Review: ZimaBlade Single-Board Server

We reviewed the ZimaBlade single-board server to find out how it compares to single-board computers like Raspberry Pis.

Cameron Coward
10 months agoHome Automation

We're big fans of Raspberry Pi single-board computers here at Hackster, but sometimes you need an alternative. Maybe you're having a hard time finding a Raspberry Pi in stock because of supply shortages, you need more power, or you need more expandability. If so, you may want to check out the ZimaBlade single-board server and I'm going to let you know my opinions about it.

Disclaimer: IceWhale Tech provided me with this ZimaBlade free of charge, but this review is as unbiased as possible. IceWhale Tech did not pay for this review and these are entirely my own thoughts.

What is it?

ZimaBlade is the name of a product line that includes a two different models of single-board servers at the moment. The ZimaBlade 7700 has a quad-core Intel Celeron E3950/J3455 and the ZimaBlade 3760 has a dual-core Intel Celeron N3350.

Like a Raspberry Pi or LattePanda, a ZimaBlade is a computer on a single compact PCB. But unlike those traditional single-board computers (SBCs), the ZimaBlade models are intended to work as servers. That capability is thanks to expansion slots and ports that are useful for server applications.

Why is it?

Makers use Raspberry Pi SBCs for much more than surfing the web and sending emails. Because they're small and mostly self-contained, they bridge the gap between microcontrollers and full desktop PCs. They're compact enough to fit inside of project enclosures, but offer real computing power and connectivity. Meanwhile, the GPIO pins let users interact directly with low-level components like sensors.

ZimaBlade is a little bit different. They're roughly the same size as the Raspberry Pi B models, but don't have GPIO pins. Instead, they have SATA hard disk ports, a PCIe 2.0 slot, a SODIMM RAM slot, and a full-function USB-C port.

The ZimaBlade 7700 is, arguably, more powerful than any current Raspberry Pi model — particularly because you can add RAM up to 16GB DDR3L. The ability to connect hard disks (and SSDs) and PCIe cards is also extremely useful for a server.

For those reasons, a ZimaBlade is more suitable than a Raspberry Pi for a server setup. Conversely, a Raspberry Pi is more suitable for "embedded" projects.

Is it any good?

To test the capabilities of the ZimaBlade 7700 (with 8GB of RAM) I received, I designed and built a device I called NASTIER (Network-Attached Storage; Tiny; Inexpensive; Easy; Redundant).

This is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device with redundant RAID 1 storage on a pair of 1TB SSDs (solid-state drives). This didn't require any additional hardware beyond the ZimaBlade other than the drives themselves, the 3D-printed enclosure, and the optional power and reset buttons.

This project gave me a good understanding of the ZimaBlade's capabilities and faults.

The hardware

On the plus side, the ZimaBlade is very powerful. It is frankly overkill for a NAS and has plenty of resources to spare for other server duties. I might, for example, also use it as a Home Assistant hub in the future.

I didn't need to use the PCIe slot (which would be very handy for many upgrades), but the SATA ports were perfect for something like this. They let me connect the two SSDs without any headaches.

But there were still some frustrations. First, the ZimaBlade doesn't have a WiFi adapter. It only has Ethernet, so you have to place it next to your router. Ethernet is definitely preferable for a server anyway, but it would have been nice to have the option to use WiFi.

The software

Second, the ZimaBlade comes preinstalled with CasaOS and that leaves something to be desired. CasaOS is, essentially, a Docker front end for Debian Linux. It is supposed to make servers like this very easy to use. And it does (to an extent), but it has limited functionality on its own.

There is Zima software for your PC that is supposed to be able to connect to the ZimaBlade as soon as you plug it in. But that never worked for me, because the software was unable to find the device.

The instructions provided with the ZimaBlade didn't provide any information and just said to use the Zima software. That proved to be my biggest complaint: the lack of documentation. This isn't for novice users, because you will have to figure everything out on your own.

After some searching on the internet, I found out that I could access the ZimaBlade by visiting casaos.local on my PC (on the same network). After that, I was able to proceed.

CasaOS provides an "app store" with a few dozen different software applications you can easily install and use. But it is difficult to install anything not in that app store and CasaOS has limited functionality on its own.

For example, I had to use the terminal to install Cockpit in order to set up the SSDs as RAID 1 storage. That is something that CasaOS should have been able to do on its own. At the very least, there should have been software in the app store to handle that.

The documentation

If, like me, you find yourself dissatisfied with CasaOS, it isn't clear how you should install a different operating system. The ZimaBlade has 32GB of eMMC storage built-in, which is where the OS resides. I'm not sure how you'd access that directly to install a new OS — probably with a USB hub connected so that you can plug in a USB drive with the new OS installer, a keyboard, and a mouse. But that's complicated compared to the relatively easy method of installing a new OS on a Raspberry Pi by flashing an SD card.

I'm harping on CasaOS a lot, which may not be fair. This is a review of the ZimaBlade and not CasaOS. But the issues with CasaOS illustrate the only real problem with the ZimaBlade, which is a lack of documentation. Otherwise, the ZimaBlade is a fantastic bit of hardware at a very reasonable price.

Conclusions

I'm actually quite fond of the ZimaBlade itself. It gives you a lot of powerful hardware and server-friendly expansion at a hobbyist-friendly price.

But I don't love CasaOS and I found the lack of ZimaBlade documentation to be frustrating.

I would give the hardware an A+, but CasaOS gets a C, and the documentation receives a big fat F.

If you want the hardware for a compact and powerful server, I definitely recommend the ZimaBlade. But go into it knowing that you may not like CasaOS and that you'll have figure everything out yourself, because there isn't any documentation.

Cameron Coward
Writer for Hackster News. Proud husband and dog dad. Maker and serial hobbyist. Check out my YouTube channel: Serial Hobbyism
Latest articles
Sponsored articles
Related articles
Latest articles
Read more
Related articles