Homelab guide to the LSI 9211-8i

Hardware, LSI, Storage -

Homelab guide to the LSI 9211-8i

While learning about servers or the homelab community, you might have heard mentions and recommendations of the LSI 9211-8i HAB card. The card has had a long history, and some information on it has become unclear. This article will aim to clarify some of those details so you can know what the card does and how you can use it in your setup. We will learn about the typical applications for these cards, which business is currently making these HBA cards, and how that affects some of the information about these cards, finally, how we can flash these cards with firmware to get new features or lock some features of the cards depending on your application.

What are the applications?

HBA cards are a simple way to extend a computer’s connectivity using some PCI bus bandwidth for other applications like storage. Adding an HBA card to your system and attaching drives to it saves your CPU from processing all of the storage IO operations. It can improve your system's overall performance and reduce this bottleneck caused by many IO operations happening at once. This performance saving is due to the HBA cards having integrated processors responsible for managing these IO operations and other features like RAID natively on the HBA card. So in a server context where you have high performance and high connectivity needs, HBA cards fit the bill perfectly without having to build more and more SATA and SAS ports into motherboards as connectivity needs continue to grow in the server landscape.

Who makes these cards?

Initially, the LSI 9211-8i HBA cards were designed and manufactured by LSI, but as a company, LSI is no more. Avago technologies bought LSI in 2014 and continued to develop LSI’s HBA card designs under their brand. From that point on, we have not seen any new manufacturing of the old LSI designs like the 9211-8i series of HBA cards. We probably won't, as Avago (now Broadcom) is developing new card designs and are focusing on their further development.

So this turbulent history with these HBA card designs manufactured by multiple companies explains why you might see the same card model produced by LSI, Avago, Fujitsu etc. if you are searching for them online. But since all of these cards are using the same underlying design they are in fact identical cards regardless of the manufacturer.

In 2022 however, this card is no longer being officially produced after the acquisition of LSI. So any cards you are seeing on the market these days will either be second-hand from existing systems, refurbished by factories in China who still have the appropriate tooling, or never sold stock from the original manufacturers in the day. However, these do have a price premium.

Flashing new firmware

If you have seen any recommendations for the LSI 9211-8i HBA card, you may have seen the recommendation to have the card be in “IT mode” when the HBA card is used for applications like Unraid, FreeNAS or ZFS.

If you buy a stock 9211-8i HBA card, you will find it will most likely be in "IR" mode and have the full RAID functionality. Since the card will be handling operations on the disk, the individual drives you have connected to the HBA card won't be transparently passed through to your host OS. So if you would like some transparent passthrough of disks to your host OS, "IT" mode disables the RAID functionality of the HBA card. In this mode, the disk's diagnostic info, like SMART data, is sent out like normal for the OS and other software to handle.

But how would we switch between these two modes on the cards? That's where the HBA card firmware comes in. The software on the card implements some of the features listed above in both the IR and IT modes. So if we wanted to change our card mode, we would update its firmware. If you feel brave, you can also use the following guide to flash a 9211-8i card into “IT mode”.

But note, Similar to updating a BIOS, this process has some inherent risk. When writing the new firmware to the card, if the card or system loses power the card can be left in an unrecoverable state due to corruption of the card's internal storage where the boot loader is stored. So if the card's storage is in a state that this loader cant is accessed, then the card's firmware cannot be updated again, and the card is essentially bricked. At serverlabs.com, we provide pre-flashed LSI 9211-8i IT mode HBA cards that can be used in your builds without having to go through the steps to update the card's bios.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, you have a better idea of the 9211-8i HBA card and how you can use it in your homelab and home server needs. This card has a fascinating history but is still affordable for the features it enables, whereas similar cards could cost hundreds of dollars more.

Hopefully, you can pick up one of these cards from our store, eBay or other great places to find these older pieces of homelab hardware. By searching for this card with the IT mode descriptor, you should be able to find plenty of pre-flashed cards like the one we sell in our store, but if you decide to flash the card yourself, we wish you the best of luck on the learning journey.

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