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Comparing VMware Home Lab Solutions: HP’s Microserver, Intel’s NUC, and Apple’s MAC mini

June 13, 2013

In preparation for the release of a new book I wanted to setup a local lab environment that I could use to capture screenshots and Adobe Captivate videos from.

I had set the following goals for my new Home Lab environment:

  • Hardware should be on the VMware HCL or supported within the VMware Community
  • Energy Efficient, consuming no more than 80 WATTS per host.
  • Quiet, no louder than a desktop computer.
  • Lightweight, light enough to fit on the top of a Telco rack.
  • Powerful, a minimum of an Intel i5 CPU and the ability to support a minimum 16 GB of RAM.
  • Affordable, less than $1000 per host.
  • Pre-built, out-of-the-box ready although I would be willing to upgrade memory or and hard disk drives.
  • Dual-nic Support, Must be able to support two NICs with at least one supporting WoL.

With such a long list of requirements, I assumed that I may have to compromise on one or two items.  I quickly narrowed it down to three candidates: The HP Proliant Microsever, Intel NUC, and the Apple MAC mini.

HP Proliant Microserver N54l

The HP Proliant Microserver has always been a popular solution for a VMware Home Lab.  I was introduced to the idea of using a Microserver by Simon Seagrave’s October 2010 bLOG post Running VMware vSphere on an HP Microserver.  After reading Simon’s article I immediately purchased a Microserver N36L and have been using it for the last three years.  The Microserver meets almost every one of my requirements but is inadequately powered. Although the clock speed has improved, even the latest N54l model retains the underpowered AMD Turion CPU. The Microserver is the loudest and most power consuming of the bunch with noise levels hovering around 22 dBA and power consumption averaging 38 watts.  The 8.5″ width of the Microserver allows you to neatly fit two side-by-side in a 19″ wide rack mount shelf with 9 7/8″ depth.  Weighing in at 14 pounds with a single SSD per host these units would fit on the top of my Telco rack, however 28 pounds may be heavy for some other racks.   It doesn’t appear as though the next generation of Microservers will introduce the more powerful Intel® Core™ i5 Processor, see Patrick Kennedy’s HP ProLiant Microserver Gen8 Specs Leaked article.

Photo Jun 12, 8 38 46 PM

Illustrated is my current Microserver perfectly occupying 1/2 of a rack mount shelf.

Intel NUC

Alex Galbraith recently posted a bLOG series on his Intel NUC self titled “NanoLab”.  Alex has done a lot of the heavy lifting to get the environment up and running, check out his initial post NanoLab – Running VMware vSphere on Intel NUC – Part 1. After reading his NanoLab series I was pretty excited about potentially using the NUC in my lab environment.  Power consumption at 11 watts and noise levels at 11 dBA are the lowest in the group. Weighing in at a low 18 ounces per host you can mount the NUC virtually anywhere! I would have considered using the slower Intel® Core™ i3 Processor in my lab environment, however the NUC currently only supports a single NIC, which was a show stopper for me.

Apple MAC mini (Late 2012)

I had previously used a MAC mini on the road as a test lab/demo kit and was happy with the price, performance, and portability (fit in my laptop bag). I decided that it would make an excellent home lab solution.  The Apple MAC mini was the only solution that met all of my requirements.  Noise was an incredibly low 15 dBA at idle, and power consumption was only 23 watts per host.  At 2.7 pounds per host I wasn’t concerned about mounting the MAC mini in my Telco rack.  Sonnet manufactures a rackmount enclosure specifically designed to house to MAC mini’s.  The RackMac mini further simplified the hardware installation.  Installing ESXi on the MAC mini has also been simplified as a result of William Lam’s efforts, read his bLOG post Installing ESXi 5.1 Update 1 on Mac Mini is Now a Breeze! (No Custom ISO/patches Needed!) at virtuallyGhetto.com.

Here is a breakdown of the components I ordered:

AppleMACminiLabComponents

QTY Description Cost Total Vendor
2 Apple MAC MINI Quad-core i7/2.3GHz/4GB/1TB/HD 4000 779 1558 B&H
2 Crucial 16GB Kit (8GBx2) DDR3 1600 MHz (PC3-12800) 89.99 179.98 Amazon
2 Apple Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter 27.95 55.9 B&H
2 BELKIN A3L980-01-BLU-S 1′ Cat6 Blue Color Patch Cable 2.49 4.98 eBay
2 BELKIN A3L980-05-BLK-S 3′ Cat6 Blue Color Patch Cable 3.99 7.98 eBay
1 Sonnet RackMac Mini Rackmount Enclosure 133.99 133.99 B&H
1940.83

Here is a shot of the back of the Sonnet RackMac Mini enclosure with custom power cables and the QNAP TS239 PROII NAS device.

Photo Jun 08, 8 06 56 PM

Here is the final assembly, the Sonnet RackMac Mini enclosure is at the top of the Telco rack, mounted in the Master Bedroom Closet.

Photo Jun 09, 2 51 08 PM

Custom Built Home Lab Solution

If the solutions above do not fit your needs and you are interested in a building your own lab environment the following bLOG articles represent a few of my favorite builds:

They all use quality components, do an excellent job detailing part numbers and pricing, and offer tips on how to assemble the solution.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. DarenTay permalink
    September 23, 2013 2:51 am

    Hi there.. your servers are they mounted to the wall?

    • October 11, 2013 11:42 am

      The MAC mini computers are mounted in a RackMac Mini 1U enclosure, which is then mounted in a Telco rack that is on the wall.

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