EBay Servers

When I was out in Raleigh for orientation I was belatedly introduced to the wonderful world of used server hardware. Like most computer geeks (or is nerds the more acceptable term? I can never remember, which probably tells you how much I care about the issue), I believe in owning as many overpowered computers as possible. Up until recently I had been falling behind somewhat on that, but the discovery of EBay servers went a long way to changing it. I'm sure a lot of people already know about these, but if you're reading this I'm going to assume you don't.

So what is an EBay server? Well, it's a box that was extremely expensive about four or five years ago when it was purchased new, but thanks to the vagaries of business accounting is now apparently worth about as much as the scrap value of the metal used to build it. Possibly a gross exaggeration, but you see my point. This means you can find them on EBay (or other places, I'm sure) for basically a pittance, considering the amount of power you get.

For example, when I started working from home on OpenStack, I really wanted to set up a personal OpenStack environment both to dogfood OpenStack itself (I'm a big fan of dogfooding, see also this blog), and also to provide a place that I can spin up development VM's quickly and easily. To do that, I needed a pretty sizeable box - lots of memory, lots of cores, and enough disk to store all of the instance files (and then double that because I've had bad luck with hard drives lately and insist on RAID 1 for anything that would be a hassle to replace). After spending a probably inordinate amount of time browsing EBay, I was able to pick up a Dell CS24-SC with 16 GB of RAM, 2 quad core 2.5 Ghz Xeons, and 4 146 GB 15k SAS drives for under $200. Because it had two free RAM slots, I almost immediately grabbed another 8 GB (for a total of 24) for about $30 from another seller. Maybe it's possible to build a similar system from scratch for the same price, but I doubt it.

Obviously YMMV on the price and specs you can find at any given time. As I said, I spent quite a while watching for a good deal and snapped this one up when no one else bid on it. If you want instant gratification (and who doesn't?), Buy It Now prices will likely be a little higher, although I also later purchased a PowerEdge 1950 using the Best Offer feature and got about the same price.

The one real drawback is that in adding so much computing power, you're going to add a similar amount to your electricity bill. I believe my CS24-SC uses around 140 watts (measured at the wall with a Kill-A-Watt), and the PowerEdge that uses FB-DIMMs sucks down around 100 watts more (~250). Oh, and because they're both 1U boxes, they're noisy. Not intolerably so - I've got them both sitting next to my desk and most days they're both running - but enough to be annoying. I recommend checking YouTube for videos of any servers you're thinking about buying. Many of them have examples of the noise levels.

I could get further into details on my particular servers, but that's a rather large tangent and this is already getting too long. Suffice it to say that if you're doing OpenStack development and feeling the pinch trying to run all of your VM's on a laptop or desktop that it would be impossible/inordinately expensive to upgrade, these may be the answer. They're also fantastic when used directly as a development machine - 8 cores means that even though they're five years old, they can run the Nova unit tests almost as fast as a modern i7. On one comparison run I did recently, my old server box was only about 80 seconds slower than a brand new i7-3770. A significant difference for sure (they take around 5 minutes even on a fast system), but then just the i7 CPU would cost around 50% more than the entire server did.

All in all not a bad deal, and something I wish I had discovered a long time ago. Here's me paying it forward and hopefully letting someone else know about these useful things.