May 012021
 
Picture of NVMe Storage Server Project

For over a year and a half I have been working on building a custom NVMe Storage Server for my homelab. I wanted to build a high speed storage system similar to a NAS or SAN, backed with NVMe drives that provides iSCSI, NFS, and SMB Windows File Shares to my network.

The computers accessing the NVMe Storage Server would include VMware ESXi hosts, Raspberry Pi SBCs, and of course Windows Computers and Workstations.

The focus of this project is on high throughput (in the GB/sec) and IOPS.

The current plan for the storage environment is for video editing, as well as VDI VM storage. This can and will change as the project progresses.

The History

More and more businesses are using all-flash NVMe and SSD based storage systems, so I figured there’s no reason why I can’t have build and have my own budget custom all NVMe flash NAS.

This is the story of how I built my own NVMe based Storage Server.

The first version of the NVMe Storage Server consisted of the IO-PEX40152 card with 4 x 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 NVMe drives inside of an HPE Proliant DL360p Gen8 Server. The server was running ESXi with TrueNAS virtualized, and the PCIe card passed through to the TrueNAS VM.

The results were great, the performance was amazing, and both servers had access to the NFS export via 2 x 10Gb SFP+ networking.

There were three main problems with this setup:

  1. Virtualized – Once a month I had an ESXi PSOD. This was either due to overheating of the IO-PEX40152 card because of modifications I made, or bugs with the DL360p servers and PCIe passthrough.
  2. NFS instead of iSCSI – Because TrueNAS was virtualized inside of the host that was using it for storage, I had to use NFS since the host virtualizing TrueNAS would also be accessing the data on the TrueNAS VM. When shutting down the host, you need to shut down TrueNAS first. NFS disconnects are handled way healthier than iSCSI disconnects (which can cause corruption even if no files are being used).
  3. CPU Cores maxed on data transfer – When doing initial testing, I was maxing out the CPU cores assigned to the TrueNAS VM because the data transfers were so high. I needed a CPU and setup that was better fit.

Version 1 went great, but you can see some things needed to be changed. I decided to go with a dedicated server, not virtualize TrueNAS, and go for a newer CPU with a higher Ghz speed.

And so, version 2 was born (built). Keep reading and scrolling for pictures!

The Hardware

On version 2 of the project, the hardware includes:

Notes on the Hardware:

  • While the ML310e Gen8 v2 server is a cheap low entry server, it’s been a fantastic team member of my homelab.
  • HPE Dual 10G Port 560SFP+ adapters can be found brand new in unsealed boxes on eBay at very attractive prices. Using HPE Parts inside of HPE Servers, avoids the fans from spinning up fast.
  • The ML310e Gen8 v2 has some issues with passing through PCIe cards to ESXi. Works perfect when not passing through.

The new NVMe Storage Server

I decided to repurpose an HPE Proliant ML310e Gen8 v2 Server. This server was originally acting as my Nvidia Grid K1 VDI server, because it supported large PCIe cards. With the addition of my new AMD S7150 x2 hacked in/on to one of my DL360p Gen8’s, I no longer needed the GRID card in this server and decided to repurpose it.

Picture of an HPe ML310e Gen8 v2 with NVMe Storage
HPe ML310e Gen8 v2 with NVMe Storage

I installed the IOCREST IO-PEX40152 card in to the PCIe 16x slot, with 4 x 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME drives.

Picture of IOCREST IO-PEX40152 with GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME
IOCREST IO-PEX40152 with GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME

While the server has a PCIe 16x wide slot, it only has an 8x bus going to the slot. This means we will have half the capable speed vs the true 16x slot. This however does not pose a problem because we’ll be maxing out the 10Gb NICs long before we max out the 8x bus speed.

I also installed an HPE Dual Port 560SFP+ NIC in to the second slot. This will allow a total of 2 x 10Gb network connections from the server to the Ubiquiti UniFi US-16-XG 10Gb network switch, the backbone of my network.

The Server also have 4 x Hot Swappable HD bays on the front. When configured in HBA mode (via the BIOS), these are accessible by TrueNAS and can be used. I plan on populating these with 4 x 4TB HPE MDL SATA Hot Swappable drives to act as a replication destination for the NVMe pool and/or slower magnetic long-term storage.

Front view of HPE ML310e Gen8 v2 with Hotswap Drive bays
HPE ML310e Gen8 v2 with Hotswap Drive bays

I may also try to give WD RED Pro drives a try, but I’m not sure if they will cause the fans to speed up on the server.

TrueNAS Installation and Configuration

For the initial Proof-Of-Concept for version 2, I decided to be quick and dirty and install it to a USB stick. I also waited until I installed TrueNAS on to the USB stick and completed basic configuration before installing the Quad NVMe PCIe card and 10Gb NIC. I’m using a USB 3.0 port on the back of the server for speed, as I can’t verify if the port on the motherboard is USB 2 or USB 3.

Picture of a TrueNAS USB Stick on HPE ML310e Gen8 v2
TrueNAS USB Stick on HPE ML310e Gen8 v2

TrueNAS installation worked without any problems whatsoever on the ML310e. I configured the basic IP, time, accounts, and other generic settings. I then proceeded to install the PCIe cards (storage and networking).

Screenshot of TrueNAS Dashboard Installed on NVMe Storage Server
TrueNAS Installed on NVMe Storage Server

All NVMe drives were recognized, along with the 2 HDDs I had in the front Hot-swap bays (sitting on an HP B120i Controller configured in HBA mode).

Screenshot of available TrueNAS NVMe Disks
TrueNAS NVMe Disks

The 560SFP+ NIC also was detected without any issues and available to configure.

Dashboard Screenshot of TrueNAS 560SFP+ 10Gb NIC
TrueNAS 560SFP+ 10Gb NIC

Storage Configuration

I’ve already done some testing and created a guide on FreeNAS and TrueNAS ZFS Optimizations and Considerations for SSD and NVMe, so I made sure to use what I learned in this version of the project.

I created a striped pool (no redundancy) of all 4 x 2TB NVMe drives. This gave us around 8TB of usable high speed NVMe storage. I also created some datasets and a zVOL for iSCSI.

Screenshot of NVMe TrueNAS Storage Pool with Datasets and zVol
NVMe TrueNAS Storage Pool with Datasets and zVol

I chose to go with the defaults for compression to start with. I will be testing throughput and achievable speeds in the future. You should always test this in every and all custom environments as the results will always vary.

Network Configuration

Initial configuration was done via the 1Gb NIC connection to my main LAN network. I had to change this as the 10Gb NIC will be directly connected to the network backbone and needs to access the LAN and Storage VLANs.

I went ahead and configured a VLAN Interface on VLAN 220 for the Storage network. Connections for iSCSI and NFS will be made on this network as all my ESXi servers have vmknics configured on this VLAN for storage. I also made sure to configure an MTU of 9000 for jumbo frames (packets) to increase performance. Remember that all hosts must have the same MTU to communicate.

Screenshot of 10Gb NIC on Storage VLAN
10Gb NIC on Storage VLAN

Next up, I had to create another VLAN interface for the LAN network. This would be used for management, as well as to provide Windows File Share (SMB/Samba) access to the workstations on the network. We leave the MTU on this adapter as 1500 since that’s what my LAN network is using.

Screenshot of 10Gb NIC on LAN VLAN
10Gb NIC on LAN VLAN

As a note, I had to delete the configuration for the existing management settings (don’t worry, it doesn’t take effect until you hit test) and configure the VLAN interface for my LANs VLAN and IP. I tested the settings, confirmed it was good, and it was all setup.

At this point, only the 10Gb NIC is now being used so I went ahead and disconnected the 1Gb network cable.

Sharing Setup and Configuration

It’s now time to configure the sharing protocols that will be used. As mentioned before, I plan on deploying iSCSI, NFS, and Windows File Shares (SMB/Samba).

iSCSI and NFS Configuration

Normally, for a VMware ESXi virtualization environment, I would always usually prefer iSCSI based storage, however I also wanted to configure NFS to test throughput of both with NVMe flash storage.

Earlier, I created the datasets for all my my NFS exports and a zVOL volume for iSCSI.

Note, that in order to take advantage of the VMware VAAI storage directives (enhancements), you must use a zVOL to present an iSCSI target to an ESXi host.

For NFS, you can simply create a dataset and then export it.

For iSCSI, you need to create a zVol and then configure the iSCSI Target settings and make it available.

SMB (Windows File Shares)

I needed to create a Windows File Share for file based storage from Windows computers. I plan on using the Windows File Share for high-speed storage of files for video editing.

Using the dataset I created earlier, I configured a Windows Share, user accounts, and tested accessing it. Works perfect!

Connecting the host

Connecting the ESXi hosts to the iSCSI targets and the NFS exports is done in the exact same way that you would with any other storage system, so I won’t be including details on that in this post.

We can clearly see the iSCSI target and NFS exports on the ESXi host.

Screenshot of TrueNAS NVMe iSCSI Target on VMware ESXi Host
TrueNAS NVMe iSCSI Target on VMware ESXi Host
Screenshot of NVMe iSCSI and NFS ESXi Datastores
NVMe iSCSI and NFS ESXi Datastores

To access Windows File Shares, we log on and map the network share like you would normally with any file server.

Testing

For testing, I moved (using Storage vMotion) my main VDI desktop to the new NVMe based iSCSI Target LUN on the NVMe Storage Server. After testing iSCSI, I then used Storage vMotion again to move it to the NFS datastore. Please see below for the NVMe storage server speed test results.

Speed Tests

Just to start off, I want to post a screenshot of a few previous benchmarks I compiled when testing and reviewing the Sabrent Rocket 4 NVMe SSD disks installed in my HPE DL360p Gen8 Server and passed through to a VM (Add NVMe capability to an HPE Proliant DL360p Gen8 Server).

Screenshot of CrystalDiskMark testing an IOCREST IO-PEX40152 and Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME SSD for speed
CrystalDiskMark testing an IOCREST IO-PEX40152 and Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME SSD
Screenshot of CrystalDiskMark testing IOPS on an IOCREST IO-PEX40152 and Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME SSD
CrystalDiskMark testing IOPS on an IOCREST IO-PEX40152 and Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME SSD

Note, that when I performed these tests, my CPU was maxed out and limiting the actual throughput. Even then, these are some fairly impressive speeds. Also, these tests were directly testing each NVMe drive individually.

Moving on to the NVMe Storage Server, I decided to test iSCSI NVMe throughput and NFS NVMe throughput.

I opened up CrystalDiskMark and started a generic test, running a 16GB test file a total of 6 times on my VDI VM sitting on the iSCSI NVMe LUN.

Screenshot of NVMe Storage Server iSCSI Benchmark with CrystalDiskMark
NVMe Storage Server iSCSI Benchmark with CrystalDiskMark

You can see some impressive speeds maxing out the 10Gb NIC with crazy performance of the NVME storage:

  • 1196MB/sec READ
  • 1145.28MB/sec WRITE (Maxing out the 10GB NIC)
  • 62,725.10 IOPS READ
  • 42,203.13 IOPS WRITE

Additionally, here’s a screenshot of the ix0 NIC on the TrueNAS system during the speed test benchmark: 1.12 GiB/s.

Screenshot of TrueNAS NVME Maxing out 10Gig NIC
TrueNAS NVME Maxing out 10Gig NIC

And remember this is with compression. I’m really excited to see how I can further tweak and optimize this, and also what increases will come with configuring iSCSI MPIO. I’m also going to try to increase the IOPS to get them closer to what each individual NVMe drive can do.

Now on to NFS, the results were horrible when moving the VM to the NFS Export.

Screenshot of NVMe Storage Server NFS Benchmark with CrystalDiskMark
NVMe Storage Server NFS Benchmark with CrystalDiskMark

You can see that the read speed was impressive, but the write speed was not. This is partly due to how writes are handled with NFS exports.

Clearly iSCSI is the best performing method for ESXi host connectivity to a TrueNAS based NVMe Storage Server. This works perfect because we’ll get the VAAI features (like being able to reclaim space).

Moving Forward

I’ve had this configuration running for around a week now with absolutely no issues, no crashes, and it’s been very stable.

Using a VDI VM on NVMe backed storage is lightning fast and I love the experience.

I plan on running like this for a little while to continue to test the stability of the environment before making more changes and expanding the configuration and usage.

Future Plans (and Configuration)

  • Drive Bays
    • I plan to populate the 4 hot-swappable drive bays with HPE 4TB MDL drives. Configured with RaidZ1, this should give me around 12TB usable storage. I can use this for file storage, backups, replication, and more.
  • NVMe Replication
    • This design was focused on creating non-redundant extremely fast storage. Because I’m limited to a total of 4 NVMe disks in this design, I chose not to use RaidZ and striped the data. If one NVMe drive is lost, all data is lost.
    • I don’t plan on storing anything important, and at this point the storage is only being used for VDI VMs (which are backed up), and Video editing.
    • If I can populate the front drive bays, I can replicate the NVMe storage to the traditional HDD storage on a frequent basis to protect against failure to some level or degree.
  • Version 3 of the NVMe Storage Server
    • More NVMe and Bigger NVMe – I want more storage! I want to test different levels of RaidZ, and connect to the backbone at even faster speeds.
    • NVME Drives with PLP (Power Loss Prevention) for data security and protection.
    • Dual Power Supply

Let me know your thoughts and ideas on this setup!

May 262020
 

So you want to add NVMe storage capability to your HPE Proliant DL360p Gen8 (or other Proliant Gen8 server) and don’t know where to start? Well, I was in the same situation until recently. However, after much research, a little bit of spending, I now have 8TB of NVMe storage in my HPE DL360p Gen8 Server thanks to the IOCREST IO-PEX40152.

Unsupported you say? Well, there are some of us who like to live life dangerously, there is also those of us with really cool homelabs. I like to think I’m the latter.

PLEASE NOTE: This is not a supported configuration. You’re doing this at your own risk. Also, note that consumer/prosumer NVME SSDs do not have PLP (Power Loss Prevention) technology. You should always use supported configurations and enterprise grade NVME SSDs in production environments.

Update – May 2nd 2021: Make sure you check out my other post where I install the IOCREST IO-PEX40152 in an HPE ML310e Gen8 v2 server for Version 2 of my NVMe Storage Server.

DISCLAIMER: If you attempt what I did in this post, you are doing it at your own risk. I won’t be held liable for any damages or issues.

NVMe Storage Server – Use Cases

There’s a number of reasons why you’d want to do this. Some of them include:

  • Server Storage
  • VMware Storage
  • VMware vSAN
  • Virtualized Storage (SDS as example)
  • VDI
  • Flash Cache
  • Special applications (database, high IO)

Adding NVMe capability

Well, after all that research I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I installed an IOCREST IO-PEX40152 inside of an HPE Proliant DL360p Gen8 to add NVMe capabilities to the server.

IOCREST IO-PEX40152 with 4 x 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME

At first I was concerned about dimensions as technically the card did fit, but technically it didn’t. I bought it anyways, along with 4 X 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 NVMe SSDs.

The end result?

Picture of an HPE DL360p Gen8 with NVME SSD
HPE DL360p Gen8 with NVME SSD

IMPORTANT: Due to the airflow of the server, I highly recommend disconnecting and removing the fan built in to the IO-PEX40152. The DL360p server will create more than enough airflow and could cause the fan to spin up, generate electricity, and damage the card and NVME SSD.

Also, do not attempt to install the case cover, additional modification is required (see below).

The Fit

Installing the card inside of the PCIe riser was easy, but snug. The metal heatsink actually comes in to contact with the metal on the PCIe riser.

Picture of an IO-PEX40152 installed on DL360p PCIe Riser
IO-PEX40152 installed on DL360p PCIe Riser

You’ll notice how the card just barely fits inside of the 1U server. Some effort needs to be put in to get it installed properly.

Picture of an DL360p Gen8 1U Rack Server with IO-PEX40152 Installed
HPE DL360p Gen8 with IO-PEX40152 Installed

There are ribbon cables (and plastic fittings) directly where the end of the card goes, so you need to gently push these down and push cables to the side where there’s a small amount of thin room available.

We can’t put the case back on… Yet!

Unfortunately, just when I thought I was in the clear, I realized the case of the server cannot be installed. The metal bracket and locking mechanism on the case cover needs the space where a portion of the heatsink goes. Attempting to install this will cause it to hit the card.

Picture of the HPE DL360p Gen8 Case Locking Mechanism
HPE DL360p Gen8 Case Locking Mechanism

The above photo shows the locking mechanism protruding out of the case cover. This will hit the card (with the IOCREST IO-PEX40152 heatsink installed). If the heatsink is removed, the case might gently touch the card in it’s unlocked and recessed position, but from my measurements clears the card when locked fully and fully closed.

I had to come up with a temporary fix while I figure out what to do. Flip the lid and weight it down.

Picture of an HPE DL360p Gen8 case cover upside down
HPE DL360p Gen8 case cover upside down

For stability and other tests, I simply put the case cover on upside down and weighed it down with weights. Cooling is working great and even under high load I haven’t seen the SSD’s go above 38 Celsius.

The plan moving forward was to remove the IO-PEX40152 heatsink, and install individual heatsinks on the NVME SSD as well as the PEX PCIe switch chip. This should clear up enough room for the case cover to be installed properly.

The fix

I went on to Amazon and purchased the following items:

4 x GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink for 2280 M.2 SSD

1 x BNTECHGO 4 Pcs 40mm x 40mm x 11mm Black Aluminum Heat Sink Cooling Fin

They arrived within days with Amazon Prime. I started to install them.

Picture of Installing GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME
Installing GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME
Picture of IOCREST IO-PEX40152 with GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME
IOCREST IO-PEX40152 with GLOTRENDS M.2 NVMe SSD Heatsink on Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME

And now we install it in the DL360p Gen8 PCIe riser and install it in to the server.

You’ll notice it’s a nice fit! I had to compress some of the heat conductive goo on the PFX chip heatsink as the heatsink was slightly too high by 1/16th of an inch. After doing this it fit nicely.

Also, note the one of the cable/ribbon connectors by the SAS connections. I re-routed on of the cables between the SAS connectors they could be folded and lay under the card instead of pushing straight up in to the end of the card.

As I mentioned above, the locking mechanism on the case cover may come in to contact with the bottom of the IOCREST card when it’s in the unlocked and recessed position. With this setup, do not unlock the case or open the case when the server is running/plugged in as it may short the board. I have confirmed when it’s closed and locked, it clears the card. To avoid “accidents” I may come up with a non-conductive cover for the chips it hits (to the left of the fan connector on the card in the image).

And with that, we’ve closed the case on this project…

Picture of a HPE DL360p Gen8 Case Closed
HPE DL360p Gen8 Case Closed

One interesting thing to note is that the NVME SSD are running around 4-6 Celsius cooler post-modification with custom heatsinks than with the stock heatsink. I believe this is due to the awesome airflow achieved in the Proliant DL360 servers.

Conclusion

I’ve been running this configuration for 6 days now stress-testing and it’s been working great. With the server running VMware ESXi 6.5 U3, I am able to passthrough the individual NVME SSD to virtual machines. Best of all, installing this card did not cause the fans to spin up which is often the case when using non-HPE PCIe cards.

This is the perfect mod to add NVME storage to your server, or even try out technology like VMware vSAN. I have a number of cool projects coming up using this that I’m excited to share.