HP Proliant Microserver (HP-N36L / HP-N40L)


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: 

Processor:  
AMD Athlon™ II NEO N36L
N36L: 1.3ghz
N40L: 1.5ghz
AMD RS785E/SB820M chipset
 
Memory: 
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
 
Storage Controller:
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)
 

Network Controller:
Embedded NC107i PCI Express Gigabit Ethernet Server Adapter
 

Expansion Slots:
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)
 

Power Supply:
 200/150 Watts Non-Hot Plug, Non Redundant Power Supply
 

Management:
Optional MicroServer Remote Access Card (part 615095-B21)
 

Operating System:
 Supports Windows and Red Hat Linux (as per HP's official support, I'm running Ubuntu)


Dimensions (HxWxD)
(with feet) 10.5 x 8.3 x 10.2 in (26.7x 21.0 x 26.0 cm)
 

Weight (approximate)
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)



Acoustic Noise  

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:

Fully Loaded
Idle 22.3 dBA
Operating 24.4 dBA
 

Lightly Loaded
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.

Initial impression
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.

Bottom:

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 wise Crucial.com reckons the following specs and limitations:
Memory Type: DDR3 PC3-10600, DDR3 (ECC)
Maximum Memory: 8GB
Slots: 2
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:
  1. Open the case door with key
  2. Pop out the caddy
  3. Screw the drive into the caddy using the screws supplied with the drive
  4. Install the caddy with drive back into the caddy housing.
  5. Done!
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:
  1. Open the case door with the supplied key
  2. 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 
  3. Unplug the USB front panel connectors from the motherboard
  4. Unplug the front panel power connector from the motherboard
  5. Unplug the SAS HDD caddy cable from the motherboard
  6. 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
  7. Slide the motherboard out disconnecting the ATX power connector and remaining cables along the way
  8. Install the graphics card
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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

Temps (Idle)
19c - ambient
40-44c - graphics card
26c - system drive
27c - data drive
29c - backup drive


Temps (Load)
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:



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:

lspci


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. 

15 comments:

  1. Ohi - I bought one of these. Fantastic. Installed ubuntu linux (actually mythbuntu, then uninstalled mythtv after some playing around. Finally installed minidlna because it works with well my Sony TV). As you say problems with wake on lan. I found that uninstalling network-manager made wol work properly. Then later I installed webmin, installing that broke wol. Uninstalling webmin left wol still broken. I'll have to reinstall ubuntu from scratch & uninstall network-manager to get it working again. Maybe this information will help.

    Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hmm not sure why Network manager should cause any issue, oddly some people reportedly have WOL working on 10.04LTS using my guide... which is frustrating since it won't work for me. I've used WOL on lots of Ubuntu builds so I am still a little baffled, the microserver is on 24/7 so it's not a huge issue but would be nice to resolve.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi and thank you for this lovely review

    Can you kindly answer my questions as i am very interested in the HP-N40L model but completely don't have a clue when it comes to talk of servers/nas etc

    1 - Is this good as a backing up solution that can do RAID? (is RAID 5 recommended which i believe sacrifices only 1 hard drive as i dont want to sacrifice any more than one if that makes any sense?
    2 - Can you output hd bitstream audio
    3 - Can you add a gamepad and play emulation games on this ?
    4 - Am a bit confused about the power consuption of this running 24/7 when being used and idle?

    As i found 2 contradictory posts regarding this;

    "power consumption is between 150 to 200 Watts with 4 HDDs, that sounds a bit too much if it is used a 24/7 working NAS".

    "The MicroServer hovers at around 30 watts idle power usage with two disks, and perhaps +10 watts if you fill the other two bays."

    5 - Is Synology DS411j the same thing as this or better concerning above points? (similar price without cashback) or perhaps i should consider something else?

    Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  4. 1. It can do hardware RAID 0 or 1 out of the box but I've not played about with RAID on this setup as I don't need the disk space. unRAID is popular and has been used by others you may want to look at unRAID. You can do RAID 5 with an additional RAID controller or I'd probably recommended using soft RAID 5 which isn't reliant on the hardware controller. That said I would expect soft RAID 5 not to perform as well as hardware RAID but have no experience of hardware based RAID.

    2. The microserver has no soundcard you'd need to opt for a PCIe or USB soundcard I would suspect. You could use a graphics card which supports HD-Audio bitstream, I think my Nvidia 210 does but I don't have a need to use bitstream at current.

    3. Yes, although I haven't you can do this in Ubuntu.

    4. Not sure, I've got a basic wallplug energy meter I will perform some recordings in the future and report back. The power consumption 150-200w is the PSU rating i.e. the power its rated to provide to the hardware. I believe the PSU will only draw the current it requires for the attached hardware so the second post seems reasonable.

    5. No experience of the Synology but I would expect the N40L to be far more flexible.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you so much for answering my questions so quickly matey and for clearing things up

    the hd audio thing is very important as i know alot of the media centre things like boxee box/acer revoo dont really do it. And i didn't know if this microserver could handle doing it by adding a suitable graphics card like you suggested without overheating the unit

    Never heard of unRAID but the jist seems to be

    "The whole point of the unRAID server is all the files are backed up and you only have to use one HDD to do that.

    The only advantage of not using unRAID is having one more drive for storage but there's no protection"

    So this might be the way to go.

    However i really might have a headache trying to make sense of configuring this microserver as i have no knowledge in this field!

    Other questions kind Sir -

    which hard drives do you recommended (i remember reading somewhere concerning Synology that only a certain type of hard drive (not the eco type or something) was suitable for a server ). Am gutted that hard drives have become so expensive recently although i hope for the people over in Thailand things get better

    And while tring to read about unRAID i came across this page

    http://forum.xbmc.org/showthread.php?t=104489

    it shows building a server with more slots for hard drives which seem very cheap. Are those servers the same as this HP Microserver? would it be better to get one with more hard drive slots now because otherwise i would have to sacrifice another har drive for unRAID for a second HP Microserver?

    Thanks again

    PS Look forward to your power consumption tests!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm running with a passive Nvidia 210 which should do bitstream; I've not got a receiver at the moment to test it with. The case temps look ok though. You should pay attention to the PCIe power rating before diving in for a fancy card I believe the PCIe slot is only rated for 25w.

    unRAID guide here with 6 drives and the Microserver http://lime-technology.com/forum/index.php?PHPSESSID=5c83227133f935550a46d9c0c2662948&topic=11585.0

    I cannot recommend drives since I've done no research or benchmarking. I'm running with 5400rpm Samsung drives they seem fine. I think it depends on what you're trying to achieve power consumption vs. performance and also your OS to an extent.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi matey

    thanks for the advice regarding power rating.

    can you access your files remotely using this microserver e.g. watch a film from a hotel with my laptop or access my music cd from my mobile phone stored on the microserver at home?

    is there a difference between this microserver and a normal server (is the microserver just a HP branded server?)

    please excuse me if these sound like daft questions - it has been a long day and have been reading for a ages trying to make sense of all this :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Yes, with the appropriate set up. Although I don't have upload bandwidth on my internet connection to stream video across the net from here I can stream music to my phone at mp3 quality.

    It's a server at the end of the day, the only real world distinguishing factor is practically its form factor compared to what would be considered a conventional server rack mount or tower, it price perhaps and it marketed audience home, small enterprises etc. HP chose to market it as a micro server.

    ReplyDelete
  9. just want to say thanks again for all your help and for answering my questions so quickly :)

    good luck in this blog! i certainly have it bookmarked

    ReplyDelete
  10. What kind of data transfer speeds are you guys getting when transfering large files accross your LAN?

    I am looking to replace a NAS with this, probably running a windows server. My current NAS transfers at 10megs & it really sucks.

    How fast would data transfers be on a LAN with this unit?

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've not done any benchmarking, to be fair Ubuntu isn't going to be the best platform for data throughput and it depends on what hard drive and protocols you are using. This should easily surpass 10mb/s..I suspect you'd see in the region of 40-60mb/s this post has some discussion of the performance of the box http://forums.hexus.net/shopping-retail-therapy/199555-hp-n36l-microserver-100-a.html .

    ReplyDelete
  12. Any updates on the actual from-the-wall power consumption... ideally in idle and loaded states?

    My Atom-powered home server came in around 20W idle with 2 1TB green drives spinning... hugely worse than that (i.e. let's say double) would be a deal breaker for me.

    ReplyDelete
  13. dunno man 20w deal breaker lol dude. your a funny guy and need help dude

    ReplyDelete
  14. I have a system with the default Broadcom BCM5732 and a second Broadcom BCM5732 on the Remote Access card. Using Ubuntu 11.10 server, I am only the motherboard Broadcom BCM5732 is enumerated. LSPCI also only shows one Broadcom BCM5732. However, with discover, I am able to see both Broadcom BCM5732 devices. Any ideas on getting the second Broadcom BCM5732 enumerated?

    ReplyDelete