VMware ESXI Low Power Home Server Lab Build

A VMware ESXI Low Power server for learning at home is something I have been interested in for a quite a while. Both VMware Esxi and Microsoft’s Hyper V Server is something i’ve kept randomly hearing about over the years, I recently did some reading up and decided a little VMware ESXI Low Power server dedicated to running virtual machines on my home network would be perfect. I’m always experimenting and trying new things in my free time. Usually when its been something totally new, for example a beta of Windows i’ve simply installed it on another hard drive and dual booted it. I personally don’t think that’s the most piratical thing in the world to do, I find that I end up booting back in to my main operating system, then staying in it.

So this is where VMware Esxi or Microsoft’s Hyper V Server would be perfect, the idea is a little low powered pc can sit in a cupboard and run virtual machines, then be remotely accessed from any PC on my network.

So with the idea in my head this is a project i wanted to do, i set about looking firstly at low power usage computers. Most of the thing i looked at were not really suitable, either been vastly underpowered in the case of Nettop PC’s or stupidly expensive in the case of the Mac Mini and shuttle barebone computers.So with that in mind i looked up on various forums what other people were using, in doing so it quickly became apparent that a Mini ITX based system was the way to go, you could get some pretty high end motherboards at reasonable prices. The main limitation here was that  all the current Mini ITX motherboards had only 2x ram slots and supported a maximum of 16gb of ram. However thinking about it that would be more than enough for the virtual machines i wanted to run. I could easily have a Windows Server VM and some clients with ease, and probably host a couple of game servers for older games too.

The VMware ESXI Low Power Server Spec:

After about a month of researching on VMware ESXI Low Power server components, hardware and software in depth I had decided on a specification:

Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI
Processor: Intel CPU Core i7 3770T Quad Core IvyBridge Processor
CPU Cooler: Xigmatek Praeton LD964 Heat-Pipe Direct Touch Low Profile Cooling System
Ram: 2x Corsair Memory Vengeance Jet Black 8GB DDR3 1600 MHz CAS 9-9-9-24
Hard drive: Western Digital Scorpio Blue 1TB 2.5″
Case: Lian Li PC-Q16 Case (comes with PSU)
USB Converter: From internal header on motherboard to case front ports

I liked the GA-Z77N-WIFI motherboard as it had dual Gigabit LAN network cards that were supported in ESXI. From what i’ve read ESXI can be very paticular when it comes to network and SATA controllers, so having a motherboard that was totally compatable out the box was great. The motherboard also got great reviews and appeared to perform well in power usages tests, this was important as i wanted a quite powerful machine that wouldnt excessivly waste evenrgy. The dual Ethernet ports were not essential, however gave me the option of running a virtual machine dedicated to running a router / firewall distribution which could be live on my home network. Great for experimenting at a later date!

In regards to the processor I wanted a high performance processor, that would be power efficient. The Core i7-3770T was chosen as it was a 2.5ghz quad core processor that supported hyper-threading based on the latest Ivy Bridge architecture, however had a max TDP of 45W. This was classed as an ultra low power usage processor by Intel. The Core i5-3570T was considered however this was only 2.3ghz and lacked hyper-threading, so for the little price difference between the two i thought the Core I7 would be the better purchase.

The Lian Li PC-Q16 Case was chosen because of its size and practicality, the case was (W) 199mm x (H) 160mm x (D) 290mm and in that you could house a Micro ATX motherboard, the PSU that came with the case and up to 4x 2.5″ hard drive or 1x 3.5″ hard drive and 3x 2.5″ hard drives. At this moment in time storage space was not really important to me. ESXI would run off a USB flash drive and a single 2.5″ 5400rpm sata hard drive would be used as the Virtual Machine data store. I dont plan on running anything that will be really disc intensive, however if that is the case i have planty of room for future expansion, and maybe even a couple of SSD’s at a later date.

The CPU cooler was low profile, I had seen photos on the internet that it would just nicely fit in the Lian Li PC-Q16 Case. A plus i did like was how the fan could be moved up, down, left or right, which made life a lot easier when connecting the 4pin power connector to the motherboard.

The Corsair Memory was chose because 2x sticks of 8GB DDR3 1600 MHz was the max the motherboard would take.

Finally the USB converter to allow the internal USB header on motherboard to be wired to the cases front USB ports, for some reason these were designed to be connected to the USB3 ports at the back of the case, that seemed a waste to me as i now had 4x USB3 ports instead of two!

The VMware ESXI Low Power Server Build:

Everything assembled fine with my VMware ESXI Low Power Server, and worked perfectly together. If the CPU cooler had been any larger it would not have fit in the case, it really was the perfect size. Below are some photos of the end result, and some screenshots showing that VM Ware Esxi works perfectly on the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI motherboard.

Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI Motherboard - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI Motherboard with the CPU, CPU cooler and memory attached ready to be placed in the case.

Side view of the  Lian Li PC-Q16 Case - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

End result view from the back side of the case, the front USB 3 ports on the case are wired in a way where there supposed to connect to two USB 3.0 ports on the back. However i thought that was a bit silly so got an adaptor allowing me to wire the front USB 3 ports to the internal header on the motherboard as you can see below.

Internal USB Port - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

I also wanted to use the internal drive purely for storing the virtual machines, with that in mind i wanted an internal USB drive to install Vmware Esxi on. For this i used an old USB header to USB port adapter i’ve had in my box of random parts for years.

Internal USB Port - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

I simply unscrewed the bracket and it would fit inside the case with ease, allowing me to use a flash drive as my boot drive for Esxi.

Side view of the  Lian Li PC-Q16 Case - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

The end result from the other side, i could add 2x more 2.5″ drives at a later date, plus one 3.5″ drive (or a 2.5 with a bracket). So the case has plenty of room for additional drives. despite its size.

Front view of the  Lian Li PC-Q16 Case - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

Front of the Lian Li PC-Q16 Case

Back view of the  Lian Li PC-Q16 Case - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

Back of the case – as you can see the motherboard has 2x ethernet ports, It even has Wi-Fi & Bluetooth, not that i ever think that will get used.

Top down view of the  Lian Li PC-Q16 Case - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

I should have done a size comparison, however for what is in the case its small.

VM Ware ESXI working perfectly - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

As you can see VMware ESXI works perfectly, the SATA and Ethernet ports are picked up fine, these are two of the most common problems with Esxi i’ve read. Just install and it’s ready to go.

VM Ware ESXI Passthrough working perfectly - VM Ware ESXI Low Power Server Build

The passthrough feature is also available, allowing me to dedicate real hardware to a particular virtual machine, e.g. a Ethernet adapter.


Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI VM Ware ESXI Power Usage:

So how much power does the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI with a Core i7 3770T Quad Core IvyBridge Processor?

I found with 3 idle virtual machines 31.5w of power was consumed, about the same as if 0 virtual machines are running. ESXI reported 180mhz cpu usage and 7625mb of ram was in use when I took the idle power reading.

With the 3x virtual machines under average load, just generally been used for copying files / installing software / browsing the web the power usage would vary from 35w to about 50w depending just what was been done.

I then let a virtual machine encode video, this virtual machine had 4x cores running at 100% and used 58w in total.

For a final test I had one virtual machine running with 8x cores, the most I could assign it. I than ran Prime 95 on the virtual machine. The power usage never exceeded 96w, it did randomly drop to 90w however never exceeded 96w in the 30 minutes I left prime 95 running.

So its pretty safe to day I don’t think you will be exceeding 100w with my above setup, even under full load. I’m personally quite happy with the power usage, even under some pretty hevy load only 50-60w is going to be consumed. I think that’s pretty good as I have older PC’s that use significantly more which have much less processing power than this build.

To so sum up:

Idle: 31.5w
Normal use: 40w/50w (depending on the use)
Max: 96w

ESXI Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI passthrough

Ive had a few message about VT-d and pass though. I can confirm pass though works just fine. The on-board Wi-Fi can be passed though to a virtual machine, the virtual machine can then connect to a wireless network just fine.

GA-Z77N-WIFI ESXI Wi-Fi Passthrough

A screenshot showing the GA-Z77N-WIFI onboard Wifi  enabled for passthrough on ESXI.

EXSI recognises the wireless network card as an unknown network controller, however when passed through to a Windows 8 Virtual Machine it’s supported natively and seen as an Intel Centrino Wireless N 2230 network card.

ESXI Wi-Fi Passthrough on GA-Z77N-WIFI

A Virtual Machine connected to a wireless network using the onboard wireless on the GA-Z77N-WIFI motherboard

Ive not passed anything else though to a virtual machine, however its safe to say the motherboard will handle it fine with a supported processor.

My VMware ESXI Low Power Server Conclusions:

Everything appears to be great with my VMware ESXI Low Power Server running on the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI motherboard, after trying out an old Windows 98 and Windows 2000 virtual machine I have installed Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 in a virtual machine, performance appears to be great.

The only thing to note is that i had to disable Intel VT-d when installing ESXI on the Gigabyte GA-Z77N-WIFI, otherwise the installer would just reboot. I could however re enable VT-d after the instillation had completed and ESXI would boot up with no problems, and the pass through feature appears to work great too.

I’m pleased with the power usage, at 31.5w idle and around 40/50w when its getting a fair bit of use i personally don’t think its eating that much electric, however i guess that will depend on your opinion.

Overall i’m very happy with the end result of the project and have found an ESXI test server to be a great asset.