Choosing a server for a specific task isn't always as straightforward as you might think. Even if your company has done business with a specific server vendor, you still have a pretty wide range of choices.
Some target deployments narrow the field a bit, such as setting up a VMware Virtual SAN (VSAN) proof-of-concept cluster. Starting with this task as a requirement, it's easy to find candidate systems listed on the VMware Virtual SAN Hardware Compatibility List (HCL).
With this goal in mind we were provided three identically-configured Lenovo RD340 systems. The primary objective was to test VSAN, so the system needed to be certified to run ESXi 5.5 U1, which you'll find on the VMware Compatibility Guide.
VSAN requires at least one rotating disk and one solid state disk (SSD) for each node. CPU and memory requirements are typically dictated by expected workloads, but you wouldn't want to go below 32 GB for most applications.
The Lenovo RD340 is an extremely configurable 1U server platform. Options abound from a single CPU system up to one with dual Xeon E5-2470 v2 processors and 192 GB of memory. Disk configurations include four 3.5-inch drive bays plus a DVD drive or up to eight 2.5-inch drive bays and no DVD.
Power options include a single or dual power supply with more than enough juice to keep things going. Internal variable speed fans adjust the airflow to keep the system cool. You'll find a VGA connector on the front of the units with the smaller 2.5-inch drives but not on the 3.5-inch drive units, which is what we tested.
Each of the three systems provided for our testing initially came with only 32 GB of memory. As the VSAN testing got under way, it was recommended by VMware to increase the memory to 64 GB to avoid any potential problems when doing performance measurements.
Lenovo provided an additional 32 GB of memory in the form of four 8 GB DIMMs for each system. Installation on each node took less than five minutes, with most of that time spent unwrapping each individual DIMM. This is a tribute to the design of the system with special attention to these kinds of maintenance tasks.
Expansion slot capabilities abound, even in the small 1U case. Two separate risers accommodate one low-profile and one full-height PCI Express card. The rear panel also includes four USB 2.0 ports, plus a VGA port and a total of three GbE Ethernet ports.
Two of the Ethernet ports are for use by the operating system while a third is for out-of-band management. Lenovo provides their ThinkServer EasyManage program for remote management and control.
As our primary goal for this system was to test VMware's VSAN product, we needed to install ESXi 5.5 U1. VSAN requires each disk be individually addressable and totally available for the cluster datastore.
That means you'll need an additional disk to use as a boot device. For our testing we used an 8GB USB thumb drive to install the base ESXi image from a bootable DVD. This was done with a direct connection of video, keyboard and mouse but could just as easily have been accomplished using remote access. This requires the BMC or remote management to be configured, ideally with a static IP address to simplify the connection process.
Once the systems are booted into ESXi you must configure each node for networking and connect to an existing datastore. That's because you need an instance of vCenter Server running in order to fully configure VSAN.
Because you need a datastore to upload and run the vCenter Server appliance we used a Thecus N7710-G configured to provide three separate iSCSI LUNs for each of the three nodes. This datastore also provides a home for all system log files.
Figure 1 shows the summary page for the first node in vCenter Server. It is possible to migrate both the vCenter Server virtual appliance and the log files to the VSAN datastore once the system is fully functional should you choose to do so.
Disk capacity could easily be tripled using the empty disk bays on the RD340s we tested for relatively low cost, achieving over 8 TB of fully redundant storage plus the clustered virtualization.
The base price for the RD340 is $1329.99, which includes 8GB RAM and 1 Xeon E5-2420 CPU. Our system as tested has a retail price of $3871.89 for each node, with dual Xeon E5-2420 CPUs, 64 GB of memory, one 1TB SAS drive and one 100GB HGST SSD.
That works out to just under $12,000 for a fully functional VSAN cluster supporting a total of 2.73 TB of usable disk. That's an exceptionally good price for the hardware to support this type of cluster, although you will have to add in the cost of the VMware licenses, which would run an additional $22,652 based on the hardware configuration.
Paul Ferrill, based in Chelsea, Alabama, has been writing about computers and software for almost 20 years. He has programmed in more languages than he cares to count, but now leans toward Visual Basic and C#.