Building a virtualized NAS & DVR with ESXi 6.0 / Part 2: Hardware Assembly

Introduction

In this post I describe the hardware assembly of my ESXi 6.0 whitebox, which (hopefully) should run FreeNAS and MythTV. If you haven’t read the first part of this series, be sure to check it out as it goes into more detail about what I’m doing and how I selected my hardware.

Preliminary assembly and testing

As you may remember from the first part of this series, I decided to base my build on these components:

Some of you might wonder why my list doesn’t include a computer case. The reason is simple: I wanted to limit my risks by testing the core components first. I didn’t want to end up in a situation where, for example, the motherboard wouldn’t play nice with ESXi and I’d have to swap it for something else, perhaps with a different form factor.

I started out by assembling the motherboard, CPU, cooler and RAM on an old testing bench. Then I hooked up the PSU along with the power brick and made sure the computer started and I could get into UEFI without problems. Once there, the first thing I wanted to check was VT-d support, which I was able to enable successfully (phew!). I also took a look at the temperature sensors and noticed that the 212 EVO cooler could easily handle the idle temperature load of the CPU when using the lowest fan speed setting, which made the cooler pretty much silent.

Because I was still actively using my old MythTV server, and didn’t want to risk losing the data on my old FreeNAS disk, I continued my tests without the tuner card and with only one of the storage HDDs (the new one). My plan was to start with the FreeNAS VM anyway (since the MythTV VM would use shared storage from FreeNAS) and I could always add the second HDD later on.

Selecting a case

After playing around with the test bench setup for a few days, I was ready to order a case. One of my goals for this project was to build a small ESXi server. I wasn’t able to use a mITX motherboard since I needed at least two PCIe slots (one for the tuner card and one for the SATA controller) but I still wanted to get as close to mITX size as I could.

The biggest problem I had was that 99% of cases have space for a traditional PSU. That was a waste for me since I had my PicoPSU and external power brick. There are smaller mITX cases which are designed to be used with external PSUs, but I couldn’t find similar mATX cases – which of course is understandable since mATX computers are typically using more power-hungry components.

Finally I found the SilentiumPC Brutus Q30 which seemed to have everything I needed: an extremely compact size (28 cm height, 26 cm length, 20 cm width), space for three disks (two HDDs and one SSD), and the PSU slot over the motherboard, meaning I might be able to fit my huge CPU cooler in there since I didn’t have a PSU. I emailed the Polish case manufacturer about the maximum cooler height when not using a PSU, and they replied promptly with measurements indicating my cooler would fit just barely, with something like 0,5-1 cm to spare. As an added bonus, the case was very affordable – slightly over 40 euros at a local retailer. I was sold. Or rather the case was.

Putting it all together

When I received the case, I was pleasantly surprised about its looks and build quality. It’s simple but stylish. The only minor issue I had was that I’d have liked to mount both HDDs on the case floor, but unfortunately it only had mounting holes for one 3.5″ and one 2.5″ disk. Oh, and the front logo sticker was halfway peeled off. Not a big deal.

I had no problems assembling the components in the case. The CPU cooler fit perfectly with the heatpipes clearing the side panel and the fan blowing air through the heatsink toward the PSU opening at the back.

Regarding cooling, you may note that the case has no separate intake fan. A fan can be mounted on the floor but that option is gone if you need space for HDDs. Also, normally the PSU fan sucks hot air from inside the case and pushes it out the back. I only have to rely on the CPU cooler fan, which, despite being aimed at the PSU opening, can lead to hot air circulating inside the case.

I decided to solve this by creating a duct which would guide the hot air from the CPU cooler (and the case) straight through the PSU opening. Some fairly rigid paper, scotch tape and a pair of scissors was all it took, and it worked great.

Hardware impressions

The box works flawlessly and is completely silent when idling. The CPU fan can’t be heard – only when the HDDs are accessed can you hear that something is going on.

After some light hardware testing, trying out some stuff with a standalone FreeNAS installation and dabbling with a quick VMware ESXi test installation, my power meter shows that the box consumes a total of 40 watts when idling with a peak of 75 watts.

So far I’m very happy with these results.

In the next parts of this series I’m going to be covering ESXi and FreeNAS with SATA controller passthrough.

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