[Review] HP Proliant N54L Microserver

UPDATE: I’ve upgraded since then – see new server.

There’s home servers and there’s home servers. About two years ago, I rigged up a simple DIY NAS machine, running Unraid in order to cobble together a mish-mash of HDD’s of various shapes and sizes. It works well, was cheaper and more flexible than off-the-shelf solutions and still works well to this day. Consuming around 65-85w, it’s not particularly thirsty, about par for the course for the components.

Despite two of the Seagate hard disks dying along the way, and a few new HDD’s being slapped in, it’s still chugging along nicely, but it’s duties have grown. Time Machine backups over AFP, torrent services (Linux ISOs!), Airplay transcoding, SFTP/NFS services, Sickbeard for TV show cataloguing to name a few. There were times where I wanted to run JDownloader on it, or set it up as a DHCP server, but there were no packages available, or I lacked the knowledge. Time to complement it.

I knew of the popularity and rabid fan base of the HP Microservers, so when a special came up to pick up one of these for a measly sum a month ago, I jumped at the opportunity. For those unfamiliar, it’s an AMD Turion N54-based machine, with 6 USB slots, including one internal, SATA2 ports/space for 6 HDD’s, two DDR3 slots (up to 16GB – pending the DIMMs that you use) and a Broadcom G/bit controller, all in a physical space slightly larger than a toaster. The kicker is that it also uses less power than a light bulb, around 30-35w – ideal for a 24/7 SOHO environment.

proliant_g7_n54l_microserver_-_704941-421-1024x1024Front loader for easy access to internal USB and HDD bays. Note the included HDD screws which are neatly kept on the frame of the door. The two blue screws can be removed to slide the motherboard tray out.

Fortunately, I had a spare 750GB HDD handy, and I was ready to donate 8GB of my desktop’s 16GB of DDR3 to the machine. I had grand plans for the little guy, but I ran into an immediate hurdle. The clearance between the horizontally-mounted motherboard at the bottom and the base of the HDD cage is barely a few cm, meaning my G-Skill Ripjaws didn’t fit. A more enterprising soul than I did forcefully fit them in, after ‘shearing’ off the top of the heatsink. (Click for link, it’s not pretty). I’d highly recommend having a look at the fan-created N40L Wiki for RAM recommendations.

So, with a newly-acquired Kingston DDR3 16GB kit installed, options were plentiful to which OS to run. In the end, I settled on a VMware ESXi 5.1 build (free, HP-specific versionalso available), running a few different OS’s:

  • Windows Server 2012 No.1 – Domain controller, AD functions/authentication, LDAP, DHCP server, DNS server/cache. Very low CPU/RAM utilisation.
  • Windows Server 2012 No.2 – uTorrent downloads / Sickbeard / Filebot / jDownloader / LAN Dropbox services, network virus scanning. Occasionally CPU hungry.
  • Windows Server 2012 No.3 – Exchange server, MSSQL server, Sharepoint/Lync server, IIS testing. Massive resource hog.
  • Windows Server 2012 No.4Veeam Backups. Self-starts on a weekly basis to run a CBT deduplicated/compressed backup to the earlier mentioned NFS datastore.
  • Ubuntu Server (w/XFCE) – Apache / MySQL and PHP stack, including RSS server (an article on this coming soon). Very low CPU/RAM usage.
  • OpenVPN appliance – VPN endpoint (there are also variants for nearly all OS’s). Note that both Server 12 and Ubuntu have their own VPN solutions as well.
  • VMware VDP appliance – For backup to the NAS machine (SUSE-based). I eventually moved this away after it compared unfavourably with Veeam.
  • VMware vCenter appliance – For VM monitoring, logging and management (CentOS-based). vCenter loves RAM, especially if you use embedded SSO/SQL database.

I’d hesitate to load it up more than that – the N54L is not a powerhouse, think of it as roughly equivalent to a Core 2 Duo in capability, I’ll get to that in a minute. But do feed it lots of RAM as you’ll most likely end up over-provisioning, especially when running SQL databases. If required later on, do note you can always get more of these machines and dynamically move VM’s around between them as required based on load (see DRS).

There’s of course a whole bunch of other stuff you can run if you wanted to: Plex/XBMC catalog/transcoder, a NAS like Openfiler/FreeNAS, music streamers, RSS scrapers, or ownCloud, for example. The possibilities are endless and ongoing – enough to bring any off-the-shelf pricier QNAP/Synology unit to shame.

Screenshot-290513

The Broadcom BCM5723 onboard NIC benches nicely, no jumbo frames either.

Some tips if you’re setting up your own:

  • Even though these machines have an ESXi supported NIC, PCI and DirectPath I/O is NOT supported, so if do you set up a NAS machine with multiple HDD’s, performance may be somewhat degraded (Update: There is a way to enable RDM).
  • If you’re putting in >4 HDDs, and you want to enable AHCI on the 5th and 6th SATA ports, a BIOS mod is required too.
  • Make sure the HDD write-caching function is switched ON in BIOS – it was disabled by default on mine, leading to horrendous performance and lots of head scratching before I realised. Think 30-minute snapshots.
  • If you’re storing it in a dusty environment, place some thin foam or tissue on the front vent to filter out dust.
  • The front HP logo lights up bright blue, so if you don’t like your room illuminated, put some tape on it.

The good news is that it’s whisper quiet – the singular large fan at the rear draws fan from the front of the case, over the board and HDD’s, which are housed in quick-release bays accessible from the front of the machine. This is a nice touch, though note they are NOT hot-swappable. In addition, network and HDD performance was very good, being able to easily saturate the G/bit link to other machines on the network.

Capture

Historical CPU usage in it’s early days with a few VM’s running, the daily spikes are the scheduled virus scans, and the large spike in the middle is Server 12 w/Veeam firing up weekly to do a complete backup of all VM’s to an external datastore.

Onto the CPU. Sure, most of the time, with just three VM’s running, CPU usage hovers around 15-20% range, depending on what services are running. But when things get heated, it’s not difficult to peg the dual-cores at maximum for extended times. It’s no number-crunching monster.

Overall, a sturdy and reliable machine for many uses – the flexibility of the layout, compact size and fast NIC make it a very adequate server. The bargain price (thank economies of scale) and frugal power consumption mean that it also won’t break your budget either – a fantastic addition to for any home or even small business.

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