Saturday, February 28, 2015

Building a Home/Lab VMWare ESXi System


In this post I'm going discuss a recent lab hardware build.  I needed to upgrade my existing VMWare ESXi system.  The goals I had for this upgrade:
  • Relatively cheap hardware
  • Decent performance; it's just going to be a lab box
  • Smaller footprint than previous box
  • Quieter and more energy efficient than previous box
  • And more importantly - caveman-simple deployment.  I had zero interest in troubleshooting an ESXi install on non-compatible or barely compatible hardware.


I did the typical Google research project to find hardware combos that others had got working with ESXi.  I focused on ESXi 5.5 Update 2 as that's the current release.  After the research, I decided to go with a SuperMicro bare-bones server.  

These type of systems are relatively complete.  The motherboard w/CPU and power supply are already installed (and fit) the chassis.  You provide the RAM and hard drive.  That motherboard 'fit'ting part is a legitimate concern in these little 1U, half-depth rackmount systems.  I'm all about building boxes from scratch, but I didn't want to deal with figuring out what motherboard would fit what chassis.  In general, this server checked all my requirements boxes:
  • Roughly $500 on the street, before RAM and hard drive.
  • 8-core/2.4 GHz Intel Atom processor.  The motherboard will accept up to 64 GB of RAM.
  • Tiny little rackmount box.  1U and only 9.8" deep.  Fits nicely in a small rack.
  • Low noise.  I can't hear it above the router that's in the same rack.
  • Low power.  That Intel C2758 Atom processor is quite efficient, only 20 watts.
  • Caveman factor - others have had luck with getting ESXi up on this box.

Picture below of the actual server after I took it out of the packaging:

Below is what a "bare-bones" system looks like on the inside.  As mentioned, everything but the RAM and hard drive is supplied.

For RAM, I decided on some fairly cheap Kingston SODIMM's that I'd seen others say work in this SuperMicro box.  I went with 32 GB of RAM (4 x 8 GB).  SODIMM picture below:

For a hard drive, I went the SSD route for performance.  I bought a Samsung 120 GB model.  120 GB is way overkill for me as I keep all my VM images on a NAS, but that size seems to be still the sweet spot as far as price on these drives.    One annoying thing with SuperMicro box - they don't include the mounting bracket for a drive.  You have to go buy that separately.  Only ~$7, but still an unnecessary pain in my book.  Below is a picture of that Samsung SSD mounted in the bracket.

Picture below of the bracket w/drive mounted in the SuperMicro chassis.

ESXi Installation

I don't have any stories of technical heroics employed to get ESXi installed on this box.  It just worked. 

I pulled down ESXi 5.5 Update 2 from VMWare's site and made a bootable thumb drive with UNetbootin.  There are multiple sites out there describing how to use that utility to make bootable ESXi images.  Simple.

Bill of Materials

Here's a consolidated list of the parts I used to build this box:


  1. What's your take on the Atom for an ESX host like this? Is it enough to run any VM's?

    1. Runs lab/low-intensity VM's just fine. The Atom is obviously not acceptable for CPU-intense tasks, such as video editing.

  2. I run about 6 of these little guys as remote office network appliances. They run domain controllers, radius servers, dhcp, dns, ntp, mysql, squid and snort with ease. They are pretty powerful for 20 watts, and the IPMI is great because I can reinstall the OS on a physical server that is in taiwan or shanghai over the network.