Home Lab Xeon

The current home lab setup consists of an Intel Core i3-2100 with 16GB of DDR3, a USB drive for ESXi (on 6.5 right now) and a 3TB WD for the VMs. While the Intel i3 performs perfectly for my needs, I came across a Xeon E3-1220 (SR00F, Ivy Bridge), which should be even better!

For the specs, we have the following differences:

Model Intel Xeon E3-1220 Intel Core i3-2100
Released: Q2-2011 Q1-2011
Manufacturing process: 32nm 32nm
Price originally: 189-203 US dollars (more in euroland) 120 USD
Core count: 4 Cores 2 cores
Hyperthreading No Yes
Base Freq: 3.10 GHz 3.1 GHz
Turbo Freq: 3.40 GHz No
TDP: 80 W 65W
Max Memory: 32 GB ECC DDR3 32 GB Non-ECC DDR3
L1 Cache: 128 + 128 KB 64 + 64 KB
L2 Cache: 1 MB 512 KB
L3 Cache: 8 MB 3 MB

So we can see that the Xeon part is 4 core processor, without hyperthreading, so real cores as opposed to the i3’s threads. It’s more power hungry, which is to be expected, but can also Turbo at a higher frequency than the i3. Also, the Xeon has more cache, which is also to be expected with a server grade component.

A notable thing is that the Xeon, being a server part, does not include the GPU components, so I’ll have to add a GPU at least for the installation. I run the server headless anyway, but I want to see it POST at least. I think I’ll have to add a PCI card for this it has no PCI slots so, as I only have one PCIe slot (well there are some x1 slots but I have no such cards), and that’s used by the NIC. The motherboard is an Asrock H61M-DGS R2.0 which has one x16 slot and one x1 slot. Maybe I’ll do it all headless and hope it posts? Or take out the NIC for the installation?

Some yahoo also tried running an x16 card in an x1 slot here. Might try that but since I have to melt off one end of the x1 slot, probably not.

There are apparently some x1 graphics cards, but I don’t have one as I mentioned. An option could be the Zotac GeForce GT 710, which can be had for 60 euros as of this post.

Preparations

I went to the pharmacy to get some pure isopropyl alcohol. It wasn’t on the shelf, so I had to ask for it. I told the lady I need some isopropyl alcohol, as pure as possible. She looked at me funny and said they had some in stock. I told her I’m using it to clean electronics, so she wouldn’t suspect I’m some sort of cringey soon-to-be-blind  (not sure if you get blind from this stuff, but it can’t be good for you) wannabe alcoholic, to which she replied that she doesn’t know what i’ll do with it, or how it will work for that. She got the bottle, which is described as “100 ml Isopropyl Alcohol”. There is a mention of cleaning vinyl disks and tape recorder heads on the back, so I was vindicated. There’s no indication of purity on the bottle, but the manufacturer lists above 99.8% purity here. Doesn’t exactly match the bottle, but it’s close.

Why did I get isopropyl alcohol? Well, because people on the internet said it’s good for cleaning off residual thermal paste from processors and CPU coolers. With common sense 2.0, I can also deduce that anything with a high alcoholic content will evaporate, and not leave behind anything conductive to mess things up. Oh and it cost 6,30€ at the local pharmacy. It’s not listed on the website (or it says it’s no longer a part of their selection).

Let’s see how it performs. I’m using cotton swabs, but I suppose I could use a paper towel. If it leaves behind cotton pieces, I’ll switch to something else.

The Xeon originally had a passive CPU block and a bunch of loud, small case fans, but I will use the same cooler as for the i3.

Take out the i3 and the cooler. Clean the cooler off with the isopropyl:

Isopropyl worked wonders

Put in the E3, new thermal paste. I used some trusty Arctic Silver 5.

Termal paste added, note artistic pattern

Re-attach the cooler and we’re off to the races. I’ll note here that I hate the push through and turn type attachments of the stock Intel cooler. Oh well, it’ll work.

 

Powering on

Powering the thing on was the exciting part. Will there be blue smoke? Will it boot headless? Will it get stuck in some POST screen and require me to press a button to move on? Maybe even go into the BIOS to save settings for the new CPU?

Strangely enough, after a while, I started getting ping replies from ESXi meaning the box had booted.

There’s really nothing left to do. ESXi 6.5 recognizes the new CPU and VMs started booting shortly after.

Xeon E3 running on ESXi 6.5

Lenovo Thinkpad T460s First Impressions

I recently switched laptops from the T440s to the T460s. I’ve long been a fan of the Thinkpads, both during the IBM period and the Lenovo reign of late. The T440s was a bit of a mistake in my opinion. Sure it performed as you’d expect, but the mouse was a huge pile of dung, and the keyboard wasn’t nice either. My favorite is still the T410s, which had the non-chiclet keyboard, similar or same as the old IBM Thinkpads had. I had a bunch of issues with the T440s over its 2 year and some odd month lifespan. The SSD broke early on and had to be replaced. I broke the keyboard (no fault of Lenovo, but still), and one USB port is unusable (not sure why). Battery life is still good after two years of business use, and it has no technical faults other than the ones I listed. It’ll still serve as my secondary machine, and probably do so for quite some years.

Plan old packaging
Plain old packaging

I got the T460s hot off the press, just a week after release, or so. I opted for the 20F9-0043MS model which has the full-HD matte screen, 4 + 4GB of RAM (which i expanded to 20GB by switching out the sole 4GB stick for a 16GB one), Core i7-6600U processor, and so on.

Hardware

First, let’s look at the hardware. We have output from CPU-Z first, showing the features of the CPU:

cpuz_lenovo_t460s
Detail of the main page, showing Skylake U/Y series CPU. Note the rather cool 15W TDP and 4MB L3 cache, plus the awesome 14nm manufacturing process.
cpuz_memory_lenovo_t460s
Detail of memory page. Total of 20GB DDR4, 4GB internal soldered on the motherboard, + 16GB SO-DIMM
cpuz_mainboard_lenovo_t460s
Mainboard details. Propietary Lenovo motherboard, running 1.05 BIOS (later upgraded to 1.08)
cpuz_caches_lenovo_t460s
CPU-Z Cache page listing the CPU caches

Then GPU-Z, showing the integrated Intel HD Graphics 520:

gpuz_lenovo_t460s
GPU-Z output. Chip is Skylake GT2 from last fall

 

Then we move on to the SSD, which appears to be an M.2 type drive and not your standard 2.5″ SSD. I’ll get an internal picture later for you, but opening the bottom of the machine (which is much easier than in the T440s which had icky plastic tabs that were too easy to break off), shows you all the user replaceable parts, which are very easily accessible! The SSD is manufactured by Samsung, however the model seems to be something sold to OEMs (the catchy MZNLN256HCHP). Some forums speculate that it is similar to the 850 (EVO?) model, but nothing certain.

Here’s some output from SSD-Z:

ssdz_lenovo_t460s
Some data on the Samsung SSD. Sata-3 bus, 256GB

 

CrystalDiskMark 5.1.2 results for the T460s
CrystalDiskMark 5.1.2 results for the T460s

If you want to compare performance (I’m not saying Crystal Diskmark is the ultimate tool, and these are not official testing conditions, but they are .. comprable I would wager) to some select SSD:s, here’s my Intel 910’s (PCI-E card) results, and here are the Samsung 840 Pro results, the T440s results and finally the venerable T410s’ results. All results with 64-bit CrystalDiskMark version 5.1.2, default settings.

Mobile Connectivity

There’s a 4G/LTE card in this model, which is a Sierra Wireless EM7455 Qualcomm Snapdragon X7 LTE-A WWAN Modem. The fun part was taking out the SIM-caddy, which was surprisingly already occupied! There was a “Lenovo Connect” SIM-card inside. Apparently, Lenovo has partnered up with a number of carriers worldwide (115 countries according to Lenovo). But since those cost extra, and I already have such connectivity in the countries I need to travel to, I took the SIM out. You might want to have a look at it, but it looks like most packages have data caps, which I discard out of principle. The prices don’t look.. bad, I suppose. Here’s the link http://shop.lenovo.com/fi/fi/lenovoconnect/index.html

As for the 4G performance, I tested it in Lapland, which has superb 4G connectivity (probably due to the low amount of subscribers per cell), it works fine without additional software in Windows 10. Speedtest gave me the following results (DNA is the carrier).

Speedtest run in April of 2016 in Finnish Lapland
Speedtest run in April of 2016 in Finnish Lapland

WiFi card is an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8260, and the gigabit NIC is an Intel I219-LM. Both are bog-standard intel quality and have worked fine.

There is one thing that annoyed the piss out of me. Clicking the Notifications icon in the systray…

..this one!
..this one!

You get the otherwise handy Action Center / Notification bar thing, where you can turn off things like bluetooth, wireless, and yes, even cellular (though it is not showing here right now). Well, what happens if you turn off cellular here, and you want it back? Naturally, instinct tells you to open the action center thing again and re-enable it! But, what if it doesn’t show up (like it did for me)? What then? Well the next step is to go to Network Connections, look at the adapters and enabl… oh but wait it’s already enabled. But still it’s off, and you can’t connect? Crap!

Handy action center!
Handy action center! Not showing cellular because of reasons?

So after an unreasonable amount of googling, I found some people with similar issues. Apparently you can’t enable it anywhere in Windows proper (if you can, please tell me in the comments). No amount of enabling and disabling the card in network connections or device manager brings it back, or going to airplane mode or.. whatever. Instead what you need to do is sign out, and in the login screen, click the connectivity icon (the wireless symbol). From there, you can re-enable the radio of the WWAN card. Horse shit I say!

Clean install of Windows 10

I don’t care for manufacture-bloated OS’s, so I did a clean re-install of Windows 10 Enterprise, build 1511. Because I’m a dummy, I didn’t initially realize my mistake and attempted to install from my Easy2Boot USB drive. And that works too, if you’ve read the instructions and understand what you are doing… Here’s what I did wrong, so you don’t have to do the same things:

  1. Easy2Boot works fine, but you have to understand that if the install image is of UEFI type (which the windows image is), you can’t just copy the image to the Windows directory like other images
  2. You have to follow these instructions and make the Windows install image into an imgPTN image, and then try again.. Follow these instructions: http://www.easy2boot.com/add-payload-files/adding-uefi-images/
  3. Or, alternatively, get a suitably sized USB stick (4GB should do, 8GB will most definitely do), and use the Windows Media Creation tool (only for home and pro versions), or use Rufus but select the “GPT partition scheme for UEFI” option under ‘Partition Scheme and Target System Type’, or it won’t boot correctly. Or use the Windows 7-era tool (step 12 onwards) https://blogs.technet.microsoft.com/ptsblog/2015/08/19/how-to-create-a-bootable-usb-stick-or-a-bootable-dvd-for-windows-10/
  4. In my case, it did boot, but failed to find suitable devices to install to, or was lacking other drivers
  5. And no, adding SATA or other disk-related drivers during install did nothing to fix this – It’s an UEFI issue
  6. Changing BIOS settings between UEFI only, Legacy only, and Legacy first (and the CSM setting) also didn’t help in this case

After learning about UEFI stuff, installation was straightforward. The only Lenovo tool I like to install is the excellent Lenovo System Update, which keeps track of correct drivers and helper software and makes sure it is up to date. Also updates your BIOS, which is pretty useful. As of this date, BIOS 1.08 (or.. UEFI, I guess)

There’s more to write, but so far, I’m very pleased with the T460s. Much more than the 440s. The hardware is easily accessible, it’s performant and the mouse is much improved. To quote Wil Wheaton: “Later, nerds.”

 

 

MicroATX Home Server Build – Part 3

Because I am impatient, I went ahead and got a motherboard, processor and memory. The components that I purchased were:

  • Asrock H61M-DGS R2.0 (Model: H61M R2.0/M/ASRK, Part No: 90-MXGSQ0-A0UAYZ)
  • 16 GB (2x8GB) Kingston HyperX Fury memory (DDR3, 1600MHz, HX316C10FBK2/16, individual memories are detected as: KHX1600C10D3/8G)
  • Intel i3-2100 (2 cores, with hyperthreading)

I ended up with this solution because I realized I may not have enough money to upgrade my main workstation, to get the parts from that machine into this one. I also didn’t have the funds to get a server grade processor, and getting an mATX server motherboard turned out to be difficult on short notice (did I mention I’m an impatient bastard?).

I ended up paying 48€ for the motherboard, 45€ for the processor (used, including Intel stock cooler) and 102 bucks for the 16GB memory kit.

The motherboard has the following specs:

  • 2 x DDR3 1600 MHz slots
  • 1 x PCIe 3.0 x16 slot
  • 1 x PCIe 2.0 x1 slot
  • 4 x SATA2
  • 8 USB 2.0 (4 rear, 4 front)
  • VGA and DVI outputs

The factors that led to me choosing this motherboard were mainly: Price, availability, support for 2nd and 3rd generation Intel Core processors (allowing me to use the i3 temporarily, and upgrade to the i5 later if I feel the need), and the availability of two PCIe slots. All other features were secondary or not of importance.

The reductions in spec that I had to accept were: No support for 32GB memory (as mentioned in the previous post), no integrated Intel NIC (this has crappy Realtek NIC, but I might still use that for something inconsequential as management; probably not though)

These pitfalls may or may not be corrected a later date when I have more money to put toward the build, and patience to wait for parts.

The CPU is, as mentioned, an Intel i3-2100. It’s running at 3.1 GHz, has two cores, four threads (due to HT), 3MB Intel ‘SmartCache’, and a 65W TDP.  It does support 32GB of memory on a suitable motherboard. I doubt the CPU will become a bottleneck anytime soon, even though it is low-spec (it originally retailed for ~120€ back when it was released in 2011). The applications and testing I intend to do is not CPU heavy work, and since I have four logical processors to work with in ESXi, I can spread the load out some.

Putting it all together

Adding the motherboard was fairly easy. There were some standoffs already in the case, but I had to add a few to accommodate the mATX motherboard. Plenty of space for cabling from the PSU, and I paid literally zero attention to cable management at this point. The motherboard only had two fan headers: One for the CPU fan (obviously mandatory..) and one for a case fan. I opted to hook up the rear fan (included with the case) to blow out hot air from around the CPU. I left the bottom fan in, I may hook it up later, or replace it with the 230mm fan from Bitfenix.

Initially, I did not add any hard drives. ESXi would run off a USB 2.0 memory stick (Kingston Data Traveler 4GB), and the VMs would probably run from a NAS. I ended up changing my mind (more on this in the next post). For now, I wanted to validate the components. I opted to run trusty old MemTest86+ for a day or so. Here’s the build running MemTest:

Build almost complete, running MemTest86+
Build almost complete, running MemTest86+

Looks to be working fine!

Here’s a crappy picture of the insides of the case, only covered by the HDD mounting plate:

Side panel open, showing HDD mounting plate, side of PSU
Side panel open, showing HDD mounting plate, side of PSU

One thing to note here is that if you want the side panel completely off, you need to disconnect the cables seen to the front left. These are for the power and reset buttons, USB 2.0 front ports and HDD led. They are easy to remove, so no biggie here.

One note on the motherboard: There has only ever been one release of the BIOS, version 1.10. This was installed at the factory (obviously, as there were no other versions released at the time of writing). If you do get this board, make sure you are running the latest BIOS. Check for new versions here: http://www.asrock.com/mb/Intel/H61M-DGS%20R2.0/?cat=Download&os=BIOS

So this is the current state of the build. Next up…

  • Installing ESXi 6.0U1 (just released in time for this build)
  • Deciding on where the VMs would run
  • Adding NIC and possible internal storage
  • Configuring ESXi
  • Installing guest VMs

Stay tuned!

Relevant links:

http://ark.intel.com/products/53422
http://www.asrock.com/mb/Intel/H61M-DGS%20R2.0/

http://www.kingston.com/datasheets/HX316C10FBK2_16.pdf
https://pubs.vmware.com/Release_Notes/en/vsphere/60/vsphere-esxi-60u1-release-notes.html