Back in July this year, I wanted to build a virtual lab for self training purposes but I didn’t have the cash required to build what VMWare considers a minimal lab on hardware that VMWare has certified.  Server  hardware is expensive.

I knew that VMWare’s basic server has always been free, albeit without support, and will run on most Intel compatible hardware. The trick with VMWare is whether it will pass certain hardware features, such as access to components plugged into the PCI express bus, such as the video card functions.  This is where IOMMU comes in, and finding a motherboard that supports IOMMU is difficult, because manufacturers don’t want you to know that a $130 desktop motherboard has the same features as their $900 server motherboard.

Whitebox Hardware List

Here’s the hardware I selected:

  • $179.00 – CPU: AMD FX-8350
  • $139.00 – Motherboard: Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3
  • $139.00 – RAM: 16 GB, 1600 Mhz (8 CAS Latency)
  • $179.00 – VIDEO:  Gigabyte GEFORCE GTX 660 Ti Boost w/2GB GDDR5
  • $239.00 – SSD HD: 256 GB SATA III (6Gbps) SSD OCX Vector3, 100k IOPS random read/write
  • $ 59.00 – HD: Toshiba 1 TB 7200 RPM drive
  • $149.00 – CASE:   NZXT Phantom (White)

CPU:  AMD FX-8350 – $179

The AMD FX-8350 is an 8-core, multi-threaded CPU which will give me more VM’s and is cheaper than the Intel CPU with the same performance specs. It’s on the new Vishera 32nm fabrication process and cooler than the previous generation of this architecture. First, I’m using Windows to do an initial burn-in test and test the components on the OS they were designed for.

Motherboard: Gigabyte 990FXZ-UD3

The Gigabyte 990FXA-UD3 supports up to 32 GB of RAM, and IOMMU for pass-through of PCIe components into VMWare, and up to four PCIe video cards, if you want gaming FPS.  I just want a basic server for learning virtualization. With 32 GB of RAM, I can fit seven VM’s on this box comfortably with a host OS, Enough for a small lab of computers.  Revision 4.0 of this board supports hot-pluggable eSATA (SATA 6), but the external eSATA only supports RAID 0 and RAID 1.  The internal SATA controller is fully SATA 6 and supports all RAID levels.

I was extremely impressed with how well this board is marked and labeled.  A beginner would have an easy time assembling a system with this board. The included driver CD adds in everything Windows doesn’t recognize and the system has been rock-solid since the day I built it. Plays Diablo III on the highest settings, which isn’t saying much, but running Diablo III on one monitor while it is performing full HD video processing on another monitor (jumps a bit occasionally) is fairly impressive for a single video card rig.  Never fear, there’s a second slot for video cards and the ability to bridge them.

Video:  Gigabyte GEFORCE GTX 660Ti Boost

I chose the Gigabyte 660 Ti Boost video chipset for its speed to price ratio. The term “boost” indicates overclocking by the manufacturer.  This video card is up in the same performance range as the high-end $300 video cards but priced under $200.

SSD:  OCX Vector3 – 256 GB 

The SSD guarantees the system will be quick to boot and launch quickly–always look for IOPS random-read/write speeds for SSD’s.  SSD’s are manufactured NOT to write sequentially to the flash chips, so sequential read-write numbers don’t reflect actual real-world performance. It is the IOPS random read/write numbers which you need to look at, since ALL reads/writes in an SSD are pseudo-random.  I splurged for 256 GB of space on the SSD because there will be at least 2 Linux (CentOS) VMWare images on this drive.

HD: Toshiba 1 TB 7200 RPM

The 1TB drive will be primarily for backups of the SSD VMWare images and will contain a bootable partition as a fail safe so that I have the ability to boot the system when and if the SSD fails.

Case:  NZXT Phantom

NZXT cases are a bit flashy for my taste, but they are solid, well-designed, they always have excellent ventilation and most of the fan vents come with mesh grills, not the standard punched-hole variety openings you see in cheaper cases.  The mesh tends to catch dust, keeping it out of the internal cooling fans for the CPU, power supply and video board. There’s a bit of ‘snap together’ technology for mounting drives and other components, but mounting screws and hardware are all included.  This particular case makes provisions for routing cables behind the motherboard plate to the drives.  A bit odd, but it does work and keeps cable clutter to a minimum.

I picked up the whole kit at Microcenter, after shopping around online. Microcenter price-matches Newegg and Tiger Direct.  Overnight or next-day shipping costs nearly as much as sales tax.

 The Build

Since the case is a full-sized tower, there was plenty of room for the mainboard, which slipped in smoothly. The case puts the power supply at the bottom of the case with the large fans at the top drawing air into the case and up through the grills in the side and front. Cables for the drives are routed behind the mainboard between the backplate and chassis cover.  While there are openings there for water cooling, I don’t have water cooling for this system, yet. Drives snapped in with the plastic rail guides and locked smoothly, though the rails were tricky to get to snap on the metal mount plates supplied with the SSD.

Overall, this was one of the easiest builds I’ve ever done.  Aside from replacing the previous SSD which blew just after finishing all Windows patches (I bought a refurbished drive by mistake), there were no difficulties.  Windows installed and recognized the basic hardware. The ASUS drivers CD added in a few utilities for checking system performance along with some improved drivers.  The video card drives also installed smoothly and have worked well, a bit of a surprise since I’m so used to buying video cards from companies that specialize in them.