I was in the market for a new lab server at home that I could run VMWare ESXi or Hyper-V on, which would support my virtualization needs. I wanted to go with server-class hardware, and decided that the HP ML350 G5 would be the best fit for me now, and allow for some future growth/expansion.

I know a lot of you out there are looking for a solid lab server to setup at home or in the office, and for a personal purchase, I would consider this a middle of the road purchase as far as cost/performance goes.

My journey started and was encouraged by a guy named Simon who runs the Techhead blog which I highly recommend you visit if you are looking into purchasing a virtualization lab server. (a big thanks to my buddy John M. for sending me the link for Techhead). Simon is a VMWare guy, and his blogs relating to HP ML series servers detail his experience with the ML110/ML115 models. Regardless of the virtualization solution/hypervisor you choose, he has a great deal of information on these ML series servers. And if you choose to go the VMWare ESX route, he will put your mind at ease that these servers will work perfectly with ESX.

If you are looking for a cheap server-class system with a warranty and the flexibility of being fully supported by VMWare, I highly recommend the ML110/ML115 servers. However, I needed a bit more ‘oomph’ and decided to go with the ML350 G5 which supports up to 32GB of RAM, two Quad-core processors and 8 SFF (small form factor [2.5”]) or 6 LFF drives.

For those of you wondering, the main reason I totally ruled out Dell’s PowerEdge 2900/2950 offerings was because of the extremely loud fans and initial startup costs associated with purchasing one of these servers. I’ve heard the fans are ridiculously loud on the PE line, where the ML350 is much quieter and geared for the open layout home/office scenario. In addition, some of you may like to build your system from the ground up. I didn’t choose that route because number one, I’m lazy, and number two, I liked the 3 year on site support offered with the machine I purchased.

Our budgets and needs all vary, but mine are capped right around the $2000.00 mark. I needed a server that supported a number of concurrent running VM’s, so I wanted to start out with a Quad-core processor, at least 16GB of RAM, and to be able to load up the server with some fast SAS disks (storage constraint is what I’ve found to be the #1 bottleneck in VM performance).

My purchases all came by way of EBay. I decided EBay was the most cost efficient route, especially with the server purchase. All items I purchased were through Buy It Now, and I went with reputable sellers with feedback above 99%. My purchasing experiences with all three sellers has been great. Prompt responses to questions, willing to negotiate on price/shipping, and very fast shipping. I got a slaying deal on the ML350 through  budgetservers. The price for this exact model on HP’s site is $1689.00. As you will see from my price breakdown below, I got the server for much cheaper.

Highlighting what I liked about the server, I found the most useful features to be:

  1. A 2.33ghz Quad-core processor, with support for an additional Quad-core processor
  2. Support for 32GB of RAM
  3. E200i with 128MB of battery backed write cache RAID controller (Supports RAID 0, 1, 10, and 5)
  4. Integrated Lights-Out port
  5. VMWare ESX is fully supported

In addition to the server, I purchased the following:

  1. 16GB of RAM (4x4GB buffered ECC)
  2. 4 x 146.8GB Seagate Cheetah 15k.5 SAS drives

The server comes with 2GB of RAM pre-installed, so the additional RAM will bump me up to 18GB. I decided on the 15K RPM SAS drives because I got such a great deal on the lot of four. Otherwise I may have opted to go with four WD Caviar Black 7200RPM SATA2 drives. Aside from drawing twice as much power, I think I will enjoy the added I/O and throughput the SAS drives will give me in RAID-0. In case you are wondering why I’m choosing RAID-0, which provides no fault tolerance, in my home lab I don’t need much in the way of redundancy and don’t want to forfeit the IO overhead that RAID 10 or RAID 5 would impose. My 1TB SATA drive that the host will be running on can be partitioned to provide ample space for backing up my most important VM’s.

Here’s a price breakdown of the bits needed to assemble the server, along with links to the EBay items (if applicable).

Item Price (including shipping)
HP ML350 (P/N 458246-001) $1065.00
16GB RAM (4x4GB) $369.00
4 x 146.8GB 15K SAS drives $422.00
TOTAL $1856.00


More to come

I’m away from home for a bit, so I hope to make it back to assemble everything that has arrived. I have yet to decide between Hyper-V or ESX/VSphere, so my next posts will detail which I have decided on and what makes most sense for me. I also hope to provide some performance benchmarks as well as real-world results for you folks to give you an idea of what kind of performance you can expect out of a machine like this (I’m excited to find out myself). The one thing I find out there is a lot of specs on home servers, but not many results on what kind of performance they can expect from a particular setup. So I aim to give you guys one perspective based on the gear that I’ve assembled.

Until then, I hope this post has provided you with an interesting angle on building a home lab with server-class hardware for just over $1800.00. And like I mentioned previously, for much cheaper alternatives, check out the Techhead blog for information on the ML110/ML115 models.