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Virtualization pros eye low-cost HP server for home labs

For virtualization professionals, HP's new MicroServer may be the ideal low-cost hardware for home labs. But will the entry-level server entice its target: small businesses?

Hewlett-Packard now offers a new entry-level server that "microbusinesses" -- companies with fewer than 10 employees -- may ultimately use to run VMware- or Microsoft-based virtualization software. The jury's still out on whether businesses this small want or need virtualization. But in the meantime, IT professionals have eyed the new low-end box as a fit for their home labs, where they can experiment with virtualization.

In a series of announcements this week, Hewlett-Packard Co. announced its ProLiant MicroServer, a two-processor server with a starting price of just $329, as well as HP Virtualization Smart Bundles with Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 R2.

The ProLiant MicroServer features a dual-core 1.3 GHz Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Athlon processor, two dual inline memory module (DIMM) slots for up to 8 GB of RAM, a 1 Gigabit Ethernet connection, up to four SATA drives for 8 TB of RAID 0 or 1 capacity, and an optional CD-ROM drive. It targets applications such as file and print, and is designed for quiet operation, easy serviceability and low power consumption.

And while the HP Virtualization Smart Bundles do not currently run on the MicroServer, that's just a matter of time, HP insinuated.

"Don't be surprised in the future to see bundle announcements with partners like Microsoft and VMware," said Jim Ganthier, the vice president of marketing at HP industry-standard servers, of the MicroServer.

Desperately seeking solutions
If and when that happens, the ProLiant MicroServer could fill an important hole in virtualization experts' toolbox. The pre-configured low-cost servers enable IT pros to experiment with virtualization software such as VMware ESX and ESXi hypervisors, to test new configurations and to prepare for certification.

Stephen Foskett is an independent consultant who is dissatisfied with his current options for a home virtualization lab. To keep costs low, his choices are to build his own server out of whitebox components or to run ESX under VMware Workstation. But what he'd like instead "is to buy VMware-certified ESX home server for under $500," Foskett said.

The pre-configured low-cost server enables IT pros to experiment with virtualization.



The major drawback in building a whitebox server is finding compatible hardware. "It's a finicky proposition," Foskett said, especially when it comes to storage controllers and drivers. And running ESX as a virtual machine under VMware Workstation -- his current approach -- "is a hack; you have to enable a back-door configuration," Foskett said. "The only reason I do it is because I don't have compatible hardware."

Buying a pre-configured server from a tier-one vendor, meanwhile, can be expensive, said Eric Siebert, a system administrator at Boston Market who spoke at a VMworld 2010 session on building an ESX server for a home lab.

"It's not the server; it's everything you put in it," Siebert said. For his home lab, Siebert bought an HP ML110 for about $600, but "I spent equally as much on NICs [network interface cards], memory, and everything else," he said.

Indeed, the idea of a low-end pre-configured ESX server from a tier-one OEM has substantial appeal for virtualization professionals. "The big benefit of a name brand is the availability of parts and knowing that they'll all work properly," Siebert said. Also, "you tend to get better support with a brand name," he added.

At first glance, however, it's possible that the MicroServer is too underpowered for a home virtualization lab, Siebert said. Specifically, he frowned on the Athlon II processor, and the fact that there are only two DIMM slots, forcing users to buy more expensive 4 GB DIMMs to get to 8 GB of RAM.

Virtualization for the masses?
IT professionals are equally unclear on whether so-called microbusinesses that HP has targeted with the MicroServer want or need virtualization.

On the one hand, virtualization's ability to silo applications in their own operating environment applies in this environment as much as it does in larger companies, said Boston Market's Siebert. "Lumping a bunch of applications together on a single computer doesn't necessarily work out that well," he said.

On the other, very small businesses that would otherwise buy a server to run an important business application have turned to hosted services and the cloud, said David Palais, the owner of Peritus Technology Group, a consulting company in Ventura, Calif. The only small businesses that still implement local servers usually do so because they had a bad experience with a cloud-based service, he said. And even if there is a need to run virtualization in these environments, 'these customers aren't saying, 'I need to virtualize.' They hear about it, but it doesn't mean anything to them," Palais said.

Thus, if virtualization is to take hold at the low end of the market, it will be because of value-added resellers and integrators that can sell small companies turnkey solutions, Palais said. "I think there is a market for it, but it will be driven by application needs and integrators."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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