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How to set up a VMware home lab on a budget

Set up a small, energy-efficient, at-home VMware virtualization lab for under $1,000 by evaluating your PC, software subscription and storage options.

Over the years, the home lab for IT professionals has evolved. What used to be a rack in the basement with equipment...

and cables has become a more software-defined setup. Although you still require hardware for a home lab, the hot, noisy, energy-inefficient racks of the past are disappearing, and you must evolve your home lab accordingly.

When selecting hardware for a VMware home lab, consider a balance of cost, performance and need. In the past, a virtualized home lab required a lot of space and power. You should still consider these factors; however, the compact packaging and horsepower of newer compute nodes, combined with economical modern storage frames, means you can build or update your home lab without as much concern for these factors.

The base hardware platform at home

You can use a variety of options for your base hardware platform; some of the most popular selections are mini PCs with a lot of horsepower. They've been used as media PCs or for other specialized uses in the past, but many of the latest releases run Intel Gen 10 CPUs from i3 to i7.

MSI recently released the MSI Cubi 5 models that range from i3s in the $500 range to i5s running closer to $700. These chips have high Ghz speeds and 4 cores per 8 threads. MSI also has i7 models that push 4.90 GHz but are priced closer to $900. These new PCs support 64 GB of RAM and the capacity for dual storage using 2.5 SSD and M.2 storage.

Although this cost and performance match might sound common compared to older PCs, keep in mind all these PCs have a footprint only slightly larger than a drink coaster. At less than 5 square inches wide and just over 2 inches tall, mini PCs can completely alter your home lab setup. The new virtualization hosts can sit on your desk -- and don't risk your electric bill eclipsing your mortgage payment.

Home virtualization with VMware Workstation

When you run a virtualized home lab, you can choose to install your hypervisor directly on your hardware or use a product like VMware Workstation and nest your hosts and VMs on that.

Nesting VMs provide the flexibility to shift workloads quickly. They also enable you to run a large collection of different environments from a single application window. You can create multiple VMware environments and fire them up and down with a few clicks. You can use ESXi and vCenter to do this, but that approach consumes additional resources and provides few benefits compared to using Workstation.

VMware Workstation runs about $200. However, you could also purchase a VMUG Advantage membership for the same $200 dollars, which includes VMware Workstation and pretty much every other major VMware product, such as NSX-T, ESXi, vCenter, Horizon, SRM and vSAN. Most of these products come as enterprise versions and are good for a year in home labs.

The only catch is you must subscribe to VMUG every year. Weigh the benefits of the annual fee against the value of the products the membership includes. Many of these products don't have public trials, and the ones that do only remain good for 60 days.

Benefits of nesting

Nesting your VMware home lab gives you some additional advantages. MSI released the various Cubi models, but also incorporated those chips into an all-in-one unit. This approach means you can access all that compute in a single 24-inch monitor that supports 32 GB of RAM.

While 32 GB is only half the supported RAM of the entire Cubi series, it would be worth considering for a home lab. Such mini desktops have the power to do some serious virtualization. However, keep in mind that they rely on embedded graphics, which means you can't run the latest 3D games on them. But again, for a home lab, this shouldn't present major issues.

Storage for a VMware home lab

Storage is a major consideration for any home lab. Although you might change your compute platform every few years to ensure compatibility with the latest virtualization software, your storage frame remains more static. A decent storage frame might last through two or even three generations of compute hardware, so consider investing a bit more in a larger unit that can survive many more years of life.

VMs also require a lot of space, and most mini PCs simply don't have terabytes of storage to house dozens of different virtual lab environments. You might have to swap certain VMs in and out of your environment, and you need a place to keep them.

Consider using Synology for NAS frames. The Synology platform has rich features, as well as an unprecedented catalog of products within ideal price ranges for home labs. A 2-bay Synology unit starts at under $175 and can support RAID 1 or 0. These units support NFS, iSCSI and a host of other features and abilities in the DiskStation manager.

Synology has many frames available for different budgets, but the 6-bay unit DS1621+ might give you the best return. The $1,500 price tag makes it expensive for a home lab, but thanks to its built-in 10 GbE port, it can last six-to-10 years as a home lab device. Although many home labs don't reach 10 Gb speeds yet, that capability looms. Having a storage frame ready for it extends the lifespan of your storage investment for several years.

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Unless something has changed, VMware ESXi will not support the Intel software raid found on the motherboard. For my home system (about the same price) I bought a refurb Dell Precision T3500 workstation (Xeon W3570/3.2GHz w/ 24GB ram), Adaptec 3405 Raid card, and 4 SATA drives, 2x2TB, 2x1TB each mirrored.
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What happened to Citrix in the discussion? It was in the question but not in the answer. Is there some inherent bias against Citrix implied in this post?
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Why go with desktop class hardware? Used server class hardware, like HP Proliant, Dell PowerEdge can be had for a fraction of their original cost. You get the added benefit of hot plug SAS drives for more storage. Also, if you want to avoid messing with all the Intel prerequisites for running nested VMs, go with an AMD Opteron based system (HP has an "5" at the end DL-385 vs DL-380 the Intel variant). I have a pair of DL-385 G6 servers each with 64GB of RAM and 8 300GB SAS-more than enough for all kinds of virtualization lab work. The whole thing was put together over a couple of years for less than $2500. Even one would be more than enough.
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