A couple of months ago, I shared a guest blog post from one of my readers John Clendenen who was able to get ESXi 6.0 running on an Apple Xserve 2,1. At the end of that article, it was hinted that John was also looking into getting ESXi 6.0 running on an Apple XServe 3,1 and you can the details below after several months of investigation.
Disclaimer: This is not officially supported by VMware, please use at your own risk.
*** This is a guest blog post from John Clendenen ***
First an update on my Xserve 2,1’s. I had them running for over 100 days without any issue! However, now that I have the 3,1 working reliably, it is time that I part ways with my Xserve 2,1’s. I currently have them up on eBay. Here is the link: http://www.ebay.com/itm/231752771080?ssPageName=STRK:MESELX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1555.l2649
Anyway, onto the Xserve 3,1.
I came across an Xserve 3,1 on eBay about a year ago. It was badly photographed, and the seller didn’t really know what he/she had. It wasn’t getting much attention, so I thought I might get it cheap. I ended up paying $500 for it which I felt ok about, but not great.
When it arrived, it had no processors, heatsinks or airflow duct. I immediately messaged the seller, and was able to get $350 refunded to me. I found the missing parts for under $100 over the next few weeks, and developed an intimate understanding of the Xserve 3,1 hardware.
At this point, I had no familiarity with vSphere at all. I was running OS X server and virtualizing a few services in Fusion. It was only through researching the Xserve 3,1 to find the missing hardware that I discovered that VMware had supported once as an ESXi 5 host. This made me wonder if it might still be possible to run ESXi on it, despite it no longer being supported.
I have found, after a considerable time investment, that the Xserve 3,1 can run ESXi 6, just as I found the Xserve 2,1 can run ESXi 6. However, unlike the Xserve 2,1, the Xserve 3,1 took months of troubleshooting before I had it running as a reliable ESXi host.
As it turns out, despite how much time it took me to get it working, there are only 2 serious issues with the Xserve 3,1 running ESXi 6. The first is somewhat specific to my configuration, but the second will be relevant to all configurations.
The first issue concerns booting into ESXi on a headless Xserve 3,1. The issue is limited to configurations where ESXi is booting from a drive installed in the optical bay (my original configuration). I have since changed my configuration and swapped the ESXi boot drive from the optical bay to the first hard drive bay. I have had no issue since I made this change.
For my configuration, I used an OWC bracket to replace the optical drive with an SSD. I installed ESXi onto it without issue. During installation, it was connected to monitor, keyboard, etc. I ran some VM’s on it to make sure it worked, and there were zero issues. I was relieved! So, I put it in the rack, wired it up and turned it on. Nothing. The Xserve lit up, and it was clear that it got through POST, but ESXi was clearly not booting.
Long story short, when no monitor is plugged into the Xserve 3,1, it will not automatically boot into ESXi if the boot drive is installed in the optical bay. The Xserve boot options can even be programmed through the front panel, but no configuration will make it reliably boot from the optical bay when a hard drive is installed. It is truly baffling, and if anyone has some insight here, or if it is a problem specific to my particular Xserve, I would love to know.
The solution, in my case, was to plug a keyboard into the Xserve, and hold down option for a few minutes while it boots (bringing up the boot options). Once all LED activity has normalized and the fan has settled down, I released the option key and pushed the arrow buttons. I think you only need to push the up button, but I always just pressed all of them to be sure. Then I pressed enter, and ESXi will boot. I have since simply swapped the boot drive to the first drive bay. Ideally, I’d have the other drives in the hot-swap bays, but I felt it was too much trouble to keep it in the optical bay.
The second issue concerns the onboard NIC. Once I had ESXi up and running, everything worked fine for anywhere between a few hours and 2 days, after which the Xserve 3,1 host would disappear from the VCSA and become completely unresponsive (no ping/ssh/etc). The length of time before failure made this issue especially difficult and time consuming to diagnose.
After nearly a month of frustration and disappointment, I determined that ESXi actually continued to run, but all network connectivity was ceasing. The only solution I have found is to install a 3rd party NIC and completely avoid using the onboard NIC. Even in standby, the onboard NIC can cause problems, but when it is completely unused, both for management and VM traffic, it no longer causes any problems.
This has been superficially improved with the last update, but use of the onboard NIC should still be completely avoided. The ESXi host will remain accessible via the VCSA, but the network management will become grayed out after a day or so. I suspect this is a driver issue in ESXi, but I really do not know.
Beyond these 2 issues, I have had no problems. Since the last update, even the performance and hardware status tabs are functional. RDM is not available, but not recommended in the first place. The Apple RAID backplane will not be recognized, but this was even the case in ESXI 5 when it was officially supported by VMware.
I hope that my efforts here will save others a lot of time and frustration. I think that for a lot of IT infrastructures, ESXi on an Xserve might make sense. It can run non-critical OS X services (which are hopefully the only kind of services you’re trying to run in OS X).
- Completely avoid using the on-board NIC. Silicom NIC’s are recommended.
- Find a standard backplane. The RAID backplane is useless in ESXi.
- A 2.5” drive can be installed in the optical bay, but booting from it is problematic
The Xserve 3,1 with the Silicom NIC installed
The 6 ports are a tight squeeze, but they just fit. My other 2 EXSi hosts are Supermicro Nodes, also with Silicom NIC’s and I had to use a Dremel to grind off part of the chassis to make all the ports accessible. But the Xserve works out of the box.
The OWC SSD “Data Doubler” bracket in the optical bay. Booting from here is a pain, but putting an additional SSD here works great for host caching.
The standard backplane is difficult to find, but is a great asset for vSphere. It is easy to distinguish it from the RAID backplane which would have a heat sink here.
There are no complications during installation/initial configuration.
Apologies for not having a longer uptime. I updated to ESXi6.0U1a 12 days ago, but I’ve had the Xserve 3,1 up for months. If something changes, I will post an update here, but I am confident that the system is stable.
This is the final stage of my home lab. The Xserve 3,1 is 1 of 3 ESXi hosts. These are accompanied by a primary domain controller (Samba4), a media server (Emby) and a home-grown NAS (Centos7). Networking in the back is Ubiquiti. I use this lab to prototype production environments for clients, and of course to run my home media services 🙂