HP MicroServer Review

I've been looking at getting a NAS device for my network, in order to fortify my storage and share it across multiple devices.

There's a bunch of consumer level offerings available the let you chuck in a few disks, set it and forget it. There's even a few that will let your run Bittorrent and other stuff from your NAS device, which got me thinking; is the software any good?

The last thing I want is to buy a networked device (phone, tablet, NAS) only for the software to be a firmware-flashed lemon. If the software is controlled solely by the manufacturer there's every possibility it may end up outdated, buggy ,or broken without any capability to fix it.

HP MicroServer

The HP MicroServer is a low-powered server machine in a very small form factor.
I started looking a little further at more extensible solutions and a few people suggested the HP MicroServer. It's been out for a few years now, but it's a great piece of kit. It's essentially a tiny low-powered server machine with a bunch of drive bays you can add disks to and run your own OS on. It's certified for Windows Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but you can put whatever you want on, including any number of purpose-built NAS distros. The device appeals to me because it's tiny, has a low power draw (of around 35 watts idling), and best of all it's hackable. Despite the specs it's more than powerful enough to integrate my file server, development server, and HTPC tasks into the one device. This is kinda cool because my existing server/HTPC has run out of storage, has no space for extra disks, and doubles as a gaming PC which blocks all the other functions whenever I fire up a game of DOTA 2.

Real Linux

Aside the multi-purpose nature of running a real OS, one of the real benefits is being able to use cutting edge technology that would never be baked into a standalone appliance. One thing I'm kinda keen to try is ZFS, a redundant clustery pooly filesystem that will let me utilise a bunch of cheap disks I've got lying around as a redundant volume. Contrary to RAID, ZFS can detect errors and heal itself on the fly much more intelligently, and is generally much cooler. Another thing I've become more interested in is virtualisation, and I'm planning on using KVM to virtualise my dev server, which will let me spin up clones as well as taking a copy with me on my laptop if required.

Implementation

My MicroServer arrived a couple of weeks ago now and I've finally got it completely set up, so I figured I'd go through the build and document the benefits and drawbacks of this particular system. To start with the MicroServer only has VGA out and lacks any sound hardware, so in order to use this for HTPC duties it needs some sound hardware. I decided on simply adding a video card because then I can use digital HDMI audio output and beef up the 3D compositing capabilities. This proved challenging because the system requires a half-height card, of which there are still few which actually fit. I bought the Asus GT620-1GD3-L which didn't fit because the heat sink was too large, but later replaced it with the Asus GT610-1GD3-L which fits perfectly. Replacing the video card is easy as the entire motherboard can be unplugged and removed from the system by unscrewing two thumb screws (see the annotated motherboard on Flickr). The optical drive can be installed by removing a further thumb screw, and there is enough space in the optical bay to run another few disks off an additional RAID card if that's your idea of fun. I chose Ubuntu Server as my host OS because it's both up to date, reliable, and easy to use. I installed a custom XBMC system which has direct access to content on my local storage as well as access to the blu-ray player installed in the optical bay. Unfortunately due to licensing and digital restrictions, the optical drive only plays back DVDs at this point. Performance is great. The only issue I had was the occasional CPU spike interrupting high-def playback from the trial version of the Ubuntu Landscape server which I subsequently uninstalled. The XBMC menu animations do stutter a bit when overlaid on visualisations, but it's not overly noticeable and I'm not too concerned. Unfortunately I can only get the server to recognise 8 GB (1 stick) of RAM which is a known, but annoying problem. I understand there may be ways to work around this but I've yet to investigate further.

Final Thoughts

These days my MicroServer lives tucked behind my TV, you almost wouldn't know it's there.
I'm impressed with this machine. It sits behind my TV and while it's a little larger and noisier than I would have liked it's certainly up for the combined task of home server and media centre. I'd recommend this to anyone who is looking at getting either a home server, or someone after a cheap multi-function NAS who doesn't mind the initial setup. There's a bunch of awesome out-of-the-box NAS solutions like FreeNAS which can be set up with minimal hassle, or more conventional server systems can obviously be set up if you're after it. It's a great device, and I'd definitely buy it again.