There's been a lot of noise recently about the HP Proliant Microserver HP-N36L / HP-N40L which can be picked up for circa £120 ($192) after HP £100 rebate. I think it's a cracking deal for a small low powered server running an AMD Neo CPU when you consider that there are plenty NAS boxes on the market costing a lot more than these Microservers and offering a lot less in terms of flexibility and build quality. I picked up one of these units with the aim to set up a fully fledged media centre & server running Ubuntu 11.04 (when it is released) with XBMC acting as the front end. It'll also be used to host an rsync server, AirPrint server and act as an Apple timemachine server for backups of various Macs. Out of the box it won't be able to handle HD media playback so I intend to add on various parts to get it up and running to satisfaction. Read on...There are a couple of versions of this Microserver out on the market at the moment; the N36L packs a AMD Neo 1.3ghz processor and has variants that differ between 250gb and 160gb hard drives (as supplied) and also come with different PSUs 200W for the former and 150W for the latter. The N40L its successor has an AMD Neo 1.5ghz processor with double the RAM of the N36L now shipping with 2GB and has become widely available as of Q3 2011.
The version I picked up was the N36L with 250gb HDD, the 200W PSU and 1gb RAM. Watch out for the version when looking for rebates since HP's rebates can be version specific.
Otherwise the models have the same overall specification:
AMD Athlon™ II NEO N36L
AMD RS785E/SB820M chipset
Two (2) DIMM slots
N36L: 1GB (1x1GB) Standard/8GB Maximum,
N40L: 2GB (1x2GB) Standard/8GB Maximum,
using PC3-10600E DDR3 Unbuffered (UDIMM) ECC memory, operating at max. 800MHz
Embedded AMD SATA controller with RAID 0, 1
Embedded AMD eSATA controller for connecting external storage devices via the eSATA connector in the rear of the server
Storage Drive Support:
4 Internal HDD Support
Maximum internal SATA storage capacity of up to 8.0TB (4 x 2TB 3.5" SATA drives)
Embedded NC107i PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet Server Adapter
Slot 1: PCI-Express Gen 2 x16 connector with x16 link
Slot 2: PCI-Express Gen 2 x1 connector with x1 Link
Slot 2-2: PCI-Express x4 slot for optional management card
USB 2.0 Ports:
Seven (7) USB 2.0 ports: 4 front , 2 rear, 1 internal (for tape)
200/150 Watts Non-Hot Plug, Non Redundant Power Supply
Optional MicroServer Remote Access Card (part 615095-B21)
Supports Windows and Red Hat Linux (as per HP's official support, I'm running Ubuntu)
(with feet) 10.5 x 8.3 x 10.2 in (26.7x 21.0 x 26.0 cm)
Maximum(all hard drives, power supplies, and processors installed) 21.16 lb (9.6 kg)
Minimum (one hard drive, power supply, and processor installed) 13.18 lb (5.98 kg)
A key area of interest is the cooling and associated noise; since this will be hooked up to a hi-fi and HDTV it ideally needs to be very quiet. The specs from HP state:
Idle 22.3 dBA
Operating 24.4 dBA
Idle 21.3 dBA
Operating 22.0 dBA
These are HP's noise stats, I've no way of testing them that said a real world impression counts: there is audible fan noise coming from the unit not excessive but it is noticeable in a silent room, you can here it from 4 metres away. You can swap out the fan for a quieter unit I personally haven't bothered since the noise doesn't affect me that much. Overall I'd say it wouldn't be ideal for a HTPC for music listening with quiet passages however, tucked out of sight behind a sofa or furniture it wouldn't disturb the average person with some sound deadening and audio on at a normal volume.
The unit is a fairly hefty and sturdy unit, it appears to be made out of steel and doesn't have much flex in its construction unlike some cheaper aluminuim NAS devices/small PCs. The caddy bay door feels a little flimsy compared to the rest of the device but it's nothing to be concerned about its not going to break under use and for £100 it easily surpassed my expectations.
Front: One 5.25" bay, lockable drive bay, four USB2.0 ports and On/Off switch with status lights
Top: No fan vent, loop for a microsaver lock, made of what seems to be steel it's pretty solid
Front: HP logo that glows quite brightly blue when powered up.
Caddy bay: Takes four SATA II disks and includes the caddies, the disks connect to the motherboard through a SAS connector. These bays are not hot swap bays, i.e. you must power down before removing and installing drives.
Left hand side:
Right hand side:
Rear: Half height PCIe cards, 1Gb ethernet, eSATA - note no HDMI or DVI.
Caddy: One of four, only takes SATA drives, no key locking function.
To get this to run as a media centre/server I am planning to add:
- Another stick of 2GB RAM, 240-pin DIMM, DDR3 PC3-10600 ECC registered memory module which from various reviews greatly improves media playback, taking the unit up to 3GB. Note I eventually added another 1GB RAM from another N36L so I am running with matching sticks of ECC RAM from HP, albeit the pair are not a matched pair.
- A 1.5tb SATA hard drive (data drive) alongside the supplied 250gb drive (system drive) I don't intend to use RAID on this at current.
- A 2tb SATA hard drive (backup drive) to backup the data drive and system drive and use as a removable disk for off site backup.
- A passive video card with onboard HD decoding. My research has concluded that ATI currently have better overall performance per £ with something like a HD3450 however, if you want to use Linux it seems that your best bet is to go Nvidia with something from the 2XX range for passive options. I've settled on a passive low profile PCIe GT210 with 512mb DDR3 from MSI. A lot of people raise concerns over heat with a passive card in such a small case but I only expect to be running with two hard drives for the time being so I'll run the gauntlet of heat fatigue.
- A Blu-ray drive, probably a Samsung of some sort.
- Eventually probably also a PCIe HDTV card for Freeview DVB-T2 (UK)
Memory Type: DDR3 PC3-10600, DDR3 (ECC)
Maximum Memory: 8GB
Each memory slot can hold DDR3 PC3-10600 with a maximum of 4GB per slot.
Detail of the build to follow in the mean time check out this great review by Samat Jain.
Part 1 - Installing the hard drives (10mins)
To start my build I purchased Samsung 2tb 5400rpm HD204UI/Z4 Spinpoint F4 SATA Hard Drive to use as the backup drive. I opted for this drive based on price, previous good experience with Samsung and noise levels; since this will be a backup drive it doesn't need to be fast so I've opted for lower RPM with a trade off for price and noise. The first job was to mount the hard drive into a caddy, I opted to install it into the third caddy with the following plan:
Caddy 1: The factory supplied 250gb Hitachi drive as the system O/S drive
Caddy 2: An 1.5tb Seagate drive which will be used as the data drive
Caddy 3: The 2tb Samsung drive which will used as an off site swappable drive mirroring the 1.5tb drive using rsync.
Installing the drive was simple:
- Open the case door with key
- Pop out the caddy
- Screw the drive into the caddy using the screws supplied with the drive
- Install the caddy with drive back into the caddy housing.
Part 2 - Installing the graphics card (1.5hours)
Installing the graphics card was a little more difficult. First I swapped the standard PCI bracket for the supplied low profile PCI bracket and then set about installing the graphics card:
- Open the case door with the supplied key
- You may want to note down what cables you now remove from which sockets, you have to unplug the cables to get the motherboard out and to get to the PCIe socket
- Unplug the USB front panel connectors from the motherboard
- Unplug the front panel power connector from the motherboard
- Unplug the SAS HDD caddy cable from the motherboard
- Unscrew the two blue 'thumb' screws that hold the motherboard tray in place, note these are quite tight and HP supply the appropriate allen key with a torx like head found in the back of the case door to do the job
- Slide the motherboard out disconnecting the ATX power connector and remaining cables along the way
- Install the graphics card
- Try and slide the motherboard tray with installed graphics card back into the case watch out for clipping the card on the plastic cable tidy clip on the left hand side of the case and the guide rail for the motherboard tray. I had to pop the case door off the hinge which is just a case of lifting it off the sprockets in order to try and get the card in.
- At this point I failed; the heatsink fins on the MSI N210 MD512D3H were too long! I could just about get past the cable tidy clip but the heatsink was too deep and clipped the metal guide rail that the motherboard tray sat in.
- An hour of hacksawing & vacuuming the graphics card, it squeezed into the case avoiding the case guide rail. I wish I owned a Dremel! I had to take around 4mm by 3mm off of the bottom outward facing corner of each of the heatsink fins to get the card to fit.
Part 3 - Optical Drive install
Note the Microserver does not support IDE devices (much to my dismay as I have plenty knocking about). Installing the optical drive was straight forward:
1. Unscrew the case screw on the rear
2. Place your palm on the top of the server and slide the top of the case forward towards you and the top should slide/pop off.
3. I'd recommend installing the SATA cable first before the drive to make it easier to route the cable. I also removed all of the hard drive caddies for ease of installation of the cable. Hook up the SATA cable up to the motherboard first, you will need to slide the motherboard tray out a couple of inches to achieve this. A cable is supplied and you're best of using this cable with the 90 degree connector at the motherboard end due to the restricted height in the chasis between the motherboard and caddy bay. I routed the SATA cable along the same route as the power cable since I had a slightly longer cable to play with, this probably isn't ideal
4. Install optical drive, you'll need a screw driver to prize out the aluminium face plate (which is behind the black facia cover. Then slide the drive into the unit from the front and hook up to the power cable which should already be there and the SATA cable fed through.
5. Screw in the drive; the screws a provided kindly in the door to the caddy bay and the allen key has the correct head on it to screw the supplied screws into the drive
6. Replace the allen key into the door don't lose it
7. You should be done now.
I've installed a Samsung Bluray drive SH-B083L which fits fine, you may struggle with longer drives in this unit from the perspective of cable management and air flow.
Part 4 - Memory installation
Whilst I had the motherboard out to install the SATA cable for the optical drive I also took the chance to add another stick of the supplied 1GB ECC registered RAM, which I acquire from someone with another N36L unit that no longer needed it. This was as simple as pulling out the motherboard tray and popping in the DIMM.
Part 5 - Operating System OS Install
Originally opting to install Ubuntu 11.04 to be at the bleeding edge of stability, I eventually went with 10.04 (Lucid the Long Term Support LTS version) since I already had experience of using 10.04 and particular experience of troubleshooting issues in 10.04. Given that there was no optical drive installed at the time I installed the OS I used a bootable USB stick to install the OS.
The AMD Neo II chip in the Microserver showed up as 48-bit which left me wondering whether to use the x86 Ubuntu install or the AMD64 Ubuntu install. Given I am not using more than 3gb of RAM and at the time of installation only have 1gb of RAM installed I selected the x86 Ubuntu image to install to the system.
Ubuntu 10.04 allows the image to be use as a Live environment which effectively means you can boot into the OS without installing it. This can be achieved from either CD or USB provided your system can boot from USB. Using UNetbootin I created a bootable USB key using a 16gb Corsair memory stick and the Ubuntu 10.04 x86 image this took around 5-10mins to create. Once ready I plugged the USB stick into the Microserver which the booted up and presented options to directly install from the USB stick or to boot into the Live environment. I booted into the Live environment to have a chance to probe the Microserver before completing the full Ubuntu install. Once booted into the Live environment there is a shortcut on the desktop to install Ubuntu to the system's hard drive.
I installed Ubuntu with the default options and once up and running installed all of the latest updates. Ubuntu also automatically detected the Nvidia graphics card and presented the option to install the proprietary Nvidia drivers.
Part 6 - Temperature performance
19c - ambient
40-44c - graphics card
26c - system drive
27c - data drive
29c - backup drive
19c - ambient
46c - graphics card
31c - system drive
30c - data drive
30c - backup drive
Part 7 - Conclusion
That's pretty much it on the hardware side, very little to complain about and I'm impressed for the price. I've been able to get the unit to:
- handle 1080p video playback without stutter, from MKV and BluRay;
- act as my audio sever ripping, storing, converting and streaming lossless music;
- run XBMC
- act as an AirPrint server
- act as an Apple Time Capsule
- host an Apple Home Sharing server
- act as a wi-fi access point in bridge mode
- provide a VPN server end point
- run virtual machines reliably with solid performance...
It's a real bargain for the price when I consider how much separate devices would have cost me for all of those different use cases. Look out for further posts which will focus on configuring the software on the Microserver to enable the box and a home server / media server where I look to cover:
- Ubuntu configuration and optimisation using Webmin
- Enabling WOL on Ubuntu and HP Microserver N36L
- VNC configuration with Tight VNC
- FTP configuration with ProFTPd
- HTPC configuration with XBMC
- Backup and sync configuration with Rsync
- Zero config VPN setup with NeoRouter / Hamachi
- DLNA / uPnP configuration for media sharing over the LAN
- Remote web based administration with Webmin
- iOS printing setup acting as an Airprint server
- Apple Time Machine configuration to allow the server to act as a Timemachine
- N36L as a uPNP server for PS3 / Smart TVs etc.
- N36L as Apple Home Sharing server for iPad, iPhone, iTunes and Apple TV
Part 8 - Further thoughts & Issues
WOL - Wake On Lan has proven to be an issue on my Microserver despite making the appropriate setting changes I have had trouble getting WOL working under *nix and have found many people with similar issues.
Edit May 2012: this now appears to be resolved for some people following this thread and a bug has been raised.
The Microserver uses a Broadcom BCM5732 ethernet chipset which uses the Broadcom maintained Tg3 drivers these are now the only drivers that Broadcom maintain for *nix.
Check your ethernet chipset:
I'll use ethtool to check and configure the networking parameters of the ethernet card, to install ethtool run:
apt-get install ethtool
Check whether your network card supports WOL:
sudo ethtool -i eth0
If you see "Supports wake-on: g" your in luck. otherwise you'er out of luck.
Check your driver with ethtool:
sudo ethtool eth0
Set your ethernet card to allow WOL:
sudo ethtool -s eth0 wol g
This command will need to be re run if your PC shuts down uncleanly and/or most likely if you unplug the power from the PC. There are scripts online that run this command each time the network interfaces are brought up (ifup).
It's apparent that this is a common issue for the BCM5732 under *nix, under Windows people are reporting success with WOL depending on the flavour of Windows. So it looks like I'll be hanging on for a driver update from Broadcom that will enable WOL under *nix.