Managing Small Embedded Servers

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I've been checking out Super Micro Computer's (Supermicro) SC101i server chassis with one of their IPMI-enabled Mini-ITX motherboards (Fig. 1) for a while now. I just haven't had time to write it up. It has been so quiet and trouble free I forgot about it sitting in the corner chugging away.

 

The other reason it has been out of sight and mind is because I was remotely managing it once it was installed. It has been sitting in a room that had an Ethernet jack but was out of the way.

I have built Mini-ITX systems in the past but this one was a little different. It has three Ethernet ports instead of the usual one or two. The third is for remote management that includes IPMI support. I have looked at this from an enterprise server perspective in the past (see Trying Out Remote Server Management Options). Out-of-band remote management is common in the enterprise where public and private clouds are on the rise. It provides a more secure environment and makes headless operation simple.

Remote management of embedded systems has been common as well but out-of-band remote management has been less common except in certain areas such as some military and most high end communications applications. IPMI is part of board standards like VPX and Advanced TCA.

Supermicro's Mini-ITX boards adds the same baseboard management controller (BMC) that is found on their enterprise motherboards (Fig. 2). Supermicro's BMC provides IPMI support as well as web-based remote management using its own serial or Ethernet interface. These can also be shared so a single Ethernet interface can be used by the host processors as well as the BMC.

Combining the management and host network access on the same interface reduces the number of cables required and it is possible to use VLAN support to isolate the communication. Still, for absolute security a second network is required and recommended to provide remote management.

I have been using Supermicro platforms for a number of sites I help with and it has made remote management practical for more than remote server access. The latter is used for most chores using protocols like SSH and VNC but if a server locks up then the out-of-band support comes into play. It provides a view of what is on the screen, it can reprogram the BIOS and reboot the system when necessary even if the host operating system is hung.

The motherboard in the system I tested was Supermicro's X9SBAA-F. It runs a 64-bit, 2.0 GHz, Intel S1260, dual core Atom processor. The single SO-DIMM socket had an 8 Gbyte DDR3-1333 module with ECC support. It only used one of the four 6 Gbit/s SATA 3 ports for the hard drive. There are two USB 3.0 port and dual Gbit Ethernet ports in addition ot the dedicated IPMI 2.0/KVM port. The single 32-bit PCI slot went unused for my tests and there is no external access to the slot when using the SC101i case. I did connect a monitor to the integrated Matrox G200eW video output just to see that it worked.

Supermicro's offerings are not unique although they are robust. Other vendors provide various levels of remote management often taking advantage of Intel's vPRO technology (see Latest x86 Micros Great For Digital Signage). The vPRO support is uses a shared Ethernet connection for its out-of-band management like one of Supermicro's options. Secure network communication methodologies can be employed to keep management communication away from prying eyes.

Supermicro has a number of Mini-ITX motherboards that will fit into the SC101i server chassis so you can pick the one that best suits your application. The SC101i has room for a 2.5-in drive and there are front panel USB ports. It has a single power button with no reset switch. There is a 6-cm cooling fan on the side and the system supports an optional 80-W DC-DC power supply.

I like a separate network for management even of remote devices because it provides an alternative path to any device. It does mean using additional Ethernet switches but it means that congestion or other network issues on the main network will not bring down the management side.

At this point most Arm-based solutions lack this type of remote management support. It will likely show up on the enterprise side as the 64-bit Cortex-A50 takes off.

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Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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