The Hyper-Converged Office Lab

Here in the SkyCrystal Office we like to keep our power usage to a minimum which is always a challenge when you like to use a lot of technology.  One of the biggest consumers of power can be servers which you typically need to leave running 24x7.  So for the last couple of years I have been on a quest to find the best low powered server to meet my compute needs. 

Essentially I wanted to build a hyper-converged system on minimum power that could support multiple virtual machines.  I also wanted the build to use minimal space, because there is just not enough of it in the office.

The hyper-converged tag got applied as I want to run the core router, domain controller, NAS, Media Server and Desktop virtual machine on the one single host. 

So what is the minimum spec needed to host the above?  Well it turns out that you can get all of that running on something as small as a Zotac CI323 nano, with 256GB onboard storage and 16GB of RAM.  Plugging in external USB storage is also required. 

How about power usage?

The litte Zotac has the Intel Quad core Celeron N3150 CPU with a 6 watt TDP (Thermal Design Power).  The SSD drive will consume less than 1W and given there is no fan, you end up with an ultra-low power hyper-converged machine.  Which is all good, except for one little catch, that I will get too.

The other nice thing about the little Zotac is that it has dual NICs, which is essential for running the router, (pfSense in my case) but the downside is that they are realtek NICs, which many of you already know, suck really bad for server workloads.  For instance the Zotac runs Windows Server 2016 Hyper-V server which is the free hypervisor host software from Microsoft.  Neither Zotac nor Microsoft support this configuration, which is why I had to hack in Windows 10 Realtek NIC drivers, which worked for a while.  It seems that once you transfer more than 1TB of data over the NICs, they completely lock up, and require a cold boot of the host to recover.  And given it's not a supported config, there was no one I could whinge too.

So I either abandonded the whole concept or doubled down.  Naturally I chose the latter.  Enter the Gigabyte Brix (GB-BSi5HAL-6200).  The Brix surprisingly is physically even smaller than the Zotac but a lot more powerful and sports 2 x Intel NICs.  And really importantly, NICs with Windows Server 2016 drivers.  Which meant the Hyper-V server install went ahead without a single hitch and in the last 8 days I have pushed over 1TB of data through the NICs without fail!

The only downside with the Brix is that it uses a bit more than twice the power with a CPU TDP of 15W, and a tiny cooling fan.  But this is something I can definitely live with.  I also filled the Brix with memory (32GB) and a 480GB NVMe storage stick (MyDigitalSSD BPX) which is crazy fast.

And the old Zotac has been relegated to the role of Hyper-V replica server for those times I want to failover my guest VMs off the Brix.

So now that my Technology is working again, I can get back to the growing to do list.

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