HP upgrades the MicroServer recipe with new Enterprise-grade features but manage to shoot themselves in the foot. Despite performance being encouraging, flaky firmware updates and a frustrating installation experience leads to a server that was almost unreviewable. After three fabulous MicroServer releases, adding complexity to the HP MicroServer Gen8 is a mis-step.
The HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is the latest model in a popular range of budget, small footprint servers loved by prosumers, small business owners and IT consultants alike. Heavy discounting and promotions from HP have resulted in thousands of MicroServers being sold around the world – a reasonably decent spec, low price and a server that was easy to set up and use made for a fabulous combination.
With the Gen8, HP has made some bold steps and feature enhancements which radically upgrade the MicroServer proposition. New Enterprise-grade features such as Intelligent Provisioning for server set-up, Integrated Lights-Out for remote administration and server monitoring, support for HP’s range of small business networking components and hey, even removable faceplate kits add up to a very different beast than the Gen8’s predecessors.
The HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 ships in three core configurations with a base model (the G1610T) powered by a dual-core, 2.3 Ghz Intel Celeron G1610T processor, 2 GB RAM and HP’s Dynamic Smart Array B120i/ZM storage controller thrown in for good measure. Options allow you to step up to 4 GB RAM or upgrade the processor to the 2.5 GHz Intel Pentium G2020T. Note that on all models, the four drive bays included with the HP MicroServer Gen8 are not hot-swappable.
Our review unit, sent to us by HP, is the G1610T with the Intel Celeron processor with 8GB RAM in support.
Other upgrade options at purchase include HP’s own SATA hard drives (rebranded Seagate drives by the looks of it), a DVD-RW optical drive, a TPM module and a dizzying array of premium support options. With a base price of around £370, you can pick up the HP MicroServer cheaply (look around for cashback deals too) – spec up from the basics, and add in a server operating system (other than Windows Home Server 2011) and you’ll be clearing over £1000 quickly.
From a design perspective, the new MicroServer retains its small footprint but sees a fresh new look. A punched, removable, silver drive bay door (without a key lock, although drives can be secured internally) replaces the lockable door of the previous model with an indicator LED dominating the bottom of the chassis. Two USB 2.0 ports are positioned at the front for convenience and you’ll find a lot for an integrated, slimline DVD-RW drive if purchased.
Around the back, you’ll find twin Gigabit Ethernet sockets, twin USB 3.0 ports plus a further two USB 2.0 ports, a VGA socket for monitor connection and HP’s iLO port. Access to the Gen8’s internals is toolless, courtesy of twin thumbscrews which allow the outer chassis to be removed.
The Gen8’s design is certainly a step forward and the server is well equipped for prosumer and small business server use. Jazz it up with the optional coloured faceplates and you’ll have a server that looks the business. But how does it perform?
Alas, what HP give with one hand, they frustrate with the other. Whereas the new HP MicroServer Gen 8 includes a range of Enterprise-grade features to support your small business (or home), setting up the server is frustrating. In fact, it’s one of the most frustrating experiences we’ve had installing any small server in the last seven years. It can be done, don’t worry – but it requires patience. A lot of patience.
On the hardware front the key issue is drive installation. Like previous MicroServers, HP includes four drive bays on the new Gen8 which are located behind the front door. However, forget tool-less drive trays – not only do you have to screw the drives into the trays, the screws fitted are Torx screws and therefore can’t be fitted with a standard screwdriver. HP helpfully supplies a T10/T15 Torx key which clips behind the bay door to assist drive installation but it’s very fiddly and will take some time to fit your drives. You need to first remove the two securing brackets HP has had to fit to each drive tray to keep the tray solid when not in use, and then fit your drives.
The drive bays themselves are plastic and very flimsy indeed, wobbling around when you remove the securing brackets. It’s easy to see the cost engineering in action, but considering storage installation is likely to be one of the first tasks required by the user, the experience devalues the HP MicroServer which is a real shame.
Once I’d spent the 30 minutes (!) or so installing my four 3TB Seagate hard drives in the HP Microserver Gen8, it was time to get an operating system installed. You may well be able to find the HP MicroServer for sale fully loaded with drives and an OS (and as you’ll discover, I thoroughly recommend you do), but many will be purchasing the server hardware and installing the OS themselves.
New to the Gen8 is HP’s Intelligent Provisioning setup feature – when you first boot the HP MicroServer, you’ll struggle to install an OS in the usual way straight from a powering on the device. You’ll need to initialise the server first using Intelligent Provisioning. Think of this as a hardware “out of box experience” which helps you configure specific features such as the BIOS System time and region settings, configure your RAID storage array and ensure the Gen8 is running the most up to date system software.
Other advanced features includes the configuration of a remote access support connection, if you’ve purchased such a service and there’s an impressive selection of storage management tweaks you can make during provisioning, should you have the time and inclination.
The provisioning wizard is reasonably friendly but those new to server provisioning may need to take a breath and walk through configuration carefully. Our review model, running older firmware, simply refused to install Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials incurring an impressive amount of frustration and swearing.
HP’s Intelligent Provisioning feature should allow direct download and installation of firmware updates – even without an operating system installed. In use, I found that feature to be patchy, with the server often complaining about a lack of a network connection or downloading gigabytes worth of updates that then refused to install. Moving to manual updates, a review of the MicroServer’s download and update support pages is likely to prompt a lot of head scratching even amongst seasoned professionals.
I managed to get the HP MicroServer to accept one set of manual updates (requiring download and burning of an ISO file to disc), but the server needed additional upgrades to accept Microsoft’s new OS platform. Unfortunately, despsite repeated attempts and a full day of trying to upgrade the server firmware utilising HP’s automatic and manual processes, I gave up. Fortunately, with an MSDN subscription at hand, I could install an earlier version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials to try out the hardware.
Sad to say, even trying to install Windows Server 2012 Essentials using Intelligent Provisioning failed due to the same partitioning error, so I abandoned HP’s feature all together and installed the operating system manually. Clearly, some kind of software update for Intelligent Provisioning is required, but if the systems built to update firmware fail, things look very bleak indeed for the Gen8 Microserver. Going forward, obviously HP will ship the MicroServer with up to date firmware to support Windows Server 2012 R2, but that same scenario may well occur when you subsequently decide to migrate to Microsoft’s next release, who knows?
Overall, compared to previous HP MicroServer models, the Gen8 certainly includes more installation features which may please IT consultants installing these boxes in scale but for the tech-savvy small business owner and prosumer that wants to self-install, the installation experience overall feels overly complex compared to competitor devices such as Western Digital’s Sentinel series. Add to that HP’s bewildering decision to start charging for firmware updates for out of warranty servers (with extended warranty options weighing in around half the cost of the server itself) and it’s an inauspicious start for the HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8.
But let’s press on.