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.

 

Quick Take: Antsle coming out with Xeon-D models with 10GbE in December

Welcome back to rsts11. Earlier this year you saw us post a first look at the Antsle “personal cloud” development systems, which provide a fanless, silent development and desktop cloud-style provisioning environment with the KVM hypervisor and Linux Containers (LXC).

Later, we built a system that approximated our view of the obvious evolution of Antsle’s model, albeit not fanless (thus not completely silent), and not as compact. We used the SuperMicro X10SDV-4C-TLN2F-O 4-core, 8-thread board that featured dual 10GbE copper ports and support for 64GB non-registered or 128GB registered memory.

Well, Antsle announced today that they will be releasing Xeon-D based models in mid December.

antsle-announcement-tweet

Their low-end machine, with similar specs to the 4-Core board we used, starts at $1,349. Models with 8-Core and 12-Core boards are also available.

antsle-xd-models

The prices jump more than the difference in board cost because the base RAM/SSD configurations also grow, as do the uplift options.

  • antsle one XD: $1,349 for 4-core, 16GB (upgradable to 32GB), 2x 256GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • antsle one XD Pro: $2,499 for 8-core, 32GB (upgradable to 64GB), 2x 512GB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • antsle one XD Ultra: $4,499 for 12-core, 64GB (upgradable to 128GB), 2x 1TB Samsung 850 Pro SSD
  • The Avoton-based systems are still listed, starting at $759, and if you register for their mailing list, you will probably get occasional promotions and discount offers. You can also watch their social media profiles (Twitter, Facebook) for some of these offers.

We still haven’t ordered one of the Antsle boxes due to shifting project budgeting, but the idea still has promise. And they don’t seem to do eval boxes (although if they change their minds, we’d love to try one out).

As we noted in our original take on the antsle model, you can probably build something similar on your own, and if you find it worthwhile and/or practical to spend time building the hardware and software platform, you’ll probably have lower capital expense building it yourself. If you just want to plug a silent box in, plop it onto your desk, and go to work, the nominal added cost for the pre-built appliance is probably worth spending.

Have you tried the antsle platform, or built your own similar system? Let us know in the comments.

 

Disclosure: While I’ve had an email exchange with the CMO of antsle prior to writing the original antsle post in March 2017, 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.

 

System Build Report: A Xeon-D “HTPC” for FreeBSD Corral or VMware vSphere

I’ve been planning to do some network testing and deploy some new storage for VMware vSphere in the home lab. My Synology NAS boxes (DS1513+ and DS1813+) have good performance but are limited to four 1GbE ports each, and my budget won’t allow a 10GbE-capable Synology this spring. [See below for a note on those $499 Synology systems on Amazon.] Continue reading

First look: Checking out the “antsle” personal cloud server

Check out the followup to this post, featuring antsle’s second generation of servers, here: Quick Take: Antsle coming out with Xeon-D models with 10GbE in December

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.  Continue reading

How do you solve a problem like Invicta? PernixData and external high performance cache

PernixData and unconventional flash caching

We spent a captivating two hours at PernixData in San Jose Wednesday. For more general and detailed info on the conversations and related announcements, check out this post by PernixData’s Frank Dennenman on their official blog, and also check out Duncan Epping’s post on YellowBricks.

At a very high and imprecise level, PernixData’s FVP came out last year to provide a caching layer (using flash storage, whether PCI-E or SSD) injected at the vmkernel level on VMware hypervisors. One big development this week was the option to use RAM in place of (or in addition to) flash as a caching layer, but this is unrelated to my thoughts below.

One odd question arose during our conversation with Satyam Vaghani, CTO and co-founder of PernixData. Justin Warren, another delegate, asked the seemingly simple question of whether you could use external flash as cache for a cluster (or clusters) using PernixData’s FVP. Satyam’s answer was a somewhat surprising “yes.”

I thought (once Justin mentioned it) that this was an obvious idea, albeit somewhat niche, and having worked to get scheduled downtime for a hundred servers on several instances in the past year, I could imagine why I might not want to (or be able to) shut down 100 hypervisor blades to install flash into them. If I could put a pile of flash into one or more centrally accessible, high speed/relatively low latency (compared to spinning disk) hosts, or perhaps bring in something like Fusion-io’s Ion Accelerator platform.

I took a bit of ribbing from a couple of other delegates, who didn’t see any situation where this would be useful. You always have plenty of extra spare hypervisor capacity, and flash that can go into those servers, and time and human resources to handle the upgrades, right? If so, I mildly envy you.

So what’s this about Invicta?

Cisco’s UCS Invicta platform (the evolution of WHIPTAIL) is a flash block storage platform based on a Cisco UCS C240-M3S rackmount server with 24 consumer-grade MLC SSD drives. Today its official placement is as a standalone device, managed by Cisco UCS Director, serving FC to UCS servers. The party line is that using it with any other platform or infrastructure is off-label.

I’ve watched a couple of presentations on the Invicta play. It hasn’t yet been clear how Cisco sees it playing against similar products in the market (i.e. Fusion-io Ion Accelerator). When I asked on a couple of occasions on public presentations, the comparison was reduced to Fusion-io ioScale/ioDrive PCIe cards, which is neither a fair, nor an applicable, comparison. You wouldn’t compare Coho Data arrays to single SSD enclosures. So for a month or so I’ve been stuck with the logical progression:

  1. Flash is fast
  2. ???
  3. Buy UCS and Invicta

Last month, word came out that Cisco was selling Invicta arrays against Pure Storage and EMC XtremIO, for heterogeneous environments, which also seems similar to the market for Ion Accelerator. Maybe I called it in the air. Who knows? The platform finally made sense in the present though.

Two great tastes that taste great together?

Wednesday afternoon I started putting the pieces together. Today you can serve up an Invicta appliance as block storage, and probably (I haven’t validated this) access it from a host or hosts running PernixData’s FVP. You’re either dealing with FC or possibly iSCSI. It will serve as well as the competing flash appliances.

But when Cisco gets Invicta integrated into the UCS infrastructure, hopefully with native support for iSCSI and FCoE traffic, you’ll be talking about 10 gigabit connections within the Fabric Interconnect for cache access. You’ll be benefiting from the built-in redundancy, virtual interface mapping and pinning, and control from UCS Manager/UCS Central. You’re keeping your cache within a rack or pod. And if you need to expand the cache you won’t need to open up any of your servers or take them down. You’d be able to put another Invicta system in, map it in, and use it just as the first one is being used.

If you’re not in a Cisco UCS environment, it looks like you could still use Invicta arrays, or Fusion-io, or other pure flash players (even something like a whitebox or channel partner Nexenta array, at least for proof-of-concept).

So where do we go from here?

The pure UCS integration for Invicta is obviously on the long-term roadmap, and hopefully the business units involved see the benefits of true integration at the FI level and move that forward soon.

I’m hoping to get my hands on a trial of FVP, one way or another, and possibly build a small flash appliance in my lab as well as putting some SSDs in my C6100 hypervisor boxes.

It would be interesting to compare the benefits of the internal vs external flash integration, with a conventional 10GBE (non-converged) network. This could provide some insight into a mid-market bolt-on solution, and give some further enlightenment on when and why you might take this option over internal flash. I know that I won’t be able to put a PCIe flash card into my C6100s, unless I give up 10GBE (one PCIe slot per server, darn). Although with FVP’s newly-announced network compression, that might be viable.

What are your thoughts on external server-side cache? Do you think something like this would be useful in an environment you’ve worked with? Feel free to chime in on the comments section below.

This is a post related to Storage Field Day 5, the independent influencer event being held in Silicon Valley April 23-25, 2014. As a delegate to SFD5, I am chosen by the Tech Field Day community and my travel and expenses are covered by Gestalt IT. I am not required to write about any sponsoring vendor, nor is my content reviewed. No compensation has been or will be received for this or other Tech Field Day post. I am a Cisco Champion but all Cisco information below is public knowledge and was received in public channels.