can also install with the standard vSphere installer if you like.

I burned the 344 MB ISO to a flash drive, finding again that Etcher didn’t like it (complaining not being a bootable ISO) but Rufus did. With a Rufus-burned 8GB drive (choose “yes” to replace menu.c32 by the way), I was able to install the vSphere system and bring it up.

On first install attempt, I did see this message for about a second, and had no drives show up.

Turns out this error warns you that log files are not stored permanently when booting from a USB installation drive, and it was unrelated to the missing drives (which didn’t show up because I originally had an unconfigured SSD and no configured drives installed–see previous section to resolve this).

But when I had the hard drive configured, the install went smoothly.

It is somewhat funny that I’m working with 48GB of RAM and only 60ish GB of storage at the moment, but from here I was able to copy over my OS installation ISOs (8GB over powerline networking made it an overnight job) and bring up my first VM on the new system.

So where do we go from here?

For now, the initial goal of confirming that vSphere will install neatly on a C22 M3 with the 9220-8i RAID controller has been accomplished.

Next up, adding some more storage (maybe SSD if I can find something that will work), maybe bumping the RAM up a bit, and doing something useful with the box. It only draws 80-100 watts under light use, so I’m okay with it being a 24/7 machine, and it’s quiet and in the garage so it shouldn’t scare the neighbors.

If you’re looking to turn up an older Cisco UCS server in your home lab, get familiar with the software center on Cisco.com, as well as the Cisco Community site. Lots of useful information out there as well as on the Reddit /r/homelab site.

Have you rescued old UCS servers for your homelab? Share your thoughts or questions below, or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Straying into Ubiquiti territory for a home network experiment, part 1

As many of you know, I run my home, lab, and store networks primarily on Meraki gear. Employee discounts and internal system engineer promos make it a reasonably priced platform for me, but I can understand why non-Cisco employees might not build out a substantial home network on their own dime with Meraki.

Having cut directly over from the Linksys WRT1900AC as a router to a mix of MX security appliances, MS switches, and MR access points, I didn’t really take the time to evaluate other options. However, with many friends getting into Ubiquiti, I figured it was worth trying that platform out, especially when some of the devices went on sale at a local computer store.

In this post I’ll talk about the initial deployment and the gear I’ve purchased. I do have a few items from Ubiquiti that I won’t be using for this environment (like the EdgeRouters and a couple of relatively ancient 24v POE access points).

Spoiler: I’m still a big Meraki fan, and if I were deploying in a business environment where I didn’t want to tweak much or where I wanted enterprise-grade features, I’d still lean toward that platform. However, for a home network, home office, or early stage  startup, the Ubiquiti option is definitely worth a look.

Initial Bill of Materials

ubnt-cloudkey-aa-1.jpg

UC-CK Cloud Key, with two AA batteries for scale

Note that Amazon offers some combos with multiple elements, like this $349 combo with Cloud Key, Switch, and Security Gateway. You may be able to get quicker shipping and/or save a buck or two that way, but look around at the combos to see what makes the most sense. If you decide to buy multiples, there may be discounted packs of devices (like this 5-pack of AP-AC-PRO which saves you about $15 per device).

You’ll also find the items on Newegg, including Newegg on eBay, Central Computers (if you’re in the SF Bay Area), and direct from Ubiquiti. If you use the Amazon or eBay links above, we get a few bucks that will go back into gear to review here and on rsts11travel.

Why did I choose this particular gear?

ubnt cloudkey

UniFi Cloud Key

Like Meraki, Ubiquiti uses the concept of a “cloud controller.” Unlike Meraki, you can place the controller on your own private cloud, or purchase a “Cloud Key” to run on your own network for management. There is still a “public” website to view and manage the network, but you can access the local controller via ssh, https, or a mobile app.

Since I don’t currently have a full-time system running that would host the controller, I chose to buy the older Cloud Key. They have newer versions, with more powerful controller hardware, battery  backup, and more features, but since this is meant to be a basic deployment on a budget (and I wanted to pick up the cloud key locally), I went with the first gen device. This device is about the size of four AA  batteries; can be powered by PoE or a USB cable; and of course still requires a LAN connection even if powered by USB.

ubnt accesspoint

UniFi AC Pro

For wireless access, there are over a dozen different AP models, compared and contrasted on the Ubiquiti knowledgebase. The three devices in the “wave 1” family (UniFi AC) include the Lite, the LR (long range), and the Pro. My decision on the Pro was based primarily on “ooh, it’s on sale” but I’m pretty comfortable with the features including extended 5GHz radio rate of 1300 Mbps, and the dual Ethernet ports for redundancy.

ubnt switch

UniFi Switch 8 60W

The switch is meant to let me offload both the AP and the Cloud Key from their current home on my Meraki MS42P switch, so that I can put them behind the security gateway for more thorough testing. The AP uses 9 watts and the Cloud Key uses 5 watts, so the 60 watt PoE switch should be enough for the near term.  There is a 150 watt version (US-8-150W, for about $190) with two additional SFP modules, if you do need more power. And interestingly, the switch is the only piece in the bill of materials that has a metal shell as opposed to plastic.

ubnt security gateway

Unifi Security Gateway 3-port

Finally, with the USG security gateway, I get additional visibility into the Internet connection itself and my use thereof. Without the USG in the data path, I can see per-device information within my network, and status of the APs and switches, but I don’t have the visibility at a network level.

Starting the deployment

I bought the access point first, and went back a day or two later for the cloud key once I decided not to run the controller on my own hardware. So the CK went up first, plugged in via the tiny Ethernet cable to a port on my Meraki PoE switch.

When I logged in, of course, it was behind a few versions on the firmware. I had issues with firmware updates and “adopting” the device into my Ubiquiti cloud portal. The adoption failed claiming the device was unreachable, and the firmware upgrade didn’t seem to start, much less complete.

So I ended up doing some minor workarounds using some steps from a community post here for the firmware update. I wish I could remember the fix for the adoption, although I suspect I’ll figure it out again on a future device and can report back then.

Once the Cloud Key was recognized, updated, and working properly, I adopted the Access Point and updated it. I configured a wireless network and went downstairs from the home office to connect my iPad to the new network and test it out.

Not surprisingly, the network was as fast and efficient as it was through the MR34 at the same distance. I did learn from the Ubiquiti interface that there were at least 50 networks detected by the AP-AC-PRO, which was slightly surprising. Despite that, I’m seeing about 20% utilization on 2.4GHz and 3% utilization on 5GHz and noticeable but not overwhelming “interference” registering primarily on 2.4GHz.

I also realized that the extra MR34 downstairs, connected through an MS220-8P switch that was uplinked through Powerline networking, was definitely throttling my connectivity when I associated with it. Unplugging the AP forced my iPad to connect to the upstairs MR34, and I didn’t have any issues even at the distance. So for now, the Powerline network is driving two tiny Verium miners and my two printers, as well as an Intel NUC in the living room.

What comes next?

After reorganizing a bit of the home office, I’ll be turning up the USG security gateway and the 8-port switch very soon. At that point I’m likely to put all four pieces behind my secondary Internet connection (to enable the home network SLA to be maintained), and run some traffic through it.

I’m also giving serious thought to powering the USG through a PoE splitter like the Wifi Texas one ($18 on Amazon) so that all four devices can be powered from a single wall outlet (for the switch).

Check in soon for the second part of this journey, and feel free to share any suggestions, comments, references, designs, etc in the comments below.

 

 

Upgrading the HPE Microserver Gen 8 and putting it into service

A year and a half after my original write-up of the Ivy Bridge-based Gen8 Microserver, I’m finally doing a last round of pre-launch updates and documenting the upgrades I made.

You can read the original write-up (as updated to December 2018) here: Warming up the HP Microserver Gen8 and PS1810-8G switch

More links at the end of this post. Pricing has been updated as of 2019-08-15, but is still subject to change without notice.

Where do we start?

The HPE Microserver Gen8 as I received it had the Intel Pentium G2020T processor, a dual core, dual thread, 2.5 GHz processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics. For an ultra-low-end workgroup or SOHO server, that’s not too bad, and it’s better than the Celeron G1610T option.

gen8-cpus

Stock processor options for the HP Microserver Gen8

But since we’re not worried about the warranty and do want a bit more power, we looked at the following options for a CPU upgrade.

Xeon Processor CPU speed C/T TDP Integrated graphics? eBay price/link
August 2019 (December 2018)
E3-1230 v2 3.30 – 3.70 4/8 69 No 49.00 (was 75.00)
E3-1260L (v1) 2.40 – 3.30 4/8 45 HD2000 34.30 (was 57.00)
E3-1265L v2 2.50 – 3.50 4/8 45 HD2500 99.00 (was 100.00)

Since we didn’t have a use case in mind for this, we went for the E3-1265L v2 processor. CPU speed is reasonable, power is within the envelope for this system’s cooling capacity, and the price didn’t turn out too bad (although it was almost twice as much a year and a half ago).

The system arrived with 16GB of memory, which is the maximum supported with this generation of processor and a two-DIMM-slot motherboard (the CPU will handle 32GB but no more than 8GB per DIMM, and the Memphis Electronics 16GB DDR3 DIMMs require a newer generation of CPU).

The system also shipped with a single 500GB SATA drive and three empty trays for expansion, connected to the onboard B120i storage controller. There’s a low profile slot at the top suitable for an optical drive, or a hard drive carrier. According to the specs, the first two bays are 6gbit SATA and the last two bays are 3gbit SATA. You can add a P222 Smart Controller to provide battery-backed cache and expanded RAID options; these can be had for as low as $25 on eBay.

I installed a 32GB Micro-SD card for OS boot. Like the previous Microservers, the Gen8 offers an internal USB port, but Gen8 adds a MicroSD slot which may be less likely to snap off during maintenance. If I were running a heavy duty Windows or Linux server on this machine, I’d probably either put an SSD on a PCIe carrier card or use the optical drive SATA connector on the board to mount a boot drive in the optical bay. But for VMware or appliance-type platforms, or for light use Linux, the MicroSD should be enough.

Bringing the Microserver Gen8 up to date

One of the first things I do when building or populating a system is to upgrade any applicable firmware on the system. This could include the lights-out management, the system BIOS itself, drive controllers, optical drives, etc.

This gets complicated with HPE gear, as they decided to restrict all but “critical” BIOS update to customers with active support contracts or warranties. There are dubious workarounds, but it’s more of a pain than for any other mainstream vendor. Luckily (and I say that sadly), some of the critical vulnerabilities around Intel microcode in the past year led to the most recent Microserver Gen8 BIOS being considered critical.

So I gathered the latest BIOS, the ILO 4 firmware for out-of-band management, and the latest firmware for the PS1810-8G switch that this system will be connected to. (Unlike the computer systems, HPE’s networking gear carries a lifetime limited warranty and free access to firmware updates.)

With the switch connected to our upstream POE switch and the Microserver’s three network ports (two gigabit LAN, one ILO) connected to the switch, I upgraded the firmware on all three components and installed CentOS 7 from the latest ISO image via external USB flash drive. Additionally, I got a free 60-day trial license for ILO 4 Advanced from HPE.

One quirk I ran into was with regard to the .NET-based remote console and Chrome browser. In short, it doesn’t work unless you install a plugin to handle the .NET launching. I didn’t want to bother with Java either, so I accessed ILO from Microsoft Edge and used the .NET option from there.

Where do we go from here?

In the near term, I’m planning to install the Aquantia AQN-107 10GBase-T/NBase-T adapter and use it to test a couple of new devices in the home lab. Linux with iPerf or the like should be a good endpoint, and with a Thunderbolt 3-to-NBase-T adapter and an economical NBase-T/10G switch to work with, it should be compact and functional.

Longer term, with the former VMware “$25 server” being converted to EdgeLinux (from the makers of the Antsle servers we wrote about here and here), I will probably have this box serve as my in-home vSphere / ESXi system.

There’s a very small chance that I’ll break down and get the new Gen10 machine, but with as many spare computers as I have in the home lab now, it’s not a high priority.

What have you done with your Microserver recently? Share in the comments, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

For more information on the Microserver Gen 8 (especially around expandability):

HomeServerShow.com has an exhaustive page on Gen8 upgrades and other features and functions.

ServeTheHome has their release-time update on the Gen8 system here: HP ProLiant Microserver Gen8 Updated Specs and Pricing

And if you want the latest and greatest, the Microserver Gen10 came out a year ago with AMD Opteron X3000 processors.

Test-driving third party optics from StarTech in the RSTS11 labs

Disclosures at the end, as usual.

This fall John Obeto asked if I’d be willing to try out some third party optical modules in some of the varied and random switches I have around the rsts11 home lab. Always willing to help a friend and try some new gadgets, I accepted the challenge. Today I’ll give you an idea of why you might consider third party optics for your switching, why you might not, and how the compatible modules from StarTech.com impressed me.

2018-12-01 14.02.27WHAT ARE OPTICAL MODULES?

First, a word on optical modules. For decades, switch manufacturers have made two kinds of ports on their switches, a fixed port and a modular port. Fixed ports were long popular on line cards, where you wanted to get 24-48 (or more) optical ports for fiber cabling into a small amount of space, and you knew your customer was not going to change their optical requirements on the fly.

Modular (or “pluggable”) ports, however, made it possible to sell switches at a lower initial cost and allow the uplinks to be populated later. It also enabled customers to use different connection lengths and media with the commensurate power considerations.

In Gigabit Ethernet (and 1/2/4 gigabit Fibre Channel), the standard has been the Small Formfactor Pluggable, or SFP, module. About the size of a AA battery or a small USB flash drive, it connects to a small blade port inside the switch, and “translates” the connection to short (SR), long, (LR), or extended/extreme (XR) range optics, or even to 1000Base-T copper.

For 10 Gigabit Ethernet (and 8/16 gigabit Fibre Channel), the standard is an extension of the same module called SFP+. Many installations within a rack or in adjacent racks will use copper SFP+ cabling (with no fiber involved), sometimes called Direct Attach Copper or DAC cabling. Continue reading

Warming up the HP Microserver Gen8 and PS1810-8G switch

gen8 front 2018-12-04 17.03.32

Microserver Gen8 with PS1810-8G switch, Hershey bar for scale.

[This post was started in April 2017 and, like the gear it describes, the post was shelved for a while. I recently took the Microserver and its matching switch out of the dark recesses of the home office closet and brought it up to date. The upgrade report will follow later this month.]

Quite a while back, I acquired a HP Microserver Gen8 – the Ivy Bridge-based successor to the very popular N40L and N56L models. is model has been replaced by the Gen 10 model, but is still quite serviceable in its own right, and can be found on eBay for $500 and up depending on configuration.

The Gen8 Microserver comes with one of four dual-core CPU options (pictured below from the spec sheet; see Intel ARK for comparison); if you care about PCIe 3.0 vs 2.0, you’ll want the configure-to-order Xeon option or a warranty-voiding aftermarket upgrade. Folks on various home server forums have validated the E3-1230v2 ($75 on eBay), 1260L (from $57), and 1265Lv2 (from $100) processor upgrades (Intel ARK comparison), although the latter may push the cooling envelope a bit. Continue reading