Upgrading pfSense hardware with a Dell 3880

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Albert Wiersch
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Upgrading pfSense hardware with a Dell 3880

Post by Albert Wiersch »

Background

I have used a tower PC with Intel i5-4670K CPU and a 4-port Intel networking card running pfSense routing software for a few years now (currently with a 500/500 Internet connect via Frontier FiberOptic). I had managed to get the power usage down to the low 30 watts range which wasn't bad, but the hardware was getting a bit old and I felt like I wanted a newer, smaller and more power efficient machine that would hopefully last 5 to 10 years.

Upgrading pfSense hardware to a Dell 3880

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I bought a Dell 3880 i5-10400 that I found on sale from a slickdeals Dell 3880 deal thread. Dell missed the original delivery date and the 2nd delivery date but I finally received the system yesterday (on Feb 2nd, 2021).

The Dell 3880 is a nice little system that is more power efficient and significantly smaller than my old tower computer. It only has a 200W power supply which is great for my needs. My old system had an old 380W Antec Earthwatts power supply which was overkill. The downside is that the Dell 3880 uses a lot of proprietary components so it's not as easy to replace components like the power supply and motherboard if they should go bad or if you want to upgrade them.

To 'prepare' the Dell system, I removed the 512GB SSD and disconnected the CD-ROM drive and wireless card because I did not need those and did not want them connected and consuming power.

First Attempt (Failed!)

I thought it would be an easy process to just move the SATA SSD and Intel NIC card from the old system to the new system, update the BIOS settings, and boot the new system but that didn't work. The Dell 3880 would not boot from the SATA SSD even with Secure Boot disabled in the BIOS. I think this is due to the Dell not being able to boot from 'legacy' boot devices but I am not sure. So this cost me a lot of time and I had to put the SSD and NIC card back in the old hardware so I could get back online while I figured out another path.

Second Attempt

I decided I was going to have to reinstall pfSense from scratch on the new machine so I reinstalled the 512GB SSD card that the Dell came with (a surprisingly small (in physical size) 512GB WD SN530 NVMe SSD). A 512GB SSD is also vastly overkill for a pfSense box but it's what I had and the power usage of it was suppose to be very low. I created a bootable USB flash drive using the pfSense USB Memstick Installer (for AMD64) download (version 4.4.5-p1) and Rufus 3.13 to write it to the USB drive.

Fortunately the Dell system had no problem showing the USB drive as a bootable drive and I was able to boot and install pfSense 2.4.5-p1 onto the new Dell machine. The next issue was restoring the pfSense configuration from a backup file from the old system. When that was done I shut down the old system, moved the network card into the new Dell system, connected the Ethernet cables to the 4-port NIC card (matching the same cables and ports as before of course) and booted it back up.

Success!

Now I was making progress. I had to reinstall pfBlockerNG (that I use to block ads). The system did some updates, and now it seems to be working well. Power usage is about 33% less (around 20-21 watts) at idle compared to around 31-33 watts at idle with the old hardware.

To save power I have also switched the "Power Savings" mode to minimum (in System / Advanced / Miscellaneous). This keeps the CPU running at about 800 MHz and the wattage down around 20-21 watts. I don't see any need for more speed as this system is overkill.

I was a little disappointed that the Dell system is noisier than I had hoped for. It's definitely not loud, but the fan noise is probably a little worse than my old hardware which I had managed to get very quiet. Fortunately I think it will still be "quiet enough" (I like to keep things as quiet as possible).

Update on Fan Noise

The CPU fan noise bothered me too much so I ended up spending a few hours trying different things to get it quiet enough. The solution ended up being to replace the CPU fan with a "Noctua NF-A8 PWM, Premium Quiet Fan, 4-Pin (80mm, Brown)" that I bought from Amazon. Fortunately this wasn't a proprietary Dell fan. After replacing the CPU fan with the Noctua fan (using the low-noise adapter too), the system is significantly quieter. While I'm not happy that I had to spend so much time on this and buy a new fan, I am very happy with the end result. I also decided to change the "Power Savings" mode from minimum to adaptive. Power usage is still very low and the system can ramp up the CPU when it feels it's needed.
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