Media Server Rebuild - Part 1

Nov 15 2011

Server MotherboardI'm in the beginning stages of rebuilding my Windows Home Server box.  Feel free to check out my original blog for the current setup.  (Note that the blog hasn't been entirely reformatted for the new site.)  There, I stated that my intentions were for my first media server to last a minimum of 5 years.  The fact that I'm writing this just around 2.5 years after the original server went live may seem like I failed in epic fashion.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the server is still running fine and I firmly believe it would continue to meet my needs for at least another 2.5 years.  To quote Mythbusters, I'm calling this one "confirmed" (so far).

The reason I say that is because this won't be a complete rebuild of the server hardware itself.  In fact, my actual, original words were, "Meet current and unknown future needs over the next 5 years (minimum)" and it would appear that the hardware is succeeding in that regard... thus far.  But, it will still include some major changes.  First of all, in a fairly significant change of heart, I've decided to upgrade to Windows Home Server 2011 (more on that in a bit).  Second, I'll be moving to a virtualized environment on the server, with multiple client OS's running, consolidating at least one other computer into the server.  This may be a fairly big undertaking in the amount of underlying changes, but the technology I'm using has been around for quite some time, so I'm extremely optimistic this will be a productive change.

Here are my plans...
Currently, I run SageTV under WHS v1.  I have 2 HD-PVRs in use and have a Colossus waiting to be tested.  I will continue running all of this, but SageTV will be moved to a regular install of Windows XP, so that I can freeze the OS and keep SageTV running as long as possible.  I have already removed all of my recordings, videos, and music from the WHS drive pool.  I simply mounted the drives as NTFS shares*.

I've been quite vocal in my disdain for WHS 2011, primarily due to the removal of the Drive Extender technology, but the simple fact is that it's a damn good backup solution for a measly $50.  I did look at alternatives, such as Macrium Reflect, but their free version is slightly gimped by the fact that it won't do file and folder backups, differential and incremental backups, or even send email notifications about backup status.  Their standard version does all of that, but costs $44 PER PC.  (Note, they do have a "4 pack" for $90.)  For $50, I can back up 10 PC's with WHS 2011.

I will be consolidating my Linux-based IPCop hardware firewall into a VM to remove that computer from the house entirely.  I already have the required NICs to facilitate this, since IPCop requires 3 NICs in the configuration I have.  IPCop requires very little horsepower, so putting this into a VM is a no-brainer.

For virtualization needs, the only two I'm aware of are Microsoft's Hyper-V and VMWare's vSphere, both of which are free.  My Xeon L5410 only supports VT-x, so I'm out of luck on some of the more recent advances in CPU VM technology, but I think it will suffice.  I have also heard that USB support could be spotty on either Hyper-V or vSphere, which would be a major issue for the problematic HD-PVRs.  In the end, I decided to go with vSphere for two reasons.  First, the free version of Hyper-V has no GUI (command line only).  Second, vSphere is supposed to have support for PCI passthrough, which the Colossus would need in order to be used in a VM.

I debated whether or not to use an SSD for the OS and VMs, but ultimately decided to go for it.  I didn't want to use RAID because it can cause issues with backups and restores, as well as making hardware swaps problematic.  One downside to using an SSD under vSphere is that it doesn't support TRIM.  I'll need to keep an eye on performance to see if long-term use causes any significant slowdowns.  I don't believe there's any way to successfully and manually run a TRIM tool in this particular setup.

I am planning to return to FlexRAID (free) for some data protection, but will also need to back up the VMs.  My research indicates that WHS 2011 can back up and restore VMs without very much difficulty, so I won't need to purchase an expensive, enterprise-grade backup solution.  While FlexRAID has been shown to work under WHS 2011, I will not be utilizing it there.  Rather, I'll most likely put FlexRAID into a Windows 7 VM*.  Over the years, I've seen how using an OS for more than it was intended can lead to difficult problems and unsavory workarounds.  This isn't something to do in a "production environment", even if it is at home.  In reality, I do have other people in the house who depend on the reliability of the server.  At the end of the day, I believe I'll have a Windows XP VM for SageTV*, a Windows Home Server 2011 VM for backups*, an IPCop VM for the firewall*, and a Windows 7 VM for other "fun" stuff.

With all the VMs I'm already looking at running, I'm glad that I went with a dual socket motherboard.  While adding a second CPU doesn't seem necessary yet, I already know that I'm going to need more than the 4GB of memory I currently have.  The question is:  How much?  It would also appear that my choice of hardware throughout the original build included some serious forward thinking.  At the time, I kept saying that it was overkill, but that I was planning for future needs.  Oddly enough, that almost seems prophetic now...

Stay tuned for further updates, hopefully with pictures along the way.

*If I can manage to document enough of what I'm doing, I'll attempt to turn parts of this journey into guides.

Comments

I demand more photos (I like build photos)

I demand Yammm v2.  Tongue Out

Touché...mean

George,

What is your reference for the ESXi PCI pass-thru support?

If it's vSphere DirectPath I/O, you may want to verify the limitations and requirements. (It may require VT-d for example, which you'd need 5500 series CPU)

-atom

atom wrote:
George, What is your reference for the ESXi PCI pass-thru support? If it's vSphere DirectPath I/O, you may want to verify the limitations and requirements. (It may require VT-d for example, which you'd need 5500 series CPU) -atom

I had read that during my preliminary research into VM's.  Last night, I read the vSphere white papers on PCI passthrough and it would appear that VT-d simply adds additional capability to the PCI functionality.  Specifically, VT-d gets you VMDirectPath:

VMDirectPath allows guest operating systems to directly access an I/O device, bypassing the virtualization layer. This direct path, or passthrough can improve performance for VMware ESX systems that utilize high-speed I/O devices, such as 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

VMware

So, VT-x should be sufficient enough to get access to the PCI devices, but you simply lose direct access and need to go through the virtualization layer.  I think that'll be okay.

Now we're talking.  I have a setup very similar to this.  I looked into all the various VM platforms... Hyper-V, Xen, VMWare, and finally settled on Proxmox VE.  Proxmox is a Linux based VM platform that offers KVM and OpenVZ support.  I settled on Proxmox, as the others just wouldn't work, or wouldn't suffice for my needs.  I have an AMD Athlon II X4 630 processor with 4GB, and it runs Proxmox very well.  Since I had a non-server motherboard, VMWare would not use my motherboard's NIC.  I needed to use it, so that left VMWare out.  Xen wouldn't install properly... It kept crashing on me.  Hyper-V worked, but the performance left a lot to be desired.  And I had security concerns with running my router/firewall distro on Hyper-V... plus the emulated NICs couldn't handle my 30 Mb/s fiber connection.

So, then I discovered Proxmox.  Proxmox has some really nice features, built in backups of VMs, Full disk pass-through, email alerts, simple VM setup and configuration, high-performance disk and NIC drivers in Windows and Linux VMs through VIRTIO, and all through a simple Web interface.  Some features you have to play with through the terminal but it's very stable and works with anything I have thrown at it.

I run 4 VMs all the time, a Win 7 VM for my "file server".  I use the disk pass-through to dedicate whole disks to the VM and I use FlexRaid to protect the data.  Though, I killed my parity drive the other day.  The second VM I run is my linux-based router/firewall distro... I use IPFire as it can natively use the VIRTIO technology for high-performance NICs.  If I use emulated NICs, they top out at 20 Mb/s and thrash the CPU.  Plus, IPFire has a lot of nice features and is a modern firewall/router distro.

The third VM I run all the time is my WHS (v1) VM that I run just for the backups.  The 4th VM is an OpenVZ container that runs my PBX in a Flash system that provides my house with a free home phone service via VOIP through Google Voice/Talk.

I build some test VMs from time to time, like to play with the new Win 8 betas, and other tasks.  It's nice to be able to play with things and not affect the wife or kid's stuff, or have to take anything down.  The only time I've ever had to take the Proxmox system down was to install an extra 4GB of memory (to give my Windows based VMs a little more breathing room than just 512MB each... though they ran fine but a little slow).

Proxmox has some really neat features that I've yet to implement like clustering for failover, and KVM itself can do PCI passthrough, USB passthrough, and lots of very high-end features.

 

If you have any questions about any of this, or how any of it works, please feel free to ask me.

I'm on the verge of doing the same type of upgrade. My major concern is upgrading to WHS 2011. Namely, I have roughly 6 TB of (spanned) data that I need to migrate from my old install to my new (non-spanning) install. Any tips on how to do this safely would be much appreciated.  

apitel wrote:

I'm on the verge of doing the same type of upgrade. My major concern is upgrading to WHS 2011. Namely, I have roughly 6 TB of (spanned) data that I need to migrate from my old install to my new (non-spanning) install. Any tips on how to do this safely would be much appreciated.  

Absolutely.  First, when you say "spanned", do you mean that you're using the drive extender technology of WHS v1?  I want to ensure I don't over-explain if you're not actually using DE.

Yes, by drive spanning I meant drive extender. 

apitel wrote:

Yes, by drive spanning I meant drive extender. 

I'm actually just about finished with a guide for this very thing.  If all goes well, it may be published tomorrow.  In the mean time, the short explanation is that you'll need to remove each drive from the pool and copy the data to another drive outside the pool.  Then, you can do whatever you want with the drives/data.

EDIT:  Guide has been posted.

I'd like to point out a few things that may make your life easier. I have a similar setup with SageTV and HDPVRs. I don't have a Colossus because I have read mixing them with HDPVRs is a bad idea, but they work great by themselves. Anyhow, I'm unclear as to why you will be creating a separate VM running Windows XP just for Sage. I have been running the WHS v1 version of SageTV 7.1.9 in WHS 2011 (sans dashboard interface) for a few months now without a problem. Also, in terms of migrating from WHS v1 DE to WHS 2011, there is a simple solution now called DriveBender and it works great. I built my system without the drive pooled drives connected. After WHS was done installing, I rebooted with all the drives connected once again. In each drive, go to the sub-directory that actually has all the data and move that to the root dir. Now delete all other directories. Do this for each disk. Finally, install Drive Bender, pick which of the drive letters you are going to maintain and "convert" that disk to a pooled disk with the same drive letter mount point. Then choose each additional disk and "merge" them into the pool. DriveBender will merge directory contents with the same name (since WHS DE likely had your files inside of one logical directory spread across multiple physical drives). You can do all this with the free version of DB to try it all out. I would expect it to work great since I got it to work.

Anyhow, this should substantially make your life easier by reducing the WinXP VM and not having to worry about the HDPVRs in SageTV. Feel free to email me with further questions. 

-Brian

Beefcake wrote:

Anyhow, I'm unclear as to why you will be creating a separate VM running Windows XP just for Sage. I have been running the WHS v1 version of SageTV 7.1.9 in WHS 2011 (sans dashboard interface) for a few months now without a problem.

It's all about uptime.  I've run into numerous situations where working on either SageTV or WHS has caused me to have to reboot or has broken something which impacted the other.  Additionally, WHS 2011 is going to continue to be updated by Microsoft and I intend to install those updates.  Something they do could cause SageTV to break.  Freezing XP with SageTV eliminates that possibility.

Beefcake wrote:

Also, in terms of migrating from WHS v1 DE to WHS 2011, there is a simple solution now called DriveBender and it works great.

I'm aware of that solution, as well as StableBit.  However, I've read lengthy forum posts about issues with both of them.  Those issues could very well be resolved by now, but the fact is that they're each still quite new and I'd rather go with something which has been around longer, has an active user community, and is free.  Years ago, I had the developer of FlexRAID personally help me out when I couldn't figure out how to do something.  That level of support goes a long way in developing trust.

Brian,

I tried this upgrade path as you had mentioned (on a separate main hard-drive to be safe). Once I booted up into WHS 2011, I could not see any data on my hard drives. It showed the drive, how much space was used, but when I opened it up to move files around, it was empty. 

Any suggestions why it might be doing this?

apitel wrote:

Brian,

I tried this upgrade path as you had mentioned (on a separate main hard-drive to be safe). Once I booted up into WHS 2011, I could not see any data on my hard drives. It showed the drive, how much space was used, but when I opened it up to move files around, it was empty. 

Any suggestions why it might be doing this?

If you access the drives on other computers (besides WHS v1), is the data visible?  Any chance you changed the BIOS between IDE and AHCI?

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