Supermicro X8SIL-F Motherboard Review
The Supermicro X8SIL-F motherboard is an excellent board for home and small business servers. When building a file server built upon Windows Home Server (V1 or V2 Vail) or another open source NAS project such as FreeNAS, Openfiler, EON ZFS storage, the Supermicro has a feature set that differentiates itself from both AMD and Intel based consumer-level motherboards. Compatibility with those operating systems and virtualization platforms such as Microsoft’s Hyper-V make the X8SIL-F a strong contender for a DIY storage or virtual machine server.
Test Configuration (Base):
- CPU(s): Intel Core i3-530 and Intel Xeon X3440
- Motherboard: Supermicro X8SIL-F Rev. 1.02
- Memory: 2x 4GB kits of Kingston ECC 1333MHz DDR3 KVR1333D3E9SK2/4G (Unbuffered)
- Case: Norco RPC-4220
- Drives: Hitachi 7200rpm 2TB x4
- OS(es): Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V installed, Windows Home Server (in Hyper-V), Windows Home Server V2 Codename VAIL (in Hyper-V), EON ZFS Storage (0.60.0), OpenFiler (v2.3), FreeNAS (0.7.1), and Ubuntu (9.10)
Some differences between the X8SIL-F and quality enthusiast motherboards/ HTPC motherboards
The LGA1156 platform has been a strong platform for enthusiasts and is quickly catching on with HTPC users for its solid performance and low power consumption. Motherboard manufacturers like Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, and others all have enthusiast level boards with the LGA1156 chipset with multi-stage power (for overclocking), NF200 switched PCIe lanes, USB3, SATA3, onboard HD audio and etc. Some LGA1156 boards also include dual Realtek gigabit NICs although a single NIC is standard. On Supermicro’s offerings, including the X8SIL-F, these enthusiast features are inconspicuously absent.
The X8SIL-F is certainly not an overclocking board. The VRM’s with large heatsinks and heatpipes are absent from the Supermicro offering, as are BIOS options that would allow one to make necessary tweaks.
What one will find is that Supermicro’s feature set closely follows the laundry list of important server features. For example, the X8SIL-F has a dedicated Realtek NIC (10/100 interface) that only services the onboard IPMI 2.0. Supermicro included two Intel 82574L based gigabit NICs onboard (which are superior to consumer Realtek gigabit offerings). Other Supermicro Ibex Peak – LGA1156 variants have up to four Intel gigabit NICs or onboard LSI SAS controllers (including 6.0gbps SAS). On the X8SIL-F, the expansion slots (Two PCIe x8, one PCIe x4 with a x8 physical slot, and one legacy PCI slot) are available to add features as necessary.
As one can see by my previous post, the Supermicro X8SIL-F does not support Intel’s Clarkdale based CPUs with version 1.01 of the board. PCB Revision v1.02 of the X8SIL-F does support the new Intel 32nm Core i3 and Core i5 chips. Low power consumption, good performance, and low prices are hallmarks of the Clarkdale line.
If one wants features like native quad cores (and possibly hyperthreading), ECC memory, and etc. Intel has a line of Xeon CPU’s that are Socket 1156 compatible and work with the X8SIL-F. The Xeon X3430 and X3440 are similar to the Core i7 860 but the Xeon parts have slightly lower clock speeds and come with ECC support.
My goal with this system is to create a low cost, low power consumption, and small server, which meant that I decided to use the X8SIL-F with an Intel Core i3-530 at first. The Intel Core i3-530 can be found for approximately $115 which is a very reasonable price point compared to Xeon processors. Paired with the X8SIL-F the street price for the combination is about $300 which is significantly cheaper than using an Intel Xeon X34xx series CPU (or an Intel i5-750).
After testing the X8SIL-F with the Core i3-530 and i5-650, I decided to install a Xeon X3440 so I could take advantage of the memory’s ECC features. Swapping CPU’s was painless and Intel’s stock heatsink/ fan combination was again adequate.
IPMI 2.0 with dedicated management NIC
IPMI 2.0 is simply a must-have home server feature, and is one area that AMD CPU’s are severely outmatched at the present time. On one hand, AMD’s current consumer Athlon and Phenom II chips all have the ability to use ECC memory, which is an important feature for mission critical servers. On the other hand, the ability to get IPMI 2.0 on AMD Socket AM2 and AM3 motherboards is very limited. The best boards I could find for this are Tyan motherboards, of which I could find three compatible motherboards. Conversely, Intel, Supermicro, and Tyan all have IPMI 2.0 enabled motherboards at present. It is a major differentiator as I have had to remotely reboot a system that had ESXi (along with guest OSes) freeze in the past. Using IPMI 2.0, I could just log in and power cycle the box versus having to physically reset the machine.
For those that build systems for others, and therefore have systems installed at remote sites, the IPMI 2.0 features supplied by the Supermicro X8SIL-F’s on board Nuvoton WPCM450 Baseboard Management Controller (BMC) is absolutely invaluable. Service calls for a frozen machine do not mean an immediate trip to the installed-at location. Instead, one can remotely log into a machine and reset it, power cycle the machine, or even power off/ power on the machine. The Java based console redirection allows a user to change BIOS settings, which is not possible with RDC and VNC connections.
Furthermore, with IPMI 2.0 and the ability to mount ISO’s over a network, one can deploy the server with a USB flash drive and setup the operating system remotely (as seen above with FreeNAS). Thus far I have used this installation method to install EON ZFS Storage (0.60.0), OpenFiler (v2.3), FreeNAS (0.7.1), and Ubuntu (9.10). Next up I will be doing a VMWare ESXi and Microsoft Hyper-V installation. Bottom line, for an open source NAS software installation standpoint, IPMI 2.0 and an internal USB header works very well.
Just to give one an idea of how useful this is, I have installed nine operating systems on X8SIL-F equipped systems thus far, and have never plugged in a CD-ROM/DVD ROM, floppy, keyboard, mouse, or monitor at this point.
Dual Integrated Intel LAN
Supermicro’s X8SIL-F has two Intel 82574L based gigabit NICs onboard. Anyone reading my site will note that I am biased heavily in favor of Intel based gigabit NICs. This is for two reasons. First, the OS and Hypervisor support is generally very good for Intel gigabit NICs. Second, I have seen much better throughput on Intel NIC to Intel NIC gigabit networks versus networks with Realtek and Marvell network controllers. The Intel 82574L supports things like TCP/UDP CPU offloading and TSO for lower CPU utilization, PXE/ iSCSI boot, Jumbo frames, two transmit and receive queues per port, a 40KB packet buffer, and etc. The Intel 82574L is the same controller used in Intel’s Gigabit CT (EXPI9301CTBLK) PCIe x1 network adapter. In essence, the Supermicro X8SIL-F saves one $60-70 and a PCIe slot (if one were to get a dual port Intel NIC) or two versus a lower-cost board where NICs would be required separately.
Also of note again, with the X8SIL-F, the Supermicro IMPI 2.0 feature includes the ability to mount CD’s and DVD’s over the onboard 10/100 Realtek controller. Furthermore, the keyboard and video inputs and outputs can also go over the IPMI 2.0 interface offloading this data from the dual Intel gigabit NICs. The net result is that the Intel NICs will have more bandwidth available for sending and receiving content on the X8SIL-F because it has the third NIC (Realtek) for management functions.
Internal USB header
A really nice feature is the internal USB header. This allows one to add a USB thumb drive to the interior of the enclosure housing the Supermicro X8SIL-F. For home and small business storage servers, this is an enormous benefit. FreeNAS, Openfiler, unRaid, untangle and many other operating systems can install directly to a relatively low-cost flash drive saving an onboard SATA port (the X8SIL-F has six onboard SATA II ports), or expansion card SATA/ SAS port for an additional storage drive. Since the USB stick will be installed inside the enclosure, it offers more protection from becoming wrongfully uninstalled than an externally installed drive.
A major factor for purchasing the X8SIL-F over other boards in Supermicro’s lineup are the expansion slots. I found that the X8SIL-F had the perfect number of PCIe and PCI slots for a file server. One can use on slot for a hardware raid card, a second PCIe slot for an Intel Pro/1000 Quad port Gigabit NIC, and the third PCIe port for a HP SAS Expander. Alternatively, one can use two eight port Supermicro PCIe SATA / SAS HBA’s along with the six on board SATA ports for a total of 22 SATA ports, or the perfect number of ports for a Norco RPC-4220 or RPC-4020 chassis. The PCI slot facilitates adding a single PCI Intel NIC or another piece of legacy hardware. Personally I use an Intel Pro/1000 GT in the PCI slot for another virtual machine NIC.
Aside from some memory compatibility issues with consumer-enthusiast memory noted below, the Supermicro X8SIL-F rev 1.02 had no other compatibility issues in my testing. I used Adaptec (1, 3, and 5 series) RAID controllers an Areca (1600 series) controller, a HP SAS Expander, various Intel add in gigabit NICs and the Supermicro board had no issues working with the hardware.
Perhaps the best part about the X8SIL-F is that, through nine operating system installations, the X8SIL-F’s hardware had no incompatibility issues. Ubuntu, OpenSolaris (EON ZFS Storage), FreeNAS (FreeBSD based), Openfiler, and all Windows based operating systems including Windows Home Server V2 Vail and Windows Server 2008 R2 just worked with the onboard hardware and Hyper-V VM’s ran in a stable manner. This is one hallmark of solid server boards in my opinion, especially since I have had more than one occasion trying to install an open source OS on a system where an onboard device was not supported or VMWare ESXi does not support a device. Solid hardware compatibility saves troubleshooting time, and means that repurposing hardware is not a headache later in its lifecycle.
mATX form factor
For LGA1156 systems, which tend to have less memory and expandability than LGA1366 systems, mATX makes a lot of sense. Generally speaking, the smaller board size translates into a small amount of power consumption savings. Furthermore, it allows one to have slightly more space in the enclosure for things like cable routing. Since there are less PCIe lanes available on LGA1156 platforms the mATX design provides sufficient expandability in a small form factor.
Great Supermicro quality and support
After receiving X8SIL-F PCB Revision v1.01 which did not work with the Core i3-530, I contacted Supermicro support about this issue. It was a known incompatibility and Supermicro was willing to immediately exchange my board. Supermicro is one of those companies that I have found over the past decade that if you follow the following rules, they do a great job helping you:
- Do basic troubleshooting yourself (i.e. their support seems geared to experienced users, so it is best to do initial troubleshooting before contacting Supermicro.)
- Deal with Supermicro in a professional manner. Nobody is happy hardware has an issue, but if you know the exact problem, your desired resolution, and have all related information Supermicro generally does a great job fixing the issue.
- Perhaps the most important is look at Supermicro’s hardware compatibility list for products. My problem was CPU incompatibility, but it was due to having an older revision board. With things like memory modules, always make sure that the hardware you are using is on the HCL (see below for why this is important.)
The key here is that building a system using a Supermicro motherboard is not going to be the lowest cost solution, but Supermicro products do come with a better level of support compared to consumer motherboards. If you do your diligence, Supermicro does a great job supporting their products.
The X8SIL-F does have some interesting memory features. Users coming from consumer boards may notice that the Supermicro X8SIL-F has memory slots that face East- West rather than North- South. This is a standard feature on server motherboards as airflow moves from the front to the back of a rackmount chassis. On consumer platforms, the North-South orientation facilitates airflow from the bottom front of a tower case to the upper-rear exhaust fans.
On actual memory compatibility, I tried on Patriot DDR3 1600MHz C9 set, a Corsair Dominator GT DDR3 1600 C7 set, a G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3 1600MHz C9 set, and another G.Skill DDR3 1600MHz set. All four types of memory I tried had a minimum sample size of four 2GB sticks of and all were non-ECC memory. Not a single one worked as I was greeted with a long beep. This seemed odd since I was moving the memory from H55, H57, and P55 platforms, using the same i3-530 and i5-650 CPUs, and having the modules not work in the X8SIL-F rev 1.01 and rev 1.02. My conclusion was to stop fighting and acquiesce to follow Supermicro’s guidelines.
When I asked Supermicro about the memory issue, they suggested that all of those kits may be x8 rank kits. I will say, with consumer grade kits, it is difficult to tell from marketing material if they are x4 or x8 rank DIMMs. I ended up purchasing two 4GB kits of Kingston ECC 1333MHz DDR3 KVR1333D3E9SK2/4G (which are x8 rank) and they work perfectly in the X8SIL-F. The lesson here is that one should abide by Supermicro’s memory guidelines for the X8SIL-F.
Supermicro offers a compelling platform for those looking for a solid, stable, feature packed, and well supported server motherboard. While the X8SIL-F is not the least expensive platform one can build a Windows based home server, low end virtualization platform, or open source NAS upon, it does offer a compelling feature set for Intel LGA1156 based platforms.