VMware ESX(i) Home Lab – Why, What and How? Considerations when building your own home lab.

I thought I’d put a post together to discuss what I have learnt whilst running a home virtualization lab along any hints or tips I thought may be of use to others considering building their own.  I’ve already written a number of posts (see bottom of this post for links) around ‘how’ to build a VMware ESX(i) lab using my favourite server(s) of choice the HP Proliant ML110 and ML115 range though thought a higher level perspective on ‘why’ and ‘what’.

First of all here’s a couple of pictures of my home lab.  As you can see it is definitely a ‘working’ (aka messy) lab which gets used on a daily basis.  The kit you see has been accumulated over the last couple of years with some of it being given to me and some bought from EBay and from brand new.

 

VMware ESX Home Lab VMware ESX Home Lab

 

If there is interest I will put together a post dedicated to what I run and how I have things setup – though this does tend to change day to day depending on what I am doing. :)  Let me know if that would be of interest?

Also, check out the recent VMware Community Roundtable podcast on running your own VMware home lab.  I was invited by VMware’s John Troyer (Twitter: @jtroyer) to participate which was a fun experience with some great questions and conversations had.

So, let’s move onto the question of…..

 

Why?

When considering building your own home lab first ask yourself, as is the case with many decisions, why?  There are many reasons why someone would want to buy their own home virtualization lab but here are some of the more common ones:

 Good VMware ESX Study Resouces – Exam Study: To provide yourself with an environment where you can build a mock production environment to follow examples in any study material you may have and to also confirm to yourself that what you have read actually works as described.

– Hand On Learning: Probably the most common reason for putting together your own virtualization lab is to jump onto the kit, wrestle and get your hands dirty with it – breaking it, fixing it and then breaking it again in the process.  This is my preferred option for learning about a product or new item of technology, though obviously you do need the luxury of time.  Very few of us in IT have the opportunity or access to the necessary non-production hardware during the working day to spend any meaningful length of time in doing this.

– Centralised Home Infrastructure: Perhaps you are running a home office or need a centralised environment from which to run your home PCs (eg: centralised monitoring and management of your kids access to the internet, family file repositories for music, photos, etc from which online backups can be taken).

And finally…

– Because It’s There (ie: Why Not?): Some of you, like myself, are probably just total tech junkies and like playing with new technology even if it doesn’t have direct application to your personal or work life. A virtualised home lab provides an excellent platform from which to do this from.

VMware ESX Home Lab

 

Whatever your reason running your own home virtualization lab will provide you with a valuable increase in product and technology understanding that will most likely assist you in your day to day job whether it be an working on the service desk, a second or third line engineer, technical architect or professional pre-sales.

 

What?

So what do you need to kick off your own virtualization lab? 

The good news is that you don’t actually need much to start with.  A home lab can consist of anything from a single machine through to a rack of servers humming away in your basement or garage (along with a rather large power bill).

Your actual hardware from which you run your hypervisor could be a laptop running VMware Workstation which in turn is running VMware ESXi with nested VMs or it could be some old server kit that you ‘liberated’ when your work was performing their recent server hardware refresh and was going to end up in the skip. There are also some good deals to be had on entry level server hardware which can be as cheap as a couple of hundred pounds/dollars/euros (delete where appropriate).  I maintain a list of any hot deals I come across or am told about on this site which can be found at the top of the page in the ‘Hot Deals’ section.

Booo ! So, before we go any further lets acknowledge the 2 ton elephant sitting in the corner of room… This elephant being ‘official’ VMware support and licensing…

 

 

Support – The ‘Official’ Line

VMware HCLTo gain ‘official’ support from VMware for a ESX(i) implementation whether it be in a production or lab environment you need to, as would be expected, pay for it.  Purchasing support, I would suggest, isn’t at all necessary for a home lab and as will be discussed below probably wouldn’t able to be obtained in most home lab instances anyway due to the hardware you’ll be running it on.

For VMware vSphere to be ‘officially’ supported in either your work/home lab or production environment the hardware involved with the virtualization solution needs to have undergone strict compliance testing and be on VMware’s compatibility guide which can be found here.

In reality it is unlikely that your home lab server, network and storage hardware is going to be ‘officially’ approved to run the latest version of ESX(i) but don’t let this stop you as ESX(i) will often still work despite your hardware not being on the supported list.

With every new version of VMware ESX(i) that comes out the list of compatible devices and components officially supported, or otherwise, grows ever longer.  It was often the case with VMware ESX(i) 3 and 3.5 that the majority of components would work on your un-supported server hardware but either the disk controller, network controller or both would not work.  To get around this would usually involve some (unsupported) hacking to the ESX(i) ISO build to modify or inject drivers or inserting compatible components to get around the issue.  With the release of ESX(i) 4 it is more common than not for server based components to be successfully detected and work without the need for any undesirable hacking to the build.

Licensing

VMware Licensing You can download a permanent licensed version of the free edition of ESXi though this to be honest doesn’t really give you much to play with in your home lab, at least not long term.  The real ‘fun’ stuff such as HA, DRS and FT along with other VMware products such as SRM, CapacityIQ and AppSpeed are only available for download, as would be expected, as time limited evaluations.  What this means in reality is that you will probably be looking at using multiple email accounts to download a fresh evaluation copy when your original copy expires.  This can prove to be a hassle if you’re wanting to run a product longer than the 30 or 60 day evaluation period for testing, etc.  In the absence of any MS TechNet type subscription this is the only real option open to you and your home lab.

Of course, some people have access to permanent VMware license keys from their work though this would obviously be in breach of the VMware licensing agreement to use these in your home labs.

Microsoft TechNet Subscription Another consideration when planning your lab is that once your ESX(i) host or hosts are up and running you are going to want to install VMs running an OS in your new lab.  Unless you are using an open source OS such as Linux you are most probably going to be looking at a Microsoft Server based OS.  By far the most (legal) cost effective way of gaining access to your own Microsoft licenses for use in a lab environment is via a Microsoft TechNet subscription. For a few hundred pounds/dollars/euros a TechNet subscription will gain you access to the vast majority of Microsoft’s operating systems and applications with your own unique license keys – this is a total bargain and a good investment of money in my opinion.  There are regular TechNet discount codes that can be applied to new subscriptions – check out the ‘Hot Deals’ section at the top of this page as I keep this updated with the latest TechNet discount codes I come across.

 

The Shopping List – What Do I Need?

Still like the sound of building your own lab but are not sure what you need?

Before taking the plunge and parting with your hard-earned money do a little homework to ensure the hardware your looking at purchasing will actually work with ESX(i).  Check out these following useful resources which list the PC and server hardware that people have found to work with the different versions of ESX(i):

To get a basic idea of what you will require for your home lab here’s a basic shopping list covering both a single ESX(i) and basic  multiple ESX(i) host lab configuration.

 

VMware ESX(i) Shopping List

The first and most obvious thing that you’ll need for your home VMware ESX(i) lab is of course a copy of ESX(i) itself.  Most home ESX(i) home labs are running copies of the free downloadable ESXi version which can be found here.

As mentioned at the start of this post ESX(i) can now be run from within VMware Workstation though as you’d expect the performance wouldn’t be as good as running the ESX(i) hypervisor directly on PC/server hardware.  The following list is assuming that you will be running ESX(i) on its own dedicated PC/server and are outlining a basic lab configuration only:

 

Basic – Single ESX(i) Host Lab:

From this straight forward ESX(i) lab configuration you will be able to run a single or multiple nested VMware ESX(i) instances – memory permitting.  This will be sufficient for most basic requirements though depending on the level of performance from the hardware on which you are running it you may find that running nested ESX(i) instances a little slow.

 Quantity:Item:
VMware ESX Home Lab - Server

1

PC/Server (Able to run VMware ESX(i) – see the previous section for how to find this out if not using VMware approved server hardware or components).
– CPU: Multi-Core (ie: 2+)
– Memory: 2GB+ (2GB is a bare minimum).
– Storage (Array) Controller: Although not essential a hardware based RAID controller is desirable.
– Disks: SATA or ideally iSCSI or SAS based disks – the faster the better.
Network Card: A single port 1Gb NIC
and  
VMware ESX Home Lab - Cable

1

Cross-Over Cable (Cat 6 or 5e) – if you don’t have a network switch – for connectivity between the ESX(i) host and the managing PC/Laptop running the vSphere Client.
or  
VMware ESX Home Lab - Switch
VMware ESX Home Lab - Cable

1

Network Switch & Cat 6 or 5e Ethernet Cables (ideally a smart or fully managed switch with Layer 3 capabilities)

 

Multiple ESX(i) (Basic) Host Lab:

 

 Quantity:Item:
VMware ESX Home Lab - Server

2+

PC/Server (Able to run VMware ESX(i) – see the previous section in this post for how to find this out if not using VMware approved server hardware or components).
– CPU: Multi-Core (ie: 2+)
– Memory: 2GB+ (2GB is a bare minimum).
– Storage (Array) Controller: Although not essential a hardware based RAID controller is desirable.
– Disks: SATA or ideally iSCSI or SAS based disks – the faster the better if using these to host and run your VMs from.
Network Card: A single port 1Gb NIC
and  
VMware ESX Home Lab - Switch
VMware ESX Home Lab - Cable

1

Network Switch & Cat 6 or 5e Ethernet Cables (ideally a smart or fully managed switch with Layer 3 capabilities)

 

Multiple ESX(i) Host Enhancements:

The following are some additional items that can further enhance your home lab.  Although not essential they can enable you to comfortably start using some of VMware ESX(i)’s more enterprise level features such as HA, DRS and Fault Tolerance (FT) along with larger more elaborate configurations.

 Quantity:Item:
Shared Storage

1 (1+ for testing SAN/NAS resilience features)

Shared Storage – This can be a small NAS appliance such as the iomega (EMC) IX2-200 SATA based NAS or its bigger brother the IX4-200d or even a spare PC running a free SAN/NAS software based appliance such as Openfiler or the free version (2TB limit) of Star Wind.

Instead of running a physical shared storage appliance there are an increasing amount of free SAN/NAS virtual appliances available which can be run on your ESX(i) host. This is a topic that warrants its own dedicated post.

Extra NICs

1+

Additional Network Ports:  These can be provided via inserting extra network cards into your ESX(i) host and in doing so means you can separate out ESX(i), FT, vMotion and VM traffic providing increased available bandwidth.
Extra Memory

1+

Additional Memory:  VMware ESX(i) loves memory and depending on the number of VMs you are running adding extra physical memory to your ESX(i) hosts is never a bad thing.  Increasing the ESX(i) host’s memory can be expensive when wanting to add over 8GB as more costly high capacity DIMMS will likely be needed (assuming your host can take this much memory in the first place).
APC UPS

1

Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS):  Although not essential and depending on the quality of the power feed into your home you may want to consider a small UPS to clean the power to your lab appliances whilst providing an element of resilience in the event of power failure.
Power Meter

1

Power Meter:  These great little devices will keep track of how much power your home lab kit is drawing (Watts, AMPs).  Well worth the investment so you don’t get any nasty surprises when the power bill comes in.

 

Home Lab Considerations:

There are some important considerations to take into account when planning your home ESX(i) lab which can ultimately determine the success of it:

– Noise:  If using an enterprise level server you’ll most likely find that the noise it generates, let alone two or more of them, is significant.  This is fine if you are fortunate enough to have a basement or garage in which to run it from though I can almost guarantee that your other-half won’t see the fascination of hosting your own lab server in the corner of your lounge.  🙂

PCs or smaller entry level servers such as the HP Proliant ML110 or ML115 run quietly enough that you can get away with having them run in most rooms.  See my video here to see how much noise an HP ML115 makes when starting up and then running normally.

Power:  Running your own home lab can be a costly affair though it really does depend on whether you leave it on 24 x 7 or not.  Each of my ESX(i) hosts which are running on an HP Proliant ML110/ML115 G5 with 8GB memory and 1 x SATA disk consume on average 85W of power.  Add your management PC, TFT, network switch and any share storage into the mix and you can easily chew through 350W-500W of power. If running your lab 24×7 check that you are getting the best deal from your electricity supplier.

Time: Building and running your own home lab can become something of a time-sink due to its flexibility and the enormous list of interesting things you can do with it. You can get totally absorbed in running and trying out new applications or utilities resulting in the hours just flying by.

– Money: Depending on the server, network and storage hardware you decide to go for you can end up spending  a decent amount on it.  That said, it is just as easy to put together a lab solution by keeping your ear to the ground for any appropriate hardware that your work may be looking at dumping during a hardware refresh cycle.  At the end of the day though you can start as small as you want and slowly add extra pieces of hardware or upgrades over time – just remember, you don’t have to do it all at once!

 VMware ESX Home Lab

How?

Once you have decided to build your own home lab and what hardware to use the next step is to figure out how to put it all together so that (A) it works and (B) it is configured correctly so that you get maximum benefit out of it.

I have a number of articles already covering the topic of how to install VMware ESX(i) onto your home lab server.  Check out these for more details and the other great articles from other bloggers listed below.  Please let me know if I’ve left any other good home lab related articles off of this list as I know I have likely accidently overlooked some.

 

I hope in you found this post of use whether you already run your own home VMware lab or have just started thinking about it.  Running your own home lab is a lot of fun and there is a great supportive community around it.  Why not give it a go?  🙂

 

 

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