Episode 519 – Building the Ultimate White Box for under $2000

Building the ultimate white box ESXi server for under $2000! Can it be done? Darren and Matt grab the company credit card and answer that question.

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Building the Ultimate White Box Server for under $2000

When it comes to building a white box server for ESXi your best resources are vm-help.com, UltimateWhiteBox.com, the VMware Compatibility Guide, and the VMware community.

We carefully selected ESXi supported components based on reliability and value. If this were the ultimate $3000 white box server we might have picked a server board with dual Xeon’s and ECC memory, but to keep it under that magic $2000 price point we went with beefy “desktop” components such as the Intel Core i7 920, the ASUS P6T Deluxe, and 12 GB of Corsair XMS3 memory.

Drive wise you can’t go wrong with the 3ware 9650SE-4LPML. It supports four SATA II drives in RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 or JBOD. It’s bigger brother the 9650SE-16ML sixteen channel SATA II controller is hot too — just at three times the price. The 9650SE isn’t supported out of the box by ESXi, however 3ware provides a knowledge base article and drivers necessary to add support for the card after your ESXi box is built.

Drive wise we picked up four Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB drives since they’re cheap and reliable.

To make things easy when installing all these components in our Rosewill RSV-Z4000 4U rackmount case we picked up a 4 Drive trayless how swap sata backplane from StarTech. IcyDock makes one too. This was the only $100 spent for convenience over performance/value, but anyone who has dealt with 5.25″ to 3.5″ mounting brackets will agree it’s worth every penny.

Rather than installing ESXi on the RAID, we used a 4GB USB drive from Patriot. The Xporter XT. It boasts really fast read/write times. I’m sure any old 1gb or larget USB drive would have done but they’re so cheap, why not?

We’re doing a little white box server contest. Winners will get all sorts of swag from the Hak5 Store. Check out all the details in the episode release thread at Hak5.org


  • Jaryth

    Good episode thus far. *waits for show notes*

    Also, question, is there any chance of getting unedited footage of the full build? I’d like to see it (sadly, I missed the live version :P).

  • Jaryth

    Also, as an update, direct quote:

    “Stick around at the end of the show after the credits you can watch highlights of HP’s incites of the experts video series”

    YOU LIED! 🙁 there was nothing extra after the credits…

  • AndiC

    Great episode, companies using Dell and HP etc takes a lot of fun out projects where white boxes could be used. I would love to see this become a series and see the software installed and individually set-up. Only thing i would be worried about would be redundancy i just couldn’t bring myself to use a single box….Great believer in CYA (cover you arse)

  • Darren

    @AndiC, trust me I’m big on CYA. As soon as everything is migrated over to this server I’ll be repurposing one of the old Dell’s as a backup box. It won’t be any fancy instant rollover but with nightly backups and a little magic in the Cisco router for when sh*t hits the fan it’ll be ok.

  • Darren

    Forgot to mention, I messed up the encoding and didn’t have the HP post-roll ad in place. Revision3 fixed it so if you’re downloading after, um, now you’ll see it.

    And thanks Matt for setting up the show notes. I picked up a loaner 10/100 mbit NIC to keep me going for the week. Need a GigE card with Win7 compatibility to replace my fried integrated adapter badly.

  • Eyeball

    beautiful episode. The last few minutes off the rev3 feed stopped working could just be me though I’m at the in laws and their connection sucks, but I tried rewinding and pausing to let it load but it never worked.. Gotta say I’m embarrassed though, I’ve been in this business for almost 5 years and I never knew a desktop board can fit in a server chasis, I guess you do learn something everyday

  • Darren

    @Eyeball, as I said before I messed up the encoding so Revision3 had to rerender and resubmit the episode so depending on when you watched it you may have caught it as they were switching out the files.

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  • Teledyme

    Great show! Thanks for walking through the build process.

    What kind of performance are you seeing with an instance of server 2003 as compared to the physical Dell hardware running server 2003?


  • AndiC

    @Darren I think its worth a mention that SAS controllers can be SATA compatible and that you can get SAS to SATA adapters that allow you to have 4 SATA drives on each SAS channel. Useful to know if space and cabling is an issue. I must admit i haven’t used this solution myself.

  • Patrick

    Seriously, NewEgg should be giving you guys referral fees. You need to sign up as an affiliate while you drive more business their way (as if people here didn’t already shop there, BUT — you could capitalize on that, AHHH hahhh!!!!)

  • Darren

    @Patrick, thanks. Honestly they’re not a sponsor, just my go-to retailer for hardware. You know what they say, once you know you… Anyway, I had no idea they had an affiliate program. Something to think about.

  • SnapBliss

    OK Love the VMWare Series I have two ESXi boxes running now (one at home & one at work) So What I would like is a demo on how to build a low cost thin client that can use these VM machines as desktops

  • Orlando Amador

    Thanks for the Virtualization episodes. I specially likes this one. I have been thinking on upgrading the hardware of my Linux box at home. I usually run vmserver on that machine to run test computers. After watching this show, I think I’ll just build an ESXi box, and install Linux as one of the VM.

    Excellent show, Thanks.

  • atactic

    Great show on virtualization once again!. I’m working through several of the virtualization steps that you are covering in sync. That being said, I wish that I saw this show before bying my Dell 2950!.
    It’s a boring topic, but my next problem is backup. There are some unique chalenges to backing up these monsters. Maybe a topic for another show?

  • mmb

    Any concerns with having ESXi installed to the USB key on a production server? What would be the disaster recovery procedure if the key were to fail?

    I’m so very close to deploying ESXi 4 in production and this is really my only concern.


  • XS

    First time watching the show! And what can I say… I am sooo addicted to it now! Keep up the great work!

    Thanks a lot Matt for not telling me you had this show sooner! LOL

  • TheFu

    Possibly the best episode of any tech video team ever. Seriously. This was exactly what someone new to ESXi needed to know. Excellent HW choices too. You don’t have to buy HP or Dell servers when you’re a small company with non-critical requirements.

    VMware stuff is excellent for Microsoft or mixed MS/something else shops.

    I’m looking forward to a few non-VMWare episodes. VirtualBox, Xen, Parallels, LPAR, NPAR, VPAR, Domains, and “Containers”.

    I work in a 100% Linux server shop with only Xen VMs on production machines. We use VMware for Windows Dev systems and whenever a customer demands it, but avoid it for all other uses. There are many, many uses for VMs and SANs beyond the normal obvious uses. These methods are useful across all the different VM solutions, regardless of platform. Perhaps an episode on those techniques would be useful?

    Keep up the excellent work!

  • Dan Jeffrey

    Do you ever use the on-board RAID included with the mobo? I assume there are good reasons not to — otherwise 3ware would not be in business.

    Is expansion card RAID faster than on-board RAID?

    Is on-board RAID less reliable?

  • DarrenB

    What, not using ECC memory in a server? That could come back to byte you in the future.

    I think people underestimate the level of soft bit errors that occurs in non-ECC memory, especially in a box that is being aggresively used in a server environment. A soft-bit error is a bit-flip that occurs randomly that otherwise is undetectable as a hard error with tools like memtest86, etc.

    I learnt my lesson earlier this year and now believe that with increased memory density, that the probabity for a soft bit error occuring in RAM is similar to the increase in the probability of HDD failures as HDD densities have increased. We all accept for HDD’s, the statement of “It’s not a question of if it will fail, it’s a question of when?”, and as such the case of HDD failure is so accepted now, that in any serious scenario RAID is a defacto consideration for handling the “expected” HDD failure. I trust that soon the same scenario for RAM will eventually transpire, empathsizing the need for ECC RAM.

    So, in the end why use RAID with the HDD’s, but not use ECC RAM?

  • Question


    Great Episode! But I was wondering what you used for a power supply? Off the cuff it does not look like the case came with on and the details about the episode did not list one…. Just wondering.

  • smith

    Very informative episode on EXSi.

    Would you do a followup on your experiences with the box now that it is in production.

    What proplems you may have encountered.

    What you might have done differently?

    Sort of the pros/cons of doing a box in this manner.

    I am now building a box similar to this one and such information would be very valuable.

    Thank you for the great episode.

  • Luke

    Good thing for archived show notes. I’m going to be using this as a guide to build, instead of a VM server, a backup server. Throw a bunch of 1TB drives in there, go a bit less on the mobo/proc/ram combo and have a nice box with a crapton of storage to throw backup files on.

  • Bill Lee

    You were singing the praises of the Asus P6T motherboard… I was wondering what sets this board apart from others and makes you such a fan?


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  • Rayd

    four Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB drives? in a raid array isn’t that why they have the RE2,3 or 4’s…won’t these drop out constantly? Not sure WDTLER.EXE will work on these newer drives also, let me know if it does, I would mind saving a buck but I don’t need the headache of rebuilding the arrays each time.

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