HP Proliant MicroServer Gen8

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is a big improvement over its predecessor in several ways. Switching to a slim optical drive and retooling the internal design has made the new enclosure even smaller. The rat's nest of wires inside the original system is nowhere to be found — the interior has been decluttered with all the cables consolidated, leaving a very clean layout. Passive CPU cooling has been retained, even though the Gen8 is much faster. The new MicroServer runs circles around its predecessor, as it is a benefactor of significant gains in processor technology over the past three years. Though not strong performers in modern terms, the Ivy Bridge chips offered by HP are still quite capable and run fairly cool.

The choice of 35W CPUs unfortunately makes it less energy efficient (the first MicroServer used a 12W Athlon II Neo N36L), bumping up the idle power consumption by about 10W. While not as frugal, it is certainly within reason and comparable to a typical DIY Sandy/Ivy Bridge desktop build when idling. The new version is also a lot louder than the original... unless you run the native storage controller in RAID mode. (See Mike's notes below.) If you're looking for a customizable quiet solution, it's not ideal due to the lack of user fan control, and the fan's surprisingly stubborn resistance to modification. Not in RAID mode, the MicroServer is best buried in a closet or tucked under a desk where noise level isn't a priority.

HP's iLO (Integrated Lights-Out) system allows users to manage the server remotely but unfortunately, out-of-the-box, access to the remote console is severely limited if you decline to purchase a supplemental iLO license. HP has added RAID 10 support in addition to RAID 0/1, but RAID 5 isn't available without upgrading the drive controller, and hotswapping is still not supported. A second ethernet adapter has also been included, which can be useful for balancing high levels of server traffic. The Gen8 is faster and sleeker and gained a few useful features but it's still far from a complete solution.

For sophisticated home users thinking that the Gen8 could double as a HTPC or network video player, hardware limitations prevent this. Not only is there no HDMI or onboard audio, the board's server chipset doesn't support Intel's processor graphics so HP equipped it with a rudimentary Matrox GPU which can't even output 24-bit color at a decent resolution, let alone accelerate HD video. It can serve up media just fine but it can't really play anything on its own, at least not straight out-of-the-box.

While the Gen8 is a much needed update to an aging SKU, our overall opinion of the MicroServer remains mostly unchanged. It's certainly a compelling product, much more so now after this recent facelift, but it doesn't necessarily make sense for every home or small business. Cookie-cutter solutions like the NAS server boxes offered by QNAP and Synology aren't as fast or flexible, but they do have RAID 5 and hotswappable drives which are big selling points. They're also easy to use and manage — it's very much a no-fuss, no-muss experience which can be advantageous for smaller operations that don't have the luxury of a dedicated IT support staff. The Gen8 is really for those with the skill and knowledge to customize a server for specific needs and for whom a full-blown blade or rackmount server is overkill or simply takes up too much space.

The MicroServer Gen8 is priced at about US$449/US$529 for the basic Celeron G1620T/Pentium G2020T variants with 2GB of RAM, fairly reasonable considering there's nothing else quite like it on the market, making it a niche product. The MS Server 2012 included version with a G2020T, 4GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage doesn't seem worth it at US$939— you'll save quite a bit by purchasing a base model, upgrading it yourself and going with an open source OS.

EDITOR"S NOTES: Microserver Gen 8 Fan Control, Acoustics & RAID

Two Step Forward... and one step back. The original Microserver was a huge hit because it combined small size, high space and energy efficiency, good enough performance, and low noise straight out of the box. The relatively simple mods we devised to reduce the noise further was icing on the cake. Our fan modding addendum, with details of the non-standard 4-pin PWM wire coding used by HP, probably helped sell a lot of Microservers, especially to technical consumers for use as media servers in homes.

The new Gen8's intractable fail-safe fan/thermal shutoff system is draconian. Any attempt to slow the fan, even applying a little friction by hand on the fan's hub, is enough to trigger a complete system shutdown. There is no hardware monitoring or fan control section in the BIOS; all this is relegated to HP's vaunted ILO system, which as Larry pointed out, costs more money.

Could the fan be replaced with a quieter one? The 6-pin, 5-wire fan is so far from standard PWM fan configuration that even finding a plug to fit the six tightly spaced pins was a challenge. After much scrounging in the lab's old parts bins, I adapted an old 4-pin cable for audio directly from a CD drive to the motherboard. The cable was cut in two and both ends used with pins reconfigured so they made contact with the relevant five pins on the motherboard fan header. The cut ends of the wire were bared and tinned so they could be poked into the 4-pin female connector of a standard PWM fan. Two of the wires from the stock fan are black, so it seemed safe to assume they were both ground, which left 4 wires to play with. I experimented with several PWM fans and umpteen combinations of terminations, to no avail. No matter what I tried, the fans would 1) not start, which led to the Gen8 shutting down before the end of the boot sequence, 2) start at full speed, or 3) start at reduced speed but then get into an annoying speed up/down cycle once in the OS and within a few minutes result in a forced shortdown. After a couple of days of this, I gave up.

The discussion thread "MicroServer Gen8 is noisy" in HP's own forums started 08-15-2013 has 134 posts and remains active today, even though it was marked as "solved" (by a HP mod?) on 12-04-2013. The problem is described thus:

If using AHCI or Legacy controller mode, fan noise will occur. There is no possibility in lowering the fan speeds in this modes to a lower value. It is going to be BIOS/iLO safe ranges.

The solution is "to configure the B120i in RAID mode. That would mean configuring at least one disk as a RAID-0 array." The end result, reportedly, is that the fan speed drops from about 37~39% to 22%.

Never mind why fan control is tied to the storage controller.

The procedure to run RAID requires switching the B120i built-in storage controller in Gen8 to RAID mode, then installing the RAID driver once you boot into the OS from another drive. For those accustomed to the user-friendly BIOS of consumer boards, this seemingly simple procedure in Gen8 is absurdly complex, perhaps to chide you for not obtaining some server tech certification? Getting the storage controller into RAID mode did indeed drop the fan speed immediately to a lower speed, a little under 1200rpm as measured with our calibrated strobe . It improved the overall noise quite significantly, to a measured 19 dBA@1m SPL. With our standard four drive array in place, the overall SPL was just over 20 dBA@1m, which is actually a bit better than the original Microserver.

I did not repeat all of the thermal testing run by Larry, but tried some load testing and noted minor increases in temperature on all the various devices during routine use, no more than +5°C. Prime95 was run for about 10-15 minutes, during which time, a bit of fan ramp up was noted; when CPU temperature stabilized, the CPU was at 56°C (10°C higher than during Larry's testing) and SPL was just under 21 dBA@1m.

The overall noise reduction in RAID mode compared to ACHI is around 10 dBA, or roughly half the subjective noise.

If you have no wish to run hardware RAID (whether because you prefer one of the Linux distributions with its own file management system, or you prefer leaving the drives as individual volumes) then running one drive as RAID 0 is a viable option, though it can increase complexity. The drop in fan speed and noise is most definitely worthwhile if you are a SPCR enthusiast... or even if you just want your server to be reasonably quiet without burying the box deep in a big closet.

Still, the absence of user-configurable fan control, the absurdly complex 5-wire fan, and lower fan speed being available only in RAID mode are all strange annoyances. As one HP forum member posted on on 01-16-2014,

... because the old Microserver did not have iLO functionality, it was able to regulate the fans (by measuring system and disk temperatures) and now that the system has built in iLO functionality this ability has been lost for non i120 controlled system usage?

I am sorry if I am asking uncomfortable questions, all I want is that HP take this issue seriously and try to resolve the noise issue in a way that satisfies cosumers who have come to expect and enjoy the silent operation from previous HP proliant microservers.

As I said in a previous post, the biggest selling argument and the reason I bought a new microserver is/was its silent operation as it is meant to operate in a silent environment.

Our thanks to HP for the ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 sample.


HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is Cautiously Recommended by SPCR
(only when run in native RAID mode)

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