Happy Christmas and New Year!

It’s been a fairly quiet year for the blog, and I’ve felt less inclination than usual to keep adding to it. But my inbox is testimony to the fact that there’s a cadre of faithful readers nonetheless, and so to them especially, I send festive greetings and wishes for a peaceful and happy Christmas and New Year.

As my turkey slowly defrosts in time for the mega-roast tomorrow, I reflect genially on a year in which I finally got married; the two rescue cats finally became friendly; and I discovered the music of Vaughan Williams properly for the first time as a result of finally getting my music metadata into good order. Work plodded on as usual and I didn’t have to save a database from almost-total destruction due to System Admin mis-configuration for once. Windows went, and came back again… with a vengeance. RAC finally worked on Hyper-V (must write that one up sometime soon-ish). And I got to upgrade a lot of my hardware. We nearly moved house, and then decided not to, just in time.

It’s been a good year, if quieter than normal (or maybe I’m just getting older!). Looking forward to 2016, and hope all my readers feel similarly. See you in the New Year…

Christmas Upgrade

My two HP N40L servers have been doing sterling duty as file servers for over three years now (I first mentioned them here, which was written June 2012, so make that 3 years 5 months). There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them: they just work. They’ve been subjected to new operating systems from time to time, but whether it’s Windows 2008, FreeNAS, CentOS or Windows 2012R2, they’ve continued to chug along quietly and reliably, serving up a >6TB mix of movies, music and photographs around the house.

But that’s about all they can do, because they are cursed with AMD Turion processors, which asthmatic ants with hernias can outperform… so there’s not been much messing with getting them to run virtual machines or do anything else computationally more advanced than basic file sharing.

Time, therefore, for a bit of an upgrade… to a Generation 8 HP Microserver. They’re not exactly new (lots of blog posts about them can be found back in 2013 and earlier), but they are still cheap and capable. I got the basic Celeron model at AU$370 including delivery -not bad, considering that the old N40L it replaces cost me something like AU$264 three years ago. Apparently Generation 9 servers are just round the corner …but they’ve been just round the corner for about a year now. Like practical fusion, they’re always just round the corner that never seems to materialize!

I think the new server is slightly noisier than the old: the fan has a definite purr which is more than I would want to have sitting next to me for any length of time. But once placed in the server cabinet and the door shut, I don’t think it will be an issue. It’s not a ‘roar’ or a ‘whine’ though, even so.

The box only shipped with a basic 2GB RAM, but happily the non-buffered ECC RAM the old server was using is compatible with the new, so a relatively simple swap between the two sorts that issue (I say “relatively simple” only because in the N40L, getting to your RAM involves scraping knuckles and a good deal of swearing as the entire motherboard has to be removed bodily from its casing -in which it fits exceedingly tightly! The new server fortunately has its two RAM slots easily accessible at the side of the in-situ motherboard, no fiddling required).

Installing the operating system was a piece of cake using HP’s in-built ‘Intelligent Provisioning’, which provides all the hardware drivers Windows needs, automatically and entirely painlessly.

RAID is provided by the in-built B120i storage controller, which does RAID 0, 1 and 1+0. There’s no RAID 5, which is a small future problem, because my second N40L uses it. Fortunately, the one this new server replaces only used RAID 0, so the native capabilities of the B120i are fine. For the record, I have this server using a 12TB RAID 0 array of 4 x 3TB disks. Being RAID 0, of course, I am vulnerable to total data loss …which is why this server near-continuously replicates its data onto the other server which is configured as a RAID 5 array of 4 x 4TB disks. I stream video from the RAID 0 box for performance reasons, knowing it might die at any time; I back everything up onto slower, safer RAID 5 and from there onto assorted external USB3 drives which are stored away from home. Our data should be safe enough! One day, I’d like to replace the 3TB drives with 4TB (or bigger!) ones and have everything RAID 5, but at US$150 per disk, that’s not going to be happening anytime soon.

I will be replacing the second N40L server shortly though, because it turns out that the B120i on the newer server allows you to create single-disk RAID 0 ‘arrays’. So you just wrap up each of your disks as a series of four independent RAID 0 arrays, then present them to Windows and allow it to turn them into a software RAID 5 set. RAID 5 on an out-of-the-box Gen 8 HP Microserver is therefore do-able. Lots of people turn their noses up at software RAID 5, of course, but I can’t say I’ve had any problem with it in ~4 years. It’s fit for my purposes -especially when you consider that the recommended HP controller card to fit in these boxes for doing RAID 5 ‘properly’ costs 2/3rds the price of the server itself!

The Celeron CPU is, of course, not exactly the best platform on which to do virtualization (though a hell of a lot better than an AMD Turion!) It does work well enough for what I need, though, and I don’t see any immediate need to consider an upgrade to a Xeon processor, though it’s been done by others -especially since an appropriate Xeon costs about as much as the entire server cost me in the first place! However, it’s nice to know that such an upgrade is possible, should I get desperate enough.

I might similarly want to spend some cash on pushing the RAM up from its current 8GB to its maximum 16GB… but that costs about a third the price of the server, too! It’s an option for about mid-2016, I suspect.

And what will become of the old N40Ls? To be honest, at 3.5 years old, I had considered them archaic to the point of disposal, but I might keep them around for a bit of playing and tinkering with Linux or Solaris. There’s still nothing fundamentally wrong with them… though my server cabinet will need a bit or reorganization to fit 4 microservers rather than 2!