Home Lab. What should it achieve? What are the options?

This is the first in a series of articles about building your own lab to study for the VCP510 exam or the VCAP-DCA exam.  I will look at a few options for building a home lab but first we need to lay the requirements out.  Like all technical requirements there are a few ways to achieve them and which you choose depends on your circumstances.

Basic Requirements

For the VCP certification you need a lab with at least two ESXi servers, some shared storage and a vCentre server.  For VCAP-DCA you also need to have a vMA appliance.  That’s not a lot to put together in a lab, the ESXi servers & vCentre each need 2GB of RAM, the vMA 512MB, so a total of 6.5GB of RAM.

All three functions can be VMs running on top of current VMware platforms, so a single virtualisation host with 8GB of RAM will get you through.  You won’t need a lot of disk space, 60GB of free space will be sufficient.  You will want a multicore CPU, but dual core is sufficient.

Extra Credit

The VCP5 exam also covers the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) and the vCentre Appliance, both of these require more than the 2GB RAM in the basic requirements.  To install the VSA the ESXi servers will need 6GB RAM each and a few tens of GB of disk space.  The vCentre Appliance wants 8GB of RAM by default, although it should work with less I couldn’t get it to configure with only 2GB RAM.

A host with 16GB of RAM will allow all the components to be run, although not all at once.  To run everything at once you’ll need 24GB of RAM, which is usually beyond the capabilities of a single PC class motherboard.

The basic options

There are essentially three approaches to home lab:

  1. Hosted Virtualisation
  2. Nested ESXi
  3. Retired Servers, Physical

1. Hosted Virtualisation

The lab is VMs under Workstation / Fusion / Player on a single PC that is also used for other functions.  This is probably the most common home lab as it requires the least commitment as you may already have a desktop or laptop that can be upgraded.

My post about this lab setup is now online.

2. Nested ESXi

The lab is VMs running on an ESXi install on a relatively cheap PC or retired server that is dedicated to the purpose.  As you’d expect this option makes more efficient use of the PC hardware so you can run more VMs for the amount of hardware.  On the downside you must commit the PC to the task of running the lab, you will need a second PC to run the vSphere client and a network to link the two.

My post about this lab setup is now online.

3. Retired Servers

Staff working for systems integrators often acquire servers that have been retired from customers at the end of their lease, in house employees may get to use retired servers that weren’t leased.  These can be an excellent lab and are real servers that are the closest to the hardware ESXi is deployed on for production use.  This is also the only option that allows you to use Fibre Channel storage.  The downside is that they are bulky and noisy and consume a lot of power, you need a garage, basement or attic to keep these in if they will be at home.  You will also need to have some shared storage which can be another server.

My post about this lab setup is now online.

The limitations

You will run out of RAM, unless you have a huge budget you will not have enough RAM to run everything you want to.  My main lab has 28GB of RAM and I’m trying to decide whether to double that for US$1000, I probably will as I run a pretty full selection of VMware products including View and SRM.

Your disks will be a bottleneck, at least when you’re starting up, shutting down and provisioning new VMs.  This is because you won’t have 120 spindles of 15,000rpm disk, if you’re lucky you may have 4 spindles of 7,200rpm disk.  Be patient and keep your nested VMs small, there is very little need to run things inside the VMs on your ESXi server other than the load generator scripts so use an old OS and keep the VM disk and memory small.

Following posts

As I currently have all three types of lab I will run through basic setup and choices for each in separate blog posts over the coming weeks.

© 2011, Alastair. All rights reserved.

About Alastair

I am a professional geek, working in IT Infrastructure. Mostly I help to communicate and educate around the use of current technology and the direction of future technologies.
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