The Threadripper

Circuit BoardThis post is me finally doing what I told so many people I was going to do a handful of weeks back: share the “punch list” (i.e, the parts list) I used to put together my new workstation. And unsurprisingly, I chose to build my workstation based upon AMD’s Threadripper CPU.

Getting Old

I make a living and support my family through work that depends on a computer, as I’m sure many of you do. And I’m sure that many of you can understand when I say that working on a computer day-in and day-out, one develops a “feel” for its performance characteristics.

While undertaking project work and other “assignments” over the last bunch of months, I began to feel like my computer wasn’t performing with the same “pep” that it once had. It was subtle at first, but I began to notice it more and more often – and that bugged me.

So, I attempted to uninstall some software, kill off some boot-time services and apps that were of questionable use, etc. Those efforts sometimes got me some performance back, but the outcome wasn’t sustained or consistent enough to really make a difference. I was seriously starting to feel like I was wading through quicksand anytime I tried to get anything done.

The Last Straw

StrawsThere isn’t any one event that made me think “Jeez, I really need a new computer” – but I still recall the turning point for me because it’s pretty vivid in my mind.

I subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud. Yes, it costs a small fortune each year, and each time I pay the bill, I wonder if I get enough use out of it to justify the expense. I invariably decide that I do end up using it quite a bit, though, so I keep re-upping for another year. At least I can write it off as a business expense.

Well, I was trying to go through a recent batch of digital photos using Adobe Lightroom, and my system was utterly dragging. And whenever my system does that for a prolonged period, I hop over to the Windows Task Manager and start monitoring. And when I did that with Lightroom, this is what I saw:

Note the 100% CPU utilization in the image. Admittedly, RamboxPro looks like the culprit here, and it was using a fair bit of memory … but that’s not the whole story.

Since the start of this ordeal, I’ve become more judicious in how many active tabs I spin-up in Rambox Pro. It’s a great utility, but like every Chromium-based tool, it’s an absolute pig when it comes to memory usage. Have you ever looked at your memory consumption when you have a lot of Google Chrome tabs open? That’s what’s happening with Rambox Pro. So be warned and be careful.​

I’m used to the CPU spiking for brief periods of time, but the CPU sat pegged at 100% utilization for the duration that Lightroom was running – literally the entire time. And not until I shut down Lightroom did the utilization start to settle back down.

I thought about this for a while. I know that Adobe does some work to optimize/enhance its applications to make the most of systems with multiple CPU cores and symmetric multiprocessing when it’s available to the applications. The type of tasks most Adobe applications deal with are the sort that people tend to buy beefy machines for, after all: video editing, multimedia creation, image manipulation, etc.

After observing Lightroom and how it brought my processor to its knees, I decided to do a bit of research.

Research and Realization

Lab ResearchAt the time, my primary workstation was operating based on an Intel Core i7-5960X Extreme processor. When I originally built the system, there was no consumer desktop processor that was faster or had more cores (that I recall). Based on the (then) brand new Haswell E series from Intel, the i7-5960X had eight cores that each supported hyperthreading. It had an oversized L3 cache of 20MB, “new” virtualization support and extensions, 40 PCIe lanes, and all sorts of goodies baked-in. I figured it was more than up to handling current, modern day workstation tasks.

Yeah – not quite.

In researching that processor, I learned that it had been released in September of 2014 – roughly six years prior. Boy, six years flies by when you’re not paying attention. Life moves on, but like a new car that’s just been driven off the lot, that shiny new PC you just put together starts losing value as soon as you power it up.

The Core i7 chip and the system based around it are still very good at most things today – in fact, I’m going to set my son up with that old workstation as an upgrade from his Core-i5 (which he uses primarily for video watching and gaming). But for the things I regularly do day in and day out – running VMs, multimedia creation and editing, etc., that Core i7  system is significantly behind the times. With six years under its belt, a computer system tends to start receiving email from AARP 

The Conversation and Approval

So, my wife and I had “the conversation,” and I ultimately got her buy-in on the construction of a new PC. Let me say, for the record, that I love my wife. She’s a rational person, and as long as I can effectively plead my case that I need something for my job (being able to write it off helps), she’s behind me and supports the decision.

Tracy and I have been married for 17 years, so she knows me well. We both knew that the new system was going to likely cost quite a bit of money to put together … because my general thinking on new computer systems (desktops, servers, or whatever) boils down to a few key rules and motivators:

  1. Nine times out of ten, I prefer to build a system (from parts) over buying one pre-assembled. This approach ensures that I get exactly what I want in the system, and it also helps with the “continuing education” associated with system assembly. It also forces me to research what’s currently available at the time of construction, and that invariably ends up helping at least one or two friends in the assembly of new systems that they want to put together or purchase.
  2. I generally try to build the best performing system I can with what’s available at the time. I’ll often opt for a more expensive part if it’s going to keep the system “viable” for a longer period of time, because getting new systems isn’t something I do very often. I would absolutely love to get new systems more often, but I’ve got to make these last as long as I can – at least until I’m independently wealthy (heh … don’t hold your breath – I’m certainly not).
  3. As an adjunct to point #2 (above), I tend to opt for more expensive parts and components if they will result in a system build that leaves room for upgrades/part swaps down the road. Base systems may roll over only every half-dozen years or so, but parts and upgrades tend to flow into the house at regular intervals. Nothing simply gets thrown out or decommissioned. Old systems and parts go to the rest of the family, get donated to a friend in need, etc.
  4. When I’m building a system, I have a use in mind. I’m fortunate that I can build different computers for different purposes, and I have two main systems that I use: a primary workstation for business, and a separate machine for gaming. That doesn’t mean I won’t game on my workstation and vice-versa, any such usage is secondary; I select parts for a system’s intended purpose.
  5. Although I strive to be on the cutting edge, I’ve learned that it’s best to stay off the bleeding edge when it comes to my primary workstation. I’ve been burned a time or two by trying to get the absolute best and newest tech. When you depend on something to earn a living, it’s typically not a bad idea to prioritize stability and reliability over the “shiny new objects” that aren’t proven yet.

Threadripper: The Parts List

At last – the moment that some of you may have been waiting for: the big reveal!

I want to say this at the outset: I’m sharing this selection of parts (and some of my thinking while deciding what to get) because others have specifically asked. I don’t value religious debates over “why component ‘xyz’ is inferior to ‘abc'” nearly as much as I once did in my youth.

So, general comments and questions on my choice of parts are certainly welcome, but the only thing you’ll hear are crickets chirping if you hope to engage me in a debate …

The choice of which processor to go with wasn’t all that difficult. Well, maybe a little.

Given that this was going into the machine that would be swapped-in as my new workstation, I figured most medium-to-high end current processors available would do the job. Many of the applications I utilize can get more done with a greater number of processing cores, and I’ve been known to keep a significant number of applications open on my desktop. I also continue to run a number of virtual machines (on my workstation) in my day-to-day work.

In recent years, AMD has been flogging Intel in many different benchmarks – more specifically, the high-end desktop (non-gaming) performance range of benchmarks that are the domain of multi-core systems. AMD’s manufacturing processes are also more advanced (Intel is still stuck on 10nm-14nm while AMD has been on 7nm), and they’ve finally left the knife at home and brought a gun to the fight – especially with Threadripper. It reminds me of period of time decades ago when AMD was able to outperform Intel with the Athlon FX-series (I loved the FX-based system I built!).

I realize benchmarks are won by some companies one day, and someone else the next. Bottom line for me: performance per core at a specific price point has been held by AMD’s Ryzen chips for a while. I briefly considered a Ryzen 5 or 9 for a bit, but I opted for the Threadripper when I acknowledged that the system would have to last me a fairly long time. Yes, it’s a chunk of change … but Threadripper was worth it for my computing tasks.

Had I been building a gaming machine, it’s worth noting that I probably would have gone Intel, as their chips still tend to perform better for single-threaded loads that are common in games.

First off, you should know that I generally don’t worry about motherboard performance. Yes, I know that differences exist and motherboard “A” may be 5% faster than motherboard “B.” At the end of the day, they’re all going to be in the same ballpark (except for maybe a few stinkers – and ratings tend to frown on those offerings …)

For me, motherboard selection is all about capabilities and options. I want storage options, and I especially want robust USB support. Features and capabilities tend to become more available as cost goes up (imagine that!), and I knew right off that I was going to probably spend a pretty penny for the appropriate motherboard to drop that Threadripper chip into.

I’ve always good luck with ASUS motherboards, and it doesn’t hurt that the ROG Zenith II Extreme Alpha was highly rated and reviewed. After all, it has a name that sounds like the next-generation terminator, so how could I go wrong?!?!?!

Everything about the board says high end, and it satisfies the handful of requirements I had. And some I didn’t have (but later found nice, like that 10Gbps Ehternet port …)

“Memory, all alone in the moonlight …”

Be thankful you’re reading that instead of listening to me sing it. Barbra Streisand I am not.

Selecting memory doesn’t involve as many decision points as other components in a new system, but there are still a few to consider. There is, of course, the overall amount of memory you want to include in the system. My motherboard and processor supported up to 256GB, but that would be overkill for anythings I’d be doing. I settled on 128GB, and I decided to get that as 4x32GB DIMMS rather than 8x16GB so I could expand (easily) later if needed.

Due to their architecture, it has been noted that the performance of Ryzen chips can be impacted significantly by memory speeds. The “sweet spot” before prices grew beyond my desire to purchase appeared to be about 3200MHz. And if possible, I wanted to get memory with the lowest possible CAS (column access strobe) latency I could find, as that number tends to matter the most with memory timings (of CAS, tRAS, tRP, and tRCD.)

I found what I wanted with the Corsair Vengeance RGB series. I’ve had a solid experience with Corsair memory in the past, so once I confirmed the numbers it was easy to pull the trigger on the purchase.

There are 50 million cases and case makers out there. I’ve had experience with many of them, but getting a good case (in my experience) is as much about timing as any other factor (like vendor, cost, etc).

Because I was a bit more focused on the other components, I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time on the case. I knew I could get one of those diamonds in the rough (i.e., cheap and awesome) if I were willing spend some time combing reviews and product slicks … but I’ll confess: I dropped back and punted on this one. I pulled open my Maximum PC and/or PC Gamer magazines (I’ve been subscribing for years) and looked at what they recommended.

And that was as hard as it got. Sure, the Cosmos C700P was pricy, but it looked easy enough to work with. Great reviews, too.

When the thing was delivered, the one thing I *wasn’t* prepared for was sheer SIZE of the case. Holy shnikes – this is a BIG case. Easily the biggest non-server case I’ve ever owned. It almost doesn’t fit under my desk but thankfully it just makes it with enough clearance that I don’t worry.

Oh yeah, there’s something else I realized with this case: I was acrruing quite the “bling show” of RGB lighting-capable components. Between the case, the memory, and the motherboard, I had my own personal 4th of July show brewing.

Power supplies aren’t glamorous, but they’re critical to any stable and solid system. 25 years ago, I lived in an old apartment with atrocious power. I would go through cheap power supplies regularly. It was painful and expensive, but it was instructional. Now, I do two things: buy an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for everything electronic, and purchase a good power supply for any new build. Oh, and one more thing: always have another PSU on-hand.

I started buying high-end Corsair power supplies around the time I built my first gaming machine which utilized videocards in SLI. That was the point in nVidia’s history when the cards had horrible power consumption stats … and putting two of them in a case was a quick trip to the scrap heap for anything less than 1000W.

That PSU survived and is still in-use in one of my machines, and that sealed the deal for me for future PSU needs.

This PSU can support more than I would ever throw at it, and it’s fully modular *and* relatively high efficiency. Fully modular is the only to go these days; it definitely cuts down on cable sprawl.

Much like power supplies, CPU coolers tend not to be glamorous. The most significant decision point is “air cooled” or “liquid cooled.” Traditionally, I’ve gone with air coolers since I don’t overclock my systems and opt for highly ventillated cases. It’s easier (in my opinion) and tends to be quite a bit cheaper.

I have started evolving my thinking on the topic, though – at least a little bit. I’m not about to start building custom open-loop cooling runs like some of the extreme builders out there, but there are a host of sealed closed-loop coolers that are well-regarded and highly rated.

Unsurprisingly, Corsair makes one of the best (is there anything they don’t do?) I believe Maximum PC put the H100i PRO all-in-one at the top of their list. It was a hair more than I wanted to spend, but in the context of the project’s budget (growing with each piece), it wasn’t bad.

And oh yeah: it *also* had RGB lighting built-in. What the heck?

I initially had no plans (honestly) of buying another videocard. My old workstation had two GeForce 1080s (in SLI) in it, and my thinking was that I would re-use those cards to keep costs down.

Ha. Ha ha. “Keep costs down” – that’s funny! Hahahahahahaha…

At first, I did start with one of the 1080s in the case. But there were other factors in the mix I hadn’t foreseen. Those two cards were going to take up a lot room in the case and limit access to the remaining PCI express slots. There’s also the time-honored tradition of passing one of the 1080s down to my son Brendan, who is also a gamer.

Weak arguments, perhaps, but they were enough to push me over the edge into the purchase of another RTX 2080Ti. I actually picked it up at the local Micro Center, and there’s a bit of a story behind it. I originally purchase the wrong card (one that had connects for an open-loop cooling system), so I returned it and picked up the right card while doing so. That card (the right one) was only available as an open box item (at a substantially reduced price). Shortly after powering my system on with the card plugged in, it was clear why it was open-box: it had hardware problems.

Thus began the dance with EVGA support and the RMA process. I’d done the dance before, so I knew what to expect. EVGA has fantastic support anyway, so I was able to RMA the card back (shipping nearly killed me – ouch!), and I got a new RTX 2080Ti at an ultimately “reasonable” price.

Now my son will get a 1080, I’ve got a shiny new 2080Ti … and nVidia just released the new 30 series. Dang it!

Admittedly, this was a Micro Center “impulse buy.” That is, the specific choice of card was the impulse buy. I knew I was going to get an external sound card (i.e., aside from the motherboard-integrated sound) before I’d really made any other decision tied to the new system.

For years I’ve been hearing that the integrated sound chips they’re now putting on motherboards have gotten good enough that the need for a separate, discrete sound card is no longer necessary for those wanting high-quality audio. Forget about SoundBlaster – no longer needed!

I disagree.

I’ve tried using integrated sound on a variety of motherboards, and there’s always been something … sub-standard. In many cases, the chips and electronics simply weren’t shielded enough to keep powerline hum and other interference out. In other cases, the DSP associated with the audio would chew CPU cycles and slow things down.

Given how much I care about my music – and my picky listening habits (we’ll say “discerning audiophile tendencies”) – I’ve found that I’m only truly happy with a sound card.

I’d always gotten SoundBlaster cards in the past, but I’ve been kinda wondering about SoundBlaster for a while. They were still making good (or at least “okay”) cards in my opinion, but their attempts to stay relevant seemed to be taking them down some weird avenues. So, I was open to the idea of another vendor.

The ASUS card looked to be the right combo of a high signal-to-noise, low distortion minimalist card. And thus far, it’s been fantastic. An impulse buy that actually worked out!

Much like the choice of CPU, picking the SSD that would be used as my Windows system (boot) drive wasn’t overly difficult. This was the device that my system would be booting from, using for memory swapping, and other activities that would directly impact perceived speed and “nimbleness.” For those reasons alone, I wanted to find the fastest SSD I could reasonably purchase.

Historically, I’ve purchased Samsung Pro SSD drives for boot drive purposes and have remained fairly brand loyal. If something “ain’t broke, ya don’t fix it.” But when I saw that Seagate had a new M.2 SSD out that was supposed to be pretty doggone quick, I took notice. I picked one up, and I can say that it’s a really sweet SSD.

The only negative thing or two that Tom’s Hardware had to say about it was that it was “costly” and had “no heatsink.” In the plus category, Tom’s said that it had “solid performance,” a “large write cache,” that it was “power efficient,” had “class-leading endurance,” and they like its “aesthetics.” They also said it “should be near the top of your best ssds list.”

And about the cost: Micro Center actually had the drive for substantially less than what the drive is listing as, so I jumped at it. I’m glad I did, because I’ve been very happy with its performance. Happiness is based on nothing more than my perception. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually benchmarked system performance (yet), so I don’t have numbers to share. Maybe a future post …

Unsurprisingly, my motherboard selection came with built-in RAID capability. That RAID capability actually extended to NVMe drives (a first for one of my systems), so I decided to take advantage of it.

Although it’s impractical from a data stability and safety standpoint, I decided that I was going to put together a RAID-0 (striped) “disk” array with two M.2 drives. I figured I didn’t need maximum performance (as I did with my boot/system drive), so I opted to pull back a bit and be a little more cost-efficient.

It’s no surprise (or at least, I don’t think it should be a surprise), then, that I opted to go with Samsung and a pair of 970 EVO plus M.2 NVMe drives for that array. I got a decent deal on them (another Micro Center purchase), and so with two of the drives I put together a 4TB pretty-darn-quick array – great for multimedia editing, recording, a temporary area … and oh yeah: a place to host my virtual machine disks. Smooth as butta!

For more of my “standard storage” needs – where data safety trumped speed of operations – I opted for a pair of Seagate IronWolf 6TB NAS drives in a RAID-1 (mirrored) array configuration. I’ve been relatively happy with Seagate’s NAS series. Truthfully, both Seagate and Western Digitial did a wonderful thing by offering their NAS/Red series of drives. The companies acknowledge the reality that a large segment of the computing population are leaving machines and devices running 24/7, and they built products to work for that market. I don’t think I’ve had a single Red/NAS-series drive fail yet … and I’ve been using them for years now.

In any case, there’s nothing amazing out these drives. They do what their supposed to do. If I lose one, I just need to get another back in and let the array rebuild itself. Sure, I’ll be running in degraded fashion for a while, but that’s a small price to pay for a little data safety.

I believe in protection in layers – especially for data. That’s a mindset that comes out of my experience doing disaster recovery and business continuity work. Some backup process that you “set and forget” isn’t good enough for any data – yours or mine. That’s a perspective I tried to share and convey in the DR guides that John Ferringer and I wrote back in the SharePoint 2007 and 2010 days, and it’s a philosophy I adhere to even today.

The mirroring of the 6TB IronWolf drives provides one layer of data protection. The additional 10TB Western Digital Red drive I added as a system level backup target provides another. I’ve been using Acronis True Image as a backup tool for quite a few years now, and I’m generally pretty happy with the application, how it has operated, and how it has evolved. About the only thing that still bugs me (on a minor level) is the relative lack of responsiveness of UI/UX elements within the application. I know the application is doing a lot behind the scenes, but as a former product manager for a backup product myself (Idera SharePoint Backup), I have to believe that something could be done about it.

Thoughts on backup product/tool aside, I back up all the drives in my system to my Z: drive (the 10TB WD drive) a couple of times per week:

Acronis Backup Intervals

I use Acronis’ incremental backup scheme and maintain about month’s worth of backups at any given time; that seems to strike a good balance between capturing data changes and maintaining enough disk space.

I have one more backup layer in addition to the ones I’ve already described: off-machine. Another topic for another time …

Last but not least, I have to mention my trust Blu-ray optical drive. Yes, it does do writing … but I only ever use it to read media. If I didn’t have a large collection of Blu-rays that I maintain for my Plex Server, I probably wouldn’t even need the drive. With today’s Internet speeds and the ease of moving large files around, optical media is quickly going the way of the floppy disk.

I had two optical drives in my last workstation, and I have plenty of additional drives downstairs, so it wasn’t hard at all to find one to throw in the machine.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Some Assembly Required

Of course, I’d love to have just purchased the parts and have the “assembly elves” show up one night while I was sleeping, do their thing, and I’d have woken up the next morning with a fully functioning system. In reality, it was just a tad a bit more involved that that. 

I enjoy putting new systems together, but I enjoy it a whole lot less when it’s a system that I rely upon to get my job done. There was a lot of back and forth, as well as plenty of hiccups and mistakes along the way.

I took a lot of pictures and even a small amount of video while putting things together, and I chronicled the journey to a fair extent on Facebook. Some of you may have even been involved in the ongoing critique and ribbing (“Is it built yet?”). If so, I want to say thanks for making the process enjoyable; I hope you found it as funny and generally entertaining as I did. Without you folks, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. Now, if I can just find a way to magically pay the whole thing off …

The Media Chronicle

I’ll close this post out with some of the images associated with building Threadripper (or for Spencer Harbar: THREADRIPPER!!!)

Definitely a Step Up

I’ll conclude this post with one last image, and that’s the image I see when I open Windows Device Manager and look and look at the “Processors” node:Device Manager

I will admit that the image gives me all sorts of warm fuzzies inside. Seeing eight hyperthreading cores used to be impressive, but now that I’ve got 32 cores, I get a bit giddy.

Thanks for reading!

References and Resources

Revisiting the Basement Datacenter in 2016

Here we are in 2016. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might recall a post I threw together back in 2010 called Portrait of a Basement Datacenter. Back in 2010, I was living on the west side of Cincinnati with my wife (Tracy) and three year-old twins (Brendan and Sabrina). We were kind of shoehorned into that house; there just wasn’t a lot of room. Todd Klindt visited once and had dinner with us. He didn’t say it, but I’m sure he thought it: “gosh, there’s a lot of stuff in this little house.”

Servers in 2010All of my computer equipment (or rather, nearly all of my computer equipment) was in the basement. I had what I called a “basement datacenter,” and it was quite a collection of PCs and servers in varying form factors and with a variety of capabilities.

The image on the right is how things looked in 2010. Just looking at the picture brings back a bunch of memories for me, and it also reminds me a bit of what we (as server administrators) could and couldn’t easily do. For example, nowadays we virtualize nearly everything without a second thought. Six years ago, virtualization technology certainly existed … but it hadn’t hit the level of adoption that it’s cruising at today. I look at all the boxes on the right and think “holy smokes – that’s a lot of hardware. I’m glad I don’t have all of that anymore.” It seemed like I had drives and computers everywhere, and they were all sucking down juice. I had two APC 1600W UPS units that were acting as battery backups back then. With all the servers plugged-in, they were drawing quite a bit of power. And yeah – I had the electric bill to prove it.

So, What’s Changed?

For starters, we now live on the east side of Cincinnati and have a much bigger house than we had way back when. Whenever friends come over and get a tour of the house, they inevitably head downstairs and get to see what’s in the unfinished portion of the basement. That’s where the servers are nowadays, and this is what my basement datacenter looks like in 2016:

Servers in 2016Purpose of each server

In reality, quite a bit has changed. We have much more space in our new house, and although the “server area” is smaller overall, it’s basically a dedicated working area where all I really do is play with tech, fix machines, store parts, etc. If I need to sit at a computer, I go into the gaming area or upstairs to my office. But if I need to fix a computer? I do it here.

In terms of capabilities, the last six years have been good to me.

All Hail The Fiber

Back on the west side of town, I had a BPL (broadband-over-powerline) Internet hookup from Duke Energy and The CURRENT Group. Nowadays, I don’t even know what’s happening with that technology. It looks like Duke Energy may be trying to move away from it? In any case, I know it gave me a symmetric pipe to the Internet, and I think I had about 10Mbps up and down. I also had a secondary DSL connection (from Cincinnati Bell) that was about 2.5Mbps down and 1Mbps up.

Once I moved back to the east side of Cincinnati and Anderson Township, the doors were blown off of the barn in terms of bandwidth. Initially, I signed with Time Warner Cable for a 50Mbps download / 5Mbps upload primary connection to my house. I made the mistake of putting in a business circuit (well, I was running a business), so while it gave me some static IP address options, it ended up costing a small fortune.

InternetSpeed2016My costly agreement with Time Warner ended last year, and for that I’m thankful. Nowadays, I have Cincinnati Bell Fiber coming to my house (Fioptics), and it’s a full-throttle connection. I pay for gigabit download speeds and have roughly a 250Mbps upload pipe. Realistically, the bandwidth varies … but there’s a ton of it, even on a bad day. The image on the right shows the bandwidth to my desktop as I’m typing this post. No, it’s not gigabit (at this moment) … but really, should I complain about 330Mbps download speeds from the Internet? Realistically speaking, some of the slowdown is likely due to my equipment. Running full gigabit Ethernet takes good wiring, quality switches, fast firewalls, and more. You’re only as fast as your slowest piece of equipment.

I do keep a backup connection with Time Warner Cable in case the fiber goes down, and my TMG firewall does a great job of failing over to that backup connection if something goes wrong. And yes, I’ve had a problem with the fiber once or twice. But it’s been resolved quickly, and I was back up in no time. Frankly, I love Cincinnati Bell’s fiber.

What About Storage?

ProRaidIn the last handful of years, storage limits have popped over and over again. You can buy 8TB drives on Amazon.com right now, and they’re not prohibitively expensive? We’ve come a long way in just a half dozen years, and the limits just keep expanding.

I have a bunch of storage downstairs, and frankly I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve graduated from the random drives and NAS appliances that used to occupy my basement. These days, I use Mediasonic RAID enclosures. You pop some drives in, connect an eSATA cable (or USB cable, if you have to), and away you go. They’ve been great self-contained pass-through drive arrays for specific virtual machines running on my Hyper-V hosts.  I’ve been running the Mediasonic arrays for quite a few years now, and although this isn’t a study in “how to build a basement datacenter,” I’d recommend them to anyone looking for reliable storage enclosures. I keep one as a backup unit (because eventually one will die), and as a group they seem to be in good shape at this point in time. The enclosures supply the RAID-5 that I want (and yeah, I’ve had *plenty* of drives die), so I’ve got highly-available, hot-swappable storage where I need it.

Oh, and don’t mind the minions on my enclosures. Those of you with children will understand. Those who don’t have children (or who don’t have children in the appropriate age range) should either just wait it out or go watch Despicable Me.

Hey? What About The Cloud?

Servers and their shelfThe astute will ask “why are you putting all this hardware in your house instead of shifting to the cloud?” You know, that’s a good question. I work for Cardinal Solutions Group, and we’re a Microsoft managed partner with a lot of Office 365 and Azure experience. Heck, I’m Cardinal’s National Solution Manager for Office 365, so The Cloud is what I think about day-in and day-out.

First off, I love the cloud. For enterprise scale engagements, the cloud (and Microsoft’s Azure capabilities, in particular) are awesome. Microsoft has done a lot to make it easier (not “easy,” but “easier”) for us to build for the cloud, put our stuff (like pictures, videos, etc.) in the cloud, and get things off of our thumb drives and backup boxes and into a place where they are protected, replicated, and made highly available.

What I’m doing in my basement doesn’t mean I’m “avoiding” the cloud. Actually, I moved my family onto an Office 365 plan to give them email and capabilities they didn’t have before. My kids have their first email address now, and they’re learning how to use email through Office 365. I’m going to move the SharePoint site collection that I maintain for our family (yes, I’m that big of a geek) over to SharePoint Online because I don’t want to wrangle with it at home any longer. Keeping SharePoint running is a pain-in-the-butt, and I’m more than happy to hand that over the Office 365 folks.

I’ll still be tinkering with SharePoint VMs for sure with the work I do, but I’m happy to turn over operational responsibility to Microsoft for my family’s site collection.

The Private Cloud

ServerShelfLeftSo even though I believe in The Cloud (i.e, “the big cloud that’s out there with all of our data”), I also believe in the “private cloud,” “personal cloud,” or whatever you want to call it. When I work from the Cardinal office, my first order of business is to VPN back to my house (again, through my TMG Firewall – they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands) so that I have access to all of my files and systems at home.

Accessing stuff at home is only part of it, though. The other part is just knowing that I’m going through my network, interacting with my systems, and still feeling like I have some control in our increasingly disconnected world. My Plex server is there, and my file shares are available, and I can RDP into my desktop to leverage its power for something I’m working on. There’s a comfort in knowing my stuff is on my network and servers.

Critical data makes it to the cloud via OneDrive, Dropbox, etc, but I still can’t afford to pay for all of my stuff to be in the cloud. Prices are dropping all of the time, though. Will I ever give up my basement datacenter? Probably not, because maintaining it helps me keep my technical skills sharpened … but it’s also a labor of love.

Additional Reading and References

  1. Blog Post: Portrait of a Basement Datacenter
  2. Blog: Todd Klindt’s SharePoint Admin Blog
  3. Department of Justice: Current Group Broadband Overview
  4. Site: Cincinnati Bell Fioptics
  5. TechNet: Threat Management Gateway
  6. Amazon.com: Seagate Archive 8 TB Internal Hard Drive
  7. Amazon.com: Mediasonic PRORAID Drive Enclosure
  8. Amazon.com: Despicable Me
  9. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group

Portrait of a Basement Datacenter

In this post, I take a small detour from SharePoint to talk about my home network, how it has helped me to grow my skill set, and where I see it going.

Whenever I’m speaking to other technology professionals about what I do for a living, there’s always a decent chance that the topic of my home network will come up.  This seems to be particularly true when talking with up-and-coming technologists, as I’m commonly asked by them how I managed to get from “Point A” (having transitioned into IT from my previous life as a polymer chemist) to “Point B” (consulting as a SharePoint architect).

I thought it would be fun (and perhaps informative) to share some information, pictures, and other geek tidbits on the thing that seems to consume so much of my “free time.”  This post also allows me to make good on the promise I made to a few people to finally put something online for them to see.

Wait … “Basement Datacenter?”

For those on Twitter who may have seen my occasional use of the hashtag #BasementDatacenter: I can’t claim to have originated the term, though I fully embrace it these days.  The first time I heard the term was when I was having one of the aforementioned “home network” conversations with a friend of mine, Jason Ditzel.  Jason is a Principal Consultant with Microsoft, and we were working together on a SharePoint project for a client a couple of years back.  He was describing his love for his recently acquired Windows Home Server (WHS) and how I should have a look at the product.  I described why WHS probably wouldn’t fit into my network, and that led Jason to comment that Microsoft would have to start selling “Basement Datacenter Editions” of its products.  The term stuck.

So, What Does It Look Like?

Basement Datacenter - Legend Basement Datacenter - Front Shot Two pictures appear on the right.  The left-most shot is a picture of my server shelves from the front.  Each of the computing-related items in the picture is labeled in the right-most shot.  There are obviously other things in the pictures, but I tried to call out the items that might be of some interest or importance to my fellow geeks.

Behind The Servers Generally speaking, things look relatively tidy from the front.  Of course, I can’t claim to have the same degree of organization in the back.  The shot on the left displays how things look behind and to the right of the shots that were taken above.  All of the power, network, and KVM cabling runs are in the back … and it’s messy.  I originally had things nicely organized with cables of the proper length, zip ties, and other aids.  Unfortunately, servers and equipment shift around enough that the organization system wasn’t sustainable.

While doing the network planning and subsequent setup, I’m happy that I at least had the foresight to leave myself ample room to move around behind the shelves.  If I hadn’t, my life would be considerably more difficult.

On the topic of shelves: if you ever find yourself in need of extremely heavy duty, durable industrial shelves, I highly recommend this set of shelves from Gorilla Rack.  They’re pretty darn heavy, but they’ll accept just about any amount of weight you want to put on them.

I had to include the shot below to give you a sense of the “ambiance.”

Under The Cover Of Colorful Lighting

Anyone who’s been to my basement (which I lovingly refer to as “the bunker”) knows that I have a thing for dim but colorful lighting.  I normally illuminate my basement area with Christmas lights, colored light bulbs, etc.  Frankly, things in the basement are entirely too ugly (and dusty) to be viewed under normal lighting.  It may be tough to see from this shot, but the servers themselves contribute some light of their own.

Why On Earth Do You Have So Many Servers?

After seeing my arrangement, the most common question I get is “why?”  It’s actually an easy one to answer, but to do so requires rewinding a bit.

Many years ago, when I was a “young and hungry” developer, I was trying to build a skill set that would allow me to work in the enterprise – or at least on something bigger than a single desktop.  Networking was relatively new to me, as was the notion of servers and server-side computing.  The web had only been visual for a while (anyone remember text-based surfing?  Quite a different experience …), HTML 3 was the rage, Microsoft was trying to get traction with ASP, ActiveX was the cool thing to talk about (or so we thought), etc.

It was around that time that I set up my first Windows NT4 server.  I did so on the only hardware I had leftover from my first Pentium purchase – a humble 486 desktop.  I eventually got the server running, and I remember it being quite a challenge.  Remember: Google and “answers at your fingertips” weren’t available a decade or more ago.  Servers and networking also weren’t as forgiving and self-correcting as they are nowadays.  I learned a awful lot while troubleshooting and working on that server.

Before long, though, I wanted to learn more than was possible on a single box.  I wanted to learn about Windows domains, I wanted to figure out how proxies and firewalls worked (anyone remember Proxy Server 2.0?), and I wanted to start hosting online Unreal Tournament and Half Life games for my friends.  With everything new I learned, I seemed to pick up some additional hardware.

When I moved out of my old apartment and into the house that my wife and I now have, I was given the bulk of the basement for my “stuff.”  My network came with me during the move, and shortly after moving in I re-architected it.  The arrangement changed, and of course I ended up adding more equipment.

Fast-forward to now.  At this point in time, I actually have more equipment than I want.  When I was younger and single, maintaining my network was a lot of fun.  Now that I have a wife, kids, and a great deal more responsibility both in and out of work, I’ve been trying to re-engineer things to improve reliability, reduce size, and keep maintenance costs (both time and money) down.

I can’t complain too loudly, though.  Without all of this equipment, I wouldn’t be where I’m at professionally.  Reading about Windows Server, networking, SharePoint, SQL Server, firewalls, etc., has been important for me, but what I’ve gained from reading pales in comparison to what I’ve learned by *doing*.

How Is It All Setup?

I actually have documentation for most of what you see (ask my Cardinal SharePoint team), but I’m not going to share that here.  I will, however, mention a handful of bullets that give you an idea of what’s running and how it’s configured.

  • I’m running a Windows 2008 domain (recently upgraded from Windows 2003)
  • With only a couple of exceptions, all the computers in the house are domain members
  • I have redundant ISP connections (DSL and BPL) with static IP addresses so I can do things like my own DNS resolution
  • My primary internal network is gigabit Ethernet; I also have two 802.11g access points
  • All my equipment is UPS protected because I used to lose a lot of equipment to power irregularities and brown-outs.
  • I believe in redundancy.  Everything is backed-up with Microsoft Data Protection Manager, and in some cases I even have redundant backups (e.g., with SharePoint data).

There’s certainly a lot more I could cover, but I don’t want to turn this post into more of a document than I’ve already made it.

Fun And Random Facts

Some of these are configuration related, some are just tidbits I feel like sharing.  All are probably fleeting, as my configuration and setup are constantly in flux:

Beefiest Server: My SQL Server, a Dell T410 with quad-core Xeon and about 4TB worth of drives (in a couple of RAID configurations)

Wimpiest Server: I’ve got some straggling Pentium 3, 1.13GHz, 512MB RAM systems.  I’m working hard to phase them out as they’re of little use beyond basic functions these days.

Preferred Vendor: Dell.  I’ve heard plenty of stories from folks who don’t like Dell, but quite honestly, I’ve had very good luck with them over the years.  About half of my boxes are Dell, and that’s probably where I’ll continue to shop.

Uptime During Power Failure: With my oversize UPS units, I’m actually good for about an hour’s worth of uptime across my whole network during a power failure.  Of course, I have to start shutting down well before that (to ensure graceful power-off).

Most Common Hardware Failure: Without a doubt, I lose power supplies far more often than any other component.  I think that’s due in part to the age of my machines, the fact that I haven’t always bought the best equipment, and a couple of other factors.  When a machine goes down these days, the first thing I test and/or swap out is a power supply.  I keep at least a couple spares on-hand at all times.

Backup Storage: I have a ridiculous amount of drive space allocated to backups.  My DPM box alone has 5TB worth of dedicated backup storage, and many of my other boxes have additional internal drives that are used as local backup targets.

Server Paraphernalia: Okay, so you may have noticed all the “junk” on top of the servers.  Trinkets tend to accumulate there.  I’ve got a set of Matrix characters (Mr. Smith and Neo), a PIP boy (of Fallout fame), Cheshire Cat and Alice (from American McGee’s Alice game), a Warhammer mech (one of the Battletech originals), a “cat in the bag” (don’t ask), a multimeter, and other assorted stuff.

Cost Of Operation: I couldn’t begin to tell you, though my electric bill is ridiculous (last month’s was about $400).  Honestly, I don’t want to try to calculate it for fear of the result inducing some severe depression.

Where Is It All Going?

As I mentioned, I’m actively looking for ways to get my time and financial costs down.  I simply don’t have the same sort of time I used to have.

Given rising storage capacities and processor capabilities, it probably comes as no surprise to hear me say that I’ve started turning towards virtualization.  I have two servers that act as dedicated Hyper-V hosts, and I fully expect the trend to continue.

Here are a few additional plans I have for the not-so-distant future:

  • I just purchased a Dell T110 that I’ll be configuring as a Microsoft Forefront Threat Management Gateway 2010 (TMG) server.  I currently have two Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2006 servers (one for each of my ISP connections) and a third Windows Server 2008 for SSL VPN connectivity.  I can get rid of all three boxes with the feature set supplied by one TMG server.  I can also dump some static routing rules and confusing firewall configuration in the process.  That’s hard to beat.
  • I’m going to see about virtualizing my two domain controllers (DCs) over the course of the year.  Even though the machines are backed-up, the hardware is near the end of its usable life.  Something is eventually going to fail that I can’t replace.  By virtualizing the DCs, I gain a lot of flexibility (I can move them around on physical hardware) and can get rid of two more physical boxes.  Box reduction is the name of the game these days!  I’ll probably build a new (virtual) DC on Windows Server 2008 R2; migrate FSMO roles, DNS, and DHCP responsibilities to it; and then phase out the physical DCs – rather than try a P2V move.
  • With SharePoint Server 2010 coming, I’m going to need to get some even beefier server hardware.  I’m learning and working just fine with the aid of desktop virtualization right now (my desktop is a Core i7-920 with 12GB RAM), but that won’t cut it for “production use” and testing scenarios when SharePoint Server 2010 goes RTM.

Conclusion

If the past has taught me anything, it’s that additional needs and situations will arise that I haven’t anticipated.  I’m relatively confident that the infrastructure I have in place will be a solid base for any “coming attractions,” though.

If you have any questions or wonder how I did something, feel free to ask!  I can’t guarantee an answer (good or otherwise), but I do enjoy discussing what I’ve worked to build.

Additional Reading and References

  1. LinkedIn: Jason Ditzel
  2. Product: Gorilla Rack Shelves
  3. Networking: Cincinnati Bell DSL
  4. Networking: Current BPL
  5. Microsoft: System Center Data Protection Manager
  6. Dell: PowerEdge Servers
  7. Microsoft: Hyper-V Getting Started Guide
  8. Movie: The Matrix
  9. Gaming: Fallout Site
  10. Gaming: American McGee’s Alice
  11. Gaming: Warhammer BattleMech
  12. Microsoft: Forefront Threat Management Gateway 2010
  13. Microsoft: Internet Security & Acceleration Server 2006