Build a home ESX 4.x Server for $1,000

Update: I came up with a new parts list based on Sandy Bridge parts. You can check it out here.

Currently I dual-boot my home computer with ESXi 4.1, but that’s getting old. Yes, you can run ESXi 4.1 inside of VMware Workstation 7.1 (and I do), but you can’t run any 64-bit guest operating systems within that ESXi instance. Since Server 2008 R2 is 64-bit only, along with many other applications like Exchange 2010, that really limits what you can do with nested VMs.

So I broke down today and put together a white box micro-ATX computer for home use that should scream. Total cost was about $1,000, which I don’t think is too shabby for the hardware specs. I ordered most of the parts through Directron.com, since they don’t charge CA tax and have reasonable shipping costs.

Important factors for me were size (small case), noise level (very quiet), 16GB RAM, and dual NICs that were on the ESXi 4.1 HCL. I looked at Intel Clarksdale motherboards with on-die graphics, so I could eliminate the graphics card, but from what I read their memory performance is in the toilet due to an off-die memory controller. So I opted for a separate graphics card and a 45nm Intel Lynnfield processor. Next year when Intel Sandy Bridge processors are released, that should fix the terrible memory performance due to the new ring-bus micro-archtiecture.

You could ceratinly shave off a few dollars by getting a cheaper case, slower hard drive, less full-featured MB, and a single port NIC.

Antec MicroATX Minuet 350 case $98.99
Western Digital 1TB 7200 RPM 6Gb/s SATA $86.99
Asus Maximus III GENE MicroATX MB $136.98 (after rebate)
Intel Core i5-760 2.8GHz Quad-Core $204.99
Qty 2 Mushkin 8GB DDR3 PC3-10666 kit $129 x 2
Sapphire Radeon HD5450, low profile, fanless $29.99 (after rebate)
SuperMicro AOC-SG-i2 dual-port GiGE NIC $82
NetGear GS088T-200NAS Managed 8-port GigE switch $105.98

Total comes to about $1004.00, plus a few dollars shipping. I already had a DVD drive, so I didn’t need to get one. The NetGear switch supports VLANs, jumbo packets, and other features that got my interest. While doing some research, I also found a web site that has a pretty long list of whitebox hardware and an unofficial ESX(i) 4.x HCL. You can check it out here.  I can’t wait to get all of the parts and put the server together.

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How many VMs can you run at the same time on this box?

Derek Seaman, CISSP, MCSE, VCP4
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That depends on several things, like how much memory you allocate to each VM and how disk intensive the VMs are. I routinely run 5-6 VMs, each with ~2GB of RAM, and it doesn’t even break a sweat. The bottleneck for me is disk I/O, not mememory, since I’m not trying to pack on a lot of VMs that use a lot of memory.

Derek Seaman, CISSP, MCITP:EA, VCP4
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I’d try to update to the latest BIOS, clear the CMOS and reconfigure the BIOS, and if that still fails, call Muskin. Can you narrow it down to one or two particular sticks?

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