Is a whitebox or branded box better for a VMware lab?

I’m going to solve this age-old question once and for all.  Is it better to buy a whitebox or a branded box for your VMware server?  Alright, you caught me.  There’s no way I’m going to solve that question, but I am going to pit two or thee configs against each other and see how it comes out.  Maybe we’ll all learn something.

What’s the backup angle?  I need to build a VMware/Hyper-V lab again, and I wanted to do it right this time.  I’m thinking about buying 2-3 servers, so cost is very important. But I also want everything to be fully supported in VMware/Hyper-V land.

So it was with great interest that I read Philip Jaenke’s blog post about his VMware whitebox config he calls the Baby Dragon. I started discussing this on Twitter last night, and next thing I know I was in way over my head as a third party watching Philip Jaenke and Eric Siebert argue why their config was the best.  (I wish I knew a better way of capturing a three-way convo like this so I could put it in this blog entry.)  Philip was, of course, arguing on behalf of the Baby Dragon, and Eric was arguing for the HP ML110.  I thought both of them made really good points, so I thought I would summarize them here.

The Baby Dragon is a pretty sweet setup based on a SuperMicro X8SIL-F motherboard (that includes a dual-ported Intel 82574L GbE controller), an Intel Xeon X3450 CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and a 300 GB 10K RPM SATA drive.  He buys best-of-breed components from the cheapest place (with good customer service) he can find, and puts them together himself.  He says that his config is fully supported within VMware, and can do anything you need VMware to do, including a lot of the advanced stuff I’ve never even heard of.  And, he says, it’s really quiet (32dBA) and not too power hungry (300 watts).  The total price for the Baby Dragon is $1388.

Enter Eric Siebert and his favorite branded box, the HP ML110. The base system comes with a Xeon X3440 CPU and 2 GB of RAM, and a 250 GB 7500 RPM SATA drive, and you can have that for $599 on Amazon, Newegg, and some other sources.  He can then add up to 16 GB of RAM, but chooses instead to put 8 GB of RAM and a 64 GB SSD drive on which he places the vswp files.  He also adds an Intel Pro Dual-Port GbE NIC.  He gets all that for $1096.

Let me put these side-by-side.  The Baby Dragon is as Philip described it in his blog with links to the various parts and where he buys them.  Note that it has 16 GB of RAM, a 300 GB 10K drive, and a 2.66 GHz CPU.  The first HP ML110 is how Eric would configure things, with the included 250 GB 7500 RPM SATA drive, 8 GB of RAM (2 GB included, 6 GB extra), then using a 64 GB SSD drive and an extra dual GbE NIC.  The third config is to try and match the Baby Dragon’s specs as close as possible with HP branded hardware by going ahead and buying the 16 GB of RAM (throwing away the included 2 GB), adding the 300 GB 10K RPM drive, and a 1 yr HP Lights-Our license that matches functionality that Philip mentioned is included in the Baby Dragon.  (Eric said he really didn’t need this functionality, but felt that if he wanted it, he could get a complimentary blogger license from HP.  Philip didn’t think that was fair and neither did I, so I left that out of the comparison below.)

Part Baby Dragon Cost HP ML110 w/SSD Cost HP ML110 Closer to Baby Dragon Cost
Case Lian-Li V351B MicroATX $100 HP Unknown Inc HP Unknown Inc
MBD Supermicro X8SIL-F $190 HP Unknown Inc HP Unknown Inc
CPU Intel Xeon X3450 (2.66GHz) $245 Xeon X3440 (2.53GHz) Inc Xeon X3440 (2.53 GHz) Inc
Pwr Seasonic M12II Bronze (520W) $91 HP Unknown (300W) Inc HP Unknown (300W) Inc
Fan 2x Gelid Silent 12 PWM $24 1 HP Unknown Inc 1 HP Unknown Inc
RAM 16 GB Hynix (Supermicro) 4GB DDR3-1066 $568 2 GB DDR3-1066 Inc 2 GB DDR3-1066 Inc
Disk WD VelociRaptor (300GB,10K,SATA2) $170 Unknown (250 GB, 7500, SATA2) Inc Unknown (250 GB, 7500, SATA2) Inc
CD-ROM None (Could have 16X CD-RW for $18) N/A 16X SATA DVD-RW Inc 16X SATA DVD-RW Inc
NIC Imbedded Dual Intel 82574L GbE NICs Inc Imbedded NC107i PCI-X GbE Inc Imbedded NC107i PCI-X GbE Inc
System N/A N/A HP ProLiant ML110 G6 Intel X3440 $599 HP ProLiant ML110 G6 Intel X3440 $599
RAM N/A N/A 4 GB DDR3-1066 $141 16 GB Hynix (Supermicro) 4GB DDR3-1066 $568
RAM N/A N/A 2 GB DDR3-1066 $100 N/A N/A
SSD None N/A Kingston SSDNow SNV425-S2/64GB $125 N/A N/A
NIC N/A N/A Intel Pro Dual-Port GbE NIC $131 Intel Pro Dual-Port GbE NIC $131
Disk None N/A N/A N/A WD VelociRaptor (300GB,10K,SATA2) $170
iLO N/A Inc None N/A HP Lights-Out 100i (LO100i) 1 yr $229
Onsite Not Available N/A 1 yr free onsite parts replacement $0 1 yr free onsite parts replacement $0
Total $1388 $1096 $1697

It seems to me that a big part of this comes down to whatever functionality is provided by the HP Lights-Out program and whether that’s important to you or not.  Eric says for his lab of a few servers it’s a lot of money for something he rarely uses and really doesn’t need when he might need.  He said he’s “not that lazy,” and that all he had to do when he rebuilt his box was swap a cable or two.  If you want that functionality (I’m still not sure what it is), then it would seem that the Baby Dragon would be the cheapest way to get that.  If you don’t want it, and you took the cost of it out of the third column, you have two systems that are almost identical and cost almost exactly the same: one with a name brand supported by a major vendor and one that is not.

Eric makes a pretty compelling argument about having one vendor to call (or a vendor to call at all), and that said vendor (HP) provides onsite support for a year for free.  That is a really nice thing to have, and you can buy additional years for $110 each if you want to.

Eric points out what he feels is a danger in going down the whitebox route.  He feels that VMware has a rep of making changes, and making sure that their fully supported vendors are OK, but that they don’t really care about whitebox vendors.  Philip feels that this is nonsense and FUD, and points out that the important parts of his config are indeed on the supported list.  (The numbers don’t quite match up, but he says there’s an explanation for that.)

Philip’s main argument is that he gets much more “bang for the buck.”  He says he gets more functionality and power for his $1388 than Eric does for his $1096.  But then Eric says that the 10K RPM drive really doesn’t help much because any serious lab has their VMDK file stored externally and the ESX boot drive really isn’t used that much.

Philip has done a phenomenal job building the Baby Dragon box.  It’s a best-of-breed box (compared with all the no-name components of the HP box) and it probably really screams.  I also think Eric’s config (if you don’t need the Lights Out stuff like he says he doesn’t) is indeed cheaper by almost $300, is fully supported by HP, and could actually be faster if you have more than several GB of vswp files.

Like I said, I solved this argument once and for all. 😉

What do you think?


----- Signature and Disclaimer -----

Written by W. Curtis Preston (@wcpreston). For those of you unfamiliar with my work, I've specialized in backup & recovery since 1993. I've written the O'Reilly books on backup and have worked with a number of native and commercial tools. I am now Chief Technical Architect at Druva, the leading provider of cloud-based data protection and data management tools for endpoints, infrastructure, and cloud applications. These posts reflect my own opinion and are not necessarily the opinion of my employer.

9 thoughts on “Is a whitebox or branded box better for a VMware lab?

  1. Preston de Guise says:

    The real question though remains: what actual solution, if presented to VMware, would they be prepared to offer support on in the event of either -a- a regular support case, or -b- a catastrophic failure?

    Therein lays the answer. Performance and bang for buck matters naught when support is not forthcoming.

  2. cpjlboss says:

    What I’m hearing from both parties is that both systems would be supported, but I do have to say that my experience is things are a little easier on that road if you’re using a branded box.

    But since this discussion was really about a lab situation, I’m not sure if your question is as relevant as it would be in a production environment.

  3. josephmartins says:

    Eric never revealed the component brands in the HP box?

    At the end of the day this is an article about two different machines at two different prices. What could we possibly conclude from it without running performance comparisons and ballparking the support “costs”? I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.

    Ten years ago it was fun to dive neck-deep into my own custom boxes. The thrill of selecting and assembling the best-parts and working out the kinks with hw and sw conflicts. At one point water-cooling an overclocked AMD in my enormous 11 bay Supermicro, complete with see-through lexan window, phospho-coated fans and glowing coolant lit by blacklight. Ok so I liked far out performance AND looks too.

    These days, I like to keep things simple. I’d rather point, click, purchase, install and go play with my kids…and call support if something goes wrong. If there are no hidden costs in the vendor’s warranty (i.e. the cost of the visit, parts, and labor are all covered), then I’d go for the packaged system. It might not be the fastest, the most efficient, or the perfect fit, but for most it’ll probably be “good enough”. And they can have a life outside the lab too.

  4. cpjlboss says:

    @joseph

    The specs I gave for the HP box were what I could find on the HP site for the ML110. They don’t disclose the brand of the individual components in most cases.

  5. gaulfinger says:

    Philip chose a Supermicro board with the -F option. It includes IPMI remote management and should diffuse the ILO argument.

    The only difference I see here is the support potential vs. savings potential. The storage options on DIY can easily be changed to match an SSD setup if it makes sense for the intended VMs in this lab.

  6. cpjlboss says:

    Actually the fact that he chose the -F option was his whole point. He has the lights-out stuff included, and the HP folks have to pay an extra $300 a year if they want it.

    Totally agreed on the SSD part, though. If he dropped the 16 GB of RAM and added the SSD disk, then he’d save $284 and spend an extra $125, for a net savings of $159. That would bring his total cost to $1229.

  7. Chris Dearden says:

    I woud like to see a back to back comparison of noise / power consumption and space consumed though. In many peoples home setups , power/noise & space are equally important!

  8. Rick Vanover says:

    It depends on the objective of the VMware test environment. Secondly, a decision on the shared storage aspect is important; especially with multiple host connectivity.

    I’d lean closer to Eric’s point, as I too have an HP server for the rickatron lab. the ML 110 is a great value, however.

    The whitebox and laptop approaches have their use cases, however.

    If the lab is to be stationary and possibly scale to multiple hosts, networks and storage; the branded solution is the way to go.

  9. gilfreund says:

    Some notes:

    • You did not calculate the time for setting up the system.
    • Some server boards do have lights out systems (via serial or ethernet)

    As far as VM support is concerned, I have found that while as long as most components are in the supported hardware, I had no issues.

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