New HP Proliant MicroServer – a decent vSphere lab server candidate?

As I mentioned in a blog post a while ago the popular HP Proliant ML115 range of servers was going end of life, with no G6 model to ever see the light of day.  This is a real shame as the HP Proliant ML115 G5 offered exceptional value for money indeed, with a quad core AMD Opteron processor and the ability to run a decent work or lab vSphere environment from it.

There were rumours that there would be successor to the ML115 G5 but it was to take a different guise with a lower specification CPU and would not be called an ML115.  Anything else definite was not known….

… Until recently that is when HP announced the new AMD CPU based Proliant MicroServer whose specification matches the limited information previously known about the successor to the ML115 G5. 

HP MicroServerSo what is this new HP MicroServer, what is it’s specification and would it be any good for a work or home lab vSphere server? Also is it really worthy of sharing the Proliant name with such classic Proliant models as the DL360/365 and DL380/385?

However before we continue I feel I should take the time to put in perspective HP’s apparent recommended use for this new ‘multi-purpose server’ offering.  HP’s intention is to directly target the lucrative 37 million (source: The Register) SMB business market space with ten users of less where IT know-how or permanent staff are often limited or missing with the HP MicroServer claiming easy set up and configuration functionality.


The Configuration

Probably the most noticeable thing about new HP MicroServer is its size..

It’s, well..micro sized. The clue is in the name.  ;)  HP call this form factor, Ultra Micro Tower.

To be exact it is 10.5 x 8.3 x 10.2 in (26.7x 21.0 x 26.0 cm) (HxWxD) which is a pretty small form factor for any self respecting PC let alone one claiming to be a ‘server’.  This form factor will definitely be attractive to those SMB companies or businesses (eg: branch offices) lacking the required space for running anything larger or perhaps intending to run their server in the actual open office space.  But for me and no doubt plenty of others out there this form factor and the quoted quiet operating noise levels of 23.8 dBA (which is pretty darn quiet in anyone’s book) is, on the surface, a tasty looking option for use in a home lab environment.  But it’s not all about the size (is it?) let’s take a look at some of main specifications of this new HP MicroServer.

CPU:  The CPU powerhouse(?) driving this server is not really what you’d ever expect to see in a machine claiming to be a server with its dual core 1.3Ghz AMD Athlon II NEO N36L processor which would normally be seen in a laptop or netbook PC.  This isn’t a processor that you’ve probably seen around too much so let’s take a look at its capabilities apart from its obvious speed (1.3GHz) and dual cores:

Manufacturing process:    0.045 micron SOI
Data width:    64 bit
Number of cores:  2
Floating Point Unit:    Integrated
Level 1 cache size:     2 x 64 KB instruction caches
2 x 64 KB data caches
Level 2 cache size:    2 x 1 MB

    * MMX technology
    * 3DNow!
    * SSE
    * SSE2
    * SSE3
    * SSE4A   
    * AMD64 technology   
    * Enhanced Virus Protection   
    * Virtualization technology (ie: AMD-V) 

Low power features:    PowerNow!
On-chip peripherals:  

    * Integrated DDR3 SDRAM memory controller
    * HyperTransport technology 3.0

I have highlighted those processor features which are either required by VMware vSphere or in the case of ‘PowerNow!’ is a nice to have.  So technically the AMD Athlon II NEO N36L processor found in the HP Proliant MicroServer should be able to run vSphere ok, though the most glaringly obvious question in all of this is the dual 1.3Ghz CPU Cores up to the job of supporting and running an average vSphere lab environment?

Well, of course the answer to this is… it depends.  As no doubt all of you who run a production or lab VMware vSphere environment will in most cases confirm the amount of CPU utilisation is generally quite low with memory being the first ESX/ESXi host physical resource being consumed, meaning that a lowly utilised vSphere lab environment with 4-5 VMs would probably be ok running on the MicroServer in most instances.  Though increase the workloads of the VMs running on the server and the CPU performance could quickly change for the worse.

Memory:  The first thing to know about the HP MicroServer is that it only has two memory slots thereby instantly limiting your options when it comes to adding affordable capacity memory DIMMs to maximise the available memory.  The maximum amount of memory that you can insert and run is 8GB which is achieved via 2 x 4GB PC3-10600E DDR UDIMMs.  You receive 1 x 1GB PC3-10600E DDR UDIMM with the MicroServer as standard but lets face it what can you really do with that whether the server is used as a virtual host or running an OS such as Windows Server 2008 straight on the bare metal?  In my opinion HP would have been better removing all the memory and dropping the price slightly allowing the purchaser to add their own desired memory capacity and configuration.

Below is an outline of the main allowed memory configurations:

HP MicroServer Memory Configurations

HP Proliant MicroServer DrivesStorage Controller & Hard Disks:  Detailed information currently available on the onboard storage controller is  somewhat light with the exact storage controller chipset being used unknown.  Chances are the disk controller could be the one seen in the ML110 G6 model of Proliant, this being the B110i,  all we do know from the HP Proliant MicroServer QuickSpecs is that it can support up to four SATA 7.2K based non-hot plug disks in either an embedded RAID 0 or 1 configuration.  What happened to RAID 5 HP?  This isn’t even available as an optional extra via an unlocking code or similar.

*** UPDATE: Thanks to Daniel from HP (Twitter: @DanielAtHP) for confirming that the HP Proliant Microserver doesn’t use the B110i disk controller but in fact a SATA disk/RAID controller built into the AMD chipset.

Although I don’t know for sure I think it will be safe to assume that the embedded RAID will not be compatible with ESX/ESXi as this is what we saw with the default embedded RAID found in the HP Proliant ML110 and ML115 models of server.  I’d like to be wrong on this one.

HP quote the use of their own SATA branded hard disks in the MicroServer though it is not entirely clear from the HP quickspec whether you could use cheaper commodity SATA 7.2K drives instead though I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t.  The standard MicroServer configuration comes with a single 160GB SATA drive.

HP MicroServer Drives

HP claim that a maximum of 8TB (4 x 2TB, RAID 0) can be added into the MicroServer providing adequate storage even in a working RAID 1 configuration (4TB).

CD/DVD: Although shown in the picture above it should be pointed out that the DVD drive is an optional extra and does not come with the standard base model, at least not the one I was looking at.

HP MicroServer RearNetwork:  There is a single embedded NC107i PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet Server Adapter which is on the VMware vSphere Compatibility List.  This single gigabit NIC combined with a single or dual port gigabit NIC expansion card added into on of the expansion slots (see below) would meet the requirements of most ESX/ESXi host configurations especially when VLANs are used.

Expansion Slots:  Below is an outline of the two expansion slots which can be found in the MicroServer, which for an average vSphere lab server is sufficient as all you’d generally be looking at inserting into one of these PCI-e slots would be a network expansion card.  Note:  due to the small form factor of this server half height, half length cards should be used.

HP MicroServer Expansion Slots

USB Ports: When it comes to USB ports HP definitely didn’t scrimp with four USB 2.0 slots on the front of the MicroServer, two on the back and one internally that HP indicates can be used with a USB based backup device.  I’m not sure why the majority of the USB ports are on the front of the server as any permanently attached USB devices such as external hard disks or dongles would usually be better off being connected around the back so there is less chance of the USB connection being knocked.  But the fact HP have provided this many USB ports is a good thing in my opinion.

Power:  The HP MicroServer is powered by a single 200 Watt non-hot pluggable  power supply.  As would be expected in an entry level server there is no option to add a redundant power supply.  The low power (15W) CPU definitely contributes to keeping the running cost of the MicroServer to a minimum, with HP quoting that a fully loaded configuration only consuming an impresssive 70W of power.

Operating Systems:  HP have Microsoft Windows Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux highlighted as being the operating systems to run on the MicroServer, so in fairness they are not claiming that it is supposed to be considered for as a virtualization host.  But us home lab virtualization techies cannot help ourselves when we see a small, form factor entry level server hardware being released.

Warranty:  1 Year


But would it make a good VMware vSphere lab server?

Once again, it depends… From the specifications provided by HP, it would probably not make for a good vSphere lab server in most instances though it really comes down to what virtualized workloads you want to run on the MicroServer.  For 4-5 average VMs not doing anything too heavy then you’ll probably find that it will be ok (small print:  I haven’t tried one of these servers yet so this is just speculation on my part based on the hardware specification of the MicroServer) assuming you are running 4-8GB of memory and perhaps running the VMs off of  attached NFS or iSCSI storage.

HP MicroServer vSphere ESXi USB Slot

For me the MicroServer has the potential for being a great little lab server though falls down in a couple of key areas – firstly the CPU is rather on the light side even if running Windows Server with up to 10 users accessing it for tasks such as SMB email, finance package, SharePoint, etc. Secondly another 2 memory DIMM sockets would have been good – what about losing one of the PCI-e expansion slots to allow for a couple of extra extra slots? Then the last point being the price.  The quoted HP price here in the UK is £219+VAT which is only slightly less than the £240+VAT approx price of an ML110 G6 which has 4 DIMMs slots, comes with a DVD drive and has a faster CPU.  What you are paying for with the MicroServer, which for Shuttle PC fans like myself appreciate, is its small size.

Something that did catch my eye is that HP has used the word ‘series’ (see image below) on it’s MicroServer web page indicating that there may end up being more than one model of MicroServer, which if true, means they will hopefully address some of the short comings mentioned above.  I must point out again that I fully appreciate that this server wasn’t designed as a vSphere lab server though even as a Windows Server 2008 box it will perhaps struggle a little with some workloads even in a >10 user branch or small office type environment.

HP Proliant MicroServer Series


After this is all said and done however I still find myself really wanting to get my hands on an HP Proliant MicroServer just to see what it is actually capable of.  I love the form factor and the concept of what HP is trying to do here, though I just think they are a little short of the mark in a couple of key areas (ie: CPU and memory capacity) when combined with the price.  If you don’t have to run workloads which require high levels of CPU horsepower the requirement to purchase a DVD drive and semi-expensive 2 or 4GB DIMMs due to a lack of available memory sockets still brings the cost of this little server more in line to to that of a server from HP’s ML range of Proliants such as the ML110 G6 which definitely, in my opinion, offers better bang for buck.


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