Overkill in the rsts11 lab workshop – a homelab update for 2017

After being chosen as a VMware vExpert for 2017 this month, I was inspired to get working on refreshing my vSphere “homelab” environment despite a busy travel month in late February/early March. This won’t be a deep technical dive into lab building; rather, I just wanted to share some ideas and adventures from my lab gear accumulation over the past year.

As a disclosure, while I do work for Cisco, my vExpert status and homelab building are at most peripherally-connected (the homelab at home connects to a Meraki switch whose license I get an employee discount on, for example). And even though I’m occasionally surprised when I use older higher end Dell or HP gear, it’s not a conflict of interest or an out-of-bounds effort. It’s just what I get a great deal on at local used hardware shops from time to time.

The legacy lab at Andromedary HQ

Also read: New Hardware thoughts for home labs (Winter 2013)


Stock Photo of a Dell C6100 chassis

During my last months at the Mickey Mouse Operation, I picked up a Dell C6100 chassis (dual twin-style Xeon blade-ish servers) with two XS23-TY3 servers inside. I put a Brocade BR-1020 dual-port 10GBE CNA in each, and cabled them to a Cisco Small Business SG500XG-8F8T 10 Gigabit switch. A standalone VMware instance on my HP Microserver N40L served the vCenter instance and some local storage. For shared storage, the Synology DS1513+ served for about two years before being moved back to my home office for maintenance.

The Dell boxes have been up for almost three years–not bad considering they share a 750VA “office” UPS with the Microserver and the 10Gig Switch and usually a monitor and occasionally an air cleaner. The Microserver was misbehaving, stuck on boot for who knows how long, but with a power cycle it came back up.

I will be upgrading these boxes to vSphere 6.5.0 in the next month, and replacing the NAS for shared storage throughout the workshop network.

The 2017 Lab Gear Upgrades

For 2017, two new instances are being deployed, and will probably run nested ESXi or a purpose-built single-server instance (i.e. an upcoming big data sandbox project). The two hardware instances each have a fair number of DIMM slots and more than one socket, and the initial purchase for each came in under US$200 before upgrades/population.

You may not be able to find these exact boxes on demand, but there are usually similar-scale machines available at Weird Stuff in Sunnyvale for well under $500. Mind you, maxing them out will require very skilled hunting or at least a four figure budget.


CPU/RAM cage in the HP Z800

First, the home box is a HP Z800 workstation. Originally a single processor E5530 workstation with 6GB RAM, I’ve upgraded it to dual E5645 processors (6-core 2.4GHz with 12MB SmartCache) and 192GB DDR3 ECC Registered RAM, replaced the 750GB spinning disk with a 500GB SSD, and added two 4TB SAS drives as secondary storage. I’ve put an Intel X520 single-port 10GbE card in, to connect to a SFP+ port on the Meraki MS42P switch at home, and there are two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the board.


CPU/RAM cage in Intel R2208 chassis

And second, the new shop box is an Intel R2208LT2 server system. This is a 2RU four-socket E5-4600 v1/v2 server with 48 DIMM slots supporting up to 1.5TB of RAM, 8 2.5″ hotswap drive bays, and dual 10GbE on-board in the form of an X540 10GBase-T dual port controller.  I bought the box with no CPUs or RAM, and have installed four E5-4640 (v1) processors and 32GB of RAM so far. There’s more to come, since 1GB/core seems a bit Spartan for this kind of server.

There’s a dual 10GbE SFP+ I/O module on its way, and this board can take two such modules (or dual 10GBase-T or quad Gigabit Ethernet or single/dual Infiniband FDR interfaces).

The Z800 is an impressively quiet system–the fans on my Dell XPS 15 laptops run louder than the Z800 under modest use. But by comparison, the Intel R2208LT2 sounds like a Sun Enterprise 450 server when it starts up… 11 high speed fans warming up for POST can be pretty noisy.

So where do we go from here?

Travel and speaking engagements are starting to pick up a bit, but I’ve been putting some weekend time in between trips to get things going. Deploying vSphere 6.x on the legacy lab as well as the new machines, and setting up the SAN and DR/BC gear, will be spring priorities, and we’ll probably be getting rid of some of the older gear (upgrading the standalone vCenter box from N40L to N54L for example, or perhaps moving it to one of the older NUCs to save space and power).

I also have some more tiny form factor machines to plug in and write up–my theory is that there should be no reason you can’t carry a vSphere system anywhere you go, with a budget not too far above a regular-processor-endowed laptop. And if you have the time and energy, you can do a monster system for less than a high-end ultrabook.


Disclosure: Links to non-current products are eBay Partner Network links; links to current products are Amazon affiliate links. In either case, if you purchase through links on this post, we may receive a small commission to pour back into the lab.


Lowered Expectations – How Low Can Your Laptop Go?

[An Interop Aside: I visited with a couple of vendors at Interop who are sending some gear for me to explore. I’m holding off on their coverage until that happens, although another summary post may be forthcoming.]

I’m a big laptop fan. Afficionado, not cooler, mind you. It’s a problem, especially since my recent rebuild acquisitions and components are blocking the fireplace at the moment.

There’s been a disturbing trend over the last couple of years, whereby laptop manufacturers decide to move more toward the netbook specifications for memory (and often storage), rather than to the state of the art for the current generation of laptop processors. I was commiserating with my friend John Obeto about this recently.

For a couple of months now, you’ve been able to order a Dell Precision 7000-series laptop with 64GB of RAM. That’s twice as much as many desktops can handle today. And even if you don’t have room for four DIMM slots in your laptop design, DDR4 16GB SODIMMs are very affordable and readily available even at retail. So there’s really no reason for a 13″ or larger laptop to have an 8GB limit.

But it is the way of the world, for most lightweight laptops these days. Even Dell’s remarkable XPS 13 9343 maxed at 8GB – the 9350 model this year has a 16GB option but it’s online order only (and in the $2000 range as I recall). Continue reading

rsts11: Laptop memory – above and beyond!

Ever buy a spiffy new laptop, and then a few months later see that everyone else is buying laptops that take TWICE as much RAM as yours? Too late for buyer’s remorse or a return… but you can’t justify another thousand dollars for another new laptop?

I’ve been in that position twice… once with a laptop I’ve had for 4 years now, and one that’s coming up on 1 year.

UPDATE: I just remembered a third time when I managed a lucky super-upgrade to a laptop… that’s added now.

Inspiron 8200 with 2GB RAM. Pretty good for 2002 tech!

Back in 2001 or so I bought a Dell Inspiron 8200. This was a Pentium 4 Mobile based machine of the same design as the Latitude C840, about with a 1600×1200 15″ lcd, the C-series batteries (one dedicated battery bay, one battery/optical/zip/floppy/hard disk bay), one fixed (but upgradable) optical bay on the side, and a maximum of 1GB RAM. Or so I thought. Now to be honest, I sold the 8200 back in 2003, but later restocked with a short stack of Latitude C840s, which were the business spin of the same machine.

Recently when pulling one of my C840s out, I thought “I have some 1GB DDR SODIMMs. Why not try?” Turns out, while it takes longer to POST now, the C840 readily supports 2x1GB PC2700/PC3200 DIMMs for a total of 2GB RAM. You may find these sticks on close-out at consumer electronics stores… I bought out the closeout stock at 2-3 local Best Buy stores last fall.

The 8200 is still a very viable UNIX laptop, and runs XP or Windows 7 respectably if you keep it clean (I wouldn’t put Creative Suite or Mathematica on it). The docks, including one with a PCI slot, are easily available online, and while you might not want to carry it on trips with you, it’s very convenient for basic computing needs even 10 years later.

Latitude D830 with 8GB RAM? Yup.

I bought a Dell Latitude D830 with a corporate discount two jobs ago. It was as close to top-of-the-line as I could get with all the features I wanted. I’m a screen real estate addict… yes, I’m looking down my nose at your 1920×1080 display, over the top of my 1920×1200 display. Sure, it’s only 12% difference but it matters to me. I think this D830 had the second highest speed Core 2 Duo mobile chip available at the time, dedicated 256MB or 512MB video card, DVD burner, and 1920×1200 display. Three years of Complete Care and corporate-grade in-house service contract, which ended up helping at one point when the power subsystem started failing to charge, and one of my favorite features of some Dell and one Apple model–hot-pluggable modular bay batteries.

Power To The People!

My Powerbook “Pismo” had the option for two batteries, and if both batteries died and you had a third with a charge, you could close your lid, the computer would sleep, you could put another battery in and open it up and keep going. So of course I had three or four batteries. Dell has had a couple of models that supported modular bay batteries, from the Latitude C840/Inspiron 8200 (and I believe earlier C800/820 and I8000/8100) to the D800/830 line. Excellent feature, since I’m more likely to have use for an extra 2-2.5 hrs of battery life than a dvd burner on trips and in meetings/conferences. 

I bought the D830 with 2GB of RAM, knowing I could upgrade to 4GB more cheaply through Amazon or Fry’s or Crucial, than buying it pre-installed from Dell. So I did so, and bumped the hard drive up aftermarket as well.

Within less than a year came the Latitude E-series, very sleek, brushed metal case, and 8GB max RAM. I found threads like this one suggesting that BIOS rev A14 would support 4GB dimms.

The 5300, 6400, and 6500 as I recall all supported 8GB RAM on the same Core 2 Duo chips and chipsets, but when I asked my Dell rep about 8GB on my D830, he said “no dice.” So I quietly ordered the appropriate Dell part anyway, and when it arrived, I updated my BIOS and installed it. It worked, of course. I ordered another stick, and have been rocking 8GB in my D830 (with a variety of disk choices) for the last 3 1/2 years.

Sony VPCF22KFX/B with 16GB of RAM? Whoa!

Fast forward to last summer. I changed jobs, got a vacation payout, and found a Sony Vaio VPCF22KFX/B laptop on near-closeout sale at Fry’s. You can still find it at the preceding link for about $1k from Amazon (and if you buy it through my link I’ll be grateful of course), but I paid about $800 for it as memory serves. It came with a 500gb 5400rpm disk, 4GB of RAM, and the i7-2630QM processor — 4 cores, 8 threads, turbo, hyper threading, the typical power features. I bumped it up to 8GB of Patriot RAM, and a 500GB Momentus XT hard drive (500GB spinning disk with 4GB of SLC flash memory in front of it). It’s been working okay for me for the most part, but I started getting random BSODs, and in one night last week I found myself meeting over half a dozen STOP codes I’d never seen before, and a couple I had.

I did not want to believe that the laptop itself was dying, even though I have another 2 months of warranty left. So I pulled the memory and went back to the original Samsung 2GB sticks that came with it. Still got a crash every 3-5 minutes. Pulled the disk and put the original disk in, and other than having 100+ Windows Updates to execute, it worked fine. In fact, it survived three rounds of Windows Updates and three rounds of Vaio Updates. So I put the 8GB kit back in, and it was happy still.

But then I got to thinking… I’ve seen some Sandy Bridge laptops listed with 16GB, and Simon Gallagher (of vTARDIS fame) mentioned 16GB in his Macbook Pro last December. I’ve been waiting for the new Air-y Macbooks to come out hoping for 16GB capacity and a 1920px widescreen, but they’re not out yet and I was impatient. Saw a $110 16GB kit from Corsair, the CMSO16GX3M2A1333C9 to be precise, in the weekly Fry’s ad. It’s also $110 from Amazon but I hadn’t been in to Fry’s in almost 24 hours, so… I picked it up, brought it home, went to the little one’s Glee recital, and came home for a nap. After dinner, I started in on the upgrade project, slow and steady.

First step was a single 8GB dimm. I know the machine works with 8GB total, but will it handle a single 8GB dimm? Yup.

Next step, 8GB plus 4GB. Little bit risky, as the 4GB is slower than the 8GB and is the second stick. But it seemed okay with that. So, next step is obvious.

Yeah, I was thirsty. And Coca Cola has not paid me for their mention here, although if they wanted to send me a fully stocked vending machine for my store, I wouldn’t turn it down.

There we go. 16GB RAM, and it seems to be running pretty stably.

I still need to find the issue with the Momentus XT, and figure out a better disk option for this machine. I have some 60GB Pyro SSDs but I haven’t quite gotten the hang of a small internal disk on a laptop yet. So I may shell out for a 120GB SSD with rebate, or just bump up to a 500 or 640 GB 7200 spinning disk. The D830 is working well with a 640GB Caviar Blue drive, and I have a 48GB ExpressCard that I could use for high performance supplemental storage.