Low-power systems are popular with enthusiasts everywhere. From the Linksys NSLU2 (thoughtfully also known as “the slug”), and the various Marvell SheevaPlug devices, there isn’t a shortage of options. With all of them, however, you need to make compromises—be it having to deal with ARM’s tics, lack of I/O expansion, bad performance, or lackadaisical manufacturers.
If you’re willing to compromise on: size, but still be much smaller than your average PC; power, but also consume less power than your average PC; performance, but still run circles around an ARM-based device—then take a look at the Hewlett-Packard ProLiant N36L “Microserver”. Introduced September 2010, reviews and photos of this system are few and far between. In this article, I review the hardware aspects of the N36L, while in another, I review its software aspects [coming soon].
The N36L is powered by an x86-based AMD Athlon II Neo processor running at 1.3 GHz intended for low-power systems like netbooks. While it has a slower clockspeed, this AMD CPU typically benchmarks faster than Intel’s Atom 1.6 GHz CPU. For the enterprise crowd, the Athlon II Neo is a 64-bit processor and supports hardware-accelerated virtualization and nested paging. This CPU is ideal for partitioning lightly-used services into lightweight VMs. With two DDR3 DIMM slots, the N36L can accommodate up to 8 GiB of RAM.
Graphics is provided by an integrated ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4200 (which also supports GPGPU/OpenCL via proprietary drivers), and the Gigabit NIC is a Broadcom NetXtreme BCM5723.
The mainboard provides a respectable amount of expansion. It has two PCIe slots, an x16 (you could easily use a discrete graphics card, though you’d have to be picky about dimensions) and an x1. Adjacent the x1 slot is an x4 slot, supposedly for use with HP’s proprietary management card. You could probably hack a conventional x4 card into the slot, but I rather HP have made the x4 slot usable and used the x1 slot for it’s proprietary add-ons (does a management card really need more than PCIe x1?).
The chassis’ disk racks connect via a mini-SAS connector. There’s one internal SATA connector for the 5.25” bay, but the system’s eSATA connector faces outward so your dreams of easily putting six drives in this tiny system are dashed.
There’s an internal USB 2.0 port, a common feature on servers. It makes running an OS off a USB flash drive that much easier—sequestered internally, such a drive won’t accidentally get knocked off.
The frontside of the N36L is… “server-like”, whatever that means. Along the top are LED indicators for disk and network activity, as well as the system’s backlit power button. There are four USB 2.0 ports along the right side, and an HP logo that glows blue when the system is on. The chassis door is metal (not plastic!), and has a lock.
The backside of the N36L is austere. The only ports: two USB 2.0 ports, one D-sub VGA port, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and one eSATA port. There’s a security Kensington lock slot, as well as an “expander slot” for HP’s proprietary management card. The power supply, fortunately, is integrated (power bricks are a pet peeve of mine), and uses a standard AC power cord.
There are two fans: a 120 mm fan for the system’s main cooling, and a 40 mm fan internal to the PSU. Fortunately, both are quiet; HP rates the system at 21 dB. It’s not silent, but it is quiet. There are no top or side vents; air is drawn in through the front and exhausted out the back.
Unlike other PCs, the N36L does not use Phillips-head screws for the user-accessible bits. Two sizes of Torx screws are used (I’m unsure of the size), and HP was pleasant enough to include a Torx screwdriver that snaps into the inside of the machine’s front door. Screws for hard disks and the optical disk drive are also screwed into convenient holes in the front door—no little baggies of screws to lose here! There is a single thumbscrew on the top-back to remove the top cover, and two thumbscrews hold the motherboard plate in place.
Other than the handle mechanism which has a metal spring, the N36L’s disk caddies are simple plastic affairs. The plastic does not appear to be particularly high quality, but since the only purpose of the things is to hold disks (and not face the environment), it probably good enough.
How much power does the N36L consume? Using my Kill-a-Watt, I measured 60 W on startup, which settled down to 45 W or so after booting and idling. This unfortunately is a much more than I’d have liked, but with four spinning disks I suppose it’s reasonable.
I’m not trying to be pessimist by not including a Pros list, but honestly, if you need one at this point you probably don’t need this machine. However, there are some cons I found annoying:
- Low height clearance for RAM. I found this out the hard way when my heatspreader-equipped DIMMs would not fit
- In the USA, at least, the N36L ships with 1 GiB of RAM, and either 160 GB or 250 GB disk… Which I immediately tossed for 8 GiB of RAM and four Western Digital 2 TB Green series disks. HP could have easily knocked $50 off the price by not including RAM and disk.
- No SATA cable included for the 5.25” bay. This is a minor quip, and was probably done to save that last extra $0.50—but it makes the decision to include the RAM and the disk seem that much more strange.
Why did I get an N36L? The short list:
- It’s x86-based. I didn’t want to muck about with ARM—its benefits for me are few.
- It can hold four 3.5” disks, and with Gigabit Ethernet functions as a great, inexpensive NAS
- Does not come with an operating system—yes, you are NOT paying Microsoft’s Windows tax! Also, all of the hardware in the N36L is well-supported by Linux and free software. Most other systems in this class force a Windows Home Server license on you.
- Cheap. I bought the N36L for $320 USD. It’s more expensive than most ARM-based alternatives, but simultaneously much more powerful.
If you’re looking for photos, see my HP ProLiant N36L set on Flickr. And, if you liked this article, please support this site and consider buying the N36L via affiliate link through Amazon (which only has the 250 GB disk model) or Newegg (which has both the 160 GB model and 250 GB model).