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.
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:
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.
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).
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!
On version 2 of the project, the hardware includes:
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.
I installed the IOCREST IO-PEX40152 card in to the PCIe 16x slot, with 4 x 2TB Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME drives.
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.
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.
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).
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).
The 560SFP+ NIC also was detected without any issues and available to configure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To access Windows File Shares, we log on and map the network share like you would normally with any file server.
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.
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.
You can see some impressive speeds maxing out the 10Gb NIC with crazy performance of the NVME storage:
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.
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.
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).
iSCSI MPIO Speed Test
This is more of an update… I was finally able to connect, configure, and utilize the 2nd 10Gbe port on the 560SFP+ NIC. In my setup, both hosts and the TrueNAS storage server all have 2 connections to the switch, with 2 VLANs and 2 subnets dedicated to storage. Check out the before/after speed tests with enabling iSCSI MPIO.
As you can see I was able to essentially double my read speeds (again maxing out the networking layer), however you’ll notice that the write speeds maxed out at 1598MB/sec. I believe we’ve reached a limitation of the CPU, PCIe bus, or something else inside of the server. Note, that this is not a limitation of the Sabrent Rocket 4 NVME drives, or the IOCREST NVME PCIe card.
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)
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.
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!
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 – June 21 2022: I’ve received numerous comments, chats, and questions about whether you can boot your server or computer using this method. Please note that this is all dependent on your server/computer, the BIOS/EFI, and capabilities of the system. In my specific scenario, I did not test booting since I was using the NVME drives purely as additional storage.
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:
Virtualized Storage (SDS as example)
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I went on to Amazon and purchased the following items:
They arrived within days with Amazon Prime. I started to install them.
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…
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.
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.
Lately, I’ve been playing with video editing and encoding as a new hobby. It requires a powerful system for the production process for both editing, and encoding. While CPU power isn’t necessarily important, the CPU instruction sets and your GPU play a key part with editing and encoding.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been attempting to use my desktop rig with a couple of Nvidia GeForce cards and I’ve been struggling to be able to edit in real time, as well as encode completed video productions in a reasonable amount of time.
On my physical desktop rig, even with two GPUs it struggles to allow me to preview in realtime the edits I’ve done on a project. The preview window is jolty with loss frames, and it’s hard to know what you’re doing. Also, when producing and encoding a finalized video project, it would take forever to complete even a small 5 minute video at 1080p.
When I first loaded this up on my VDI environment, the software instantly detected the Nvidia GRID card, and asked me if it could use it. From that point on the preview window was fluid, transitions and add-ins were rendered on the fly during previewing, and the final production encoding was literally over 20 times faster using 1080p. Keep in mind this VM only has one Nvidia K180q profile attached to it, so I’m only using less than 25% of the cards full capability.
Other benefits to video editing and encoding on VDI
There’s some other benefits that can be realized when doing video editing and encoding inside of a VDI environment:
Ability to connect remotely and work anywhere
Ability to work anywhere with a high performance system
High speed video storage on demand (since it’s all remote)
It can become part of your normal backup solution
This is just another great use case scenario for VDI. Whether it’s for the video professional, or a large organization.
I can’t tell you how excited I am that after many years, I’ve finally gotten my hands on and purchased an Nvidia Quadro K1 GPU. This card will be used in my homelab to learn, and demo Nvidia GRID accelerated graphics on VMware Horizon View. In this post I’ll outline the details, installation, configuration, and thoughts. And of course I’ll have plenty of pictures below!
The focus will be to use this card both with vGPU, as well as 3D accelerated vSGA inside in an HPE server running ESXi 6.5 and VMware Horizon View 7.8.
Please Note: Some, most, or all of what I’m doing is not officially supported by Nvidia, HPE, and/or VMware. I am simply doing this to learn and demo, and there was a real possibility that it may not have worked since I’m not following the vendor HCL (Hardware Compatibility lists). If you attempt to do this, or something similar, you do so at your own risk.
For some time I’ve been trying to source either an Nvidia GRID K1/K2 or an AMD FirePro S7150 to get started with a simple homelab/demo environment. One of the reasons for the time it took was I didn’t want to spend too much on it, especially with the chances it may not even work.
Essentially, I have 3 Servers:
HPE DL360p Gen8 (Dual Proc, 128GB RAM)
HPE DL360p Gen8 (Dual Proc, 128GB RAM)
HPE ML310e Gen8 v2 (Single Proc, 32GB RAM)
For the DL360p servers, while the servers are beefy enough, have enough power (dual redundant power supplies), and resources, unfortunately the PCIe slots are half-height. In order for me to use a dual-height card, I’d need to rig something up to have an eGPU (external GPU) outside of the server.
As for the ML310e, it’s an entry level tower server. While it does support dual-height (dual slot) PCIe cards, it only has a single 350W power supply, misses some fancy server technologies (I’ve had issues with VT-d, etc), and only a single processor. I should be able to install the card, however I’m worried about powering it (it has no 6pin PCIe power connector), and having ESXi be able to use it.
Finally, I was worried about cooling. The GRID K1 and GRID K2 are typically passively cooled and meant to be installed in to rack servers with fans running at jet engine speeds. If I used the DL360p with an external setup, this would cause issues. If I used the ML310e internally, I had significant doubts that cooling would be enough. The ML310e did have the plastic air baffles, but only had one fan for the expansion cards area, and of course not all the air would pass through the GRID K1 card.
Because of a limited budget, and the possibility I may not even be able to get it working, I didn’t want to spend too much. I found an eBay user local in my city who had a couple Grid K1 and Grid K2 cards, as well as a bunch of other cool stuff.
We spoke and he decided to give me a wicked deal on the Grid K1 card. I thought this was a fantastic idea as the power requirements were significantly less (more likely to work on the ML310e) on the K1 card at 130 W max power, versus the K2 card at 225 W max power.
We set a time and a place to meet. Preemptively I ran out to a local supply store to purchase an LP4 power adapter splitter, as well as a LP4 to 6pin PCIe power adapter. There were no available power connectors inside of the ML310e server so this was needed. I still thought the chances of this working were slim…
I also decided to go ahead and download the Nvidia GRID Software Package. This includes the release notes, user guide, ESXi vib driver (includes vSGA, vGPU), as well as guest drivers for vGPU and pass through. The package also includes the GRID vGPU Manager. The driver I used was from: https://www.nvidia.com/Download/driverResults.aspx/144909/en-us
To install, I copied over the vib file “NVIDIA-vGPU-kepler-VMware_ESXi_6.5_Host_Driver_367.130-1OEM.6188.8.131.5298673.vib” to a datastore, enabled SSH, and then ran the following command to install:
The command completed successfully and I shut down the host. Now I waited to meet.
We finally met and the transaction went smooth in a parking lot (people were staring at us as I handed him cash, and he handed me a big brick of something folded inside of grey static wrap). The card looked like it was in beautiful shape, and we had a good but brief chat. I’ll definitely be purchasing some more hardware from him.
Installing the card in the ML310e was difficult and took some time with care. First I had to remove the plastic air baffle. Then I had issues getting it inside of the case as the back bracket was 1cm too long to be able to put the card in. I had to finesse and slide in on and angle but finally got it installed. The back bracket (front side of case) on the other side slid in to the blue plastic case bracket. This was nice as the ML310e was designed for extremely long PCIe expansion cards and has a bracket on the front side of the case to help support and hold the card up as well.
For power I disconnected the DVD-ROM (who uses those anyways, right?), and connected the LP5 splitter and the LP5 to 6pin power adapter. I finally hooked it up to the card.
I laid the cables out nicely and then re-installed the air baffle. Everything was snug and tight.
Please see below for pictures of the Nvidia GRID K1 installed in the ML310e Gen8 V2.
Powering on the server was a tense moment for me. A few things could have happened:
Server won’t power on
Server would power on but hang & report health alert
Nvidia GRID card could overheat
Nvidia GRID card could overheat and become damaged
Nvidia GRID card could overheat and catch fire
Server would boot but not recognize the card
Server would boot, recognize the card, but not work
Server would boot, recognize the card, and work
With great suspense, the server powered on as per normal. No errors or health alerts were presented.
I logged in to iLo on the server, and watched the server perform a BIOS POST, and start it’s boot to ESXi. Everything was looking well and normal.
After ESXi booted, and the server came online in vCenter. I went to the server and confirmed the GRID K1 was detected. I went ahead and configured 2 GPUs for vGPU, and 2 GPUs for 3D vSGA.
I restarted the X.org service (required when changing the options above), and proceeded to add a vGPU to a virtual machine I already had configured and was using for VDI. You do this by adding a “Shared PCI Device”, selecting “NVIDIA GRID vGPU”, and I chose to use the highest profile available on the K1 card called “grid_k180q”.
After adding and selecting ok, you should see a warning telling you that must allocate and reserve all resources for the virtual machine, click “ok” and continue.
Power On and Testing
I went ahead and powered on the VM. I used the vSphere VM console to install the Nvidia GRID driver package (included in the driver ZIP file downloaded earlier) on the guest. I then restarted the guest.
After restarting, I logged in via Horizon, and could instantly tell it was working. Next step was to disable the VMware vSGA Display Adapter in the “Device Manager” and restart the host again.
Upon restarting again, to see if I had full 3D acceleration, I opened DirectX diagnostics by clicking on “Start” -> “Run” -> “dxdiag”.
It worked! Now it was time to check the temperature of the card to make sure nothing was overheating. I enabled SSH on the ESXi host, logged in, and ran the “nvidia-smi” command.
According to this, the different GPUs ranged from 33C to 50C which was PERFECT! Further testing under stress, and I haven’t gotten a core to go above 56. The ML310e still has an option in the BIOS to increase fan speed, which I may test in the future if the temps get higher.
With “nvidia-smi” you can see the 4 GPUs, power usage, temperatures, memory usage, GPU utilization, and processes. This is the main GPU manager for the card. There are some other flags you can use for relevant information.
Overall I’m very impressed, and it’s working great. While I haven’t tested any games, it’s working perfect for videos, music, YouTube, and multi-monitor support on my 10ZiG 5948qv. I’m using 2 displays with both running at 1920×1080 for resolution.
I’m looking forward to doing some tests with this VM while continuing to use vGPU. I will also be doing some testing utilizing 3D Accelerated vSGA.
The two coolest parts of this project are:
3D Acceleration and Hardware h.264 Encoding on VMware Horizon
Getting a GRID K1 working on an HPE ML310e Gen8 v2
Highly recommend getting a setup like this for your own homelab!
Uses and Projects
Well, I’m writing this “Uses and Projects” section after I wrote the original article (it’s now March 8th, 2020). I have to say I couldn’t be impressed more with this setup, using it as my daily driver.
Since I’ve set this up, I’ve used it remotely while on airplanes, working while travelling, even for video editing.
Some of the projects (and posts) I’ve done, can be found here:
Leave a comment and let me know what you think! Or leave a question!
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