Nicolas314

All my geeky stuff ends up here. Mostly Unix-related

My own little farm

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zotac_ci323_03Virtualization is fun! Virtual Machines are nothing new, we have all been using VirtualBox, qemu, or VMWare at some point to try out new stuff, bring up the odd Windows instance to run annoying software, or whatever. At work we use thousands of VMs for millions of things. The hardware price tag is pretty hefty though: if you want to start a reasonable number of VMs on the same racked server you need very large amounts of RAM and disk space, placing it beyond reach in terms of price for home usage.

Not any more! Prices are dropping for heavy machinery faster than the time it takes to look up prices on Amazon. I found this little gem from Zotac and purchased one for a mere 180 euros from a French site:

Zotac CI323

The little beast sports a quad-core CPU, two Realtek NICs, and a whole bunch of USB ports (including two USB3). Add on top of that an extension card for WiFi and Bluetooth. Perfect choice to build a home router in a VM and leave space for other VM instances. You need to add RAM and disk, the box comes empty. I scavenged 8GB RAM and an SSD disk from a previous build and off we go.

It has been a while since I last had a look at virtualization solutions.  Took me several days to look them up individually and find out what they offer. All the solutions I tried are described below.

Option 1: run VirtualBox on a desktop

Install a convenient desktop like Mint or Ubuntu, run VirtualBox on top.  Unfortunately not a very good option as the VMs would not be as close to the metal as I would want. Dismissed.

Option 2: run Linux containers

Containers are neat but they are Linux only. I would like to run BSD and maybe Windows VMs too on the same hardware, so dismissed.

Option 3: Run a bare metal hypervisor

The main options I could find are:

  • VMWare: run VMWare OS as hypervisor, run any OS on top.
  • bhyve (pronounced like beehive), the FreeBSD hypervisor
  • Proxmox
  • KVM: use virtualization routines offered in the Linux kernel. This can be started from any Linux distro and conveniently run pretty much any OS.
  • Xen: use a Xen kernel as bare-metal hypervisor, run any OS on top.

VMWare ESXi was my first choice but had to be quickly dismissed: my box NICs are Realtek and VMWare dropped support for those a few versions back.  Annoying. There are convoluted HOWTOs explaining how to hack the install ISO to add missing drivers and stuff but I do not want to play that game. The whole setup would probably be broken in the following release so no thanks.

I installed FreeBSD 11 and tried out bhyve. Installing FreeBSD on this particular hardware was a real chore: for some reason the integrated SD card reader has driver issues and booting the machine took up to 10 minutes because of a nasty timeout spitting out kernel traces. I finally succeeded in disabling the driver on boot by adding stuff to device.hints after hours of googling and tests. To be fair, I have always faced issues with hardware support on FreeBSD, but to be completely fair: these are the only issues I ever faced. The OS is so polished and professional it is a real pleasure to use. Other parts of the box were immediately recognized and activated: Realtek NICs and the WiFi+Bluetooth (Intel) board.

Anyway: bhyve is relatively easy to learn, documentation is good enough, and it should run any BSD or Linux-based VM without any effort. Running Windows or OSX VMs would probably not be a good idea though. I have not tried but it seems a bit daring. If bhyve offered an easy-to-use GUI I might have stuck with it, but I finally dismissed it because it is still too young compared to other existing solutions.

KVM: the idea would be to install a very small Linux instance and use it to manage VMs on top with KVM. I tried several:

Ubuntu desktop is far too heavy for a “very small Linux instance”. I cannot believe a simple desktop is using so much RAM and CPU. I tried to manually remove stuff after a default installation and broke the machine most completely after having erased ‘evolution’. Forget it.

Ubuntu server is fine enough without GUI, but I would like to have a minimal X11 environment to run VM management software. Unfortunately, as soon as you start adding GUI stuff to an Ubuntu server you start piling up gigs of desktop software you do not want. I could probably figure it out but did not have the patience to do it.

Arch Linux is a royal pain to install. Manjaro (a fairly straight Arch derivative) gets you to a fully configured machine in a matter of minutes.  Problem is: I do want stability on my VM farm and a rolling release is probably not the best choice. Dismissed.

Minimal Debian install worked great. All hardware perfectly supported. And then I tried some KVM tutorials, messed up a bit further with Xen tutorials, and ended up with a completely borked machine. Don’t ask me what went wrong, I just got frustrated of randomly killing processes and rebooting the hardware. There are certainly good HOWTOs out there explaning how to transform a base Debian install into a Xen/KVM server but I did not find them. Dismissed.

Alpine Linux to run KVM: did not try, but seems like a possible option.

I tried Proxmox but the default ISO does not install, it crashes miserably after a few minutes of timeout. I have no idea what is going on, but I dismissed Proxmox at that point and came back to it later. Read on.

At that point I was left with Xen as bare metal hypervisor. I focused on Xen Server, a free Citrix project. The OS is based on CentOS 7 with a modified kernel and a GUI on top.

The XenServer install procedure is rather straightforward. Answer a few questions and let it roll. On the next reboot you get an ncurses-based interface on the console that allows you to achieve the bare minimum: configure the host, start/stop VMs, that kind of stuff. You can also do the same through ssh (ssh in then use xconsole).

Beyond that you need to find a Windows desktop because the only management solution they offer is a heavy Windows client. You get a very decent management interface that looks a lot like the VMWare Sphere client, from which you can control pretty much everything. The fact that it only runs on Windows is a major pain but to be honest: you only use it to configure new VMs. Once they are started you access them through ssh, vnc, or rdesktop, so no need to maintain a live Windows machine just for that.

In less than two hours I managed to install on XenServer:

  • A minimal Alpine Linux running nginx
  • An OPNSense instance
  • A pfSense instance
  • A Windows 8.1 desktop
  • A FreeBSD 11.0 VM, no X11

I still felt like something was missing though: XenServer would not recognize my WiFi/Bluetooth board. It would have been cool to dedicate a VM to make a stand-alone access point, so I kept trying more stuff.

Among all the options I tried, the only one that had all my hardware covered without hitch was Debian. Proxmox is based on Debian jessie, so if I succeed in installing it there should be a way to make things work. Let’s try again. I started from Debian and installed Proxmox on top. The guide I used is here:

https://pve.proxmox.com/wiki/Install_Proxmox_VE_on_Debian_Jessie

This works and happens to be quite smooth.

NB: I managed to completely destroy my setup when I decided to change the host IP address without telling Proxmox first. Rebooting the machine does not help, it goes into an endless loop, fails to reconfigure the network, and dies in horrible pain. I took the shortest path and re-installed from scratch. Good advice: DO NOT CHANGE THE PROXMOX HOST IP ADDRESS.

Proxmox is now working beautifully well. The advantages over XenServer for me are multiple:

  • LXC + KVM support: Proxmox supports LXC containers and KVM Virtual Machines in approximately the same way. Of course, containers are much lighter to install, start up, shut down, or backup.
  • Proxmox is completely open-source. XenServer probably has proprietary parts somewhere, though I did not investigate more than that.
  • Proxmox offers a pure Web interface: no need for a heavy Windows client.  You can also open a VNC console on any virtual machine directly from your browser, which is incredibly convenient.
  • Based on Debian, Proxmox identified and supports all my hardware.

Just for fun, I created a local WiFi access point based on alpine Linux by instantiating an LXC container, assigning the wlan0 interface to it, and booting the right daemons.

The next VMs I created are:

  • An alpine Linux desktop under LXC
  • Various alpine Linux boxes under LXC to run simple services
  • An Ubuntu desktop (under KVM)
  • A Windows 8 desktop (under KVM)
  • A MacOS Sierra desktop 
  • pfSense and OPNSense as KVM appliances, to evaluate them
  • An OpenBSD box to play with pf in command-line mode
  • A FreeBSD11 box

All these virtual goodies run on the same hardware as I write these lines.

My next task will be to select a solution to use as a home virtual firewall appliance. Meanwhile I am just having fun popping up and down virtual machines as my mood goes.

Completely useless but tons of fun!

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Written by nicolas314

Tuesday 8 November 2016 at 3:43 pm

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