Short Stack or Home Lab on a Budget

Back in the day (when I was still a working stiff) I built out an AMD FX-8320 (8-core) system with 32GB of RAM and 3 or 4 TB of storage. This was my ESXi lab where I could replicate whatever I was working on at the office. Eventually, I tried running Hyper-V on this machine, as we were exploring cost cutting options at a new job, but I wasn’t a fan. After retirement, I decided to resurrect this machine (which was sitting under a desk gathering dust) as a Proxmox server, but then I found something better…

A local seller on Craigslist was offloading old PCs from a local bank for $75/each. These were Dell Optiplex 7020 SFF boxes with with 16GB RAM, no Drives and an i5-8500 (6-core) CPU. I had been considering replacing my FX box with a few N100 boxes which I expected would deliver about the same performance, but at a fraction of the power draw. Each of these Dell machines would draw about half the power of my FX box while delivering 40% more performance and cost less than half what I expected to spend on the new N100 boxes. Sounds like a winner to me.

In the bargain, these Optiplex machines have an M.2 slot, three open memory slots (for a total capacity of 64GB) and the tiny boxes can be stacked horizontally or vertically. Now to be fair, they don’t have a lot of storage bays or PCIe expansion slots, but they had enough for me.

I ended up buying 4 of these tiny workhorses ($75 each), three for my new Proxmox cluster and one for my Proxmox Dev/Test box. I added some memory to bring each machine up to 32GB ($24 each), keeping 2 slots open for future expansion (if necessary). I ended up using some cheap 16GB Optane M.2 modules ($4.33 each) for the boot drives, a 250GB Velociraptor ($5.30 each) and a 480GB SSD (~$30 each) for VM Storage on each machine. Since internal storage bays were limited, I tossed in some 10GB NICs ($15 each + $2.57x2 for the SFPs) to connect to my NFS server and the PBS (running on my wife’s old desktop). All total, I think I built out my new environment for much less than the original price of my of old FX machine (which has now become my desktop). The only new parts I used were the Velociraptors (which turned out to be new), the 480GB SSDs that I had purchased over the last 12 months, the 10G switch ($96.71) and fiber patch cables ($4 per) to go with it.

I see a lot of Toobers (you have probably seen them too), building out crazy machines, networks and back-end servers to allow them to edit their videos over the network. While it can be loads of fun to buy/build new toys, for most of us (who do not edit video) we can have a whole lot of fun for a fraction of the cost. So spend your nickels and dimes wisely, don’t fall for the hype, build something that meets your needs and learn something interesting in the process!



Just out of curiosity, do you have power numbers for either/both of those boxes?

I got one of the ali express N5105 + 4x2.5GbE boxes about a year and a half ago, it usually sits at 8.5w idle and sometimes spikes up to 15 or higher, always when booting and sometimes when traffic is high (it’s being used as a router).

I didn’t, but I dug out my Kill-a-Watt to see.

On the Optiplex 7020 I saw a peak of 76W when booting, between 50-60W when booting 4 VMs I was testing with and it appears to idle around 25W (with or without those 4 VMs running).

I will move the Kill-a-Watt to my desktop the next time I need to reboot and report back on that one.

Our power is pretty cheap where I am at, so my primary concern was reducing excess heat so my (South facing) playroom stays comfortable now that summer is approaching.

No hurry at all, my interest is purely academic, but I’ve always been curious about real life power consumption as opposed to manufacturer’s claims. (We have solar and lots of sunshine – SoCal, so although our ostensible rates are pretty high, our monthly electric bill averages about $20.)

I hadn’t needed to reboot the old FX, but I was getting curious so I bounced it today.

Before I hit the power button it was chewing about 2.5 watts, a little more than double what the 7020 was using when I powered it off. During boot it hit a high of 221W, but spent most of the time bouncing around between 150-200W. Idle it was settled in at around 100W.

So all four 7020s sitting idle (which they will do most of the time in a home lab) use about the same power as this one FX machine sitting idle. Now that the FX box is my desktop it will spend most of the day asleep (poor neglected thing).