Best Virtual Machine Server

Virt-manager MachinesBack in the late nineties, I had two desks with three CRTs, two permanent desktop computers, and a laptop. My desk at the office didn’t look much different. At the time, you needed to have several computers around if you needed to run different operating systems, or even different versions of the same operating system.

Then VMware showed up, and I was hooked on the concept of virtualization immediately. It was the best thing since sliced bread. I no longer needed to keep several computers running at my desk. All I had to do was load one machine up with as much RAM as possible. That’s what I did, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years or more.

My needs have shifted quite a bit in that time, though. At some point, I replaced VMware with VirtualBox, and then I replaced VirtualBox with KVM. In recent years, I haven’t been booting up virtual machines as often as I used to. In the last few months, though, I’ve been running more software that needs to be highly available. Not in the “five nines” availability sense, mind you. I just don’t want things like my home automation to stop working while I reboot my desktop computer for a kernel upgrade or a gaming-related problem with the Nvidia driver.

My requirements

I wanted to build something energy efficient. My current needs don’t require much CPU at all, so I don’t need a 16-core, 32-thread monster homelab machine like my friend Brian, but I’d like to squeeze in as much CPU power as I can. I don’t need a lot of disk space, but I’ve been wanting to play around with Linux’s new dm-cache module, so I planned on buying more disk than I actually needed.

This new server currently only needs to be able to perform two important duties. It needs to be able to run my 3D printer, and it needs to be able to run my home automation software: openHAB. A single Raspberry Pi with an SD card could easily manage both these tasks, but I want to make sure I have enough horsepower for other tasks that I might want to offload from my desktop in the future.

tl;dr: My parts list

Total price: 6.59

The Motherboard and CPUBudget-friendly alternative parts list

Less memory, no solid-state drives.

Total price: 7.63

UPDATE: This blog post is getting old, and the parts I used are becoming harder to find. The AMD 5370 processor is a straight upgrade over my AMD 5350 processor. It is a little easier to find, but it is still getting pretty old. I’m going to have to revisit low-power KVM server build later this year.

Choosing a motherboard and CPU

My first plan was to use an Intel Celeron J1900 CPU. The motherboards with four SATA ports and an integrated J1900 cost about , they sip power, and they’d easily surpass my minumum requirements. It almost seemed like a no-brainer.

However, I am glad I did a little more research. I ended up buying an AMD 5350 processor and a matching motherboard. My research told me that the 5350 is 15 to 20 percent faster than the J1900, and it should only use 3 watts more at idle. Also, the Intel J1900 boards all used laptop DIMMs. The AMD 5350 motherboard and CPU ended up costing a few dollars more, but I probably saved that money when I was able to buy less expensive RAM.

I prefer to use AMD processors whenever it makes sense. There are fewer situations where this makes sense every day, but this does happen to be one of them. Intel divides up their market by not offering certain features on different processors in their line-up. There have been plenty of times when newer, more expensive Intel processors are missing features that their older processors had. I’ve been bitten by this before when I replaced a Core Duo laptop with a Core 2 Duo, and the Core 2 Duo didn’t have VT extensions.

This isn’t something I’ve experienced with AMD processors. With AMD, I expect to find newer, better, faster processors to have all the features of the previous generation of processors.

Also, the AMD 5350 has a huge advantage over the J1900—the 5350 is nearly 20 times faster when it comes to AES encryption. Using all four cores, the Intel Celeron J1900 wouldn’t even be able to keep up with a single SSD. The AMD 5350 should have no trouble keeping pace with the full throughput of a pair of SSDs using only a single core. This is very important for me, because I intend to encrypt my disks.

All the comparable AMD and Intel motherboards I looked at top out at four SATA ports. It would be nice to have more, but I can always add a SATA PCIe expansion card.

How much RAM? As much as possible.

I learned two or three things very quickly when I started using VMware over 15 years ago. Unless you’re trying to crunch lots of numbers, CPU is probably not going to be your bottleneck when trying to shoehorn more virtual machines onto the same server. You’re going to run out of memory first.

That said, you can almost always shoehorn one more virtual machine onto a server. On more than one occasion in the early VMware days, I reduced the memory of all the virtual machines on my desktop by 10% or so just to make room for one more machine.

Memory is cheap and plentiful now, so there was no reason to not max out the memory in this little server. That’s only 16 GB—half as much as my desktop. It’s also much more than I expect this virtual machine host to ever need.

Choosing storage

The choice of storage hardware depends very heavily on the software being hosted inside your virtual machines. For my use cases, I don’t need a lot of storage. I could get away with using a pair of small solid-state drives in a mirror. They’d be nice and quiet, and would barely use any power.

However, I want to experiment with dm-cache. dm-cache allows you to use a fast storage device like an SSD as a read/write cache for slower devices. My hope is that dm-cache will allow the noisy, power-hungry spinning platter hard drives to spin down most of the time. I need both SSDs and conventional hard drives in order to test dm-cache.

I chose to mirror a pair of Samsung 850 EVO SSDs to use as the boot device and dm-cache device. The Samsung EVO 840 drives have done extremely well in the SSD Endurance Experiment, so I thought Samsung’s newer models were worth trying. They’re fast, durable, and reasonably-priced. That’s a good combination.

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