Building a Sandy Bridge ESX Server

A few months ago I posted the parts list for sub-$1000 ESX server. At that time Intel had not released their Sandy Bridge CPUs or chipset. Now that manufacturers are shipping chipsets without the SATA bugs, I thought I’d post an updated list of components for a screaming home ESX server. You can buy everything you need except the CPU cooler from TigerDirect.

The same criteria apply to this server as my previous post: compact form factor (HTPC case), quiet, power efficient, and dual 1Gb NICs. The CPU has a built-in GPU, so no separate graphics card is required. If you already have external shared storage (like a QNAP), then you don’t need an internal HD and could use the 8Gb tiny flash drive listed below to install ESXi on. The NICs on the motherboard are not supported by ESXi, which is why you need the SuperMicro card.

Intel also ships a lower power i5-2400 CPU (65w max vs 95w max), but it runs at a lower clock speed. Depending on your requirements, this may be a better option if your electricity bill is a concern. The WD hard drive is a screamer, but is a bit noisey. So if the noise will disturb you, going with their green line would be a much quieter option, but is slower.

Antec MicroATX Minuet 350 case  $116
Asus P8H67-M Pro $130
Intel Core i5-2400 $200
Patriot 8GB DDR3 PC3-12800 2x $85
SuperMicro Dual GiGE NIC AOC-SG-I2 $86
Scythe Big Shuriken CPU Cooler $35

Total: $737 + Shipping

Optional parts:
Asus DVD Burner $20
LaCie 8Gb ultra-small USB flash drive $25
Western Digital 1TB 6Gbps Caviar Black SATA HD $85
Intel Core i5-2400S Low-power CPU $200

Update 1: Got all of the parts and the server works great. I would advise that you install the memory before you put on the CPU cooler, or you will find yourself taking the CPU cooler off. Also, if you don’t get the memory I specified above, make sure the memory you get is low profile and doesn’t have any heatsinks sticking up above the DIMM PCB. I really like the new ASUS EFI BIOS..very graphical, easy to use, and slick. I also decided to get a tiny 4GB USB memory stick from Best Buy for $15, located here.
Update 2: I did some power measurements, and idiling the server uses 47 watts, which is more than 20 watts less than my previous ESX server. The integrated graphics card and more power efficient CPU sure make a difference!
Update 3: vSphere 5.0 recognizes the onboard RealTek NIC. So if you are satisfied with a single NIC you can skip the SuperMicro card in my parts list. If you want the very latest motherboard the Asus P8Z68-M Pro works extremely well, and its onboard NIC is also recognized. The Z68 chipset has the advantage of overclocking the CPU while letting you use GPU equipped CPUs, so you don’t need an add-in PCIe video card like you do with the H67 chipset.
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March 29, 2011 7:09 pm

Oh, it looks like there is underground support for the RealTek NIC drivers. I haven’t tried this myself, yet: for support Realtek 8111e

March 30, 2011 3:03 am

Thats a asume hardwarelist. I will build a simular system. I need more memory, but I can´t find Momory with 8GB DIMM per slot. Do you know where I can find 8GB DIMMs. The memory compatibility list will not work by the asus homepage.

March 30, 2011 8:37 am

Thanks for the info!

It would actually be a personal server, not production with customers or anything. I’m looking to spend around 1k.. but what price would I be looking at if I was to build a similar HP or Dell system? I am up to speed on homebuilt machines, but I really dont know what a pre-built system models or cost would be..

March 30, 2011 4:46 pm

You’d need to contact Asus or whoever makes your MB to get a list of certified memory. Kingston makes 16GB kits, but I don’t know if they work in the Sandy Bridge MBs.

April 21, 2011 3:43 pm

VMware does not support most (all?) RealTek NICs, which most consumer MBs use. So no, ESXi does not support the two onboard NICs, which is why I have the SuperMicro card on the purchase list. If you are referring to VMDirectPath, no the low-end Intel NICs do not support that feature. You would need to buy a higher end NIC card.

May 15, 2011 2:52 pm

No, since the on-board NICs are NOT supported by ESXi. You’d need a third-part PCIe card that supports VMDirectPath.

August 8, 2011 10:07 pm

It’s a great news for me that Core i5-2400 works with ESXi! By the way, are you using version 4.1 Update 1? I’m going to install VMware Workstation first and then deploy VSphere infrastructure in it, so the only concern I have is the CPU support. Hope the Core i5-2400 will work fine. Did you have any problems related to CPU? Thanks!

August 10, 2011 6:36 pm

Yes I’m using 4.1 U1 and it works like a charm. No problems with CPU.

August 11, 2011 10:57 am

Good info Derek.

Nice setup at a good price.

I went a little different route, with server based boards.

E3-1230s, 16GB RAM, iKVM, 5 nics, local SSD, etc for $1650

Also some as well as a cheaper configs based on the same setup here:


October 14, 2011 3:35 pm

Ya the P8Z68-M Pro works great..have an ESXi 5.0 machine running with it.

October 19, 2011 8:16 pm

I have the P8Z68-M LE board. Trying to use the onboard SATA RAID capabilities, but ESXi 5.0 still sees each individual drive, even though I setup up a RAID group of the 4 drives in the system.
It’s hard to find info on this RAID functionality. I am wondering if this is more of a software RAID assist, and requires drivers on a supported OS.
Anyone have any knowledge here?

October 20, 2011 3:55 pm

You can’t use the cheapo Intel “RAID” controller on these consumer MBs with VMware ESX. To utilize RAID you would need to look at the VMware HCL and find a RAID controller that is listed.

October 23, 2011 3:24 pm

i really wanted to do something like that itx build there, but being limited to 8Gb (2×4) total, because of the poor price of 8GB dimm sticks put me right off. I went on the scrounge and assembled an i7 965 system with 24GB ram, from ebay, and buying the rest of the components locally.

November 30, 2011 7:38 am

Nice article, but does the P8Z68-M support vt-d on your esxi5 setup?

December 31, 2011 4:58 pm

Derek I want to make your config, but curious how many simultaneous VM’s can you run at the same time on a 16GB setup? Right now I have a dual Xeon E5340 w/ 16GB’s as my main ESXi Server but want something up in the living room to show off and maybe purchase a full license for testing. But curious how many VM’s I can setup and run w/ at least 15% utilization. I’m curious w/ this motherboard if it has a built in graphics controller as I would like to install a higher end i7 if possible in that… Read more »