A microserver for low-power workloads that is also VMware ESXi-compatible.
Home microservers are amazingly useful if you have a need to fill. These can be used for everything from a private minecraft server, a ESXi virtualization box, or even a network storage server. Whatever your need, let’s lay out a starting build.
The AMD Ryzen 3 3200G is a strong quad-core processor. At barely $15 more than last-gen’s Ryzen 3 2200G, it’s a worthwhile upgrade for the small bump in price. Since it also comes with its own low-profile CPU cooler, it’s an excellent deal. Additionally, the Ryzen 3 3200G, as with all Ryzen CPUs, supports AMD-V which is the virtualization extensions required by VMware. Low-end Celeron and Pentium CPUs disable virtualization extensions. Choosing an AMD CPU, we can get a relatively powerful, but inexpensive CPU that leaves these extensions enabled.
We socket this CPU into a GIGABYTE B450 AORUS M motherboard. Packed with features such as a M.2 NVMe slot with heatsink, four RAM slots, six SATA ports, and a dual BIOS. One thing to note is BIOS support for the Ryzen 3 3200G wasn’t added until BIOS F40, released on 05/16/2019, so depending on your purchase date and how long it takes to cycle in motherboards with at least BIOS F40 by default, you may need to have a 1st or 2nd Gen Ryzen CPU to flash the motherboard’s BIOS to the new version in order to use the Ryzen 3 3200G. If you don’t have access to a compatible CPU readily, you may want to step back to the Ryzen 3 2200G or get a B550 motherboard (which won’t be available until around July 2020, unfortunately). You could also request a Short Term Processor Loan Boot Kit directly from AMD to upgrade your BIOS, if you want to go through that process. X570 mATX or ITX boards, being at a rather expensive $200-mark, are another potential option.
The reason we picked a Micro-ATX motherboard is it gives us the ability to stuff it into a the slim Apex DM-387 case, so we can hide it away on a shelf or in a corner, without it being intrusive. With the CPU cooler fan, PSU fan, and the (honestly, optional) 80mm case ventilation fan, this microserver will be whisper quiet anyway.
We load two 8GB sticks of DDR4, half-filling the slots, giving us a total of 16GB of RAM. VMware ESXi will eat at about 2GB of that for itself, but supports memory ballooning for your VMs, so should suffice for light workloads like a home domain controller, fileserver, or firewall. You can always upgrade to a 2x16GB Kit to stretch to 32GB if you intend on running a game server like Minecraft. We chose DDR4-3600 because as prices for RAM have fallen, this kit has come down to roughly the same price as its 3200MHz counterparts, and Ryzen’s Infinity Fabric loves frequency over timings.
The ADATA XPG SX6000 Pro is a well-performing, mid-range NVMe SSD. We stick a reasonable 512GB version of the SSD in our build, mostly because SSDs have reached near price parity with low-capacity spindle-based hard drives. We’ve stepped up to an NVMe for a similar price-parity with SATA SSDs, rather than needing the extra performance NVMe provides. The M.2 slot also saves us having to mount a drive and route cables. You can always add additional drives to gain capacity for a file server, but you may have to change the case option if you need a lot of capacity, as the Apex only holds two 3.5″ drives.
Last, we add an OEM Intel quad-port network adapter. The Realtek NIC built into the motherboard, as well as Intel’s counterpart that is the other usual built-in NIC in many motherboards, are not supported by VMware ESXi. This particular NIC is server-class and will readily be recognized by the VMware hypervisor. For VMs such as firewalls, four ethernet ports will prove useful to have a common setup of trust, untrust, DMZ, and guest networks. However, some older Intel server NICs are not supported in the latest version of VMware ESXi, so we pick out the I350-T4-based OEM model which is still on VMware’s HCL.