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So it’s finally time for me to replace my Dell PowerEdge T300. The T300 has done incredibly well, at 4 years old it still happily runs 4-5 of my virtual machines and has definitely been a huge help in test labs for my work and personal studies.

I’ve been reading around the net for a long time as to ESXi white-boxes, especially the the various pros and cons of doing ‘custom builds’ over buying outright servers (such as Dell or HP items). Given it would cost over £500 to upgrade the RAM in the T300 (at 12GB this is now the first thing that really stops me running much more on it) I decided to look at a white-box. Some great sites that have detailed white-box builds are WahlNetwork.com and RootWyrm.us.to be sure to check them out!

Why a white-box? Well long story short = cost. Having put builds together for some Dell T320’s or T420’s I just couldn’t get the performance bonuses over a custom build, a Dell T110 wouldn’t have been much of an upgrade over my T300. Not to mention it would still have set me back over £1000 for anything reasonable. So with a fair budget in mind, given RAM would be £500ish, I figured up to £700 per machine would be a good baseline.

My primary goals:
All components for a build to come in at near £700
Platform to support majority (if not all) VMware ESXi features (FT/VMotion/HA etc)
Lots of RAM and fast storage to enable squishing as many VM’s on as possible.
Something fairly silent! The T300 is a little loud these days.

Component List:

£169.99 This is the non-K version, why? Because it allows support for VT-d.  It may not be a feature needed by all but I eventually want to play with some GPU passthrough for VDI/XenApp goodies.

£77.99 Reading around the Z77 platform on ASRock boards seems to be a solid choice when it comes to ESXi whiteboxes. The onboard NIC is supported out of the box and ESXi looks to install with no real headaches, definitely a nice balance of features for a hassle free build.

£159.98 2x Kingston HyperX Blu 16GB Kit (2x8GB) – this gave me the max 32GB the board could handle.

£139.99 A fairly well reviewed SSD but more importantly it was cheap! Given the 250GB storage and only a slight drop on write speeds over the competition (which were much higher cost) the Basic 840 version seemed a solid choice.

£39.98 Can’t go wrong with a Corsair PSU! It’s another well reviewed item, it’s quite and its Modular helping to keep the case innards tidy.

Chuck in a cheap 8GB USB drive to install ESXi on and a case to suit, I was ready to begin building. For my build I opted for the Fractal Design Define Mini Case @ £69.99, a great sound dampened case that was a fairly compact size. I also added an additional NIC – the TP Link TG-3468 PCIe Gigabit card was perfect, another NIC supported out of the box and cost around £10. All the items were bought from overclockers.co.uk or ebuyer.com.

So to sum up – a complete build for just under my goal of £700. Everything went together without hassle, it’s dead silent and ESXi installed without any complaints. Some photos are below of the built systems, I decided to pick up two and begin making use of a Synology NAS I already had for iSCSI storage.

18 comments

  1. 25/04/2013 at 6:48 PM Arka

    Is it still running well? I’m really interested about a kind of build like yours, i think i will purchase something similar (with an i7).

    • 26/04/2013 at 6:35 AM Webbo

      Hi Arka, It’s still running very well! Updated to the latest ESXi build since the above posting and all working fine. I was tempted by the i7 but cost wise didn’t see much in it unless you really wanted HT, with 7 or so active VMs (DC/Exchange/BES/WSUS etc) sitting on one host the CPU is barely used – but of course if your number crunching on anything the i7 may be preferable.

  2. 26/04/2013 at 6:14 PM Arka

    Thanks for your answer, you decided me. I think i will aim for the i7 because i need approximatively ten linux vms for my lab.

  3. 09/05/2013 at 9:35 PM Adey71

    When did you get your memory kits for that price?

    • 10/05/2013 at 6:20 AM Webbo

      I bought them a week or so before posting this from overclockers.co.uk, I had to double check my order invoice as I’ve seen they are now around £100! RAM prices as a whole look to be on the increase though, perhaps a decline in production prepping for DDR4 who knows…

  4. 10/05/2013 at 7:51 PM Adey71

    Are you still running multiple VMs without any issues? I’m thinking of adopting your spec as its tried and tested cheers.

    • 11/05/2013 at 3:14 PM Webbo

      Still going strong, recently updated to 5.1u1 with no issues. 20 odd machines running between them for test labs I work on – the SSDs give a huge speed boost so well worth it if you’re looking to cram as much on as possible.

  5. 07/06/2013 at 5:31 PM Leo Thomas

    Hi Webbo, Am also building a whitebox similar to your setup. have you tried FT/vMotion/HA ???? Also found that you have additional NIC’s from TP-Link, that also detected by the Hypervisor???

    • 09/06/2013 at 8:21 AM Webbo

      Hi Leo, Yes FT/vMotion/HA all work really well on these boxes. Bear in mind the need for shared storage if you want to achieve FT/HA though! I have these linked to a Synology DS1511+ that acts as a small iSCSI target for me to play with those features.

      The TP-Link NIC model I mention does get detected out of the box so it makes for an easy install. Good luck with your build 🙂

  6. 10/06/2013 at 4:14 PM ACAT (@iAngelus)

    Hi Martyn! I’m so glad to have found this page of yours! I built myself a white-box server as test lab for my studies about a month ago. I really intended to install ESXi 5.1 U1 on it but unfortunately, I get the “No network adapters were detected.” error when installing it.

    The error is similar to this image: http://en.community.dell.com/cfs-file.ashx/__key/communityserver-blogs-components-weblogfiles/00-00-00-37-45/3731.No-Network-Adapters.jpg.

    I stumbled upon this post of yours because I’ve been googling TP-Link TG-3468 (the additional NIC I bought) and ESXi, hoping to find an answer as to how to include (slipstream? bootstrap?) the available drivers on the drivers disc that came with the NIC into the ESXi’s ISO. And I really cannot find a more elucidating article (or I haven’t googled that much?)

    Having read your piece now, I’m really confused as to why you’re able to install the ESXi without any problems using TG-3468 .

    Here’s the main specs of the cheap rig I assembled:

    – Intel Pentium G2020 2.9GHz, 3MB Cache, LGA115, 55W,
    – ECS H61H2-MV (with a built-in gigabit NIC)
    – 2 x Kingston HyperX Blu 8GB DDR3 (KHX1600C10D3B1/8G)

    My only conclusion as to the problem I’m having is that both the motherboard and TG-3468 have the same chipset and model (Realtek) that is incompatible with ESXi(?). BUT, why isn’t it the case with your white-box?

    Since I had to continue with my test lab, I had to install XenServer 6.1 (free version) instead. I’ve learned to use it and I’m enjoying it coz it’s a new territory and learning oppportunities for me (having used OVM and ESXi extensively in the office), but I still do wish to make use of ESXi instead of XenServer. I even tried (in my desperation, lol!) to install ESXi as a VM on XenServer but I’m still receiving the “No network adapters were found” error.

    Hoping you could help me out. 🙂

    Thank you so much for the time! Cheers!

    • 14/06/2013 at 1:53 PM Webbo

      Hi ACAT,

      Any joys on this? I believe a few users report issues with the Realtek 8111E NICs that I beleive the ECS board has. The fix may involve trying different BIOS versions or perhaps swapping from UEFI mode if possible? http://communities.vmware.com/thread/441012?start=0&tstart=0 is an example of the 8111 issues.

      The TP-LINK card did work ‘out of the box’ so no driver integration was required, you may want to try disabling the onboard NIC to see if it’s then detected properly. Let me know how it goes and good luck 🙂

  7. 16/06/2013 at 11:13 PM Paul M.

    £500 for RAM? Whoa!

    Not to rain on your parade, but I just bought 24GB of Micron/Crucial RAM on eBay for my T300 for £107 delivered. Lifetime warranty and all.

    The “fastest” Xeon for T300 is X5470 – another £120-150 for a used one.

    Pair of 15k rpm 300GB SAS drives… £90.

    If you still have your T300 around you may want to reconsider parting it out. I know I’m keeping mine 🙂

    • 17/06/2013 at 6:22 AM Webbo

      Certainly worth extending the life of if you can find cheaper parts so it is a valid point, my issues unfortunately weren’t just with cost but noise 🙂 It is a shame RAM is still so expensive, brand new anyway. Crucial are at £233 inc VAT for an 8GB set! eBay has an 8GB set currently for £60 with the Xeon being £200 etc – add it all up and you’re still getting more bang for buck with the Whitebox given it’s only a couple of hundred more (and for brand new components offering at least some level of warranty which may be another concern for some).

      Can’t fault the T300 it’s been a solid setup and still runs XenServer for me when I need to test bits 🙂

  8. 17/06/2013 at 9:32 AM Paul M.

    Noise aside (2 x Nexus fans can solve this issue @ <£20), T300 is an enterprise level server. It has server grade CPU, ECC Memory, PSU, hard disks and all other components designed to work in 24/7.

    The prices for the parts I quoted is what I paid for them about a week back. All in all <£350, a very worthy upgrade for an old girl. If interested, let me know and I'll post the auction nos where I got my stuff from to back up my claim.

    Again, not having a go – a new build is always nice but I'd settle on something server-grade – from motherboard to memory to CPU.

    Xen didn't work for me under NetBSD so I went with ESXi and never looked back 🙂

    • 17/06/2013 at 3:48 PM Webbo

      Certainly worth it at those costs, I’d be keen to try nab those bits when they pop up again myself. Ones I mentioned were just quick checks this morning.

      I’m curious on the Nexus fans though as I had a brief look at getting them swapped before – but with the Dell specific connectors and then the controller firmware potentially moaning about the lower fan RPM’s I ended up giving it a miss. Is it something you’ve swapped already?

      It’s a box that had been running 24×7 for near 4 years so can’t fault it, squeezing more life out of it is always worthwhile 🙂

  9. 04/07/2013 at 4:23 PM Danny

    Great read mate. Going to copy your rig. Thanks for saving me the hour/days reading 🙂
    Cheers

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