Optiplex vs Pi

I had some excellent comments and questions on one of my recent videos. In the video I talked about using multiple Dell Optiplex small form factor PC computers to split up and host the services that I currently have running on one Dell PowerEdge server.

One commenter, Philip, asked good questions, which I answered and then he followed up with additional questions. It makes sense to cover those in a post and video.

  • Have you calculated how much more you’re going to spend on electricity?

This would be comparing using four Dell Optiplex small form factor machines compared to the Dell PowerEdge server. I have not compared the difference in electricity consumption. I am interested in doing so, though it wouldn’t change my decision to break the services up to separate machines. For simplicity and reliability, I would like to have each service on its own machine.

This very much goes against the trend of the last decade of using multiple virtual machines or containers on one physical server. Doing that may make sense in a large corporate environment where multiple people are on staff to manage and maintain those systems. When there is a lot of expensive hardware and staff, it makes sense to squeeze as much out of every physical server to lower electricity and space costs; containers are great for this and lead to the next question.

  • Wouldn’t it make more sense to go the container route and have a spare machine that you would plug in only if your main one failed?

Containers, like docker, are pretty neat and have been trendy for quite a few years now. My current Dell PowerEdge server has a few of the services in docker containers. I had someone else set it up for me and it’s been running fine for a few years. However, if something failed, I am not confident that I could recreate the configuration on my own as it is a bit complicated. If I worked with docker every day, or at least more fequently, I might consider it.

I have also had a few bad experiences with docker containers just complicating things and making it hard to understand how the server is set up (data has to be set up to be stored outside the container, for example). Since my goal is simplicity and one service per machine, there’s no need to seperate services into docker containers as my separation is the physical machines and I don’t need the software container to simulate separation.

Having a spare computer set up with all those services could work, especially as docker containers do store their data outside the container. However, if the main machine went down, all my services would be down until I plugged in the spare and synced the data.

  • Why did you choose the Dell Optiplex instead of a low cost SBC like a low end raspberry Pi, which have less moving parts prone to breakage and dissipate less heat? Is it because you can get your Optiplexes for free or really dirt cheap? Or do you really need an x86 architecture for your experiments/services?

For several of my services, a PC like the Dell Optiplex is a better fit than the Raspberry Pi. Take a backup server, for example. I will be using BackupPC to back up the other servers and workstations. For a backup server at least 1TB or storage is needed, with 2TB - 4TB being better. I will be using a 3.5” SATA HDD. The Raspberry Pi doesn’t have SATA ports. While there are ways to connect a hard drive to a Pi, but the throughput would be slower. BackupPC also compresses the backed up data, which takes significant CPU resources. The Pi would struggle to complete compression for the backup in a timely manner. It is likely that the Pi would take more than 24 hours to compress backups from more than five machines, which is a problem if you want daily backups.

While the Pi is cheaper than an Optiplex, the Optiplex has a better price to performance ratio. You can do a whole lot more, much faster, with an Intel i5 CPU than you can with the Pi’s processor. The Optiplex is also upgrade-able. If the server needs more than 8GB of memory, an Optiplex 3010 can easily and inexpensively be upgraded to 16GB with other Optiplex models being able to be upgraded to 32GB of system memory. The Pi currently can be purchased with up to 8GB of memory, but it is the most expensive model and is not upgrade-able.

I do already have Dell Optiplex machines, so that is a consideration. Most any PC could be a stand in for the Optiplex. One of my goals is to show how an old PC may be better than a Single Board Computer (SBC) like the Pi, both for learning and capability, in many situtations. This is especially true if you already have a PC, but would have to buy a Raspberry Pi.

Local computer repair and sales accounts for most of my business, so I have many years of experience with the PC platform. I am also selling computers through my online store retroedgetech.com.

I like the Raspberry Pi and other single board computers. I’m glad they are an option. The Pi was designed to be an educational option for people who may not be able to get their own PC. If you already have access to a cheap or free PC, the PC is more often the better choice. That’s the argument I’m presenting. Thank you for considering it!