Saturday, 30 March 2013

Further adventures of XenServer on the HP N40L Microserver

We all know my delight in using the excellent N40L for all sorts of things. Recently a client of mine had issues with their Dell server - a server that had cost them over $20,000 5 years ago. It runs Windows SBS2003 and does a bit of file serving and not much else. I've migrated them to Google Apps for mail/calendar etc so they aren't even using Exchange. Unfortunately this client has fallen on hard times with the GFC so when this huge and expensive server of theirs began to fail, they asked for a low cost option to save their data and have a minimum of downtime.

I had just purchased an N40L for my test lab and as their disks continued to decline was able to get a complete image of the system. What surprised me was they had a 5 year old server with 7 year old disks in it! What the? I acquired some Western Digital Red Drives and installed them and 8 GB of RAM into the N40L. My initial idea was to use Acronis or similar to do a Universal Restore of the data to the N40L, update drivers and software and put the machine back in. After all, this server lives in their main office space - you can imagine what a Dell 2950 Tower server sounds like in your ear day after day.

Unfortunately my imaging project was unsuccessful. Windows SBS 2003 did not want to play the game and so I was left pondering my next move. I could buy a new copy of Windows SBS (2011 in this case) and migrate data across, a time consuming effort and with the Microsoft Tax on Australian software not an inexpensive option. I could do something dodgy and get a.... no no no. Life is too short to pirate software. At any rate, the option of a physical to virtual migration was available. So I installed XenServer 6 on the HP N40L. I installed to one disk and set up the hardware (really software) RAID via the BIOS. I'm not sure if this mirroring will actually work, because XenServer only sees the two disks. I reasoned that if software RAID is running and I install to one disk, then the BIOS level RAID should mirror both the disks.... when I have the leisure I'll test this. At any rate, 15 minutes later XenServer was up and running and ready for stuff to happen.

Because I was in a hurry I slammed a copy of XenCentre on my notebook, connected to the server and configured a Windows 2003 SBS guest with roughly the same parameters (disk, RAM etc) as the original server, imaged it across as if it was a physical server and held my breath. The server booted in the virtual environment successfully! It was running like a bucket of pus, but after installing the Xen drivers it was running better than the previous version - this made my clients very happy. I configured an external USB drive to act as the back up device and kicked a backup off. It failed and has continued to fail - there seems to be some odd conflict with the device.... at any rate, the server is running and now I need to put a small NAS in for backup purposes - one which I will mirror to an offsite location.

So for a relatively short amount of downtime and much less than a new, full sized server they are operational. When it's time for a proper new server, I'll set it up another XenServer - using hardware RAID this time (which will work) and simply migrate. The server isn't forward facing and the firewall allows only file serving with all other services disabled or firewalled off. It makes for minimal disruption for the client and once I manage to convince them to migrate to FreeBSD or GNU/Linux for their file serving the basic platform will be ready to go - I won't even need to buy another server, simply configure an additional VM and away we go.

Friday, 29 March 2013

HP N40L and FreeNAS 8.3.0

My existing HP N40L Microserver is running out of disk space. 2 TB is not enough it turns out. So I thought why not add another N40L to my network? After all, it's been a success with my existing one thus far.... So on to eBay I went, and I found an Australian company selling them for $209 delivered! I'm amazed these are so cheap - after all even low end PCs are more than this. So I ordered one up and it arrived three days later. I put a couple of 2 TB disks into the box, an 8 GB RAM DIMM and an 8 GB usb drive. Half an hour later I had FreeNAS 8.3.0 installed and a 2 TB array set up.

With an NFS share I can access the 2 TB array from my media PC and it all runs brilliantly. I've got space to add in two extra drives, and once I get two more disks I'll install them - running two 2TB mirrors and sharing out data easily. The N40L runs very quietly and efficiently and even running two of them is very quiet in the lounge room. I've used Western Digital Green Disks from 2 TB external USB drives. For $109 each plus the $209 for the N40L means that for $436 I've got a reasonable little NAS here. Another $218 and I've got a 4 TB NAS! It's stable and runs brilliantly. FreeNAS is an excellent platform for this, easy to upgrade and very stable with a wide range of network protocols available for connection to it. I'd heartily suggest using a server like this for a backup server or simple data storage. Add a couple of extra gigabit ethernet ports via the PCI Express card slots and then LAGG them together for greater through put and this simple and inexpensive NAS has even more applications in the business arena. I would strongly recommend 8 GB or more of RAM so pre-caching can be effected - this will improve data delivery.

As I type this I note an update for FreeNAS has become available so I'll grab that and install it!

FreeNAS details here:

HP N40L Microserver details can be found here - HP N40L Microserver (URL truncated because it's awful)

SSD's - a new lease on life for older hardware

Solid State Disks have been on the market for a while now and the prices are coming down per gigabyte which is starting to bring them into the realm of affordability. While recently searching to upgrade the disk in my Dell Inspiron 1102 net book I was offered a 128GB SSD. I didn't really think much of what it would do in the computer until I'd installed it. Once I got the thing imaged and transferred across into the net book I was pleasantly surprised by both the performance boost and also the boost in battery life. I was amazed actually. It was a much better machine than it had ever been, running Windows 7 quite well and most basic Office Apps.

I've procured a second SSD for a venerable Lenovo R500. The specs on this notebook are pretty reasonable, but with a 6 cell battery it's lifespan wasn't great. An upgrade to a 9 cell battery gave it a boost but not a huge one. Installing an SSD made a significant difference. 6 hours of battery life is easily achievable while using the net or office productivity applications. Speed hasn't really been such an issue with this particular laptop but now it's even better.

For high end gaming rigs SSDs are the norm and even in servers now we're seeing them more often. I've changed the set up in my desktop PC - boot from an SSD, with a 2TB SATA disk for data. As the price for SSDs continues to drop they are definitely worth considering for even lower end applications. My two older laptops now are going to be useful for longer and perform better than they ever have before. Consider it for your older SATA capable notebooks!