Home Lab on the Cheap: HP Z420 from eBay

Many technical individuals want to continually build their skills and learn new technologies. Sometimes this requires a hardware lab setup in order to run additional desktop or server operating system instances in virtual machines. This can be done in a number of ways:

1) Using an existing desktop or laptop with Client Hyper-V on either Windows 10 or Windows 8.1
2) Purchase new desktop or server hardware ($$$)
3) Purchase used server hardware (loud, power hungry)
4) Purchase used workstation hardware

When thinking about upgrading my home lab, initially I was dead set on buying server hardware, but decided against it when I considered power draw, space requirements, and the fact that my office is right off of my bedroom. I don’t think the wife would appreciate the loud fans of a 1U or 2U server running loudly all night, and I’d probably get tired of it as well. I don’t have another place to put it, so that solution was out.

I decided to go with a used HP Z420 workstation from eBay. I did quite a bit of research and found that this model should be able to run both Hyper-V and VMware ESXi very well. Additionally, it wouldn’t run too loud, nor would it be too terrible on the power bill. I was able to purchase one for $180 that had the following specs:  

  HP Z420 – Initial Config HP Z420 – Upgraded
CPU Intel Xeon E5-1620v2
4 cores/8 threads

3.7 GHz/3.9 GHz turbo
10MB L3 cache

22nm Ivy Bridge EP
Intel Xeon E5-1620v2
4 cores/8 threads
3.7 GHz/3.9 GHz turbo
10MB L3 cache
22nm Ivy Bridge EP
Memory 2 GB DDR3-1333 Unbuffered RAM 64GB DDR3-1333 Reg ECC RAM
Storage 1TB WD Black 7200rpm SATA HDD 1TB Samsung 860 Evo
1TB WD Black 7200rpm SATA HDD
GPU AMD FirePro V4900 AMD FireProV4900
Network Integrated Intel GbE NIC Intel Integrated GbE NIC
HP NC-360T 2-port GbE NIC
Cost $180 $253

The RAM and storage weren’t going to cut it on their own, so some upgrades were needed quickly. I was able to find 32GB of DDR3-1333 Registered ECC RAM in a set of 4x8GB sticks for $30, also on eBay. So I bought two sets, netting 64GB RAM for $60.  The Xeon supports 4 memory channels, with the motherboard in the Z420 providing 8 slots. Officially HP supports a maximum of 64GB total, though some comments in HP forums suggest that users have been successful in installing 128GB using 16GB Registered ECC sticks. For my purposes, I was trying to keep the budget as low as possible, and I believe 64GB will be plenty.

[Note: HP officially says on their product page that only Unbuffered RAM is supported, however Registered ECC RAM works just fine and can be found used for quite a bit cheaper. Servethehome.com provides a brief overview on the difference between unbuffered and registered ECC RAM.]

I also bought a HP NC-360T NIC, again from eBay, for $13. The PCIe x4-based NC-360T is based on an Intel 82571EB controller, providing dual gigabit Ethernet ports. Purchasing used hardware on eBay can be a crap shoot, but in each case, I looked for highly rated sellers (>99% positive feedback) and received hardware that works well.

For the storage, I decided to pull the 1TB Samsung 860 Evo SSD that I bought last year for use in my desktop, installing it in the lab system. I then replaced it with a much cheaper 500GB Crucial MX500 SSD in the desktop, which still provides excellent performance.

The model that I bought had the Xeon E5-162ov2, with 4 cores and hyper-threading support, for a total of 8 threads. It is an LGA-2011 single-socket, 22nm Ivy Bridge CPU. Virtualization technologies supported include VT-x, VT-d, and EPT/SLAT. The E5-1620v2 is paired with the Intel C602 chipset. While the motherboard has a total of 10 SATA ports onboard, only 2 support 6Gb SATA3, the rest supporting 3Gb SATA2. There are 2 PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, 2 PCIe x8 slots (one only have 4 PCIe lanes), and 1 PCIe x4 slot (single lane). The system came with a 600W, 90% efficient power supply, though some ship with 400W 90% PSUs.

One item to note with the Z420 is that there appears to have been two revisions.  The initial 2011 version supported Intel’s 32nm Sandy Bridge-based Xeons. There was a hardware revision in 2013 that provided support for the 22nm Ivy Bridge-based Xeons, in addition to Sandy Bridge. One way to validate the Z420 revision is to check the boot block date in the BIOS. This will either have a 2011 date (32nm Xeon v1 support only) or a 2013 date (supporting 32nm Xeon v1 or 22nm Xeon v2). There appears to be no way to upgrade a 2011 version Z420 with an IVB Xeon at a later date. As nitty-gritty details like that can be hard to come by when purchasing used, I decided to just go with a Z420 that already had an IVB Xeon, guaranteeing flexibility if I wanted to upgrade the CPU at a later date. As shown by Anandtech, Ivy Bridge draws about 15% less power at idle and about 30% less at load, while providing a 5-10% performance boost over Sandy Bridge at the same clockspeed.

Currently I have VMware ESXi 6.7 installed on a 16GB flash drive used just to boot the hypervisor. I have several VMs installed on the SSD, including VMs for vCenter, as well as vRealize Orchestrator and vRealize Automation among others. Currently the system is performing just fine with about half of the RAM used with the VMware infrastructure and a couple of small Linux VMs running. With the high clock speed on the 4C/8T Xeon, the VMs have been pretty snappy. Despite overcommitting the host CPU, I haven’t had any CPU performance issues that I’ve noticed, which is expected given that I’m not really stressing the host at this point. Overall, so far I am happy with this cheap, fairly powerful, not too loud home lab.

Additional info:
– HP lists several supported hardware options for the Z420 here, which may be found used at low cost
– Some folks have said that the Z420 uses the exact same BIOS as the Z620 and should support the same processors, opening up additional 8-12 core options

One thought on “Home Lab on the Cheap: HP Z420 from eBay”

  1. > There appears to be no way to upgrade a 2011 version Z420 with an IVB Xeon at a later date.

    Not true – but you need a hardware flasher to change the BIOS boot block date. I wrote a guide for it not too long ago.

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