I recently became the owner of an HP ProLiant MicroServer N54L, a small box with a bunch of hard drive bays and a low-power AMD Turion dual-core processor. I’ve also been tweaking it quite heavily, resulting in a dramatic improvement in network performance and a significant drop in power draw – and this is how I did it. If you’re not running Linux, mind, everything past Step 1 is likely of no use to you.

Warning: The advice here worked for me, but some of it – in particular turning off journalling and using an aggressive spin-down profile on the drives – is hardly best-practice. It can even shorten the lifespan of certain components. Where something can have a deleterious effect, I’ll highlight it – but go into this warned that not everything I’ve done here is for everyone.

Step 1: Unlock the BIOS
The MicroServer is HP’s entry-level server, and as a result is missing several features of higher-end models – in particular hot-swap drive bays. This isn’t a physical restriction, but a fake restriction put in place by HP – and it can be removed by installing a modified BIOS. Doing so also allows all the SATA ports to run at 3Gb/s – two are limited to 1.5Gb/s by default – and fixes a flaw in the original BIOS that prevents the NIC from operating under certain operating systems.

HP has recently taken the decision to lock its BIOS updates behind a warranty wall: if you don’t have a warranty, you can’t get BIOS updates. That’s not very nice, so it’s a good job that someone has uploaded a pre-modified BIOS. The naughty person. Just download the file, write the image to a USB stick with dd (or ImageWriter if you’re on Windows) and power the server on with the stick in a port. Wait for the DOS prompt to appear and power off – you’re done.

Step 2: Network Tuning
Out of the box, I found the MicroServer’s network performance to be poor indeed under Ubuntu 13.10. Some of the blame has to go to the cheap Broadcom NIC, but I figured I could do better.

First, edit /etc/rc.local and stick the following lines into it, just above ‘exit 0’:

ethtool -G em1 rx 511
ifconfig em1 txqueuelen 1000
defaultroute=`ip route | grep "^default" | head -1`
ip route change $defaultroute initcwnd 10

This forces the NIC to use its entire ring buffer for RX packets – by default only 200 bytes of the 511 bytes available get used – and increases the transmit queue length to a figure better suited to gigabit network traffic. The default route is also tweaked.

Next, edit /etc/sysctl.conf and add the following:

fs.file-max = 100000
net.core.netdev_max_backlog = 50000
net.core.optmem_max = 40960
net.core.rmem_default = 16777216
net.core.rmem_max = 16777216
net.core.wmem_default = 16777216
net.core.wmem_max = 16777216
net.ipv4.conf.all.accept_redirects = 0
net.ipv4.conf.all.accept_source_route = 0
net.ipv4.conf.all.log_martians = 1
net.ipv4.conf.all.send_redirects = 0
net.ipv4.ip_local_port_range = 10000 65000
net.ipv4.tcp_fin_timeout = 10
net.ipv4.tcp_max_syn_backlog = 30000
net.ipv4.tcp_max_tw_buckets = 2000000
net.ipv4.tcp_rfc1337 = 1
net.ipv4.tcp_rmem = 4096 87380 16777216
net.ipv4.tcp_slow_start_after_idle = 0
net.ipv4.tcp_tw_reuse = 1
net.ipv4.tcp_wmem = 4096 65536 16777216
net.ipv4.udp_rmem_min = 8192
net.ipv4.udp_wmem_min = 8192
vm.swappiness = 10

A reboot will bring the box up with your new settings, or you can force a reload with sysctl -p (or sudo sysctl -p if you’re not root.) Combined, these two tweaks resulted in the throughout of the system going from about 40MB/s to 120MB/s, so it’s definitely worth doing.

Step 3: Power Tuning
The idle power of the MicroServer wasn’t great when I was finished tuning the network, pulling around 40W from the wall. A little careful tuning of the system, though, and that dropped to 21W – a significant saving.

First, we’ll discuss the fixes that won’t cause you any problems. Open /etc/rc.local again and add the following lines:

echo 'min_power' > '/sys/class/scsi_host/host2/link_power_management_policy'
echo 'min_power' > '/sys/class/scsi_host/host3/link_power_management_policy'
echo 'min_power' > '/sys/class/scsi_host/host4/link_power_management_policy'
echo 'min_power' > '/sys/class/scsi_host/host5/link_power_management_policy'
echo '0' > '/proc/sys/kernel/nmi_watchdog'
echo '1500' > '/proc/sys/vm/dirty_writeback_centisecs'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:18.3/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:00.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:01.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:06.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:01:05.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:11.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:12.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:13.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:13.2/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:18.4/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:12.2/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:18.2/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:14.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:14.1/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:14.3/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:14.4/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:16.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:16.2/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:18.0/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:00:18.1/power/control'
echo 'auto' > '/sys/bus/pci/devices/0000:02:00.0/power/control'

That’ll have a small but noticeable impact on power draw at idle, enabling a bunch of typically-off power management features. If you’ve got additional USB or PCIe devices in your MicroServer, you may find that this doesn’t catch all of ’em; install PowerTOP and go to the ‘Tunables’ tab to see if there’s anything labelled ‘Bad,’ then toggle it to ‘Good.’

That’s a start, but for real savings we need to spin the drives down. This may or may not be possible in your usage scenario: mechanical drives have a limited number of load/unload cycles before they break, and the last thing you want to be doing is having it constantly spinning down and spinning back up again. Because I’m not always accessing the MicroServer – I back up to it once a day, stream media from it during the evening, and otherwise mostly leave it alone – I can get away with a reasonably aggressive power-saving plan; you may well need to adjust the numbers below to suit your own needs.

If you want to continue, start with adding the following to /etc/rc.local:

hdparm -S 60 /dev/sda /dev/sdb /dev/sdc /dev/sdd
hdparm -B 1 /dev/sdb /dev/sdc /dev/sdd
hdparm -M 128 /dev/sdb /dev/sdc /dev/sdd

That tells the system to spin all four hard drives down after 300 seconds of inactivity. If you ain’t got four hard drives, edit the line accordingly. Some drives may not sleep on their own; if that’s the case, have a look at the Powernap tool and use it in conjunction with ‘hdparm -y’ to force a drive to spin down. I use it on my system because one drive of a mirror sleeps while the other stays awake; Powernap watches for this, and when the first drive sleeps it forces the second into the low-power state.

The second command puts the drives in the most aggressive power management level possible, while the third puts it into the quietest possible acoustic management mode. Note that I haven’t included the boot drive sda there: the drive that came with my MicroServer doesn’t support either of those settings. Try running the command yourself, and if your drives do support it then add them to the above list.

One drive that won’t spin down is your boot drive – in my case, the 250GB drive the MicroServer came with. If that’s a problem, consider switching to a solid-state drive (SSD) instead. If you’re truly desperate to save as much power as possible but have no cash left, however, there are options. First, move /var – the bit of the disk that sees the most activity, in particular due to the log files held in /var/log, to a spare USB flash drive you’ve got lying around. You’ll need at least 1GB, preferably 2GB or more to allow for sudden growth.

The procedure for moving /var isn’t straightforward, and is rife with danger – it’s perfectly possible to end up with a non-booting system. If you’re still reading, here’s how I did it (as root) with the USB stick inserted as /dev/sde. First, edit /etc/fstab and insert a line to mount the USB stick as /var, and while you’re at it edit the root mount point to disable access time writing.

/dev/sde1       /var    ext4    defaults,noatime,nodiratime     0       1
/dev/sda1       /       ext4    noatime,nodiratime,errors=remount-ro 0       1

I’d recommend using the drive’s UUID (visible with the blkid command) instead of the device node, ‘cos you don’t want the system to get confused and mount the wrong drive. Next, populate the drive:

mkfs.ext4 /dev/sde1
mkdir /tempvar
mount -t ext4 /dev/sde1 /tempvar
cp -rfp /var -T /tempvar
umount /tempvar
mount /dev/sde1 /var

When the server comes up – assuming nothing went wrong – /var is now running from the USB drive, saving writes to the mechanical drive. However, you may find the mechanical drive still doesn’t spin down. In my case, this was ‘cos I was running a journalling file system – ext4 – which was always writing data to the disk. Simple fix: turn journalling off.

Another warning: turning journalling off is a really bad idea. Journalling is there to ensure that the file system doesn’t get corrupted. Turn it off, and there’s a non-zero chance that a sudden reboot – a power-cut, say – will result in a corrupt root file system and a non-booting server. I’ve got a UPS and a backup of the file system, so it’s a chance I’m willing to take – but consider the implications long and hard before continuing.

If you’re still convinced you want to do this, you can turn ext4’s journalling option off by remounting the root filesystem read-only and issuing the following command:

tune2fs -O "^has_journal" /dev/sda1

With that, the root drive is now free to spin down – resulting in the aforementioned 21W idle power draw. But seriously, don’t do this. Just buy a cheap SSD instead.

19 thoughts on “Tuning an HP ProLiant MicroServer

  1. But will it run a Minecraft server?!

  2. According to the official system requirements, it should run fine – if the CPU isn’t a little weedy, perhaps.

  3. I think it probably is, sadly.

  4. BIOS file download is gone, FYI. Pity that- I just bought the N54L, too…. 🙁

  5. TY- I got it….now to find the time soon to install.

    Thank you so much (I really don’t understand HP’s stance here).

  6. John Mountbatton on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 at 19:08 said:

    I have a new HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 with no hard disk drives in it. I added a HDD. Then I started the official HP initialization program of the MicroServer. This program allows Red Hat, SUSE, MS, VMware but not Ubuntu to be installed. Was on your original hardware a similar initializationn program. How did you manage to install Ubuntu?
    Now, is some (except of the BIOS software which you changed as described) of the original HP software deleted by your Ubuntu software on your server?
    If yes, did you experience limitations of the usage of the server by your Ubuntu software (eliminating some of the original HP software)?

    John Mountbatton

  7. Hi, John.

    I didn’t use any kind of HP initialisation program – I just installed Ubuntu straight on to the bundled 250GB hard drive using Canonical’s usual installer. If there was anything pre-installed, it disappeared when I did that – but I’ve noticed none of the server’s features being restricted in any way as a result. Indeed, quite the opposite thanks to the custom BIOS!

  8. Very informative, thanks for the effort. I have one of these running Debian 6. I was using it 24×7 but now I have moved half of its “tasks” to the cloud, so I’d like to turn it off to save some watts.

    When I shut it down using poweroff command it stops at “System Halted” but the screen is on, the blue light is still on and some fans are spinning.

    Would you have any advice?

    Thanks in advance.

  9. Hi, Luis.

    I don’t use ‘poweroff’ but ‘shutdown -h now’ from Ubuntu, and that does the right thing (i.e. powers the system off automatically.) I’m not sure why it wouldn’t work on from Debian. Obviously, you can force a power off during system halt by holding down the power button for five or so seconds – but that requires you to be in the same room as the server, and I’m guessing you want to be able to power the system down remotely.

    ‘poweroff’ should do exactly the same as ‘shutdown -h now’, but on the off-chance that it doesn’t for some strange reason could you try the latter command? If that doesn’t work, it’s possible that there’s something missing in Debian with regard to ACPI or similar that prevents it from instructing the hardware to shut down.

  10. Hi,
    i’ve recently purchased the the N54L, and it seems to have come from HP with the official 041 (10/01/2013) BIOS on it. Extracting the BIOS from your page, the readme says that it is the same BIOS version? But i believe the one on your download has been modified to allow the higher SATA rates and hot swap? Is this correct? And can i just boot and flash using your BIOS, even though they both probably say they are the same version?

  11. Yes, you should be able to flash the modified BIOS over the top of the stock BIOS even though they’re the same version.

  12. The tunning for eth0 at the beginning are adviseable and functional on n54l running xpenology 5.2 instead of Linux ??

  13. Xpenology is a Linux distribution, so the same tuning should be possible. Whether the tuning is necessary or not, though, I couldn’t tell you; you’d have to try it with and without to see which gives you the best performance!

  14. I’ve downloaded the BIOS update provided by you, decompressed it and had it mounted – in order to have a look at it. Even though I have my opinion ‘set-up’ – I would like to ask: Do you think that this BIOS version is compatible with older revisions of HP Microserver itself? I got N40L from mid2012 – and just curious if I can benefit of the image provided by you…
    Thanks in advance for your input!

  15. I wouldn’t recommend using the BIOS on any other model of MicroServer – I can’t see it ending well!

  16. the n36l/n40l and n54l microservers are all identical, apart from the CPU (1.3ghz/1.5ghz and 2.2ghz).
    Bios for them is the same update (HP or modified).

    Running modified bios on my n36l and it’s a nice little server.

  17. my ubuntu doesn’t have an /etc/rc.local has it moved in recent versions? do you have similar instructions compatible with ubuntu 20? also is there command line only power management solution? i run this headless, no GUI to do e.g. PowerTap

  18. PowerTop is a TUI (Text User Interface) tool, not a GUI tool – it doesn’t need a desktop environment. You can run it on a local TTY or remotely via SSH, it’ll work fine either way.

    Many modern Linuxes, including Ubuntu, have retired /etc/rc.local. If you want things to load on start-up now, you’re best off creating a systemd service – if you search for “systemd startup service” you’ll find guides for doing that. It only takes a few minutes, and it’s more robust.

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