The dirt-cheap 60TB+ Dell PowerEdge 1950 or 2950 ZFS Server

Disclaimer: The rule of thumb for ZFS is to have 1GB of RAM per 1TB of physical storage.  64GB kits are available but are very expensive.  The real take-away from this post is getting a 9th-gen Dell server to talk to drives larger than 2TB.

Want to make an old Dell PowerEdge 1950 or 2950 into a big honking ZFS fileserver?  Or do you just need to use drives larger than 2TB with your 9th generation Dell box?  Here’s a recipe for it:

Dell PowerEdge 1950-III

  • 2x Xeon E5450 3GHz CPUs
  • 16GB PC5300F ECC RAM
  • PERC 5/i RAID Controller (internal SAS)
    • 2x 146GB SAS 15k drives
  • Dell SAS 6 GBps HBA Controller (PN: 7RJDT, external SAS)
    • Dell PowerVault MD1000 SAS Direct Access Storage Chassis
      • Dual Power supplies (required)
      • Dual AMP01 EMM Controllers (only one is required, two provide redundant channels)

The PERC 5/i runs the two internal SAS drives in a mirror and are used for the OS (Ubuntu Server LTS w/ ZFS on Linux, in my case).  The HBA connects to the MD1000 expander, providing up to 15 additional SAS or SATA trays.  This HBA is the secret sauce that allows the server to work with drives beyond 2TB–stock MD1000/9th gen controllers won’t see anything beyond 2TB.

Big warning: This hardware configuration isn’t supported and could cause trouble.  Be careful–this is a budget system, not a professional or enterprise quality build.

Little warning: The MD1000 is mostly a “dumb” expander, however it does have some management features which are only available via its supported controllers such as a PERC 6/e.  It’s a good idea to keep a PERC 6/e and cable handy just in case you need to diagnose a problem or tweak its (limited) configuration.

My total cost for this was about $500 without drives for the ZFS pool.  I’ll be using Seagate Constellation SAS drives, either 3TB or 4TB, in the MD1000.  While it can run SATA (with or without an interposer) I’ll be avoiding it for the ZFS pool–it seems to work fine, but SATA on SAS has been known to come with gremlins.

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