Meet My ESX(i) Server, the BabyDragon.

Use the Permalink! This article will be updated regularly! (Latest Update: Jan 5 2011 – Vendor changes and price drops again!)

ESX and ESXi whiteboxes for home labs have been a frequent topic on Twitter for about as long as ESX and ESXi have been around. Sure, you could just buy some used HPs or IBMs or Dells on the HCL from eBay, but those 1U machines are loud as hell. HP has some small server options, but they’re not necessarily the best option. Especially since you have to go through the HCL and hardware with a fine toothed comb as some of them don’t support features like FT.

But I’m happy to save you all those headaches, because I did all the work myself. The result is what I call the BabyDragon.When it comes to ESX and ESXi there are two major requirements above all else; memory and compatibility. Most folks reasonably go by major component; motherboard, chipset, and relying on the testing work of others. A lot of folks have opted to go with desktop boards based on the Intel X58 chipset and ICH10R southbridge. But I wanted something extremely efficient that wouldn’t take up a lot of space.

Enter a very old motherboard manufacturer and designer by the name of Supermicro. Supermicro makes a number of barebone servers and motherboards on the VMware HCL. But I elected to go with a single socket Intel 3420 based board not found on the HCL; the X8SIL-F. This little beauty is a MicroATX socket 1156 with 4 DIMM sockets, 3 PCI-Express and a PCI slot. But more importantly, it’s a true Enterprise class board – IPMI, KVM over IP, and watchdog all included standard.

This board is the real magic that makes the BabyDragon the most space and power efficient ESX box there is. If you think by going MicroATX you have to sacrifice things, you’d be wrong. Because of the components selected, without adding a single card, this board will support all ESX features. Yes, that includes VMotion, Fault Tolerance, the works. Dual Intel Gigabit comes onboard standard, more than enough for any home lab. The one limitation is that it comes with 6 SATA ports, not SAS, so if you want faster disk you’ll need an expansion card. However, the Mouse in the pictures provided is a USB thumb drive – the X8SIL-F includes an onboard USB A port so you can run ESX/ESXi off a USB drive.

The other beauty is that the BabyDragon is cheap. Very cheap. To help you build your own, I’ve put together the following handy list (with links) for a solid home lab configuration with a Xeon X3450, 16GB of memory, and a 10K RPM 300GB SATA disk. This configuration will support all ESX advanced features, in just about 1 cubic foot of space and under 300W of power draw. Oh, and it does it at under 32dBA. (That means the system is virtually dead silent.) Prices are in US Dollars. Bolded prices have changed since the last update. Italicized prices have changed recommended vendors.

  • $182.00 – Supermicro X8SIL-F motherboard Retail
  • $245.00 – Intel Xeon X3450 Retail (2.66GHz, 4 Cores, 8 Threads, 8MB, heatsink)
  • $568.00 – 4x Hynix (Supermicro) 4GB DDR3-1066 ECC Registered (Total 16GB)
  • $170.00 – Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB (10,000RPM, SATA2)
  • $100.00 – Lian-Li V351B MicroATX case (Cube, 2x 120mm, 1x 80mm)
  • $91.00 – Seasonic M12II Bronze 520 (80Plus Bronze Certified)
  • $24.00 – 2x Gelid Silent 12 PWM fans (See notes below!)

TOTAL: $1388.00 – 8 cores effective, 16GB, 300GB 10K RPM, 90%+ Power Efficiency, Silence
Update Aug 24 2010: Please note, I still can’t be bribed; the goal here is the lowest prices. And I will never link a vendor that I know to have poor customer service.

Now, let’s be honest. You can make quite a few substitutions. Maybe you only want 8GB instead of 16GB. That’s just fine, and what I did – just make sure to go from the Tested Memory List. The board truly is picky about it’s memory, and Intel has specific limitations and requirements. You could go with a lower end Xeon, but you’ll lose cores and features – some of the X3400’s don’t even support VT-d. The X3450 is about the lowest you can go and retain all ESX features. You can add another disk if you like. I would even recommend considering the Lian-Li V352 – it’s $150, but gives you 3 disks in the same space. (It’s an update to the V351.)

Another key limitation of the board is the fans. You must use all PWM (4 pin header) fans. This is a limitation of the BMC. Lian-Li’s included fans are 3 pin, so must be replaced. The Gelid Silent 12’s above offer the best performance and noise level, and are more than adequate to cool the system. I strongly recommend buying a thermally controlled 80mm (8cm) fan for the hard drive(s) as well; if it’s PWM, it won’t run fast enough under disk load. The retail Intel heatsink is more than up to the task of cooling the Xeon, and in most power modes it’s near silent. I strongly recommend the “Balanced” power setting, which will perform core idling and voltage drops when the system is idle.

In the end, the BabyDragon’s expansion capabilities are limited only by your imagination and the HCL. 10GigE? Yes! Fiber Channel? Yes! USB passthrough? Yes! And when it comes to Enterprise class features you want, HP and Dell can’t compete at the price point. The BabyDragon has integrated KVM over IP and full BMC capabilities. Included. There’s no additional cards, no additional licensing, nothing. It simply works out of the box.

You’ll also note that there’s no DVD-ROM. There’s a reason for that. The onboard BMC has a feature you can’t get in similarly priced systems – virtual media support. Out of the box and included. Use the BMC’s web interface to mount your ESX CD image off a Windows share, any Windows share you like, and you’re done. You can do it with any ISO image, including those for your guest OSes. The sole caveat is that it’s limited to 4.7GB images in the most current firmware, but that covers even Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 2008R2.

What about special settings or tweaks or what have you to make the BabyDragon work? There’s only one caveat; you must update to the latest BIOS and BMC firmware (currently 1.0C). Otherwise? Assemble, power on with ESX CD, install, and go. There’s no special sauce, no workarounds, no magic required. It Just Works™. Want to do Fault Tolerance and VMotion? Build two, put them side by side, and you’re ready to go.

For the curious, my BabyDragon is running quite a few FreeBSD and Windows guests. I have 12 guests running currently, one of which is my pfSense Firewall. I used the second GigE interface and a second vSwitch to isolate the networks physically. This website here? Runs on the BabyDragon using two FreeBSD guests – one being the database server you can’t see, the other being the webserver. It works wonderfully, and provides an added level of security I wouldn’t have with most traditional solutions.

So hopefully this post will help you build your own ESX whitebox for your lab, and save you a lot of money and headaches in the process. And drop your noise levels significantly. It’s so quiet and unobtrusive that it has achieved the Significant-Other Seal Of Approval™. As always, if you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll answer as quick as I can!

23 Responses to “Meet My ESX(i) Server, the BabyDragon.”

  1. John Dias

    Phil outstanding work on this project! REALLY tempted to dig into the old savings account and build one of these.

    I do have a question – the USB flash drive in the “mouse” form factor… what role does that guy play in the BabyDragon? 🙂

  2. prj

    In my case, I was going to use the motherboard’s onboard USB A port to install ESXi to that little thumb drive. However, I chose my thumb drive poorly and the Mouse is just too painfully slow. I may revisit this later, and will update the post to point it out!

  3. vinf

    Nice setup, have you tried nested ESX? I like that these boxes will go to 16Gb and are so small with a BMC

    Mmmm, mini-mini-vTARDIS 🙂

  4. The BabyDragon & vSphere musings….. « Chris Farris

    […] Meet My ESXi Server, the BabyDragon. | Error404 – Its A Blog. Posted by Chris Technology, Virtualization, sysadmin Subscribe to RSS feed […]

  5. PiroNet

    WOW I just love the KVM and BMC bits… Something which I miss from my own home lab using a Shuttle barebone .. 🙁

    Thx for the great post!


  6. Josh OBrien

    Great post. I want a few of my own baby dragons. Building these wont be cheaper than digging up used HP gear but will give me a much better lab setup. Now need to find the budget for this. Again great job!

  7. Brian Feeny

    Isn’t the 2.53Ghz chip the X3440 not the X3450? Aren’t the Lynnfield chips such as the X3400’s all 1333mhz chips, same with the Supermicro board, so wouldn’t it make sense to use 1333mhz memory?

  8. Brian Feeny

    Another question, you mention getting a thermally controlled fan for the hard drives. The case takes 2x120mm fans and 1x80mm, so are you saying to use a thermally controlled fan in the 80mm spot? Or do you mean buy one of those fans that plug into a HD slot? Can you link an example of a fan you used or similar?

  9. prj

    Typo on my part; the link is to the X3450 – corrected now. For the drive fan, yes, that is the 80mm. It mounts on the HDD access panel. I used a Gelid FN-TX08-20, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to others. The temperature ramping is strange on it.

  10. vSphere Home Lab: Part 3 – Compute « Jason Nash’s Blog

    […] likely, the vSphere HCL limits your options.  Phil’s Baby Dragon (nice local storage) is here and Chris’ configuration is here.  Here is the breakdown.  Each of my two servers […]

  11. HTTP / Test machine thingy ma bob - discussion forums

    […] one of the nicest microATX based systems I've seen for running ESX on is known as the babydragon.…he-babydragon/ you can do better than RDP – you can actually use proper ilo type stuff if you want my […]

  12. Freakin

    Great write-up, Phil. I was just looking at building a similar system for a friend using the Supermicro X8SI6-F. It’s a regular sized version of that board w/ integrated 8-port LSI SAS controller and a pair of internal USB ports for OS. 6 RAM slots instead of 4 as well. +$100 or so, and damn hard to find in stock anywhere. I’m gonna drop 6-8 120GB Vertex 2 SSDs in and hope to get to get 16-20 WinXP VMs running at once.

    Have you had any CPU heat problems with the stock heatsink? I’ve heard others on newegg complain about how hot the X3400 CPUs get. Perhaps they just aren’t realizing a thermal design near 100C means it can run a lot hotter…

  13. Brian Feeny

    I purchased this board, but the manual says you can use 3-pin or 4-pin fans. It does say that whether you use 3 or 4 pin, all fans should be the same pin count.

    In any case, I ordered the Gelid silent fans (newegg) and they all came in 3-pin anyways, so the fans were all 3-pin anyways.

    Also I used the 400W Seasonic, but I wish I did the 520W, with the 400W you have to cut a very small section of the case for the power supply to fit properly, nonetheless it does work great.

  14. prj

    I haven’t seen anywhere _near_ even 70C on my BabyDragon. In fact, my average temperature is around 44C and peaking at about 52C. Chances are that people with thermal problems have poor ventilation design overall; very frequent occurrence these days sadly. So take thermal complaints with a grain of salt.

    There are two versions of the Gelid fans. Newegg shouldn’t be used for ordering parts because they screw up constantly now. (I’ve heard from a few folks that they’ve shipped the 3-pin when the 4-pin was ordered.) The Gelid parts beginning with FN-PX are the correct ones; FN-SX is the 3-pin model.
    Can you maybe send me photos of the cut you had to make on the 400W PSU? That doesn’t sound right, but if it is, I definitely want to make a note of it ASAP.


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    […] know. An article written by Curtis Preston sparked my interest in the VMware home lab, in which Philip Jaenke and Eric Siebert discuss some lab builds. The infamous “Baby Dragon” is pitted against […]

  17. Sean Thulin

    This is a great post and I just purchased almost the same thing. Besides using a 3440 instead of a 3450, the biggest change was the ram. I ended up getting 4 of Kingston KVR1333D3D8R9S/4GHB for under $300 shipped. This is going to be a great project. Thanks for all your help here and on twitter.

  18. New server inbound – Home ESXi environment | Bill Plein's Blog – Tangential Excursions

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  23. Thomas Blow

    I assume you are the same Philip Jaenke who wrote the Search Data Center article “Making The Most of Server Contracts”? If so, just wish to say thanks. Cannot find anything like this article anywhere. Assume it is because vendors want you to keep buying premium service.