Update – Been Busy

It’s been a while since I last posted to this blog, so I figured I would post an update.  I have been very busy lately working to complete my internship requirements to graduate from college while also studying for the MCITP Enterprise Administrator exam.  I should have the latter done in a week or two and will begin studying for the CCNP Route exam.

I have added some new equipment to the lab, including a Dell 4220 42u server rack, Cisco 2821, and another 16gb RAM to my server bringing it to 32gb.

The rack was an absolute necessity.  All of my gear was more or less scattered around not plugged in; I needed a way to efficiently store and power it.  I found the rack locally with the Cisco 2821 and a 10,000 kVa Tripp-Lite 240v SmartOnline UPS for $400.  I could not pass that up.  The rack itself was in great shape, it just had a lot of sheet rock dust on it and needed to be washed.  After washing it with a garden hose, sponge and car soap in my driveway, it cleaned up real nice and was ready to hold my gear.  I grabbed up two power strips from Monoprice with integrated cable management and mounted them neatly in the rear of the rack where the expensive PDU’s would normally go.

The Cisco 2821 still had a config on it when I got it so I confreg 0x2142’ed it and wiped her clean to confirm she worked.  After doing that, I opened it up, blew a lot of dust out of it and dropped an extra 512mb RAM into it.  While doing so, I saw that it had an AIM-VPN module installed in it leading me to believe that it shipped as a 2821 w/sec package.  Sweet deal!  This thing will likely play a nice role when it comes time to mess with VoIP since it is now my only Cisco piece with that capability.

The server RAM I found on eBay.  Four 4Gb DDR2 FB-DIMM’s for $150.  That was another deal I found hard to pass on, especially being that my main usage of the server is for virtualization and labs.  RAM is probably the most critical component of a virtual server for a home lab.  Anyone who has ever run Exchange in a lab or production environment knows just how demanding it can be, especially of RAM.  After stress testing the server, I concluded the RAM is good, so it was definitely a good deal.


Network Switch – ProCurve 1810

HP ProCurve 1810GRecently, I decided I would like to acquire a quality, managed switch for my home environment.  I wanted something which supported Gigabit Ethernet, Flow Control and Jumbo Frames.  These features would complement my Dell PE 2950 ESXi box by providing high performance and future expandability.

At the moment, quality managed gigabit switches are expensive.  10/100 managed switches can easily be acquired on eBay for a decent price, however gigabit models are often seen for upwards of $500 used.  Initially I wanted to go the Cisco route, but even 2960G’s were way out of my price range.  I have worked with HP ProCurve 2510G’s and 2900’s in a vSphere environment and was impressed, therefore I began to look towards HP.  I soon discovered that although the ProCurves were more reasonably priced, they were still out of my price range.  During this search, I discovered the web-managed ProCurve 1800 and 1810 models.  They had all of the features I was looking for at a price point that cannot be beat.  In addition, they are covered by the lifetime HP ProCurve warranty.

I ended up purchasing a 24-port 1810G for around $200.  Immediately after unboxing, I flashed it with the latest firmware which irons out some bugs present in initial releases.  I then set up a few VLAN’s and a trunk port to my ESXi box.  As a CCNA, I find HP terminology interesting as they call VLAN trunk ports “tagged” ports, and what they call Trunking is actually referred to as link aggregation in Cisco terms.  In addition, the equivalent of a Cisco native VLAN is referred to as the untagged VLAN on HP gear.  If you are familiar with Cisco gear, this is an important differentiation to make note of if working with HP gear for the first time.

The web interface of the 1810 is smooth and facilitates easy access to management functions.  However, I really wish HP provided a console port.  There is a fellow here who disassembled his 1810G-8 and found that the internal board has headers for a console port and that this switch is based off of a Broadcom chipset.  Being that the hardware support is there, I wish it included console access.

Overall, the 1810 is a great switch for high-performance home labs, small businesses, and maybe as access switches in an enterprise.  It is feature rich, affordable and has a lifetime warranty.

UPDATE!!!  Xbox users, read this!

For those of you using one of these switches with an Xbox 360, you must Disable the AutoDoS functionality in order to connect to Xbox Live!  I was going nuts making adjustments on my pfSense box trying to get this thing connected, then decided for the hell of it to try another switch.  Magically, the Xbox worked, therefore I knew it was the switch.  I disabled the security functions of the switch one at a time and narrowed it down to AutoDoS.  This feature enables detection and blocking of a plethora of attack signatures, however they cannot be turned on or off individually.  For this reason, this feature must be disabled in its entirety.

Dell PowerEdge 2950

So recently I decided I wanted a server of my own which I could run VMware ESXi on at home.  Previously, my personal “server” was just an old tower system composed of whatever extra components I had laying around the house.  It had a few old hard drives, 4Gb DDR, an Athlon 4000+, and one fan…  Obviously, it has become antiquated, so its time for an upgrade!

While working with server gear in the field, I have found Intel’s RMM and HP’s iLO Out-of-Band management solutions to be extremely helpful and a technology that I just had to have in my next personal sandbox.  I also wanted something that would run ESXi smoothly, permitting me to experiment and conduct labs at home.  Initially, I was thinking about just picking up an Intel Executive Series motherboard and dropping a quad-core into it since they have Intel Active Management Technology, which is similar to RMM.  Then I had an epiphany and figured I should try to grab some enterprise-grade hardware, so I looked at the HP DL line of servers on eBay knowing that they had the iLO Integrated Lights Out functionality.  What I wanted was just outside of my price range; I was looking to spend less than $600 for a name brand, rack mount, dual processor machine with 16gb RAM minimum.  The HP DL380 G4’s were in my price range, but the technology was just too old.  I wanted Intel Xeon’s based on the Core2 architecture, not the hot, slow and old NetBurst which the Pentium 4 was based on.  In addition, I wanted a server with a SAS/SATA backplane that accepts 3.5″ hard drives so I could add relatively cheap, fast storage.  For the most part, DL380 G5’s equipped to my desired specification were out of my price range.

Eventually, I ran across Dell’s PowerEdge line of servers and saw that they were readily available for a relatively affordable price.  I was eying the 2950’s with 3.5″ bays, preferably a unit with a bunch of drives already so that I would not have to buy sleds to put new, bigger drives into.  Eventually I found a unit with two dual-core Xeon 5160’s at 3.0Ghz, 16Gb RAM and five 3.5″ SAS drives within my price range, so I made it mine.  It did not have a DRAC card and was missing one sled so I picked up a DRAC and two sled’s on eBay for around $50.  In addition, I grabbed two 1.5Tb WD Black 64Mb Cache SATA units to serve as my large ESXi datastore.  For those of you out there who were confused by the manuals description that states the SAS sleds are different than the SATA sleds, I placed my WD SATA drives into the SAS sleds and they work just fine.  I am not sure why they have such confusing information in the hardware manual.

The first thing I did when I received the server was update the firmwares in all the components.  When I received it, the firmwares were circa early 2007 and needed some updating.  I took the BIOS from 1.1.0 to 2.7.0, PERC5 RAID from 5.0.1 to 5.2.2, BMC from 1.14 to 2.37, SAS backplane from 1.0 to 1.05, and the Broadcom NetXtreme II NIC’s from 1.8.0 to 6.2.14.  I also updated the DRAC5 to 1.60 and the DVD/CD-RW from DE05 to DE08.  In addition, I grabbed Dell’s latest SAS/SATA hard drive firmware update CD which is a conglomerate of updates encompassing any and all of the drives which they have sold.  I used the DRAC5 to mount the ISO remotely and allow it to run and update the drives and not surprisingly, all five SAS units received updated firmware.  After completing all of these updates, I cleared the CMOS and then proceeded to get my new 2950 configured and running.

I must say, the Dell hardware is all very nice.  The PERC5 seems like a great RAID card supporting RAID 0,1,5,10 and 50.  It’s interface is intuitive and I have simulated a RAID5 disk failure and rebuild and it has done so quickly and seamlessly.  It also supports hot-spares which is a great enterprise feature.  My only issue with the PERC5 is that the cache battery is dead.  However, I have already found a replacement battery on eBay and it is on the way.  Apparently, you need to disconnect the cache battery if the server is going to sit for more than a week or two.  From what I have read, the early PERC5 firmwares may have also had a charging issue.  I am sure the replacement battery, the updated firmware, and disconnecting the battery as outlined in the hardware manual will prevent this issue from recurring any time soon.

The DRAC feature is also exactly what I wanted for OOB Management access.  The only thing that irked me was that the self-signed SSL certificate expired in 2010, and there was no option in the web-GUI to generate a new one.  You could upload one or create a certificate request, but these features are geared more towards organizations running their own enterprise CA.  Eventually, after configuring the DRAC for SSH access, I SSH’ed into it and found a command which would accomplish the task of creating a new self-signed certificate.

Another benefit of the PE2950 is that it is VMware white-listed.  I feel it is very important to have white-listed hardware if you ever intend on relying on the services it runs, not only for phone support, but just for overall functionality since VMware’s kernel and included drivers are tuned for stability and performance with specific configurations.  If you are running random gear, it may work, but it may not run reliably and the issues you may have might be difficult if not impossible to troubleshoot and fix.

Overall, I am glad that I did not just buy some updated desktop gear and use it as an ESXi box.  Just the added experience of having enterprise-grade hardware at home is great, not to mention how reliable it is, knock on wood…


VMware ESXi & Intel SR1550AL Servers

I recently encountered an issue when running an ESXi 4.1 environment where I was getting a Purple Screen of Death at right about the 24 hour uptime mark.  Like most technologists, I first hit Google with the error code and had no luck.  I found a similar error code which suggested that it had something to do with a storage I/O issue.  The issue did not seem driver related, so I began to look into firmware and BIOS updates for the server.

After some investigation, I realized that there were four BIOS/firmware’s in my SR1550 which needed updating.  After trying to do them all manually, I found a nifty utility called the Intel Deployment Assistant.  The Intel DA utility is a bootable CD that allows you to configure many different features, including the ability connect to the Internet to check and download the latest BIOS/firmware updates and install them automatically.  This worked great and I found out that the system had two year old BIOS and firmwares and the current build numbers were much newer.  So, I let the utility do its thing, but one update kept failing.  I tried it on all three of the SR1550’s and had the same issue on all of them; the HSC/backplane firmware would not update.

At this point, I started looking for older revisions of the Hot Swap Controller firmware figuring that the jump from revision 1.41 to 2.15 was too great.  There were many revisions between 1.41 and 2.15, but they were not available on Intel’s website.  Finally, after a lot of searching, I found an Intel document that confirmed my suspicion that I need to upgrade to a different older update prior to jumping to 2.15.  Alas, I decided I had to get into contact with Intel about this issue.

At this point, I’m sitting in the server room and its already after six and my stomach is growling.  I had no phone reception in the server room so I tried a button to chat with an Intel support representative.  Much to my surprise, after about 10 minutes, the guy I was in contact had a solution.  Although he could not locate the firmware revision I needed, he located an internal document that stated if I disconnected the RMM2 and then proceeded with the upgrade to 2.15, it should work.  So I popped open the server, disconnected the RMM2 module, booted up, manually launched the update from a DR-DOS boot-disk and much to my surprise, it worked!

For those of you who do not know what the Intel RMM is, it is a Remote Management Module that allows you to have out-of-band control of the server.  As a matter of fact, it offers an IP-based KVM over SSL through a Java applet, and it even allows you to remotely mount and boot the server to ISO images… How awesome is that!   After that little bugger gave me all that headache, I decided to give it a try and it is great.  You use a little utility called psetup to configure IP and login settings, and then your good to go!

Anyway, yes, after updating all of those firmwares, I now have over 180 days uptime on the ESXi boxes.  I hope this helps any other SR15xx, SR25xx users out there that may be encountering stability issues with ESXi.


HP Mini311 Overclocking

In late 2009, I was among the first HP Mini311 owners to gain overclocking ability. I actually helped pioneer the first technique. The HP Mini311 was and still is (in my opinion) the best netbook on the market. It uses an Intel Atom processor but contains the Nvidia Ion GPU. The Mini311 was one of the first and only netbooks to contain Nvidia’s Ion GPU, which is the equivalent of an Nvidia 9400m.  This GPU gives it 1080p playback functionality, very impressive for a netbook.

When I was originally looking to purchase a netbook, I was looking for a computer that I could keep on my person and readily available. However, I did not want a standard netbook, which would not be able to handle some tasks I wished to throw at it. For this reason, I waited until a more powerful breed of netbook was released. The HP Mini311 was a great choice.

The Mini311’s performance can be further increased by method of overclocking. Originally, the only way to overclock the 311 was through software. Now, a modified BIOS can be flashed that has most all functions unlocked. This enables users to obtain further control of their 311. The instructions can be found here.

After flashing the BIOS and setting a modest overclock (1.8ghz from an original 1.6ghz), my Mini311 can perform most all functions I require in my daily activities. If my main laptop was to go down, this netbook would be a suitable temporary replacement.  Considering I paid $400 for it, I think it was a great investment.  I noticed it was discontinued shortly after production, which I feel was because it was threatening notebook sales.  At the time, why would anyone pay ~$800 for a laptop when a $400 netbook can provide the same functionality?  I noticed that the 311 was hard to find while in production; it was never carried by Best Buy or many other major retailers.  I actually had to travel quite a bit to find one in stock.  I’m sure their marketing departments felt the same way and decided this unit was a threat to their profit margin.

UPDATE – HP Mini 311 Windows 8.1

Although I’ve since got a Microsoft Surface, I’ve went ahead and resurrected my Mini 311. I noticed recently Nvidia released Windows 8 drivers for the Ion platform!  Not surprisingly, the Mini 311 actually runs Windows 8.1 better than it ran Windows 7.

To complete your installation, you’ll want to grab the latest Nvidia Ion drivers, and the Windows 7 chipset drivers for the nForce 730i, I think the latest is 15.59 (link) which are relatively old, but still better than receiving the ‘unknown device’ message in device manager.  When you install the chipset drivers, select only the SMU and storage options; do not install the graphics, audio or ethernet drivers as you’ll source those from the Ion package, and the Microsoft-bundled nForce Ethernet driver is newer as well.  Enjoy refreshing your Mini 311!